Every human is like all other humans, some humans and no other human – Klyde Kluckhon
Cultural identity: a persons sense of belonging to a particular culture of group.
For years I have questioned and struggled with my own cultural identity. Growing up on a council estate in inner city of Leicester I was one of “many” different races. However, being of South Asian decent was I was still a minority. I remember questioning why I had to have darker skin compared to my paler friends, why I was not allowed to ‘go for sleep overs’ or go to “boys Burger King birthday parties”. I was expected to rock up to school with oil in my long black thick hair and wear it in two long plaits unlike the other kids and yes, it was ‘Daabur Ambla’. I still remember the stares and the smell. Luckily, I had found a side kick, someone just like me, a brown girl and she became my bestie throughout primary school. However at times I felt so alien and unsure of who I was. No one on the TV looked like me. I remember clearly wanting so badly to be like them, to look like them and not be me.
Things changed when we moved houses, and that was because the council estate was changing. There was less acceptance and tolerance of diversity and there was rise of racism in the area. I started secondary school in a predominately Indian Gujarati area. Now that was an eye opener. I was surrounded by people that looked like me. It was amazing. I felt at home. I now could talk to others like me, they understood the pains of going to visit aunties and uncles at the weekend, they understood why sometimes that onion smell was in your freshly washed hair. You could even speak (or swear) in Gujarati and they understood! I made some amazing friends at secondary school and they are still my ‘homies’ to this day. They ground me, guide me and make me ‘snort’ laugh today. I finally had a set of friends who represented me. However this was a temporary feeling my parents decided to divorce. So yet again I was different again. The only person who had divorced parents. I remember feeling anger, pain and immense sadness, why, did my parents decide to alienate me again? I became aware that I began to feel like home was no longer home and that my friends where my family. I could trust them for accepting me despite my difference, yet the pain of the absence of my parents unity never really left. It became apparent to me that I felt things that I could not describe and no one talked about it. It was only when on a random Saturday morning whilst munching on Crunchy Nut cereal I watched a Open university programme about Depression presented by Dr Raj Persaud. After watching this, I knew I had opened a door about me and about what I wanted to do in the future. The world of psychology became clear to me and gave me language to topics that I was fascinated by, I was mesmerised by the human mind and how it is affected by the environment we are in.
The reality is that the world isn’t always made to make you feel comfy and safe with your own kind. I knew that and thats why I chose to leave the warmth of Leicesters arms who was the the first city to have an ethnic majority and study psychology in Cardiff, Wales. It was tough to reconnect with my identity, as again I found myself as the odd one out. I remember that I was the first brown person that one of my flat mates have ever met, not so diverse in the Welsh mountains, which was where he was from. There were glimmers of being cool with being Brown, because it was fashionable in the 00’s to wear a ‘bindi’ on a night out, whilst dancing to ‘Mundian to buch ke’ by Punjabi MC. I felt special, ‘exotic’ (as some called me) and alone, all at the same time.
I decided to study inter-generational conflict and identity in south Asians in my final year psychology project. It was sad to discover that very little research was conducted on this subject and with this population, however what I found was that we chose to identify or acculturate to the host culture in a number of ways. We can acculturate using one of four strategies (Berry, 1997): assimilation (the new dominant culture is valued and adopted over the original culture), integration (where both cultures are merged and valued), marginalisation (the original culture is valued over the new culture) and separation (value and adopt neither culture). It was interesting to study how differences occurred between generations and how they ‘held’ their original culture. Berry (1997) identified the consequences on mental health dependent on the strategies used to acculturate, as as you may have guessed integration favoured better mental health outcomes versus the other strategies (Berry, 2017).
The feeling of being ‘neither here nor there’ never really went away. It stayed on whilst I was studying for a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. I became the chameleon again, trying to emulate a brown skinned middle class professional. I realised I spoke differently too. Less council estate lingo, more Queens English, because that’s what NHS patients wanted when they saw a psychologist. Oh wait. Or was that my interpretation of it? On reflection it was a mixture of both. I wanted to be a professional, so I had to “act” like one and speak like my white middle class peers.
I became frustrated by the psychological models taught on the course, as I struggled at times to understand them, they made no sense to me and my contrasting world. I soon realised how Eurocentric the psychological models were that are used to help support people with mental health issues. It was only until I discovered systemic psychotherapy. This model incorporates a person and their world, the systems around them. This made total sense to me, that as a South Asian person I am influenced by my family, friends, community, religion and culture. The essence to this model is to hold a stance of ‘curiosity’ and ‘non-expertise’ (Garven & White, 2009). The elements that integrate multicultural perspectives is what is ideal to support people who may be sitting with a therapist who isn’t like the client (Tummala-Narra, 2013).
It’s only since getting married, having babies and becoming a mum to two daughters, that I’ve begun to figure out that being an Indian ‘Gujji’ clinical psychologist from a council estate is actually “okay”. I now openly explore ideas of race, culture and identity in relation to mental health issues in the therapy room. I now understand and see how most of the psychological offerings for mental health are not ideal for collectivist cultures like south Asians. We are not talking enough about inter-generational traumas that our grandparents endured, the racism that our parents may have put up with and the pain of isolation for us, growing up. Lets bring our beautiful, complex cultures as factors that can impact our mental health issues.
South Asian representation is now mainstream and we now have South Asians that are breaking stereotypes. We have strong south Asian presenters, actors, authors, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs…..the list goes on. We now have books about South Asian women that my daughters can look up to. No longer will we try to emulate the “other” in order to fit in and belong. We are blending and carving out a ‘British Asian culture’ to be proud of. This is will have a massive impact on the future generations. Will they experience diaspora? Who knows?
All I know for now is that I’ve worked hard to be where I am and I wont forget who I am.
I am the Council estate British South Asian Gujarati Clinical Psychologist.
Berry, J. (1997). Immigration, Acculturation, and Adaptation. Journal of Applied Psychology: An International Review. Volume 46 (1). 5-34.
Berry, J.W. (2017). Mutual intercultural relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Roxanne, G. and Helen, W. (2009). Key Systemic Ideas as Seen Through the Eyes of First-Year Trainees, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. Volume 30 (3). 196-215.
Tummala-Narra, P. (2013). Psychotherapy with South Asian Women: Dilemmas of the Immigrant and First Generations. Women & Therapy. 36. 176-197.
Guest blog by: Tina Mistry
I am Dr. Tina Mistry, a Leicester born Indian of Hindu Gujarati origin. My parents were born in East African countries. I am a proud momma bear, wifey, clinical psychologist and I have always been interested in the topic of identity.