Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at King's College London

Tag: mental health

Happy New Year

Content Warning: This blog contains references to suicide, self harm & eating disorders that some readers my find upsetting. 

 


 

The writer wishes to remain anonymous and protect the privacy of those whom the story is about so no names are given and instead ‘our/my daughter’ and ‘she’ are used.

 


 

 

 

 

Happy New Year

I am writing this on 24 February 2022, as the world returns to some semblance of normality post pandemic.

Yet I am stuck.

Since about 12.45 am on New Year’s Day my life changed and I am like a swimmer under water.

I was happily seeing in the New Year at a local pub. Chatting to strangers. Watching Jools Holland. My little girl was left at home alone. She felt so unhappy, she took action to cause herself deliberate harm and endanger her life. She is 15. In writing this I have been made aware of and been asked to comply with the Samaritans guidelines to “Steer clear of portraying anything that is easy to imitate, for example where the materials or ingredients involved are readily available and providing details on how it was carried out.” I want to respect this. But I also think it is important for all of you who are parents to know that I have been rebuking myself every minute about how preventable this was. The truth is she didn’t have to go very far to get what she needed, and my complacency and ignorance meant I never considered there to be a risk. Knowing what I know now, I would do things very differently.

Let’s flash back. Over the last few months, we had our suspicions and reports she had been drinking and vaping and she was generally ‘acting out a bit’. At some point in those few months, she had told someone at school she had made herself sick in the early lockdown. We had been to see the GP. Been referred to CAMHS (Children and adolescent mental health services for those lucky enough not to know) and been rejected (not the right kind of eating disorder).

The potential eating disorder and lack of treatment had left me a bit paralysed, but she received some counselling in school and I guess I had put it out of my mind. We had tried talking to her. Tried grounding her in relation to the drinking and vaping. That week (the one between Christmas and New Year) we had found incontrovertible evidence. A part-drunk, 1-litre bottle of vodka and a mountain of vaping paraphernalia. We grounded her again. A reasonable parenting response, I think. We grounded her, having had what we believed to be a constructive and supportive conversation explaining why we were doing that. We see ourselves as liberal, empowering parents.

That is why she is home alone. We asked her if she wanted to do something with us? If she wanted to go out with us. No, no no. I am going to my room.

Every day I question myself about our decisions that day and each decision since. I no longer have confidence in my own judgement.

One of my regular thoughts is what would have happened if we had stayed home? Would it not have happened?

Or would she have called us for help?

Or would she not have called us for help and stayed suffering?

Would we have found her dead in her room – how long would it have been before we went to get her up in the morning on New Year’s Day?

Another recurring thought is, what if she had died?

I am numb now. What would I be doing? How would I be behaving if she were dead? I imagine telling people. I imagine her funeral. I find myself locking myself in the shower, turning it on and weeping.

Back to the pub. I see my partner take a phone call. I see their whole demeanour change. They dash to get their stuff clearly indicating I need to get mine. We leave the pub. They tell me our 15-year-old daughter has taken an overdose. Paramedics are on their way.

They can move quicker than me. I tell them to run home.

I arrive home to our normal looking house. Inside she is sitting on the sofa. She looks fine. There are 2 paramedics in the house. They ask us to sit in the kitchen. One of them comes to talk to us.

Writing this so much later, means I don’t really recollect the details of the conversation. I am sure I don’t believe it. I think it is some horrible hoax. She is pretending. She has made it up. They have made a mistake.

Anyway, both an age and not long after I find myself in an ambulance on our way to A&E. Luckily? She is still a child, so we get to go to Children’s A&E. We wait in chairs. She is messaging on her phone. She isn’t speaking to me. Everything about her body language rejects me. I don’t know what to say. I am arguably a bit drunk. (Let’s not forget less than 2 hours ago it was New Year’s Eve and I’d been living my normal life.)

We see one nurse. Doctor? She asks a load of questions. We return to chairs. Sometime later we get invited into the next bit. We are in a small room with a gurney and a chair. More people, more questions. Blood tests are required. I keep taking myself to the bathroom. I am feeling extremely queasy. I vomit bile – who knows how many times. Blood tests take a couple of hours it turns out.

The questions and the answers – so she took a load of tablets. I hear she then looked up what she should do. She did a ‘quiz’ on the NHS site. She called 111. Paramedics came. She has told someone in this chain she has been self-harming since she was 10. She has been making herself sick when she eats.

She refuses to lie down – she clearly doesn’t want to talk. I am numb – outwardly calm, inwardly beyond confused and upset. I lie down.

Each of the medics seems to ask the same questions. It is never clear to me how much they are asking me. How I should behave or what I should say. The truth is I know so little. What has been happening in her life. Why did she do this? How did she do this? One medic comments we use to see one or two ‘of’ these a month – now we see at least one a night. ‘One of these’ = teenage overdose!

The blood tests reveal ‘x’ level of the substance she took (explained in much more technical language). It was not a lie or a hoax. She needs to receive medicine. Medicine in the form of a drip for 12-24 hours. We are admitted. Thinking about it now, it must have been clear to the paramedics that she was going to be admitted. They had asked her to pack a bag. I too have a bag with ‘the necessities’. I have little or no recollection of how that happened.

We are on both a children’s ward and what coincidentally turns out to be an eating disorders ward. The pandemic and the mental health impacts has driven the need for extra wards like this. The only moment of softness happens as we arrive in the ward. She looks around. She, for a few seconds, lets her guard down. Her face crumples. Her eyes fill with tears. I climb onto the bed and hold her. I cry a bit and tell her I love her. For a few seconds she lets me hold her. Then that moment ends – and we are separate, pushed apart by the force field she exudes.

The next 36 hours in retrospect were probably the most comforting of the last 7 weeks or however long it is. We were safe. She was on the drip. Doctors, nurses, people looked after us. We ate, slept, watched TV and read. I didn’t have to make any decisions. Me and her father rotated (Covid – only one visitor at a time). I can get tea and toast whenever I want. She occasionally lets me get her toast too.

At some point I get to go home. I clean the house. I shower. I eat. I talk to my other children I can’t sleep though, despite being beyond exhausted.

At the hospital we also spoke to people from CAMHS each on our own and together. They told us we had to make the house safe. Remove all dangerous things from her access. Her dad had to do that. Search her room. He had to remove a sharpener blade embedded in blue tack on the wall.  He had to take all the medicine out of our bathroom cupboard. All the cleaning products out from under the stairs.

They (CAMHS) do not think she is mentally ill. It is ‘social stressors’. They recommend counselling. They will check in in 7 days. They do. I get the most useful clear statement at that point. I ask should we just let her do what she wants? No. You have to parent. You must set boundaries. You also have to recognise that this (taking an overdose) is something she is capable of. It confirms my helplessness but also confirms we must carry on trying to be her regular parents. That there are no answers or ways out.

Eventually we went home. She slept. I won’t go through day by day. I am stunned by how life goes on. I haven’t taken a single day off work. Not because I can’t but because I can’t really sit with my own thoughts. Being at work gives me a focus. People meet me every day – as far as I can tell they think everything is fine. I am like someone trapped in jelly or underwater. The world around me moves – I watch it from the stillness of my inner panic and fear.

I socialise. I go away. I do nice things. I remain numb and terrified.

I work somewhere where I could get counselling immediately on the phone. That has been a lifesaver. She goes to a school that is massively supportive and professional. I am having counselling every week. She will start having some properly soon – it’s been ad hoc up till now. The immediate family have been trying to help and support.

Every day I want to burst into her room multiple times a day to check she is there, alive not overdosed, not cutting herself. Every day I wake up and am grateful to have another day with her. Every night I am glad that we have survived another day. Every day I am angry and afraid at myself, at her, at the world. I consume wellbeing and mental health resources constantly. I am still looking for the answer – even though I know the answer is external help and time.

I, until 1 January 2022, was a together person. I supported others and problem solved big world problems. Now I am a robot who walks on eggshells at home, terrified she is going to do it again. Sad and upset that I am none the wiser as to why she is so unhappy.

I wish I could write this to offer light at the end of the tunnel. I am far from the end of the tunnel yet. It is dark and it is cold, and it is lonely. What I have realised is that I must take each day as it comes. That is in fact the only option. I know I must do what I can to look after myself. The counsellor tells me to be available to her – carry on letting her know I care. I try to do that every day. I tell her I love her. I hug her when she will let me.  Last night we tried to talk to her. She refuses to talk. I barely sleep. I am today in a daze – the worry is infinite.

I am grateful to have a support system and people I trust. I also know that people mean well and want to help but no-one really can. We live in a country where we got treated and did not have to think about the cost. For that I am forever grateful. We are being supported and yet I do not know if things will ever get better.

The thing I know is I would give pretty much everything I have up to ensure my daughter is safe, healthy and well and to turn the clock back to whenever she became so unhappy that this became a possibility.

All I can offer to readers is, if any of this resonates with you, don’t ignore it; do something and ask for help.


Guidance & Support

 

(Edited: 30th March 2022.)

Embedding wellbeing in uncertain times

Joy Whyte is Strategic Director, Education & Students, and the professional services lead for student mental health and wellbeing. To coincide with University Mental Health Day (3rd March 2022) Joy explores how we can embed wellbeing in uncertain times.


At the start of this academic year, the Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Steering Group met in its newly configured form for the first time. I co-chair this group with Professor Juliet Foster, the academic lead for student mental health and wellbeing, with Wilna Gracias as the remarkably dynamic and knowledgeable Head of Student Mental Health & Wellbeing Strategy.  

Joy Whyte leans against a stone rail, set alongside the exterior of a stone building. She is a white woman with auburn hair tied in a low plait and wears a teal top and jacket.

Joy Whyte, Strategic Director, Education & Students.

We started the meeting of the newly constituted group with a round of introductions, asking participants to share a time they were well supported and to describe the impact of that support. Rounds such as this – common in community organising practice, as a means of connecting group members – normally take 10 minutes at most. Ours took 50 minutes. In at an atmosphere of trust and confidence in one another, and a willingness to be collectively and individually vulnerable, we all shared stories of times when we had been challenged, and described the ways in which we had each been supported.  

Except for my own, those experiences are not mine to share, but anyone who has lived through two years of a global pandemic will have plenty of stories of their own: of isolation, of bereavement, of the difficulty of balancing work and family life (writ large as schools closed across the country), of caring responsibilities – both immediately and distantly, of health concerns and illness, of financial worries, instability around housing, difficulty in getting out to buy essentials, to name but a few. And sometimes a great many of these factors, in combination, exhaustingly set within a context of the intense ambient anxiety caused by a global health crisis.  

We also know that these factors have been felt differently – that black people and people of the global majority have been at greater risk from Covid, that women have carried a disproportionate childcare burden (affecting time for research, work, and rest), and that living arrangements have impacted in varyingly problematic ways for those who live alone, in shared accommodation, with a violent partner, or as a single parent.  

“More people have experienced a mental health crisis during the coronavirus pandemic than ever previously recorded”. – Mind, 2020.

The Prime Minister may think that we’re in post-pandemic times. But, even if you think the global health risk has subsided (and I believe only vaccine equity will assure that), the reverberations of living through such destabilising and precarious times seems set to be with us for some time. In November 2020, Mind revealed that “more people have experienced a mental health crisis during the coronavirus pandemic than ever previously recorded”. Mind warned of the risk of a second, mental health pandemic, and called for urgent action to mitigate the impacts of this, including investing in mental health services in the community. 

In February, the Office for National Statistics reported that 16-29 year olds feel significantly more anxious than the general population. 42% reported high levels of anxiety in the first half of February compared with 34% on average. Many King’s staff will be in this age group, and many more are directly supporting students who are experiencing these feelings of anxiety. The Student Minds Planning for a Sustainable Future report observed that “the human relationship between staff and students is still the key factor in the student experience and in supporting student mental health and wellbeing. How staff are supported becomes an important consideration.” 

In the 2018-2020 Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Report and Strategic Plan, we set out a pyramid support model. There are undoubtedly students – and staff – who need support at the uppermost levels (university specialist support services, and external specialist support services). Indeed, Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor UWE and President of Universities UK (UUK) noted in a One King’s leadership session on 24 February that “the increasing demands being made on Mental Health and Wellbeing both within university, NHS and 3rd sector agencies is significant. Universities are being expected to support high risk mental illness as the pressures on the NHS increase. This is being worked on by UUK working across Government Departments to encourage a joined-up solution”.  

Yet the base levels of the pyramid are equally important, and as King’s moves into the next phase of our strategic plan, the steering group’s focus is on illuminating further the Education Strategy’s ambition to “support positive wellbeing as a fundamental ethos of the university” and to “support and enhance the mental and physical wellbeing of students and staff through all aspects of the university experience”.  

Going back to our October meeting, individual stories about challenges sat within the context of the support we had each received – a meeting with a colleague or line manager in which we felt heard; a note left on a desk or in a locker by a co-worker; someone asking ‘how are you?’ months after a difficult event, and meaning it; cups of tea made; diaries cleared for a conversation; understanding and compassion. These were often seemingly small actions – of kindness, concern, and support – and they were profoundly meaningful.  

“Local factors play a significant role in staff wellbeing. Having a supportive team and a good direct line manager has been shown to be important for good wellbeing…” – University Mental Health Charter.

These experiences reflect the findings of Student Minds, whose University Mental Health Charter (which King’s is  working towards) states “Local factors play a significant role in staff wellbeing. Having a supportive team and a good direct line manager has been shown to be important for good wellbeing, in both the literature and feedback from staff participants in the Charter consultation.”  

Importantly, though, Students Minds note: “However, this can be precarious if not supported by the general culture of the university. This suggests a need for a combination of a general healthy culture and specific structures and practice, which ensure managers can and do support good wellbeing within their teams and respond appropriately to staff experiencing poor mental health.” 

For my own part, I think that whilst our individual experiences can catalyse change, by illustrating what support can work well (and conversely where an absence of support has heightened difficulties), the Education Strategy’s ambitions can be genuinely transformative. In the words of the King’s Community Charter we partly demonstrate our collective commitments to making the world a better place by “creating a culture that promotes positive mental health and wellbeing, and supports a proactive and holistic approach, whilst recognising the needs of the individual”. As a steering group, we look forward to sharing with you more details of what this means in practice, as we prepare the King’s application to the University Mental Health Charter.  


For guidance on mental wellbeing, and details of a range of sources of support, including Togetherall, see staff mental wellbeing 

Organisational Development are currently conducting a review of the support available to staff, with the outcome of the review to be shared in early May. If you’d like to share your views on King’s support for staff wellbeing, Organisational Development invite you to send your thoughts to OD@kcl.ac.ukusing the subject line ‘Wellbeing Review’. 

How a Lifetime of Racial Indignities Add Up

Alexandra Birrell completed her MSc in Mental Health and Psychological Therapies in London. As an NHS therapist and transracial adoptee, she has a special interest in working with clients with anxiety and depression stemming from social inequalities. She uses embodied writing as a form of activism, using first person narrative to bring awareness to systemic cultural issues.  

Alexandra says: “When the BLM movement started featuring in the news, I found myself in a unique position. As a transracial adoptee, I am seen by society as an ethnic minority, but treated by my white family and friends as a white person. The dominant narrative when I was growing up was that “we don’t see race, we only see our daughter/cousin/friend.” But it was this narrative that stopped me from understanding and expressing the pain that came from directly experiencing racism. Seeing people raging in the streets tapped into deep seated emotions that had never had a voice. This article contains my reflections on how even microaggressions can add up to create a bigger picture over a lifetime.”

 


 

Over the past several weeks, as the #BlackLivesMatter movement turns the global conversation toward racial issues, I recognise my own privilege in being able to take my time to reflect on my own racial experiences. Some people are challenged by the concept of privilege, especially in the context of race. They may say, “but how can I be privileged? I grew up with nothing; I witnessed abuse; I was abused; my parents were alcoholics; I grew up poor.” But privilege is not a yes/no tick-box; it is a complex topic. It is not only about the things we have experienced; it is also about the things we have not. For example, people can be privileged racially, whilst at the same time being un-privileged economically. It took me a long time to realise that despite being privileged in many ways, a lifetime of racial microaggressions added up to poor mental health that almost cost me my life.

As a mixed-race woman growing up in Canada, with blood from the Philippines, Portugal, Spain and England (and as a recent DNA test tells me, also from France, India, Indigenous Mexico, Northern Africa and Senegal) the most common question I have been asked is “but where are you really from?” It is a question that has haunted me throughout my life, even growing up in the suburbs of multicultural Toronto. The difficulty of living in a place where everyone you know is a first to fourth generation immigrant is that, despite being born and raised in Canada, considering yourself Canadian is not perceived to be enough of an identity. Canadians may still consider themselves Italian, for example, despite being born in Canada, and their parents and grandparents being born and bred Canadian.

What happens when you can’t identify with your country of birth, but also don’t belong to the cultures and heritages of your ancestors? What is a “half-caste” (to use one of the many descriptions others have used) modern woman to do with the knowledge that her body and her existence are the result of centuries of violence — whose blood is made up of both historically colonised and coloniser?

My racial experience has been further complicated by my early life adoption into a white Scottish family. The controversial subject of transracial adoption began to feature in debate nearly thirty years ago, but the cultural assumption is still that adoptees should assimilate the racial culture of the adoptive family. I grew up with the narrative that “we are a family of Scottish ancestry, and this is our heritage.”

I was therefore, at the age of four, thoroughly unprepared when kids on the playground pulled back their eyes at me, mocked, “you’re Chinese!”, and burst into laughter. At this young age, I began to realise I did not fit the description of being white-Scottish, but also had no idea what my true ethnicity was. Adoptees are not allowed access to their own medical or birth records until the age of 18. For all I knew, I could have been Chinese. I didn’t understand why this was so funny.

In my horrified shock, I was silent. None of the adults in my life knew that I was being taunted on the playgrounds. This was the beginning of a lifetime of internalising racial shame.

At eleven, a group of boys started to follow me home from school, laughing and pulling back their eyes. At first, I laughed along, buying into the narrative that they were just teasing me. After all, isn’t that what boys do when they like you? Weeks went by — the laughter stopped, but the ridicule continued. One day, they started to follow me home as usual. My heart was already starting to race when I heard a loud CRACK! It sounded like a gunshot. They’d gotten hold of fireworks and were shooting them at me. I still said nothing to my parents, or any adult in my life.

At fourteen, our family moved from multicultural Toronto to an affluent (Read: All White) suburb an hour from the city. My white parents had no idea that during these teenage years, it was developmentally even more important for me to have racial mirrors in my life; to be able to see myself reflected in the world around me, and to understand that my physical characteristics were normal and acceptable. I was confused when, on the first day of high school, not knowing a single soul, someone shouted down the hallway at me “Asian slut!”

I fought back hot tears of humiliation. I was confused; I lacked an understanding of the violent historical roots of this comment. I did not know about the women who, during western occupation of Asia during the Philippine-American War, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, were forced into local sex trafficking rings to serve soldiers. I did not know about the stereotypes that rationalised sexual violence toward Asian women.

Even knowing these stereotypes now, I look back and realise that I was not a woman; I was a child. I later learned that children of colour are often treated as being more mature than they are, and more mature than white children of the same age, due to a form of racial prejudice called Adultification Bias.

Alexandra Birrell writes about her experiences of being a transracial adoptee

The judgement and rejection got worse for me through those torturous school years. Class after class, I was the only person of colour in the room, and when I wasn’t being taunted or physically threatened, I was completely ignored.

At sixteen, I started to smoke weed. Being with my stoner friends was the only place I felt accepted, and the weed helped to numb the deep pain that I was in. But even my so-called friends laughed at me: “You don’t need to smoke weed, look at you. You’re already chinky eyed!” a friend said in front of a large group. The whole room erupted with laughter. My body went into freeze mode, as it had done a million times before. I had nothing to say; nothing to fall back on. I did not know what it meant to be Asian. I had no ethnic role models in my life. I had no one to teach me about racism.

I did not see myself reflected anywhere in my family or in my wider culture. According to the Journal of Intercultural Communication, Asian/Pacific Islanders are still underrepresented and misinterpreted in mainstream media, forming only 3% of all prime-time characters and primarily being portrayed as “dangerous criminals…unassimilated immigrants… [or] subservient sexual objects” (Ramasubramanian, 2011). And the less interracial contact white people have, the more their views are defined by media portrayals of stereotypes.

With no racial pride to summon up, when I was taunted for my physical features, I simply allowed myself to sink into silent humiliation — a go-to protective response. I began to hate what I looked like. I wanted to be white and just fit in, but never shared this desire with my parents — how could I? They believed I already was.

I worked hard and went to Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada to study psychology. But the psychology I learned did not include the psychology of people of colour. I learned about Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Wundt, William James, and Edward Titchener — white male after white male, while my white classmates nodded along.

I learned about how race is a social construct; how the differences in our skin tone are only skin deep, a biological response to different climates that we settled in as humanity spread throughout the globe. I learned about how biologically, our similarities are more than our differences. I understood, but it just didn’t resonate. We live in a world made up of social constructs. The fact is that ethnic minorities have different experiences than white people, simply because the world we live in was designed by white people to benefit themselves. This is why the common notions of “not seeing colour” and “all being one human race”, whilst noble and often coming from good intentions, are demoralising and demeaning to people of colour; they deny the difficulties we face in a world where racial discrimination still exists.

After lectures, I was often the only person of colour at the bars my white friends and I went to. One day, I acknowledged this reality out loud. “Don’t worry!” a white friend laughed. “You’re pretty much white!” She meant it as a compliment, but I could read the subtext: The colour of your skin is not acceptable. Only your lifelong proximity to white culture makes you acceptable.

After moving to England, a man at a bar asked me where I was from, then loudly exclaimed, “but you don’t look Canadian!” immediately exposing his own ignorance. “I think you mean that I don’t look like a British coloniser,” I snapped back at him. To be Canadian is to be either first nations, or an immigrant. But despite my quick comeback, his comment seared. He did not know that with his ignorant remark, he was stripping me of any identity I could cling to. He did not know that he was perpetrating a narrative that hundreds of years of colonialism and violence had created — the narrative of history told from the white perspective. The dominant narrative is still that “Canada is 150 years old” as this is when it was “found” by white Europeans. Never mind the native cultures, stories, and lives lived spanning over hundreds of years — they have never mattered in the eyes of the coloniser.

It’s not just history classes you see this narrative perpetuated. It’s in the pushing of white beauty standards on the rest of the world. It’s going to Thailand expecting to finally see myself reflected in the skin tones around me, only to find that there is not a single face cream available for purchase that doesn’t have bleaching agent in it. It’s realising that even there, my skin is wrong. And there is the same focus on white, Western beauty in terms of body size and type. For me, all of the above consolidates the assumption that thin white bodies are the norm, and everything else exists in relation to them.

At twenty five, I tracked down my biological mother and finally got the full story of my ethnic heritage. I bonded with her deeply, finally recognising where my emotional qualities and half of my face came from. But it was also difficult to realise that all along, I had actually been a half-blooded white person. Had I grown up within her side of my biological family, I would have still been the only person of colour. My Filipino father had not known that she was pregnant.

After meeting my white biological family, my many years of racial isolation began to sink in. I found a black therapist who specialised in transracial adoption issues at the Post Adoption Centre in London. Session after session, the rage that filled the room left me terrified. The gag had come off, and the protective survival response of silence could live no more. My therapist and I decided to have a meeting with my parents.

“My whole life, you’ve said that I’m Scottish,” I said between deep sobs of pain and release. “But I’m not.”

“What are you then?” my therapist probed.

“Not Canadian enough. Not Filipino enough. Not Portuguese enough. Certainly not English enough…” A silence came over me as my lifelong reality sunk in.

“I’m nothing,” I finally concluded, the full weight of the sentence finally landing on my chest after years of denial.

Depression set in, but the world didn’t notice. From jokes told in bad Indian accents by white people, to the “ching chang chong” chided by my own family member after I placed down a home cooked Chinese dinner down in front of him; from white people staring at me during professional trainings (of which I was still the only person of colour), to a friend turning to me in a social situation to ask me if “coloured people in society bring more illness”, I was still surrounded by racial naivety. At a party in Barcelona, a stranger bowed to me as I walked into the room and proceeded to nudge me throughout the night, laughing, “Eh, eh, is that how you do it?” bowing over and over as my face reddened each time.

“Do you find it easier that white people don’t tend to fear Asians?” my partner asked, genuinely. It was a good point. Even within the experience of being a person of colour, I am still awarded certain privileges. After thinking about it for a moment, I responded, “Of course I do. The white cultural narrative says that Asians are for laughing at, while other races are to be feared.”

My statement highlights the very nature of privilege — that some have benefitted from a system of power at the expense of others. If you have never had to fear for your safety because of the colour of your skin, that is racial privilege. If you have never been laughed at, humiliated or dehumanised because of the colour of your skin, that is racial privilege. And if you have never been feared because of the colour of your skin, like me, that is also racial privilege. It is up to each and every one of us to humbly and genuinely enquire the ways that we have unearned privilege.

Nearly thirty years after my transracial adoption, I grieved the loss of my own ethnic heritage; my own roots. I allowed myself to feel the lack of belonging; the lack of a true and deep safe space to land that has shadowed me throughout my life.

Screaming on deaf ears became its own form of trauma, and my rage continued to turn inward. An alien plucked from the sky, I fantasised about ideas of “going home” which to me, meant fading into the nothingness I felt that I was. I began to plan my own suicide.

I was not alone in this feeling — the Equality and Human Rights Commission completed a racial harassment inquiry in 2019 and reported that 56% of those harassed are subject to name calling, 20% to physical violence, and 1 in 10 who experience racial discrimination feel suicidal.

Racism is difficult enough to deal with. Mixed race people have a complex relationship to it, feeling that they don’t have any real sense of belonging to either of the cultures their blood comes from. Transracial adoptees, even more so, as we tend to fight this battle completely alone.

Luckily, with the support of difficult family conversations, transracial adoption Facebook support groups, long term therapy and several bouts of long term medication, I am in a different place now. I continue to do my own reading and research about my heritage and ethnicity, forever searching for something to be proud of.

And yet, the recent rise of the conversation of race has re-opened these wounds. The white people in my life either avoid the conversation with me completely, or hop on the bandwagon, posting black squares and hashtags, many of them not knowing a single thing about racism and its complexities. The current rhetoric is that “if you say nothing, you’re part of the problem,” but there is a difference between taking constructive action through personal research and education, and feeling entitled to an opinion about something you haven’t experienced yourself, which is its own form of privilege. Most of the time, if you haven’t experienced an issue yourself, the best thing to do is to listen to people who are, quite frankly, better placed to comment.

After a lifetime of dissociating from racial issues in the name of social acceptance; a lifetime of shutting down when faced with my own racist encounters, seeing people raging in the streets hit a bit too close to home. That rage is what I feel inside and often cannot express, because the reality is that if I talk about my lived experience, I will be labelled as angry, sensitive, self-absorbed, or difficult, which serves to further silence me and ensures the white dominant narrative lives on. At the same time, to speak out is to risk isolating myself from any sense of belonging that I do have within the white world I live in.

During this (hopefully) historical moment in time, I feel the pull to add to the conversation, and to support with education around racial issues, but I am also exhausted from the emotional labour of explaining the complexities of the subject. If you do not identify as a person of colour, please, understand that history is already told from your perspective, question your belief that you need to make a statement about everything that goes on in the world, and share the voices of the people this actually effects. Sit down at the table, pour a cup of tea, and listen up. Because we have lives to get on with, that don’t involve fighting this tired battle.

It has been difficult to come out of my protective shell of silence to acknowledge and honour my story. But shaking with the rage of twenty-nine silent years, I have put pen to paper as a labour of love. For the people of colour who, like me, feel shut down, dissociated, confused, or alone. For those who feel shocked, silenced, gagged, misunderstood, unseen, and unheard. For those who feel threatened, physically unsafe, terrified, traumatised and rejected because of the colour of your skin.

You are not alone. Your voice matters. Your life matters. You matter.


To hear more from Alexandra, you can connect with her through her Medium page, or follow her on Instagram.

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