Person of Color Column: Managing multiple identities

For the first 18 years of my life, I viewed myself as white. When I came to Emerson, I realized that even though I am mixed, I could still belong to communities of color.

I grew up in a white community in the Philadelphia suburbs, but I never tried to hide my ethnicity. I frequently asked my grandmother about her life growing up in a strong Lebanese community just 40 minutes from my hometown of Pipersville. I embraced my Lebanese heritage—my family had hummus, tabouli, and sfeehas, or meat pies, at many parties and holidays, and I often asked my mother if we could visit Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. It never occurred to me that I could identify as a person of color because of my hometown community’s dominant culture.

Instead, I focused on the parts of my identity I felt comfortable with that my white friends could relate to, like my bisexuality or my struggle with depression. The idea of recognizing that my brown skin separated me from my peers scared and intimidated me. I started accepting myself as queer in high school and grew comfortable acknowledging my depression and anxiety. By the time I reached college, I was fully open about my queerness and mental illnesses.

My problem arose when I tried to reconcile these identities with my college peers who told me I could call myself a person of color. The first time my half-Puerto Rican roommate told me I was a person of color, I almost laughed in her face. This felt unfamiliar to me—I never confronted the idea before because I never thought about it in my hometown. I felt that being half-white disqualified me from the community.  

At my first org fair freshman year, I wandered from table to table wondering which identities I could claim. I wanted to join Habibis, a cultural organization for Arab students, but I felt like I wasn’t quite Arab enough to join. Sure I grew up enjoying Lebanese culture, but I don’t speak Arabic, and I am multiracial. I was so conflicted that I ended up not joining any cultural groups.

As the year went on, I felt more comfortable embracing my ethnicity by talking with my multiracial friends and surrounding myself with other people of color. Unfortunately, this came with a new problem—I didn’t know how to manage being a minority in different settings. When talking with other people of color, I felt afraid to mention my queer identity out of concern that I would come across as equivocating queer and racial oppression. In spaces with my white queer friends, I didn’t know how to explain that being queer presented different challenges to people of color.  

Being diagnosed with depression in high school was particularly difficult for me. I listened to my grandmother’s stories about growing up in poverty as a first-generation immigrant, and I felt like I didn’t have the right to be depressed. I also didn’t know how to articulate why I disliked my own body so much—I just knew I hated my brown skin and yellow undertones, the thick hair on my arms and legs, and the bushiness of my eyebrows. My family didn’t seem to understand where my depressive episodes came from, and for a long time we chalked it up to school stress. We figured I couldn’t be depressed, because no one else in my family had that problem.

In college, I didn’t know how to tell my white friends how my history of mental illness intertwined with my ethnicity. All of my identities as brown, queer, and mentally ill are connected and affected by one another, but often times it feels like I need to prioritize one identity over another when defining myself.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely than the general population to experience serious mental health problems—but only about 25 percent of African-Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40 percent of white people. Additionally, mental illness is often incredibly stigmatized in communities of color, according to the National Institutes of Health. Mental illness signifies weakness in these communities, or it is thought of as something that occurs regularly and does not need to be addressed.

Studies have also examined how queer racial minorities face multiple levels of stress and discrimination based on their minority status and their sexuality or gender identity. Compounding levels of discrimination often lead to higher rates of mental illness in these communities.

Forcing someone to choose a predominant identity can be incredibly dangerous, and completely disregards the fact that people of color exist in multiplicities besides our race or ethnicity. I am fortunate that my family could provide me with medication and therapy for my mental illness, but many people of color do not have this privilege.

When talking about identity, we should stop pretending that we can only exist in one space at a time—I am queer, I am brown, I struggle with mental illness, and I am all of these things at once. I want myself and other people of color to be able to embrace and celebrate our multifaceted identities.

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