Imagine continuously being singled out in a crowd-scorned, ridiculed, patronized and avoided. How would you feel? Anxious? Stressed? Marginalized?
These are psychological hurdles minority populations face every day, said a panel of minority psychologists and graduate students at APA's 2007 Annual Convention.
The panelists represented a diverse collection of members of minority groups, including Sikhs, Arab-Americans, deaf people and people with cerebral palsy.
Sikh psychologist Muninder K. Ahluwalia, PhD, of Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., said that misunderstanding and confusion have led to both physical and psychological harm against the Sikh community for many years. Sikhs, who wear their long hair up in turbans, are stereotyped as potential terrorists, Ahluwalia said. They are often stopped and searched at airports, trains and on the subway, she said. They can have trouble finding employment. In France, they must remove their turbans for their driver's license photos-an embarrassment Ahluwalia likened to being forced to remove one's clothes.
This kind of discrimination leads many members of the community to undergo a crisis of faith, said Ahluwalia. They feel alienated and alone and suffer from an increase in depression and anxiety disorders. These problems can wreak havoc on Sikh families, resulting in divorces, family violence and suicide.
Arab Americans face the same pain, said Nadia Hasan, a Muslim Arab-American psychology graduate student at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. Though Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world and the United States, she said, it is still misunderstood by many non-Muslims. Hasan said that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Arab-Americans experience "9/11 anxiety," where they feel an intense fear people will discriminate against them wherever they go-so much so that some are afraid to leave their homes. She said 48 percent of Arab Americans claim that their lives have changed for the worse since Sept. 11.
Like in the Sikh community, these troubles manifest themselves in anxiety disorders and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence and other family issues. "When things get bad, they get bad everywhere-including the home," Hasan said.
To counter these psychological scars, Hasan recommends psychologists pay attention to Arab Americans' special needs and concerns. Psychologists can address their own biases, make sure translators are available, stay current on world issues, offer home services to those too afraid to leave and set aside a room for Muslims to pray in.
Different on the inside
Though she doesn't appear as outwardly different as Sikhs or Muslims, deaf psychologist Irene W. Leigh, PhD, at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., faces discrimination and stereotyping as well. She encounters stereotypes and myths such as: Deaf people are cut off from the world, imprisoned by silence and unable to fully interact with others, Leigh said. Even her family had a hard time overcoming those stereotypes.
"When my mother found out I was deaf, she said, 'My daughter will never understand me saying: I love you,'" Leigh said.
Some deaf people can internalize this shame, Leigh said, and come to believe that they are as limited as people say they are if they are repeatedly denied opportunities. They become emotionally vulnerable and suffer from depression.
As with the other cases of discrimination and stereotyping, psychologists can help by being aware of their own biases when helping a deaf client. They must also be careful to avoid overdramatizing a deaf person's successes-having themselves described as "miracles" is almost as insulting as negative stereotypes, Leigh said. Instead, psychologists should strive to help deaf people be resilient so they have the tools and the strength to overcome stereotypes.