Identity can be connected to mental health in diverse and complex ways. How you are perceived by others affects your perception of yourself, and this view can be damaged by a variety of factors specific to your location and the mindset of the people around you. Growing up in an overwhelmingly liberal setting as a young woman of color, I recognize that I have privileges that other people of color do not have in the United States, and these privileges affect my mental health in different ways. That being said, bigotry and belittlement can occur anywhere, especially in a country that was built upon foundations of oppression.
I recently attended a hiring session in which I had to be finger-printed. The person running the finger-print scans was friendly enough until she had to record my race for their records. Because I am biracial, the only option available to her was ‘unknown,’ and she told me she had to select this category because there was no “option for mutt.” After she said this, I was completely stunned as it seemed incredulous for that word to be used so casually in 2022. I felt confused, angry, afraid, and saddened.
Words like ‘unknown’ or ‘other’ are damaging in their own ways, as they are ‘othering’ and enforce the idea that people of mixed race are abnormal in some way, but the word “mutt” is specifically damaging to people of mixed black and white racial backgrounds. The word mutt refers to dogs that are not recognized as a specific breed, and it should never be used to describe a person. The dehumanization, bestialization, and general othering of black people is rooted in United States history and has been critical to founding systems of oppression that continue to operate today. Derogatory and bigoted terms are effective in the sense that they destroy self-worth when combined with oppressive legislation; when you are told you are worthless and are subjected to a government that denies you human rights, it is difficult to retain a stable and positive perception of yourself.
The world is imperfect and I am constantly reminded of ongoing racial attitudes that affect my mental health. When the finger-printing technician called me a mutt, I was humiliated and belittled. There will always be a part of me that is aware of this outside perception, and I have struggled to come to terms with it. It is difficult to coexist in a world where people do not see me as a complete person, and sometimes it seems as though no matter how hard I try or how many times we protest, people will never change. It becomes overwhelming, feeling as though there is an immense burden on your shoulders to be constantly changing the world for the better, and it can get tiring, but that is normal. No one person can change the world alone, and it is not entirely up to you.
To counter the racist term directed towards me, I decided to pause the conversation by saying, “what do you mean by that?” Stopping and calling out something that is wrong is daunting, but it prevents problematic behavior from being seamlessly continued and provides an opportunity for others to learn the impact of their words. The technician did pause, and explained that she had to select ‘unknown’ because I was of mixed race, to which I responded by noting how she did not initially use the term “mixed race,” and informed her that the word “mutt” is not a fitting term for a person. Whether or not that incident changed her outlook on multiracial people, I cannot say, but it did add to previous racialized blows that I have experienced, especially because this experience was so direct.
I do not view myself as a type of dog, or even an entity that cannot be named. I feel comfortable in my own skin and will stop a conversation to digest what was said if need be. My mental health has substantially improved by not allowing outdated or bigoted commentary to pass seamlessly in conversation. Whether intentional or unintentional, words do have an impact, so it is important to recognize harmful behavior and respond to it in a way that is beneficial for both you and the person or people who have done harm.
This post was written by Ada Collins (she/her), an Economics and Environment major and English minor at McGill University. Ada is incredibly involved on her campus and committed to applying scientific data to economic and public policy in order to work towards an economy that is more sustainable and a society that is more equitable. Ada's writing focuses on racial inequities based on her own experience as well as applying a critical lens to popular media and culture.
As a Content Creation intern at Neolth, she's graciously and bravely shared her story for the betterment of others. Read more of her blogs on the Neolth app!