The Complexity of Culture, Race, Discrimination and Identity

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Contributed by Nadia Akhtar Sim, LCSW, Clinical Supervisor

 This blog is the second installment in a special series on Cultural Identity: how we can embrace our culture in our pursuit of healing.

As a second generation Pakistani American, there are truths I have learned about love, family, and acceptance. Among these truths have also been realities of discrimination, isolation, and feeling like an outsider from not only the American culture within which I was born and raised, but also from the culture and traditions of my parents and extended family.

Being a second generation immigrant is a complex experience for me as I’m sure it is for many others. Like anything else in our lives, our relationship with culture can be multilayered. There are traditions and rituals that feel deeply nostalgic and nourishing. And then there are those that may feel embarrassing, uncomfortable, and foreign. There are also those aspects of culture with which our relationship morphs and matures; something that may have seemed bizarre to us as children feels comforting as an adult, and vice versa.

Within all of these traditions, beliefs and rituals is the search for our own identity and how we may or may not fit within the different cultures that surround our lives.

Balloon over Chedi field in Bagan, MyanmarHaving been both a therapist and a participant in therapy, I find that creating space for all of these complex, confusing, nourishing and messy feelings about our relationship with culture is an enormous gift. Having a safe place to be curious about what pieces of our culture we love, hate or feel indifferent towards can be such a relief when we struggle to make sense of our cultural identity on our own.

How do we work with these ideas to further our recovery?

I propose that we stop treating culture, race, identity and prejudice as interesting topics within a group or individual therapy session, but instead that we weave these concepts in the daily work of recovery.

Three possible ways we can incorporate these ideas about culture into recovery and treatment:

  1. Discuss Discrimination: It can be incredibly meaningful to not only discuss the discrimination that one has experienced in their lives, but the here and now experience of being a client while they are interacting with other clients in group and therapists in a program of different cultural backgrounds. Imagine the complicated feelings someone whose family lives in a home with several generations of relatives and little privacy may feel during a group about boundaries or individuation. For me, growing up with extended family who typically lived in close quarters was at one point something shameful and confusing in contrast with other children that had their own bedrooms and a different type of relationship with their relatives. While in contrast, as an adult, I long for living in a closer knit community within which joys, burdens, chores, childcare, laughs, cries, holidays, traditions and food can be shared on a daily basis.
  2. Increase Mindful Awareness: This means being mindful of how our environment affects our whole being. ‘Person in environment’ is a foundational concept in social work, and can be an amazing resource when navigating recovery from an eating disorder. Exploring how our place within culture on numerous levels affects how we walk through life on a daily basis can be scary but also liberating. Being a woman of color, both the subtle and overt discrimination that I experience everyday defines my emotional wellbeing just as much as any organic factor ever could. Understanding this on a deep level can be a breath of fresh air, especially for those who carry shame and closely held beliefs of ‘There is something wrong with me.”
  3. Increase Curiosity: We can increase our curiosity around issues related to culture, race, discrimination and identity. We can start by simply asking others and ourselves the following questions:
  • What is your relationship with culture?Group of Human Hands Holding Together Concept
  • How has your relationship with culture evolved throughout your life?
  • How is your relationship with culture similar or different than other members of your family or community?
  • What is your relationship with Race?
  • What is your relationship with discrimination based on race or culture?
  • How do these relationships effect thoughts, feelings and overall wellbeing?

 I am certain that my evolving and sometimes confusing relationship with culture and identity is not a unique one.

Creating a safe place to name the very real experiences of discrimination and prejudices that many of us face in our daily lives is crucially important.

We can each start this rich process by having mindful conversations with ourselves and others about the complexities of culture and weave these conversations into the work of recovery.

To learn more about resources for marginalized populations and eating disorder recovery, visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/marginalized-voices.

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