“Calling me a racist pissed me off! I have taught black and brown underprivileged men at Riker’s!”
“You should be writing how you can protect me as a woman!”
“Just keep your head down and work.”
“You’re discriminating against their culture.”
Those are the messages that I have received over the past year from my White roommate, from my White female friend, my former Black coworker, and Latina human resources manager at the job. I am a mixed-race, gay, male immigrant.
It would be unfair to write quotes without context, and that is why I have sat for 2 months to reflect and understand where I contributed to my housing instability and unemployment in New York City. This is my understanding.
I’ve lived in New York City more than 20 years; most of my life. Since around 2010, there has been a significant shift in its demographics. For the first time in my life I began seeing White people begging on street corners around the City, following the influx of young White people into Astoria, Williamsburg and into graduate programs. This shift had started earlier, but seemed to pass a threshold at this time.
At the time I was transitioning from being a temporarily undocumented immigrant to one with status. I had been in the U.S. pursuing an education as a means of escaping familial homophobia and discord. Homophobia can be traced to the cultural values of the British, which instilled it into law throughout the world. So, in effect, I was fleeing a vestige of colonialism that still pervaded my society. Having had parents with their own cultural trauma is also a remnant of colonialism. I struggled with mental health challenges throughout my life due to these inheritances in the form of neglect and fear. But in my childhood society, mental health, disability and trauma were concepts not yet integrated into the public mind. They still are not well-integrated. This is reflected in my own journey of acceptance.
I have obtained masters degrees in neuroscience and in psychology, driven by three masters. One, by my deep feelings of shame. Two, to understand myself. Three, to prove myself worthy. While I sought to overcome trauma, it was compounding around me. The world after September 11, 2001 created a society that was heightened with suspicion and vengefulness towards people of South Asian appearance, like myself.
I was insulated against these social stressors largely by being in a relationship with a White gay man. He became family, something that I have desired all my life. Yet, our cultural differences became important in the social context around us. He gravitated towards being entertained by cultural markers that felt alienating to me. Conversations about race were amusing or dismissive. His social group denigrated people who looked like me, or people I felt close to, while still being supportive and charitable. I became disillusioned at the sense of deception that I lived amongst.
My search for belonging and stability led me to attempt to obtain higher education, but with each attempt, I found that I could not pretend to be like everyone else, and carry on despite my own trauma and the social upheaval around me. Everyone else seemed resilient, and moved through their life and education effortlessly. I took breaks to heal from my own mental health needs.
After failing to find employment through education as an international student, I was undocumented for a few years. Outside the safety of family and an educational setting, I was confronted with many truths. That trauma is lifelong and cannot be nullified by medication nor therapy. Trauma redirects the nervous system to be in a state of emergency. The earlier in life it occurs, the intensity of the event or the chronicity of the events lead to more recruitment of nervous development to be in a state of hyper-vigilance. By this, I mean that a trauma is an experience or series of experiences that tells the nervous system that its best survival is to permanently adapt to defending against immediate but uncertain threat.
Research over the past decade has shed light on the meaning of trauma. It is now understood to be a biological reprogramming of the body at the epigenetic level, that is passed on through generations. This can be understood to be an adaptation for the survival of the population at the individual level. It also means that neural tissue that could have been used for intellectual pursuits was recoded for survival reactions. It means that at the individual level, trauma can be seen as learning disabilities, a constant need for intense soothing, and a heightened need for safety, in order to access higher cognitive functions. In other words, disability isn’t only due to a biological insult to the body. Therefore, the idea of disability is itself in need of destigmatization and unpacking.
If a disability is linked to the psychological insults embedded in a society against people who are in the numerical minority, who are new to the society, or who have been historically exploited, then these people are the measure of equity, and how healthy the society is functioning. Yet, the inverse is true of our society.
In 2012 I happened to call the police, twice, in fear of my life. On both occasions, my safety was threatened by a White person. On both occasions I was labeled the problem. Those experiences were informative, but insurmountable. My sense of safety in New York City was extinguished, and it became clear that my word in this society is without meaning when it goes against the whims of a White person’s. It has since become cogent how frequently that White whim is leveraged to change the balance of power in everyday situations to disempower, disable and disenfranchise. White privilege, or White protectionism, then became a physical reality that I feel bluntly in navigating life because it is upheld by the White lie and White line.
In my pursuit of a place in this society, I again attempted to earn a graduate degree in 2014 at a predominantly White program in New York City. The program, I later learned, had been audited earlier and found to be hostile towards people of color. I entered the program because I was an older learner at the time, and the program expressed an interest in a person of my life experiences and race to add to its portfolio. However, I quickly learned that implied in this admission was that I had to behave as if I was unaffected by the things I was experiencing and learning about in the program – microaggressions, institutional racism and mental health needs. I learned that, as a person of color, my voice needed to be inline with the White point-of-view of else it was a problem. I learned that speaking up, which was being taught in theory, was self-sabotage in my lived experience. I was informally diagnosed with a learning disability which made me a bad fit for the program. My desire to express frustration at the microaggressions and systemic prejudice around me was also an issue. Alas, I noted that I am also neither as White nor as economically privileged as many of the persons who were selected to continue in the program. I also noticed that my hefty student loans subsidized their education.
I have accepted that I have a learning disability. I have accepted that I have experienced trauma and it has shaped me. I accept that I see and feel the inequity in society much more powerfully than those around me who are able to adapt to supporting the system as it is. Perhaps it is less about adaptation, than about being born with the capacity to blend with the oppressor that is considered adaptation. This is also known as internalized colonization.
It is still a challenge for me to accept and remain silent when I notice how the interpersonal is driven by cultural inequities. I cannot ignore it when I am asked for my identification card while the White person right next to me isn’t. I cannot ignore it when I call the police to report that I have been physically attacked by a White man and the White senior officer refuses to even take a statement. I cannot ignore it when my White female friend talks about equality, but wants to live in a predominantly White neighborhood and expresses safety concerns about the people I may choose to bring home to be intimate. I cannot be silent when my White roommate refuses to consider my safety during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, and attempts to evict me when I request such acknowledgement. I cannot ignore it when the White executives at the non-profit I worked talked loudly in a shared space all day while I quietly work hard at my job, spoke over me at a meeting, and were then flabbergasted when I spoke up and asked to finish my question. The HR manager informed me that my complaint was prejuduced against their culture. It frustrates me when my landlord’s adult son confronts me in the yard to accuse me of trespassing when I briefly went to water his mother’s dying plant as a neighborly gesture. Finally, it frustrates me when my White therapist expresses frustration at the extent of my frustration. Yet, all these people are professionals, in education, mental health or human resources.
It is disheartening to be sensitive to my surroundings, but it is a mark of trauma to be hypervigilant. Yet, when all of my education suggests that I should be able to have these discussions and express my frustration, it is strictly delineated about how I should be able to do so without frustrating the perpetrators. Otherwise, I am forced out. Never being threatening is not enough to be listened to, because just speaking up is seen as threatening, supported by the White whim, the White lie and White protectionism. The location of normalcy in the White and the socioeconomically privileged is itself a fallback on colonial customs. Is the location of normalcy in our society healthy for the society?
When I ask myself if my experiences are unique, the people on the streets tell me no. They tell me that inequity is rife. They tell me that economic access and healthcare access are unfairly delimited by race and socioeconomic history. They tell me that as an immigrant, male, person of color, with a history of trauma, these things shouldn’t be exclusionary. The text books, NPR experts and newspaper articles agree with them. Still, I am unemployed, being asked to leave my living situation, and tired. To feel the yoke of colonialsim in the 21st century is traumatising.
Gregory is a man of many imposed intersectional identities. Immigrant. Man. Gay. Poor. Disabled. Person of color. Pariah. Yet, he is a man who has always desired to be close to others, to the natural world, and to learning about it. As a child he read many nature magazines, spent quiet hours in his mother’s garden observing the insects and plants, and enjoying the intimacy of power outages, when his family came together. Yet, he feared everyone around him because his secret made him unloveable to his society. He holds masters degrees in biology, neurobiology and psychology, has rediscovered a need for plants in his life, and is a strong supporter of embrancing the natural world to heal from psychological alienation and mental health stress. He spends his free time writing poetry, working on his book ideas, and desiring closeness to others. He can be found on instagram at @plantingability.