Mental Health, Identity, and Oppression: It Isn't A Competition
Content Warning: self-harm and suicidal thought mentions
I’ve never had a great vantage point to dispute the “model minority” trope. The Grammar school I went to was predominantly BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) students — a sort of “model minority breeding ground,” where a majority of students were either second-generation Sri Lankan or third-generation Afro-Caribbean. I was also one of the least “gifted” in my class: at a school where a B was seen as failing and my choice to study Humanities was laughable, my academic performance was considered sub-par.
I had always assumed that my inability to concentrate in class, my absolute failings in Maths, and my perception of the incomprehensible nature of human interaction was caused by my stupidity. So, I decided fairly early not to struggle or ask for help, and to just blag my way through school. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until a month ago.
Despite identifying as a minority, I walk a line of privilege that many similarly marginalized people do not share. I am high-achieving though I have a learning disorder. I benefit from East Asian androgyny and am read as a cisgender male. I am half-Japanese, one of the more commonly positively fetishised Asians; and I am able to speak Japanese, talk about anime, and legitimately make sushi. From this perspective, it is hard to justify to myself how I came to experience adverse mental health.
When I had my first appointment at the Gender Identity Clinic, I was asked if I self-harmed. I said I tended to use a safety pin, and the doctor derisively said: “so just scratches, then.” I don’t know if it’s a model minority trait of needing to be the top of the class, but this dismissal made me feel like I had not passed some kind of test. So, when a month ago I sat in the Learning Disability assessment room and the assessor said as a greeting, “congratulations on your grades!” I was overcome with the same remorse. It was as if I had somehow failed to to fit my own stereotypes. Anxious, high-achieving model minorities just don’t have ADHD.
I went to visit my primary doctor the other day, and she apologised for the late diagnosis. I don’t think I had ever realised before then how much of my poor mental health had been from not knowing to tell someone I had problems. I thought that I couldn’t reach high academic achievement. That everyone hated their gender. Hell, I thought that milk tasted like rot for everyone until lactose intolerance gained notoriety a couple of years ago. Knowing who to tell, or who will take you seriously is hard, especially when you only have cis-hetero, white examples of “normal” to compare yourself against. Yet, here I am: a transmasculine, high-achieving, mixed-race model minority with a learning disorder.
It seems indulgent, or even extortionate, to profiteer off of my identities when contemplating my imagined failures because I know I have it fairly lucky. I often tend to be self-deprecating to avoid undercutting those who experience greater social and political risks or oppressive violence.
But this dynamic of perceived fights for power between non-white, multiply-marginalized people only serves to center cis-hetero whiteness as a norm — it becomes the elite, untouchable step on a ladder that we all must be pushed to climb. This attitude towards my fellow minorities causes a combination of survivor’s guilt and paternalism-flavoured self-hatred within me. At once, I am glad to have a minimum-effort identity, yet I am self-destructively angry at my own cowardice.
I struggle, as most do, with self-image. I want to “embrace femininity” to lessen my hatred at my internalized misogyny, but the thought of makeup causes shudders of dysphoria. Though I am often congratulated on my East Asian androgyny, I find it hard to tell people that being so feeds into that dysphoria. Until recently, I had no image #goals (with Star Wars: Rogue One came Baze Malbus, a butch East Asian action hero who was lazy and soft and cool). But now, I am frustrated that I must languish on the Nation Health Services’ (NHS) waiting list for testosterone, hoping for facial hair that is genetically unlikely for me. Even so, I am lucky that the NHS provides testosterone for free.
I hate that I cannot feel comfortable with what privileges I am given, and that I am always looking for more.
It’s hard to remind yourself that mental health, identity, and oppression aren’t to be treated as a competition. In this conflict, I’m reminded that despite society’s critical need to amplify the voices of people who experience more violent forms of oppression, there isn’t a finite space for this particular gray area of issues to be discussed. Even so, we must make room for all of us in the margins.
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