The Trauma of becoming "American"

Posted Mar 25, 2018

Photo by Samuel Schneider on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Samuel Schneider on Unsplash

In traditional counseling trainings, trauma is somewhat limited.  Part of this is due to the narrow viewpoint of the decision-makers who are responsible for creating the parameters around trauma.

While neglect, abuse, divorce, death, and a myriad of other family and relational dynamics encompass trauma, no one has ever explicitly stated that the process of immigrating, transitioning, and learning to become American can be a traumatizing experience.

The first trauma is when immigrants and refugees arrive to this country and deal with a host of issues related to assimilating-learning a new language, customs, food, and trying to fit into mainstream American society.  I consider this trauma due to the ruptures that must occur in leaving the country of one’s birthplace and/or sense of cultural security.

Even if you’re not an immigrant yourself, if you find your skin tone is impacting your ability to be considered an “American” then I would still consider this a traumatic experience.

For Asian-Americans, regardless of their generational status, their ethnic features will relegate them to the margins of Americanism.  White society still has a deeply embedded view of what constitutes “American”, primarily through the prism of White and Black (i.e. Caucasians and African-Americans).

It was just this past Winter Olympics, where a New York Times writer tweeted, “Immigrants: they get the job done, “in reference to American figure skater Mirai Nagasu’s historic landing of the triple-axle.  Nagasu is a Japanese-American, born in California to parents who immigrated to California from Japan.  The tweet has since been deleted for its implication that because Nagasu is not white, she is an immigrant.

As a psychotherapist with a private-practice specializing in multicultural issues, addictions, and trauma, ethnic clients share a multitude of personal instances where this kind of stereotyping occurs for them and their families.  Beyond stereotypes, there is ethnic teasing and bullying, as well as overt racism that often goes unchecked.

Whether it’s in school, at work, or in public, it is a reality that they are consciously aware of and their frustration is no matter how hard they work to dispel these perceptions of them being an “other”, it’s never enough.   And because of that reason, I consider this process of trying to fit into American society as a traumatic cultural experience in its own right.  So in short, for many Americans of ethnic ties, they grieve because despite their desire to be American, their reality is, “American’t”.