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Identity and the legacy of slavery

In one very interesting piece of Dutch research, alienation and loneliness were analysed under four helpful identity types: ‘integrated identity, (an identity with both their ethnic group, and wider society), ‘separated identity’ (a strong ethnic identity, but weak national identity), ‘assimilated identity’ (a strong national identity only) and ‘marginalized identity’ (no identity with either their ethnic group, or wider society).


Nigel Pocock

Movement for Justice and Reconciliation


Unsurprisingly, the alienated nature of marginalisation is associated with the greatest increased risk of mental health pathologies.

Second generation immigrants are at a greater risk, and this is likely to be a function of an identity that is more amorphous and less cohesive as they struggle to identify with the wider society, at the expense of their ethnic community. The paradox for liberals is that greater separation and less assimilation makes for stronger local communities and improved mental health.

Does this mean that some form of multiculturalism is the ideal option for social policy planners, at least from the perspective of mental health, with cohesive groups being the healthiest option, and amorphous ones the most dysfunctional and unhealthy?

This, however, is completely at odds with the surrounding ‘Me Generation’ culture, with its motto of ‘follow yourself’, or ‘follow your dreams’ ‘be right by yourself’, and similar folk sayings that are the standard pop existentialism in response to every social problem.

These findings again make it unlikely that the main variable is genetic, at least as understood by traditional genetics, as opposed to epigenetic causes (see below), in which genes are impacted by socio-cultural pressures.

The Dutch researchers qualify their findings by pointing out that everything depends on the sociocultural value put on the ethnic group. Being subject to discrimination and racism may threaten self-esteem, and coping may take the form of a ‘black is beautiful’ (or similar) strategy to counter this.

This is an inward, ‘emotion-based’ strategy, arising out of a felt lack of control, but which could also be an ‘action-based’, outward strategy if the media are impacted successfully with positive, pro-social images of black people. An opposite coping strategy is to deny ethnic identity, and to identify with the wider culture.

This however may reduce the effectiveness of the coping, as the threat may be increased, instead of diminished: an increased sense of injustice, failure, humiliation, and unrealised aspirations may occur instead, as a comparison is made with people in this larger society. Where an individual is already genetically vulnerable, the stresses arising may then lead to mental health pathologies such as schizophrenia, bi-polar and depression.

In the 1950s a ‘Third Generation Hypothesis’ was articulated by Will Herberg (on white immigrants into the USA), and then researched more fully by Lazerwitz and Rowitz, in Detroit. This provides a useful tool for understanding the relationship between location in society, world-view, personal identity, and mental health, over time.

As a social group lose their local identity, pathologies increase, both social and psychological. As Kira Asatryan notes, lonely and alienated people are not lonely because they don’t know how to talk to people. It is because they are scared of ‘messing up’.

This matches the suggestion that black people who develop schizophrenia may do so in relation to how strongly they stand in awe of white culture. This creates a vicious cycle of ‘physical isolation’ and ‘fear of isolation’.

Boydell et al (2001) in their study of schizophrenia in Camberwell, south London, summarise their research with the comment that [their] ‘data show an inverse dose-response relation between the proportion of people from a non-white ethnic minority group living in an area and their incidence rate for schizophrenia’. In other words, this points to …  a possible mechanism is increased exposure to, and/or reduced protection against, stress and life events. Specific stresses for people in ethnic minority groups could be overt discrimination, institutionalized racism, and perceived alienation, and anomie.

The more isolated a member of an ethnic minority, the more likely he or she may be to encounter such stresses. People from ethnic minorities may be more likely to be singled out or be more vulnerable when they are in a small minority. Reduced protection from the effects of such stresses could be due to reduced social networks or social buffers in small or dispersed ethnic minority populations.

It is not difficult to see how reduced strength in terms of plausibility structures could lead to weakened identity, and hence to increased vulnerability to schizophrenia and other mental health pathologies (as well as related physical disorders, such as cerebrovascular disease, obesity, heart disease, and much more) and a vicious circles of social isolation that comes about with these disorders.

As noted, the ‘Generation Me’ puts a poor value on community, reducing its support for people. Such groups as churches (which depend on community) all report huge drops in support.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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