Making It Visible
by Raina Hassan, LPC, ORCA Past President
When I heard the upcoming issue of the ORCA newsletter was going to focus on intersectionality, I was both excited and frightened. I was excited because I knew I wanted to write about this topic; I was frightened because I’d never done so before and to embark on such a task—publicly—meant I would likely feel vulnerable in this new experience. But, as a therapist, I often encourage my clients to lean toward new experiences with courage and wholeheartedness, and since I try whenever possible to embody these attributes, I decided to volunteer to write about growing up a biracial woman. For clarity, let me explain that my mother is a white American and my father is a Lebanese-born Palestinian who emigrated to this country as a young man in the 1970s and later became a naturalized US citizen.
Prior to writing this article, most of what I’d come to understand about my experiences in the world relating to race and gender I’d seen as separate issues. I’ve thought quite a lot about how I’ve been challenged in the world as a woman, and I’ve thought quite a lot about my challenges as a mixed-race person. But, when I see the two together (which is the brilliant value of intersectionality), it shifts the frame of my experiences in a way that highlights the lived experience of these factors in concert. By the way, if you would like more clarity on what the term intersectionality means, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who created the term, offers an inspiring TED Talk (click here to view; trigger warning).
I’ll illustrate how I experience intersectionality by telling you about some of my experiences.
When I was in junior high, the first Gulf War was happening. We had televisions in the classrooms, and the name Saddam Hussein was frequently mentioned. Because I have had the immense privilege of being born with white skin, most people would only become aware I was mixed race when they would either inquire about my last name or when they would meet my father (or sometimes at the end of summer, after I’d gotten a lot of sun exposure). Prior to the first Gulf War, my name was difficult for most everyone in my small town to pronounce correctly, but suddenly, it became a target in a new way. A few of my classmates began to chide me with questions like, “Hey, is Saddam Hussein your uncle?” At other times, a specific racial epithet for Middle Eastern folks was uttered to me—in the guise of a joke, of course.
Sometimes, the racism was not at all disguised with humor. Like the time my family was picketing in front of a movie theater to protest the stereotyped depictions of Arabs in a movie that was showing, and a man in a truck drove by and yelled, “Go back to Saudi Arabia!” (My family is not from Saudi Arabia, by the way, but that’s beside the point.) Or the many prank calls we received over the years, ranging from “jokes” to outright threats. And I won’t even go into the hours upon hours my family and I have wasted being detained in airports.
So, how did I respond to these experiences? From the jokes to the threats and everything in between, I reacted in pretty much the same way: I got small. I went silent. In therapist speak, I went into a freeze response. Sometimes, as a kid, I would laugh in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort. But as I got older, I learned to go silent and wait it out. What I didn’t do was fight back. What I didn’t do was stand up for myself and call the behavior out—not even the perennial microaggression many biracial people hear: “What are you?”
Over time and with a lot of effort, I have been able to break out of the freeze response at times. But always, I can feel the familiar urge to get small and silent. Perhaps I can attribute my freeze response, at least in part, to nature or temperament.
But when seen through the lens of intersectionality, it becomes pretty clear to me that if I had been male, I would have been much more likely to speak up or fight back, as we know that by and large the fight response is often covertly and overtly encouraged in boys and men. As women, we often learn to keep ourselves safe by being quiet, invisible, non-threatening.
If I had fought back, the fallout from these experiences would likely have been much different than it has been for me. Perhaps I would have gotten into physical altercations at school and on the street. This, no doubt, would have negatively impacted my grades and academic standing. Maybe I would have attempted revenge on those I suspected of the prank calls. This may have gotten me in trouble with the law. Certainly, talking back to the TSA would have carried some hefty circumstances. If I had been a biracial man in these circumstances, perhaps the fallout would have been more visible, more external, mirroring my more externalized reactions to the racism. And when seen through the lens of intersectionality, I can see how my entire
life may have played out quite differently. But as a biracial woman, I have glided through the educational system—and many social systems—with ease. But the burden had to get absorbed somewhere, and there has been a fallout. But it has been invisible, internal, somatic.
It occurs to me that by writing about this intersecting experience of race and gender, I have made it visible. And it also occurs to me that writing is a form of fight and protest that I believe is healing. I was telling a friend about my process of writing this article and that it ended up being well over twice the target word count. “You must have had a lot to say,” she noted. Indeed.
Often, I will encourage my clients to write when they are angry or sad, or both. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to practice that suggestion here, in my own life, with all of you. Thank you for participating in it with me.
Raina Hassan, LPC, is the past president of the Oregon Counseling Association. She works in private practice in Portland.