Race and Cultural Identity

Challenges around race and cultural identity vary enormously, including topics of discrimination, racism, and intergenerational trauma.

For example, a person may be discriminated against on the basis of their racial or cultural identity, or they may experience conflict between their own desires and the expectations of their culture.

While these aspects of identity are often sources of strength and support, they can also contribute to stress or pain in an individual’s life. In some cases, they can cause common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Prevalence of challenges around race and cultural identity

Because these issues are not clinically defined mental health conditions, there is little research on their overall prevalence. They are also tied to such basic aspects of individuals’ lives that it can be difficult to trace how frequently concerns around identity develop into worrisome mental health patterns.

However, the fields of psychology and social science generally acknowledge that racial and cultural identity are common contributors to mental health challenges.

  • Some researchers have defined race-related stress as a near-universal struggle for individuals from marginalized racial groups

Symptoms associated with racial and cultural identity issues vary widely, but some common examples are as follows:

  • Anxiety: You may find yourself feeling worried, preoccupied, or unable to relax.
  • Sadness or feelings of hopelessness: You might feel persistently unhappy, lacking in energy, or struggling to face day-to-day challenges.
  • Fear or anger that feels difficult to manage: While fear and anger can be rational and even helpful responses to racial or cultural discrimination, you may be overwhelmed by these feelings and find that they interfere with your daily life.
  • Feeling isolated: Racial and cultural identity challenges often involve a struggle to figure out how one fits into various, sometimes conflicting, communities and social roles.
  • Paranoia: Because racism and discrimination are often subtle, an individual may feel that they have been the victim of an act of discrimination without feeling certain that such an act actually occurred. This uncertainty can lead to self-doubt and paranoia.

Racial and cultural identity issues come in many forms, but a few common scenarios include:

  • Interpersonal discrimination: Many people face racial and/or cultural discrimination on a direct, personal level. For example, discrimination by a racist boss might lead to stress at work.
  • Structural and institutional discrimination: Large-scale racial and cultural inequalities are entrenched in many modern-day societies. Understanding and facing these forms of discrimination can be stressful and upsetting.
  • Micro-aggressions: Everyday subtle blows that are racially charged. These can be verbal or nonverbal.
  • Questioning one’s identity: You might be unsure of how to live with different aspects of your racial or cultural identities, or you might wonder how to balance your personal values with those of your racial or cultural background.
  • Events that challenge one’s identity: Moving to a new location, entering a new life phase, or becoming involved in new social circles can all bring up questions around racial and cultural identity.

What to do if you’re experiencing challenges around race and cultural identity

If any aspect of your racial and/or cultural identity is causing you stress, worry, or pain, you might consider the following courses of action:

  • Resource centers: Many communities have resource centers devoted to supporting specific racial and cultural groups. These organizations can help you take action in your community and meet other people who share your challenges. Because having a strong sense of racial or cultural identity can lessen the negative impacts of discrimination, you may find that these experiences improve your mood.
  • Creative pursuits: Visual arts, performing arts, and creative arts can all be powerful ways to explore your identity and find an increased sense of peace in your day-to-day life.
  • Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you explore your challenges and work with you on techniques to alleviate your symptoms and improve your mood.

How to find a therapist for challenges around race and cultural identity

Determine which therapy type(s) appeals to you

Therapists differ in their approaches to treating challenges around racial and cultural identity. Common approaches include:

Prioritize personal fit

While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”

On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:

  • Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
  • Does their approach suit my personality?
  • Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?

Additionally, consider these factors:

  • Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
  • Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
  • Some utilize specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
  • Some use a combination of multiple approaches.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.