The meaning of race for immigrants

The author examines immigrants and the constructions of race they use to manage their fears and anxieties
By Pratyusha Tummala-Narra

I am 1.5 generation Indian American psychoanalytic psychologist. Having lived in Hyderabad, India until age 7, my childhood emories include being with extended family, warm climate, and large spaces to play, all against a backdrop of political tensions and violence among different Hindu castes, and between Hindus and Muslims. While living with political tensions was not new to my family, our experience of race after immigration, uniquely shaped by U.S. history and politics, was new for us. Adjusting to life here entailed, as it does for many immigrants, the experience of being socialized into the racial designations created by White, European Americans and perpetuated by broader American society. In this process of adjustment, I became a racial and ethnic minority.

In recent years, I have been increasingly concerned about what race means to immigrantsin the U.S., and how even as the rhetoric about immigration has heated up, psychoanalysts seem to be notably absent from the discourse. As the Chair of the Multicultural Concerns Committee of Division 39, it’s been my experience that despite the work of our committee, discussions on race and immigration remain circumscribed among a minority of psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychologists. The realities of immigration, such as deportation, economic hardship, and xenophobic violence, are shaping the psychological lives of immigrants in contemporary U.S. society. The silence of the potentially helpful psychoanalytic community is a real loss.

Immigration entails a period of transition in which immigrants socialize into different constructions of race, among other social identities. The perception of immigrants as the “other,” typically based on differences in physical features, or sometimes on the immigrant group’s critical mass, becomes a new challenge in the transition. Belonging to a race, as noted by Homi Bhabha (2004), becomes second nature in the U.S., and separation of racial groups has little to do with affirming identities, and more to do with current politics.

Constructions of race are used to manage anxiety, fear, and the unknown. Frank Lowe (2006), in his description of racism as a borderline issue, suggested that racism involves a type of partial relating to an object, and that anti-racism involves “whole-object relating,” or the recognition of complexity (good and bad) of the self and others. The impact of this partial type of relating to immigrants is evident in today’s racial and political divides. In fact, since the 2008 campaign, the role of President Barack Obama’s self-identification has been buried under public projections of his racial identity as an African American man. These projections alternate with images of him as the “other,” when he is described as a Muslim and the son of an immigrant from Kenya. The projective quality regarding race in this case has been powerful.

Dialogue about race in the U.S. is often constricted to the interactions between African Americans and White Americans, yet constructions of race have far reaching consequences for all ethnic minority groups. Immigrants who become raced upon their arrival to the U.S., or second and third generation individuals who internalize race as constructed by a mainstream culture, struggle to belong. Different meanings attached to race contribute to immigrants and their children feeling as though they are actually living in two different worlds. Yet, from mainstream lens, these worlds remain invisible and undifferentiated.

Absence of Dialogue

Dialogue about race is difficult within both the clinical encounter and psychoanalysis. I believe we may resign ourselves to accept racism as inevitable as a way to maintain privilege. Even in the aftermath of Katrina, when there was dialogue about race and social class, little was mentioned about ways to challenge how race is constructed. Thus race is simultaneously spoken about and not spoken about, leaving those of us who are racial/ethnic minorities doubting our own subjectivity and narrative, in favor of those put forth in mainstream society.

Psychoanalytically oriented clinicians and researchers can offer insights into these neglected areas. The challenges of race, immigration and the experience of having multiple sociocultural identities as in the case of bicultural and multiracial individuals, involve concepts central to psychoanalytic studies, including power, shame, guilt, sense of goodness and badness, and interpersonal dynamics that both reify and transform stereotypes of the racial and cultural “other.” Psychoanalysis holds unique potential to reveal how the complexities of race intersect with immigration, but only through active participation and overcoming the disavowal of the social and political realities that shape immigrants’ lives.

Usha Tummala-Narra, PhD


Bhabha, H.K. (2004). The location of culture. London: Routledge.

Lowe, F. (2006). Racism as a borderline issue: The avoidance and marginalization of race in psychotherapy.

In A. Foster, A. Dickinson, B. Bishop, & J. Klein (Eds.), Difference: An avoided topic in practice. London Centre for

Psychotherapy Practice in Psychotherapy Series, 43-60. London: Karnac Books


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