Racism Alienated Me. Now I Help Others Navigate Their Experiences and Identities
A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) reveals how being "othered" fueled her passion to help others navigate the same experiences.
As I sit here closing my laptop to unwind after a day of clients, I still cannot believe that I get to do what I have always dreamed of. I am privileged to hear about the pain, triumphs, struggles, insights, and stories that are not shared with anyone else. I get to be part of the process of unlearning, relearning, and breaking the cycle of trauma that so often creates the inner dialogue of “I am less than” and to challenge all of the things that we have told ourselves are “just the way things are”.
When people are asked why they go into mental health or a helping profession, it is usually personal.
I started experiencing racism before I even knew what it meant. All I knew was that I felt like the “other” and did not know how to cope with those emotions. The feeling of dread that I felt in my core led me to doubt my capabilities and feel unseen and unheard. I remember dreading any unwanted attention that would make my presence known. It terrified me to feel any eyes on me.
Growing up, I felt like everyone wanted to prove that I was fundamentally different from them and that that they were fundamentally different from me. They wanted to prove that no matter how early I woke up in the morning to straighten my hair, wash the smell of home spices out of my jacket, or tell my mom to wait for me around the corner so they wouldn’t hear her accent, I would not be like them.
I would just be that ugly, awkward Indian girl. I wouldn’t be seen as their friend or classmate anymore and THEY got to decide that.
I longed and craved for permission to be seen as a whole person. I would often search for someone who would just understand how piercing and painful words can be. Those words that reduced me to a comical stereotype weren’t just about me having to brush it off my shoulders or having to “speak up for myself”.
How could they understand those comments made me want to be invisible? I wanted nothing more than to disappear into thin air and be anyone but myself.
They wanted to prove that no matter how early I woke up in the morning to straighten my hair, wash the smell of home spices out of my jacket, or tell my mom to wait for me around the corner so they wouldn’t hear her accent, I would not be like them.
I wanted someone to tell me otherwise: that I was worthy and good enough as I am. I wanted someone to make me understand that it wasn’t all in my head. But I did not have to let others’ voices define me.
When my clients speak about their experiences, it isn’t always specific examples of enduring blatant racism. I also hear about the insidious nature of internalized racism, often masked as “imposter syndrome,” that interferes with opportunities. This can often lead to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. The many intricacies and ways in which racism and exclusion are experienced affect individuals in myriad ways that may not often seem correlated.
A study from 2009 indicates that “Most often, experiences with racism are not newsworthy, but quotidian; they are the product of a society for which racism is part and parcel of doing business. As a result, individuals who face racism must not only cope with the opportunity costs of racial exclusion but also manage emotional consequences and the awareness that it is likely to be an ongoing stressor.”
The effects of racism whether experienced through specific incidences, constantly hearing about or witnessing injustices within our society can elicit a trauma response and can seep into not only their perception of self but, can cause serious physical health implications caused by being in a constant state of stress.
According to recent research, racism can have other health consequences. It has been documented that “discrimination is associated with a broad range of disease states (e.g., cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes) and preclinical indicators of disease (e.g., allostatic load, inflammation, shorter telomere length, BMI, incident obesity, coronary artery calcification, cortisol dysregulation, and oxidative stress)."
After speaking and supporting so many brave individuals, I can say that the healing has begun.
As South Asian individuals and people of color, we deserve to create our own narratives. We deserve to be seen, speak up about injustices in our community, and process and heal from our experiences. We have the right to decide who we want to be on OUR own terms. We have to do this not just for our mental and physical health, but for future generations as well.
The experiences I had from my childhood led me on a path to challenge all that I thought was “normal” and allowed me to figure out ways to empower myself and be proud of being South Asian. The journey led me to study psychology with a minor in South Asian studies to really learn about South Asian history, literature, poetry, music, and struggles for freedom throughout the South Asian diaspora. It was then that I truly felt proud to know where I am from.
After speaking and supporting so many brave individuals, I can say that the healing has begun. I get to be part of changing the discourse around mental health and especially in the South Asian community and in turn understand myself more. I hope to continue to create a dialogue that allows us to break the cycle of silence.
1. Brondolo E, Brady ver Halen N, Pencille M, Beatty D, Contrada RJ. Coping with racism: a selective review of the literature and a theoretical and methodological critique. J Behav Med. 2009;32(1):64–88.
2. Lewis Tené T., Cogburn Courtney D. and Williams David R. 2015. “Self-Reported Experiences of Discrimination and Health: Scientific Advances, Ongoing Controversies, and Emerging Issues.” Annual review of clinical psychology 11:407–40. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032814-112728.
Saarika Rao is a South Asian American woman born and raised in New York City and currently resides in Southern California. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who often works with clients of color trying to find their identity. Saarika has struggled with her own cultural identity issues from a young age dealing with racism along with balancing and embracing two cultures. She is passionate about mental health advocacy and the importance of sharing our stories and perspectives with the world. Saarika enjoys reading, writing, painting, spending time with her adorable dogs, and loving husband (notice the order). Follow her on Instagram!