Racism, Asian Shame, and Suicide

You can put on a suit but you can't take off your skin.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay
Source: Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

When it comes to racism and suicide, one must consider the cultural implications that are at play that can lead someone to kill themselves. Racism is a reality we can't ignore in the United States, no matter what others may say to the contrary.  

This was highlighted again as a lawsuit was filed last week (August 8, 2019) against Utah State University for failing to take the bullying complaints of 24-year-old Jerusha Sanjeevi and her friends seriously before Sanjeevi ended her life in April of 2017. Sanjeevi detailed her despair in emails to professors prior to taking her life as a fellow student in the same doctorate psychology program would not stop racially harassing her.

“Every day I dread going to class now because I sit three feet from my white bully,” she wrote to a close friend just a few months into her studies. "To be honest, I am defeated and at a loss as to what to do at this point to make her stop. I have heard that she has been spreading these rumors even to faculty. Because I do not have institutional power in comparison to her, my faculty have not believed me even though I have asked for help repeatedly," Sanjeevi said of one of her alleged bullies in a final email to a professor.

"I do not know what to do at this point except accepting defeat. I just needed you to know the truth before I leave."

The attorneys representing Sanjeevi found this suicide unconscionable as the university purports the psychology program prides itself on an "inclusive and diverse learning environment" and offered "multicultural and cultural competence," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also claims the classmate made derisive comments to Sanjeevi about Sanjeevi’s culture, said that "'Asians only want to please their parents,' made fun of Sanjeevi’s name, and told Sanjeevi that 'Asian names are weird,' among other cultural jabs that Sanjeevi found to be hurtful," the attorneys said.

Other students reported that the classmate would "put (Sanjeevi) down, stating that she was 'whiter' than (Sanjeevi) and therefore more deserving of research position, cohort status, etc," the lawsuit states.  

Sanjeevi reportedly shared her concerns at least 10 times with different psychology staff members — who attorneys said didn't act on her concerns — until on January 20, 2017, when she went to the Student Conduct Office and filed a discrimination, harassment, and hostile environment report.

After Sanjeevi made that report, members of the psychology staff discussed options including dismissing both the classmate accused of bullying and Sanjeevi. "I think some behaviors on Sanjeevi’s part are bordering on lack of professionalism that could lead to dismissal from the program," wrote one professor, according to the lawsuit. In April 2017, after attorneys said nothing had changed, Sanjeevi took her own life.

As an Asian-American psychotherapist, speaker, and diversity trainer specializing in multicultural issues and Asian shame, Sanjeevi's suicide makes cultural sense.

Sanjeevi was from Malaysia of mixed Chinese and East Indian heritage. As an immigrant, her cultural roots were probably very traditional in the sense of adhering to a collectivist mindset where the family and group orientation supersedes individuality. A Japanese proverb states, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Even her attempt to seek help can be viewed as counter-cultural (shameful) as the Asian mode of operating is to not stand out, to not complain, to just be agreeable and live in harmony with one another. 

In Western, individualistic societies, this would often be seen as affirming and self-advocacy. For Asians, this would often be viewed with skepticism. In other words, some Asians could shame Sanjeevi for not finding a way to co-exist without needing to escalate the situation by making formal complaints. Can you see the complexity in the cultural dilemma she could've faced in just coming forward?  

In addition, her complaints were dismissed, which not only invalidates her but it could be seen as invalidating and shaming her family and lineage. A Chinese proverb states, "So ashamed my ancestors of eight generations can feel it." It's unclear how cultural shame impacted Sanjeevi, but she was aware of how racism functioned in her school as she remarked, "You can put on a nice suit but you can never take off your skin." 

Finally, some Asian cultures view suicide as a means to atone for having disgraced the family. In other words, suicide is viewed very differently from Western society as there can be an "honorable" aspect of taking your life as a means to purge oneself of any shame you may have brought upon yourself, your family, and your culture.

For Sanjeevi, how big of a role cultural shame played in her suicide is still unknown. But it's worth noting so that schools, businesses, and Western society can better understand and work with Asian students.