“This Constructed Self of Mine”: On the Narrative Possibilities of Racial Melancholia

By Kim Hew-LowNovember 23, 2020

“This Constructed Self of Mine”: On the Narrative Possibilities of Racial Melancholia
A THERAPIST ONCE ASKED me if I’d felt lonely or excluded growing up. This was our first (and, as it turns out, last) session together. Having apparently displayed the hallmarks of early under-socialization within 20 minutes of us meeting, I answered something like, “I was one of the only Asian kids at a very white school, I guess—” before he cut me off. I meant independently of that, he clarified, gazing up from his legal pad toward me, as if I wasn’t thinking hard enough. In the moment I actually tried to answer his question, to explain myself and my existence independently of race. But when our time ran out, and I emerged from his dark basement office into the crisp afternoon sun, I realized that his sort of questioning had a lot to do with why I’d sought out therapy in the first place.

That memory recently resurfaced after reading Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which opens with her mental breakdown and subsequent pursuit of a specifically Korean American therapist — so “I wouldn’t have to explain myself as much,” Hong adds, which struck a chord, as did the sentiment that she’s struggled to prove herself into existence for as long as she can remember. At a reading in Brooklyn, for example, a white man informs Hong that “minorities can’t be racist against each other,” and that “Asians the next in line to be white.” (Reading the scene, my eyes roll all the way into the back of my skull.) Likewise, Hong balks at finding herself in the familiar predicament of not just educating a white person about race, but also testifying to the ontological legitimacy of her experience as an Asian American woman, knowing that her adversary has all of “Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture” on their side. I understood Hong’s preference for a Korean American therapist as an attempt to rectify this imbalance, to find a witness who in their cultural affinity, would likely validate rather than question, dismiss, or effectively gaslight her version of reality. Lacking a witness, Hong’s self-judgment is impaired and her self-doubt intensified. What she believes is an unprovoked decline thus unfolds as the by-product of this unrelenting pattern, like a lifelong affliction flaring up: having internalized the white gaze through a lifetime’s conditioning, Hong’s compulsive self-loathing becomes aggravated by racist gaslighting that insists these symptoms originate with her alone.

Published earlier this year, Hong’s Asian American Reckoning aptly arrived within a moment of widespread reckoning with the legacy of colonialism. The white, mainstream perception of what constitutes racism is necessarily evolving toward a systemic understanding and as a result, attention is redirecting toward symptoms and sites of racism that were previously overlooked. In this context, a growing body of literature by women of color illustrates the influence of both race and gender on mental health outcomes, taking second-wave feminism’s axiom “the personal is political” to probe the space between intensely private suffering and the public, politicized self. Put another way, such texts demonstrate how racism, once internalized, manifests in the private and interior life as depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders, which aren’t just suffered but often analyzed on an individual basis. Western culture prefers to conceptualize mental illnesses in terms of chemical imbalance, which disregards the way in which mental health is often highly situational — not solely contingent upon individual biologies or specific traumas, but both caused and exacerbated by broader social contexts. This paradigm has historically plagued women of color, who are more likely to encounter the effects of discrimination yet less likely to attain effective mental health care, a confluence of factors that not only prolongs but augments their suffering.

To this dialogue, Hong adds the term “minor feelings” to describe the racialized range of negative affective qualities that are “built from the sediments of everyday racial experience,” rather than from acute incidents of racism alone. In borrowing from Sianne Ngai’s “ugly feelings,” Hong notes that it’s difficult to even recognize let alone reckon with “minor feelings,” since they closely resemble the somewhat ubiquitous symptoms of surviving late capitalism: both entail ongoing rather than acute experiences of irritability, hopelessness, and exhaustion, within conditions that individuals are praised for (or rather, forced into) enduring, rather than encouraged to question or subvert. In Hong’s “minor feelings,” I heard echoes of the “racial melancholia” described by professor David Eng and psychotherapist Shinhee Han in their book on the subject, which they co-authored after noticing, in their respective roles at Columbia University, the wave of depression experienced by Asian American students. As with Hong’s “minor feelings,” Eng and Han distinguish “racial melancholia” from the grief which arises following identifiable loss; what they observed was a more amorphous form of “permanent mourning,” as Hua Hsu put it in The New Yorker: a form was produced or exacerbated by racial contexts, and that involved the additional stress of pinpointing an identifiable root of a seemingly causeless condition. 

In each of these cases, semantic nuance provides not just common language, but equal grounds for a more equitable and effective patient-therapist relationship. This is particularly pertinent for BIPOC patients, whose cultural backgrounds often foster skepticism of, if not aversion to, mental health-care services: apart from the prohibitive cost of treatment, recent census data reveals that 86 percent of US psychologists are white, [1] a demographic that increases the likelihood of social inequities amplifying the preexisting power asymmetry that inherently exists between patient and clinician. Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott explores this dynamic in her debut essay collection A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, which begins during her first therapy session with a white, male therapist. The scenario bears an unsettling resemblance to residential schools: Elliott likens her therapist’s role in curing her depression to the priests and nuns who “cured” her ancestors of being Indian. “You need to give me something here,” demands Elliott’s therapist, when she’s unable to identify the specific cause of her depression, in the process replicating the colonial power inequity that has contributed to her despondency. As in Hong’s case, Elliott’s onus is one of ontological proof: she’s berated for “not saying the right words” to explain herself and her situation, an act of self-translation dictated by the colonizer’s lexicon and limited legibility.

Lost in cultural translation, Elliott underscores the inherent incompatibility between Indigenous experience and the mental health-care system; beyond the sticks-and-stones brutality of occupation, colonialism’s erasures are felt through the words or rather, lack thereof, that contribute to the mistreatment of Indigenous patients. Mainstream frameworks preclude the influence of social factors upon mental health outcomes, which compounds the crucial lexical gaps within Indigenous languages: the book’s title, for example, comes from the closest Mohawk equivalent for “depression,” which groups together both “reactive depression” and “endogenous depression,” the latter recalling Hong’s “minor feelings” and the “racial melancholia” described by Eng and Han. “If we had more terms and definitions backing up our understanding of depression,” Elliott writes, “would we have been better equipped to deal with it when its effects began tearing our communities apart?” In other words, what gets lost with generality is the agency to understand and effectively treat variants of depression. This, alongside related factors, drives disproportionate suicide rates: a rare occurrence in Six Nations communities pre-colonization, suicide is now the leading cause of death for Native people under 44. Concretizing this loss, Elliott likens the Canadian government to an “abusive father,” its occupation of Native land to attending an Indigenous “funeral every day, maybe even two funerals, for five to ten years.” These analogies convey traumas as intimate as they are inescapable, ones that reverberate through communities and, in the process, generate aftershocks within individual and interior lives.

Failed by therapy, Elliott resorts to self-diagnosis through the “Depression Inventory” in a self-help book and notes that her symptoms of guilt, hopelessness, and self-criticism basically double “as a checklist for the effects of colonialism on our people.” Making this parallel, Elliott implies that colonialism and depression aren’t just inextricably linked — but in many ways — interchangeable aspects of Indigenous experience. In Racial Melancholia, Cheng suggests this relationship between racism and melancholia can go both ways; that “[o]ne isn’t melancholy simply because of the experience of racism,” but rather, that “melancholy and its dynamics of loss and recovery” can eventually become “foundations for racial identity.” Put differently, Cheng’s projection elucidates what I’d loosely call a psycho-postcolonial reading: if the sociologist would interpret Elliott’s depression as representative of larger a demographic, a psycho-postcolonial reading could complement this view, taking the interior space as a vital vehicle through which both internal and broader cultural insights are gleaned, a space through which identity is both refracted and possibly reconstructed.

Phrased another way, the act of self-reconstruction is that of self-narrativization; an act more difficult but for that reason necessary for women of color, who risk being subsumed by the master narratives of society. In that spirit, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland grapples with questions of self-narrativization as they’re informed by growing up in Chicago’s Black elite during the 1950s and 1960s. “Negroland,” as Jefferson calls it, exists like a third space or borderland between whites and Blacks, a place defined in both physical and attitudinal terms, one that sustains and is sustained by a pernicious cultural narrative: that racial equality is contingent upon Blacks proving their likeness to whites. Though hers was a community of relative “privilege and plenty,” Jefferson contrasts the “tonal range” of white entitlement with the conditional privilege of Blacks, which was confined within strict lanes of social decorum since Blacks, intimating and internalizing the double-standard set by whites, demanded “perfect mastery of comportment’s rituals” from Jefferson. In this way, the premise of class ascension equated to another type of confinement, since notions of Black freedom precluded the freedom to fail. “With external failure out of the question,” Jefferson writes, “internal discord seemed the only protest mode,” a way to reclaim the self that had been claustrophobically crowded out by social codes. In Jefferson’s case, this “internal discord” escalates into suicidal ideation.

If the notion of death allures Jefferson with the promise of freedom, then its concrete realization bears the prescriptiveness of her life: on one hand, she feels the obligation to give the other girls of Negroland a “death they can live up to,” yet on the other, any rebellion is fundamentally “denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity,” as is “glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance.” If Black subjectivity, in other words, must be earned, then the complexity of emotional turmoil — at least as it is enjoyed and narrativized by white women — is almost completely out of the question. Where white female vulnerability is valorized and Black female strength expected, Jefferson finds idols in Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, and Ntozake Shange, writers who carved out their own space between these two narrative poles, managing to “adapt [their] solo life,” Jefferson writes, “to a group obbligato.” The alternative is to risk defaulting to white narratives, none more enticing than the fantasies fabricated from white ideals. Jefferson chides her childhood self for being “cheerily sure,” for example, that washing her hair would turn it blonde; the adult Jefferson reprimands herself for submitting to the illusion, recoils from its implications. “No one escapes her time and place,” she writes, like an incantation, talking herself down with the words of her therapist: “‘A fantasy is a construction,’” she continues, before finding some slight reprieve in a “Chekovian moment,” and the realization that “the generations that come after will not have to endure these shaming constructions,” the “ugly stories” that wove in and out of her life, threatening to end it.

In unraveling her story on the page, allowing and in fact challenging it to be necessarily messy, Jefferson leaves a record in this archive of “ugly stories” and “shaming constructions” that, by its sheer existence, proves the possibility of alternative narratives. Which is not to say that Jefferson finds her own narrative exceptional, or even satisfactory. “The human psyche is pathetic,” she maintains, to the very end, adding on her memoir’s final page that “there are days when I still want to dismantle this constructed self of mine.” It’s not clear, here, which “constructed self” Jefferson is alluding to: the constructed self of her text, or the one she constructs, and reconstructs, in a collaborative effort with her psychotherapist each week. Possibly neither, though maybe the distinctions are somewhat redundant in this case. With the words of her therapist recurring intermittently throughout her memoir, Jefferson maintains the spaces of therapy and of literature as complementary sites of active narrativization, each informing the other. In real life, in literature, and on-screen, it’s still relatively rare to observe women of color in therapy; Jefferson’s memoir crucially normalizes this practice. Beyond its representational value, however, involving therapy as a type of genre importantly gestures toward questions of narrativization: how might women of color, through acts of self-construction, effectively narrativize their own suffering within a culture that has historically resisted such stories?

Hong pursues this project more explicitly. She parses the conventions of contemporary American literature in her essay “Stand Up,” an analysis of Richard Pryor’s comedy and relatedly, the evolution of her self-expression through a brief stint in comedy. By inviting stand-up and other nontraditional forms to inform her literature, Hong loosens the authority of conventional literary forms as they’re espoused by institutions of narrativization — not only the hallowed halls of MFA programs and award committees, but also the stories that are written and revered by white men (though these categories, of course, share great overlap). In a later essay on “The End of White Innocence,” Hong contrasts enduring archetypes of nostalgic and wholesome white childhood with popular “minority literatures,” which often proceed through a bildungsroman of survival and self-determination. These proclivities, bordering on propaganda, furnish a certain politics: one that, in its obsession with self-sufficiency, bolsters the model minority myth and subsequently undermines a structural understanding of racism; one that is sympathetic to the missteps of white men, even at the expense of already marginalized people; one that recognizes racism or racial trauma solely in its spectacle-like, Hollywood-worthy form. No wonder Hong describes her experiences as specifically “untelegenic,” Elliott similarly noting her story isn’t the “normal, charming, made-for-TV type of dysfunctional.” In art, as in life, the white gaze remains trained on the most visible, acute, or sensational incidents of racism above the waterline, ones that offer neat conclusions and as a bonus, self-congratulatory story lines. As a result, the everyday grievances of racial minorities — call them “minor feelings,” “racial melancholia,” or “endogenous depression” — disappear under the surface, literally out of sight and, accordingly, out of public mind.

In the process, women of color continue to be compromised, their lives dismantled if not by disorder then by degrees: Elliott, for example, prefers faking intimacy in new friendships to explaining herself anew; Jefferson identifies with Nella Larsen’s heroines, who stumble into suicide less by intention and more by “misadventure or miscalculation,” through avoiding stringent self-reflection; Hong feels consistently “ghosted,” inherently skeptical of the version of reality which she sees and hears. Though if dismantling occurs incrementally, so too can the process of self-reconstruction: by writing intimately, with stringent self-reflection, and through the eyes and ears of a specific subjectivity that society continues to deny. In these ways, Hong, Elliott, and Jefferson crucially construct both selves and self-witnesses, entities both of and outside themselves.


Kim Hew-Low is a writer based in New York City. She is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University.


[1] According to 2015 census data.

LARB Contributor

Kim Hew-Low is a writer based in New York City. She is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University.


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