Sunday 23 August 2020

Growing up in England: My racial identity crisis

Antonia shares the impact on their mental health of growing up in a racialised society, and their experience after reaching a crisis point.
- Antonia 

From a young age, I was very aware of my skin colour, my black features and my bigger black body, and how these didn't fit into the ideal of westernised white beauty standards. This self-examination was not in so much explicit detail, but rather through the subconscious processing of deceitful propaganda that promised unattainable white goals and desirability.

This racialised consciousness caused me to begin to reject my blackness and start me on the course of my racial identity crisis. I began to numb the parts of myself that were deemed ‘outrightly and obnoxiously black’ so I could appear more ‘white’. This, as well as being a woman, led me to feel like I should be seen (reluctantly) but not heard; hence I began to quiet my voice and wished I was invisible.

I felt less than, like an ‘outsider’ and ‘other’, always feeling inferior to those around me and like my place in society was condemned and dismissed.

During my adolescence, being attractive was projected as being the most important thing for young girls, so this felt like my sole purpose; however, I was led to believe that being black would not allow that. I noticed people like me were never represented in media, films or TV, nor were we catered for through the design and marketing of everyday products such as makeup or hair care. I tried to assimilate to a very much white Eurocentric ideal of having straight, less 'unruly' and less 'frizzy' hair, a slim body shape, small lips and just generally smaller ‘whiter’ features, of which for the most part was clearly impossible.

This insidious ideology that warped my whole sense of identity took ahold in every part of my existence and I held complete contempt for myself.

I would describe my condition back then as high-functioning depression. I did well at school and achieved highly at university, all whilst being filled with self-hatred and engaging in self-destructive behavioural patterns. This meant I found it hard to seek help as I could still do things and manage them well. But now I see that this was one of the ways that depression keeps you down and prevents you from trying to live a more valuable and rewarding life. No-one should feel like their problems aren't worth talking about, because these problems need to be discussed, and everyone deserves to feel good about who they are.

Black women are beautiful, black men are beautiful, black people are beautiful.

My turning point was when I tried to take my own life and referred myself to hospital, where I stayed 2 nights until I could speak to the mental health nurse. When I finally spoke to them, I was met with a person who projected her strong views of why I was feeling suicidal onto me and I left feeling saturated with blame. But at the same time, I also saw a glimmer of newfound hope. After all, I had reached a point where I could not travel any further beneath my misery, so I told myself it's either stay where I am and barely hold on surviving, or I start to clamber my way up the ladder towards something better, reclaim my identity and rebuild a home within myself.

This continuous journey has allowed, and is allowing me to realign myself with my true identity, and shape that into what more strongly resonates with my values and who I am. The more I learn about Black history, the more connected I become to my blackness; the more I express myself and assert my identity, the more empowered I feel. This is only the beginning of something beautiful.

To learn more about the individual and societal challenges facing members of BAME communities, check out this resource compiled by the Mental Health Foundation. 

Information about support for you is available on the Student Minds website

Hello, I am Antonia! I am 23, with a long-standing passion for poetry and writing. I wanted to write about my experience of growing up black in England and how this led to my feelings of inadequacy and depression. I hope it helps, or offers some solace to anyone reading.

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