“How do you identify culturally?”
A few weeks ago, during a session with my therapist, I was presented with this question. I shrugged and hesitantly answered, “I don’t know, I’m African-American.” She scribbled my answer down while I anxiously tried to get a glimpse of her notes. The question definitely took me back. Usually, when someone asks about my ethnicity, I respond resounding, “I’m black.” Since I was in a somewhat new setting, I settled for the softer term, “African-American,” but the look that my therapist gave me made me acknowledge the fact that I did not fully understand the depth of her question.
We continued our session as usual, without returning to the subject that had me SO stumped. Over the following week, I replayed the scenario over and over in my head, answering each time differently.
“How do you identify culturally?”
Am I Black? African American? Black and Jamaican American? None of these answers seemed right to me. It answered any question as to what my ethnicity is but didn’t quite answer the question of how I identify myself culturally.
If I had been asked this question a few years ago, I would have promptly answered by identifying myself with the religion that I clung tightly to for the majority of my life. However, after not attending services for a few years now, I no longer identify myself with this group. It then dawned on me that I’ve been kind of floating for the past few years, without finding a community or roots.
The following week, when I had my next appointment, my therapist presented me with the same question as the week before. Instead of giving me time to fumble for an answer, she followed up with the reason why she persisted with the question and explained to me the correlation between cultural identity and mental health.
It’s essential to understand what cultural identity is before you can comprehend it’s relationship with mental health. Cultural identity is the feeling of belonging to a group or community. Some people identify by their religious group, while others may go by other identifying factors such as race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, or socioeconomic status.
My therapist explained to me that my answer wasn’t incorrect, instead my hesitance had shown her that I really didn’t know where I identified. Without giving out too much personal information, a majority of my sessions are centered around events from my childhood and adolescence and how they have affected my anxiety and moods in my present life.
She explained to me that my lack of cultural identity can add to my feelings of anxiety. Psychological research shows that cultural and ethnic identity pride can serve as a buffer against feelings of depression and anxiety. A sense of belonging help against feelings of despair and loneliness.
So, how does this relate to me?
My therapist suggested that I begin to research my ethnic history. While I explained to her that I’ve been doing this over the past few years; pouring myself over the works of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and other notable African Americans, she clarified that the point of culturally identifying is not just filling my brain with information.
Instead, the intent is to personally place my emotions with these notable figures and their narratives, identifying with their successes, struggles, and eventually creating a personal connection with my roots.
Although this is a work in progress, I’ve been doing my best to take her advice. I recently finished reading “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas” and not only was I able to hear the first-hand narrative of an ancestor of mine, I’ve also come to feel a deep appreciation of the sacrifices of those who came before me; sacrifices that were made not for themselves, but so their children, including myself, could have freedom and liberty.
Feeling this sense of pride in my history, even for a few moments did, in fact, help alleviate some of my anxiety. To finish this post, I want to share one of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes comes to mind when considering the benefits of cultural identification:
“I come as one, I stand as ten thousand”.Dr. Maya Angelou