When we think of mental health, it is often defined and perceived through the lens in which we live our lives. How we view it, access it, and relate to it is linked in part to our identity. A cis-white middle class woman may have more access and a positive attitude towards mental health than a queer-Black middle class woman, who experiences unique stressors related to her sexual or racial identity. Where we lie in our intersection of identities determines the specific challenges that we face, and even how likely we are to reach out and get help.
“Intersectionality” was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It is the idea that explains how our overlapping social identities relate to structures of racism and oppression. Identity markers like gender, race, religion, sexuality…etc. intersect with one another and shape our experiences. The problem here isn’t our identities, but the systems in place that cause systemic discrimination and racism. These dynamics impact our mental health and even the kind of care that we receive.
Another dynamic that affects a person’s mental health is intersectional invisibility. Intersectional invisibility is where a person with multiple subordinate identities is seen as “invisible” when compared to those with one subordinate identity. Therefore creating a systemic hierarchy of invisibility, prejudice, and racism. An example can be seen when we think of ethnic minority women, white lesbian women, black gay men…etc.
When the system is created to keep a person at a disadvantage, it becomes that much harder to reach out for help. As an Arab American Muslim Women, I too felt the prejudice against me in moments both between Arabs who thought I was too Arab to connect with me, and Americans who assume I don’t share the same values as they do because of my Middle Eastern identity. What this does to the psyche can sometimes cause dissonance within and make you feel like an outsider. Feeling like we have to choose a side, or even like we can’t relate at all causes us to isolate. Other times it can cause someone to feel like they have to overcompensate and work twice as hard to be seen as an equal. When we think of privilege, those who have access to it the most are straight white able-bodied cisgender men, and then the social hierarchy adjusts who gets what kind of access accordingly.
When we speak of intersectional invisibility, we speak of the parts of oneself that we sometimes have to reject because of social systems that do not value or respect certain groups. When individuals are forced to conform to certain ways of living, thinking, dressing and being that is different from their own beliefs, it increases their likelihood of depression, anxiety, and other negative reactions.
Now, what can we do to increase positive support and allyship to folks experiencing prejudice, racism, xenophobia, and other factors that affect their mental health and wellbeing? One way to do so is to center their voices, listen to their needs, and validate their experiences.
I see you. I hear you. And I promise to do my best to honor you.