The unspoken mental health burden of being mixed-race
In a country where inequality is commonplace, mixed-race people are afraid to speak out about their identity. But what long-lasting impact does suppression have on our self-esteem?
It’s not hard to feel out of place as a mixed-race person in the UK. We only make up two per cent of the population. It’s natural to feel an urge to assimilate just to fit into our local communities, even if the people within them don’t understand our heritage. But this often exposes us to years of racially-charged questions, suppressed microaggressions and triggering racism. How does that impact our mental health?
As a woman of Jamaican, Indian and British descent in her twenties, with no ties to my cultural heritage, I’m still finding my identity.
I was the introverted, gawky emo. The Black girl in a small, predominantly white village. While I was seemingly popular in school, it was in part because kids were intrigued by my flyaway curls and “caramel” skin. I don’t often talk about my experiences, how they shaped me and stifled my confidence, but I’m not alone in how I feel.
“This year, post George Floyd, I’m getting more people from the brown and Black communities who are feeling able to talk about race, identity, and what it feels like to be a person of colour in the UK,” says Josephine Bey, a mental health practitioner and diversity and inclusion consultant in London. “There are so many barriers to the BAME community. We don’t air our laundry out in public. It’s a slow process, but now, brown and Black people are starting to talk and be open about their therapy experiences.”
But while we’re now more open to discussing the psychological impact of racial trauma, many mixed-race people are still quietly grappling with the impact of growing up between multiple cultures. According to the Mental Health Foundation, research suggests that experiencing racism can have a stressful and negative effect on physical and mental health, leading to the potential diagnosis of psychosis or depression.
Thirty-three-year-old yoga teacher Hannah Joseph is exploring her Indian heritage in later life. “It’s not something I grew up with,” she says. “My mum speaks Gujarati, but my Indian backgrounds are all quite displaced and uprooted in Nairobi and Ethiopia.”
Joseph was born in the UK, grew up in Japan and returned to London at the age of 13. Although her fair skin and dark hair helped her “fit in”, she admits that she put a lot of energy into not appearing different.
“I realised recently that I’ve always tried to make myself small and integrate. I stay hidden and camouflage myself,” she says. “In school, I tried not to stick out like a sore thumb. Subconsciously, I was working so hard to blend in, that I didn’t really kind of find my [own ways of] expression until later.”
It’s taken time and perspective for her to realise the impact that constant questions about her appearance had on her self-esteem. Where are you from? No, really though? “You shouldn’t have to disclose all of this information. You should be able to just do what you want and exist.”
Bey believes that being the only person of colour in a white environment can have various impacts. “For those who live outside of the big cities, you’re very much an educator of your white friends, unless you’re surrounded by ‘woke’ people who get it,” she says. “It’s difficult to speak out on racism, because of white fragility, microaggressions and the defensiveness that comes with it. The effects could be traumatising or damage identity.”
Her conclusions are backed up by a report from 2014, which showed that people with mixed-race backgrounds were more at risk of mental health issues, as a consequence of struggling to develop their identity. Feeling “too white to be black, too black to be white” was a prevailing feeling among those surveyed.
“We’re very good at putting people into a box that fits our narrative,” says Bey. “With people of dual heritage, there’s conflict. They think they don’t fit in, because the world has told them that. There needs to be far more work in terms of practicing acceptance. Just let people be.”
Raphael Bagley is a 24-year-old student at Manchester University. When we chat over the phone, he’s feeling fatigued after a year of being cooped up in halls as the only person of colour in his flat. “Those first few weeks, it was incredibly hard to settle in,” he says. “I think I was probably desperately trying to find any sort of common ground [with people] when I first moved in.”
Bagley also admits to struggling with his identity. Growing up in London and moving to New Zealand when he was 12, he felt “like a fish out of water”.
“My race is a part of my identity, whether I like it or not,” he says. “That will always affect the way other people see you. No one could really figure out where I was from. I got everything under the sun, Hawaiian, Egyptian, Brazilian, Indian – everything except for what I was.”
Living in New Zealand was the first time Bagley was challenged to think about his Jamaican, German and Jewish heritage. “My parents would often just mention that I was mixed-race, but I don’t think I knew very much about my background at all,” he says. “I remember there was a very brief period when I was about five or six when I wanted to be white.” Like so many people of colour, Bagley didn’t see himself on screen or in the areas he lived in, and it made him feel alone. “That feeling of not fitting in hasn’t completely gone away.”
Undoubtedly, wishing you were a different race at such a young age will make you question your self-worth. “It can have an effect on how you place yourself in the world and your value,” says Bey. “This could develop into displacement or a personality disorder.”
To combat this, Bey recommends that people of mixed heritage be kind to themselves and seek support. “You have to do the work. You have to be strong. It’s recognising and surrounding yourself with allies, people who really will be your champion. The world already tells us there are a lot of people who want to drag us down, so don’t have that in your circle.”
Black Minds Matter is just one foundation that has been working tirelessly to ensure Black and brown people have safe spaces to share their feelings. Since launching last April, they’ve secured treatment for 550 people and are now on a mission to find 21,000 long-term donors to give mental health support to their waiting list of 1,000 people.
“Britain is not the safest place for Black and brown people to live in terms of racial trauma,” says Black Minds Matter co-founder Agnes Mwakatuma. “We have a lot of mixed-race clients who may not feel that they belong to either end of the race spectrum, due to neglect from both parties.”
The charity is growing their network of Black therapists who are experienced in dealing with clients seeking help about their cultural identity. Their aim is to remove the stigma associated with therapy, so those suffering in silence can receive the support they need. But Mwakatuma believes there’s a long way to go.
“We are constantly surrounded by individuals who [claim they] do not see colour, or they completely deny the experiences of marginalised groups,” she says. “In a country where we’re still arguing whether Britain is racist or not, you can understand why people are very hesitant to speak about race.”
Bey concurs. “We’ve had a rhetoric of colour blindness,” she says. “We need to see colour, and recognise the difference and diversity.”
Moving forwards, how can we ensure that mixed heritage is celebrated rather than constantly questioned? “It’s about education,” says Bey. “A lot of the positions that we take, people who are not dual heritage or mixed-race, is one of ignorance. Don’t make assumptions. Assumptions can be so divisive.”