Mental health and the first generation experience

From a first generation perspective, wellbeing and mental health is often overlooked as a priority. In my own experiences, these things did not hold significance until more recently, where I and those closest to me, began to recognise the importance of becoming more aware and working towards improving our wellbeing. Through deeper discussions and reflections, we are able to look at the areas in our lives that may affect the state of our health, which then gives us the opportunity to find resolutions or seek further knowledge and assistance.

As first generation African Australians, there are multiple factors that may impact our mental health. This includes experiences of racial discrimination and racial microaggressions that are commonly encountered in, but not limited to, the workplace or school environment. Such experiences can lead to feelings of low confidence and lack of self esteem. For many children of immigrants, these experiences may be difficult to share with parents, as many of the older generation hold fears towards speaking up against such issues, as they believe it can lead to further escalations for their children, such as getting fired from a job or expelled from a school. For many of our parents, survival is the mentality and has been for so long due to previous struggles they have shared, explaining why “laying low” and not making a fuss is preferred to challenging others, especially authority figures. This can, however, be harmful for youth as they may begin to share the same mentality and suppress any feelings they may have felt from negative experiences. 

Our sense of belonging also plays a significant role in our mental health, identity and social cohesion. As mentioned in previous posts, first generation Australians are often finding themselves negotiating between two conflicting cultures. Many of us can find ourselves being pulled in multiple directions, which can lead to greater feelings of confusion and stress. We may feel isolated from both cultural groups (African and Australian) because we are unable to meet the expectations or follow the values from two different cultures, at the same time. This can lead to a lack of sense of belonging for many of us, resulting in identity issues, losing a sense of safety and social connectedness.

Feelings of exclusion are also heightened when we are exposed to the wider public’s attitude towards African Australians, particularly through the media. African Australian youth are often demonised by the mainstream media, especially in instances where race and crime are inherently linked in news reports and articles. This has led to a ‘gang violence’ narrative surrounding African Australian communities and sends messages of fear to other members of the public. Not only does this isolate us further, but it also reinforces negative stereotypes. This causes detrimental consequences for our wellbeing. I think it is also worth noting, that those few that are participating in crimes, may be struggling with mental health issues and do not have the support or treatment they require to deal with such challenges. Secondly, these portrayals are unjust because there are so many of us contributing to our communities in such a positive way, yet this continues to be overlooked.

It is also important to look at the pressures we may face from those closest to us such as our parents, extended family members, friends and members of our community. The majority of our parents hold perspectives that may contrast with that of our own, as we were raised in different places in a completely different time. For example, growing up in an immigrant household, education is highly regarded and prioritised . It is drilled into us from a young age that obtaining a tertiary qualification is the only avenue to success. This places immense pressure on youth, especially those who do not want to attend university and see themselves excelling in another field, such as sports, art, music, fashion or a particular trade. Not fulfilling such expectations, can lead to feelings of shame and lack of self worth. It can also lead to many of us, falling into careers and education pathways that we are not passionate about, to prevent our families from being disappointed. It is not our parents’ intentions to cause us harm, but by having more open and honest dialogues within our homes, it at least gives our parents the opportunity to make small changes that could be beneficial for us in the long run.

Mental health is a complex topic, and we should continue bringing attention to it within our households, friendship circles and wider community. The more we are able to open up about the fears, concerns and pressures we experience, the more we are able to lean on each other for support. While resolutions in this area may involve collaborative efforts with other parties such as the government, local councils and not for profit organisations, I do believe the real work starts with us.

Our names

Image: @gxllespie

Our names hold significance in our daily lives for many reasons. The obvious; it is the thing that people call us and know us by. To go in deeper, our names stem from our roots, carry a cultural or religious meaning and is a part of our identity. For the first generation, carrying an ethnic name in Australia has its own implications and challenges. This can start as early as primary school. From the teachers failing to pronounce and spell our names correctly, our peers giving us nicknames to replace it with something “easier,” to constantly being asked what our name means. This can be daunting, draining and isolating experiences for us, especially in our younger years. Why? For starters, our peers did not receive this treatment, which instantly makes us feel different. Those who carried common and popular names were not expected to explain the meanings of their names and they did not have to teach others how to say their name repeatedly.

For the first generation, these experiences can lead to resentment towards our names and in some instances, have us change them to suit the requirements of others. This is to water down the effects that our ethnicity brings, to ensure discriminative experiences are limited and reduced. For example, we may feel the need to change our names on a CV so that we may increase our chances of gaining employment. Having worked in recruitment roles, I have witnessed this occur on multiple occasions and it accurately reflects the prejudice and discrimination that persists within society today. While I have placed emphasis on the impact our ethnic names carry in our younger years, this example illustrates how it is prevalent in our adulthood too.

I believe in coming times we will see a shift in how our future children will be named. To an extent, it is unravelling now. As the first generation, naturally we are influenced by both our native and Australian cultural values. This is especially evident in the names our children have been given in most recent years. I thought this was interesting to note, because it highlights how our identity, beliefs and values have been shaped by two cultures that are more different than they are the same, yet we live with them simultaneously. The way we view the world, is through the lens of combined cultures and customs. This separates our experiences from other Australians.

I will close this off by saying our names are not the problem. The real problem lays with the teachers who continue to mispronounce or misspell names, the hiring managers who judge others based on their ethnicity and not on their skill set, and the people that refuse to learn how to say our names correctly out of convenience. Our names may cause us discomfort and isolating experiences, but they are also a reminder of our roots and where we are from, in a world that is often trying to make us forget.

Here are some experiences that people have shared with me:

“For most my life(like many other POC) I’ve been conditioned to introduce my name in a way that is more palatable for white Australians. I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I decided to make a conscious effort to enunciate my name in the way my ancestors did, the way my community does and the way my parents intended when introducing myself to people.”

“I constantly hear, oh your name’s so different or wow that’s so cool, where are you from? You dread when people ask you to repeat your name over and over again, simply for the reason – “it sounds cool when you say it.”

“Working in customer service I had to speak to a lot of different people over the phone and via email. When they would ask me for my name, they would try to pronounce it once and then when they realised it was too “complex” for them, they would just settle with whatever name they thought they heard and call me that instead of having the respect to get it right before proceeding.”

“We’re always shortening our names to be unnoticed. As if the colour of our skin doesn’t make us stand out already.” 

“Sometimes it can lead to embarrassment, especially in instances when there is a back and forth happening, and it takes the other person five tries before they say my name correctly.”

Unfair portrayals

When I first travelled to Ethiopia, I remember not knowing what to expect. I was quite young at the time, so I did not give it much thought. I was just excited to be somewhere new. I was not aware of the different perceptions the rest of the world had about Ethiopia or other African countries. As I grew older this began to change, and I became more attentive to these thoughts that others held towards Africa either at school, in the workplace, or through various media platforms. These thoughts surrounding me, undeniably influenced my perception of these countries, especially during my early teenage years.

At school, we are often introduced to the topic of poverty and instantly the example of African countries is used. It is almost the only time Africa is spoken about in the classroom. When this topic is brought up in class, many of us can feel a sense of shame, or are embarrassed and confused. I think the biggest impact it may have though, is that we start to believe that Africa is limited to only crises and these crises come to define us and our people. This is why it is important that the diaspora are exposed to more than one narrative and perspective. It is important for our identity, it is important for retaining our culture and roots, and it is important because we need to know our history. Limiting the education experience by sharing information through one perspective is an injustice to us all. Sadly if this continues, it will result in more of our youth carrying these misconceptions of Africa, which can be so disempowering for our communities.

The unfair portrayal of Africa does not stop in the classroom, it follows us everywhere. For example, we turn on the television and we are exposed to multiple advertisements run by not for profit organisations, that show images of vulnerable and unwell children from Africa. Again, re-emphasising the poverty, crisis and dependant stereotype of our people. I say unfair portrayal because we are not limited to these stereotypes, yet this is the message that is being conveyed to us constantly. We are taught to see Africa as backward and reliant on the West.

For diaspora, this type of thinking leads to so many of us disconnecting ourselves from back home. This disconnect results in our lack of understanding and knowledge in not only the issues that exist back home today, but also the achievements and the rich history that so many African countries have to offer. I think the task for diaspora now is to continue to connect ourselves to Africa. The more we know about where we are from, the more we are able to connect to our identity. Gaining knowledge can be achieved through different ways, whether it is through language, travelling back home and connecting with extended family. Reading is also a great way of expanding our minds, and has personally assisted me during my journey of unlearning and relearning. There are so many options out there, it is just a matter of choosing the option that works best for you.

I appreciate that we have made a home here in Australia, but we still owe it to ourselves and our people to look into our history, and learn the greatness that we are. It is a challenging task, but we are fortunate enough to have access to different avenues that can fuel our knowledge and empower us further.

I have added a list of countries below and asked individuals from each of these places to tell me either their favourite thing about their country or an interesting fact that is not commonly known. I thought this would be cool to share as it is a way of highlighting positive things about these places, that we may not normally be exposed to.

Kenya: “Something I always thought was interesting, is that although almost half of Kenya is considered to be living under the poverty line (according to World Bank stats), almost 90% of people are educated / English speakers (therefore bilingual). This is a testament to how far Kenya has come and how we are self empowering despite what colonisation and wars in the region have done to us.”

Ethiopia: “Growing up in Australia, I thought I understood the meaning of happiness to its truest definition, but visiting back home I saw an entire different meaning. There’s a sense of community and family wherever you go.”

Uganda: “Thinking about Uganda apart from being the pearl of Africa, one word that comes to mind is rolex. If you ever go to Uganda, you have to try their rolex.”

Eritrea: “What I’ve always loved about my city is the architecture. Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea, is like none other. The built environment has been preserved since the days of its conception, and is now listed as a World Heritage Site.”

Somalia: “I love that people go to work at the light of dawn and it is common practise that the city will shut down at midday and everyone goes home to have lunch with their families. People will go back to work at dusk and the city is alive in the night time.”

Sudan: “Two Interesting facts would be that Sudan was the largest country in Africa before the independence with South Sudan in 2011 and that it actually has the most pyramids in the world. What I love is the different cultures and languages.”

Zimbabwe: “The one thing I love about Zimbabwe is that you’re never alone. Ubuntu is so strong and everyone is family. You’ll always have someone there for you.”

First entry introduces how the idea of this blog was formed and the intent behind it. It also briefly highlights the burden of assimilation we face as Africans growing up in Australia.

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.”

Frantz Fanon

Prior to starting my postgraduate studies, I began having discussions within my small circle about the challenges we face as Africans in Australia. It is from these conversations that led me to start my course. I was interested in not only furthering my knowledge within the area of human rights but also trying to unfold the different issues that exist within Australian society today for minority groups and in particular African Australians.

Growing up African in Australia comes with various obstacles and challenges everyday. The complexities behind navigating life between two very different cultures, particularly as youth, can be insanely overwhelming. At home, we are eating our traditional food, speaking our mother tongue and our parents are playing music from back home. At school or in the workplace, we are speaking English, eat the same food as the majority, participate in similar hobbies as the majority because it is expected of us to follow Western cultural values and norms in these spaces. It may seem like the best of both worlds, but this is not always the case. We often find ourselves negotiating between the two cultures. At times the values of one culture may clash with the other. This can be very difficult for a lot of us growing up, as we may feel pressure to conform from both ends. Often, failure to assimilate will result in isolation and alienation from others.

The burden of assimilation can have a huge impact on diaspora. How many times a person of colour in Australia is asked “but where are you really from?” Many who were born here and many who have lived here since they were a child. It seems harmless, but when analysing it further you can see the ignorance behind those words. It is as if though, for one to be “really from Australia,” one must be white, and come from an English speaking background, regardless if one was born or raised in this country. We have to ask ourselves which groups are generally being asked this question, and what is it that makes someone “really” Australian? Will our children be asked this same question, and their children? I ask this because, while Australia identifies itself as a multicultural country, there is still a sense of otherness and non acceptance towards people of colour. It is not an issue discussed frequently, yet so many of us feel it everyday.

The human rights system present in the world today is heavily based on one set of beliefs and values. While current human rights argue to be ‘universal’, the validity behind this is left questioned. Universality implies recognition of all people and cultures. Human rights today, however, appeals to Western cultural values and fails to capture the ideals of other cultures in the world. The problem with this is, is that it means marginalised groups at many times do not get the support they require when trying to protect their rights. This really calls for change. For Africans in Australia this could be in the means of implementing new policies and programs within the health and education system that consider colonial history and the effects of colonisation that are present in people of colour today, such as intergenerational trauma. It could also be through introducing new methods within the workplace that promote and encourage real diversity and inclusion, as current methods are not cutting it. We need to see increased positive representation of Africans through various platforms, especially the news. The list goes on.

The African Australian experience and our ongoing challenges are so rarely highlighted in the media, education spaces, work spaces, health and wellbeing spaces. I hope to keep sharing content that looks into the different issues that the diaspora face in Australia, and to engage with others on these issues. We are here, and it is so important for us to be recognised and for our voices to be heard.