Q As an immigrant from India, I am considering settling in the U.S. and becoming part of American society. But, it is difficult to understand how Indian or American I feel. Although, I don’t think that my race or ethnicity are the most important parts of me, I also notice that my skin color and racial background, in a primarily white society are quite salient. Sometimes I just want to erase my background and assimilate, and at other times I really want to be seen with all the differences that I bring. It gets really confusing and controversial and I don’t know quite how to deal with it all.
A Race, color and ethnicity are aspects to celebrate because they also connect us with our families, languages, traditions, ancestors and countries of origin. People feel stronger, less alienated and more enriched when they feel a sense of belonging and have roots. At the same time people are also discriminated against and hated for their skin color or race.
Prejudice, misunderstanding and not accepting differences have been diseases of society for thousands of years. So, we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. However, there are more people now who see that each culture is unique, and each individual is unique and this makes life fascinating, as we learn from the diversity and richness of cultures and individuals.
People go through a process in discovering and finally accepting their racial identities in the United States. At first we may want to conform to the majority standards of whiteness in actions, speech, dress, beliefs and attitudes because that is considered positive.
Many people of color discover that they can’t quite fit into the Euro-American society and start to wonder if the U.S. is as racially inclusive as portrayed. This is a stage of “dissonance” or confusion. It brings up anger and upset about disparity and the challenges of institutionalized racism. There is also a stage where people of color will avoid close contact with other white people and feel they only belong with people of their own racial group. This stage is called “emersion.” At some point they are able to see that people in their own racial group have negative qualities and that whites are not the enemy. They see racism as the enemy. The whole issue becomes less personal and more systemic. A person feels more control and autonomy at this stage.
In the last stage one’s sense of identity expands to include other dimensions of themselves more fully and they feel themselves more as a whole person.
Not every body goes through all of these stages and they are not necessarily linear.
However, you can see there are stages and one stage can conflict greatly with another.
When we’re with persons of even similar race, each person could be at a different place in their discovery of racial identity and what it is to be bi-cultural. It is helpful to be aware and not move to judge others, but rather appreciate the complexity and sensitivity of where people originate from and value the differences among us.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D. is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. (650)325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com.