Shades of Misunderstanding

An intro to facing mental health as a person of color

There is something inherently difficult about constantly feeling misunderstood (1).png

I want to start out by talking about this: there is something inherently difficult about constantly feeling misunderstood. I realized last week that this phrase is what defines my experience with mental health as a person of color. 

I’ve been contemplating writing about this topic for the longest time, but I had no idea where to start. Our individual mental health stories are defined by the way we live our entire lives, and there are so many aspects that we have to consider. That’s why I’ve written this post over and over again- I didn’t know where to start! But last week, I was able to engage in a conversation about the miseducation of mental health and mental illness hosted by my University’s Diversity in Psychology student organization. Over 40 people attended, and over a thousand were interested in attending, and I feel so lucky that I got to be there and take part in the discussion. While I did so, I realized that misunderstanding is what frames my experience with mental health as a person of color, because I feel like I’ve been misunderstood my entire life in some ways. This topic is something I’ll probably get into more when I release my podcast in June, but I’ll start by creating a few posts and telling you a few parts of my story.

One of the reasons why I feel so misunderstood is because my Indian culture, like several cultures, has been stereotyped and appropriated in so many different ways. This has been on-going historically and still happens today. One of the first times I realized how common appropriation was and why it is such a big problem was when I was in the seventh grade, and someone got mad at me for drawing swastikas in my notebook.

The Swastika is a universally despised symbol, made infamous by Hitler as a symbol for the Nazi Party. Because of this, it is widely known as a symbol of hatred. But what many people don’t know is that it is actually a symbol from the Hindu religion, and has been a symbol of auspiciousness and good luck since ancient times. When this symbol was stolen by Hitler, it’s meaning to society was changed in such an ugly way. When I learned about this, I had no idea how to reconcile the two conflicting messages sent by this one symbol that is so important to my religion.

This is only one example of how Western culture has stolen parts of Indian culture and completely misinterpreted them. Another more modern example is the way that the phrase “Namaste” is used. I’ve seen wannabe hipsters say “namaste” in place of hello, but when they do so, I have no idea if they actually know what it means within Hinduism; the real meaning of Namaste is “I bow to the God in you”, because the Hindu religion preaches that God shows himself/herself to us through the people we interact with. Another example of appropriation is Yoga- it’s more than just a workout. It was created in ancient times in India as a mental and physical technique to practice self-discipline on a variety of fronts.

Indian clothes and Indian names and Indian culture have also been exoticized so inappropriately in the common media. A very old example of this would be Selena Gomez’s “Come and Get It”, but I also have a couple of personal examples to share. The first one comes from a few years ago, during the time my high school’s leadership team was planning our senior prom- they decided to do an “Aladdin”/”Bollywood” theme, and the argument that these two ideas came from two completely different cultures was completely ignored.

The other example comes from a story that I was told recently by an acquaintance who is also Indian and teaches biology at a local college. Their student, who worked part-time as an exotic dancer, asked them if they could help her pick out an “Indian” name to match the character they took on at work. Let’s just think about the importance of names for a second- most of us keep the names that our parents or guardians assign to us at birth. These titles characterize who we are, and many modern names still have historical and cultural roots.

The names we take on are important titles, so let me just ask- how inappropriate would it be if I decided I liked the name “Anna” and decided that I wanted a more exotic name while I was working as an exotic dancer, and so, without learning any of the significance of this name, I just decided to use it? I’m sure that anyone named Anna would not be okay with someone exotifying their name and using it without even understanding what it means. And, if I’m right, why is the exotification of the cultures and traditions of people of color so accepted in Western cultures?

I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of how misinterpretation of my culture is so influential on my mental health. And on this front, I can only speak about my own culture- Native American culture, East Asian cultures, African cultures, African American/Black cultures, Hispanic culture, and almost every culture that is practiced by people of color has been stereotyped and appropriated inappropriately. I think that misunderstanding is something that all people of color can identify with.

I used an image of a dream catcher hanging nicely in a window for this post because this is probably one of the most common examples of cultural appropriation- when dream catchers became a trend, there was no consideration given for the Native American cultures that these were adopted from. I can promise that constantly feeling misunderstood and seeing your culture be misinterpreted does not feel as great as that picture looks. 

September 2016 - Present_ Peer Tutor at Odegaard Writing and Research Center, University of WashingtonHelping fellow undergraduate and graduate students develop writing skills; consulting on writing and research proj.png

Feeling misunderstood leads to the constant need to have to explain yourself and your culture to other people, which is not at all fair- why aren’t people correctly educated on the meanings of various cultural symbols in the first place?

But this is the burden that people of color must bare. Otherwise, cultural perceptions can never be corrected. 

Again, this is only an intro to a topic that will be discussed more on my podcast, so until then, if you have any other perspective you want to contribute to this topic, feel free to let me know!

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