on melancholia

By Sanjana Raj

Art by Milanne Berg

When you exist within a racialized body in America, redefinition is a daily occurrence. I can only speak for myself, but it feels like I have to retrace a path into personhood every time I wake up. I have to remember what my breaking point is. I have to remember what boxes I must carefully press myself into and which ones I am certainly not allowed in. I have to remember which versions of history I can learn; I can’t see myself in any of them. It feels like there’s a half-formed spirit that phases through the boundaries of my skull every time I wake up. Whatever racial consciousness I should have is fragmented, dissociated, and perpetually haunted.

In his book, Racial Melancholia and Racial Dissociation,[1] author and University of Pennsylvania Professor David Eng argues that Asian American college students in particular often experience a sort of “interminable sadness” because they cannot perceive what they have lost in different processes of immigration, diaspora, and assimilation. They are born into a world that has already defined them but cannot trace these definitions to their sources. For example, Chinese-Americans were the subjects of America’s first race-based system of citizenship exclusion, which led Asian Americans to be viewed as perpetual foreigners, always unbelonging. These constructions didn’t go away when these laws shifted, but they are often shrouded in myths of the model minority and American meritocracy. This is historical and intergenerational; processes such as colonialism, internment, and exclusion all manifest in our lives, but we never really learn how. When the history of your country is represented without you in it, when you can’t find any trace of yourself in the past, you feel like you don’t exist. When you do not know what you have lost, or why you feel specific pains, you can’t ever grieve. Suffering that goes unmourned: that’s where ghosts come from.

I return to this feeling of unbelonging a lot. It’s not something that I really attribute to my race: I attribute it to myself. It seems like everything that I think or feel, the way that I view the world, must be intrinsic to me. I have to be alone in the way it feels to exist inside my head; there is no one else that can possibly comprehend that. Yet, as there are structures that extend far beyond me, there must be people that live in some approximation of my pain.

Social and psychic violence against minority communities often goes unacknowledged and unspoken. Minority groups have statistically worse mental health outcomes, and yet they are much less likely to seek care for mental illness.[2] This is due to a myriad of structural barriers: lack of access to financial resources, racism within the field of mental healthcare, distrust of healthcare professionals due to historic racism, and culturally-specific stigma. These experiences vary based on identity, but are common in individual psychic pain and are often silenced or unrecognized. People of color are often treated as unthinkable medical categories, their bodies often falling outside of the scope of what is considered medically important or necessary, and as a result, they cannot articulate their pain in the context of mental health care. Health care providers often treat differences in outcomes as a result of some inherent, fixed part of a racial group rather than a result of social and structural factors. This can feel like being trapped in the wrong body, like you can’t reconcile the things you feel with anything outside of yourself.

Race-related trauma and hate crimes are stressors that can negatively impact the mental health of minorities. Moreover, structures such as policing and incarceration have ripple effects on the social and psychic health of minority communities. Racial trauma is often “transgenerationally transmitted,” meaning that the descendants of those who experience adverse effects of racism often hold the same psychic pains within them. Our environments can influence gene expression, and actually change the mental and bodily conditions of future generations.[3] The contradictions and traumas we experience are passed to the people that come after us, left for them to contend with. However, they are left without any hints of the systemic or social causes that have led to their haunting.

I don’t really know how to deal with these broken, incoherent ghosts, other than trying to figure out why they exist. It takes more than just a diagnosis, I think. It takes conscious, strategic acts of remembrance: of finding myself in history, of visualizing myself in the world, of imagining a different one.


[1] David L. Eng, Shinhee Han (2018), Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans, Durham: Duke University Press

[2] Williams, D., 2018. Stress and the Mental Health of Populations of Color: Advancing Our Understanding of Race-related Stressors. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59(4), pp.466-485.

[3] Goosby, Bridget J, and Chelsea Heidbrink. “Transgenerational Consequences of Racial Discrimination for African American Health.” Sociology Compass, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Aug. 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4026365/.