The heaviness of "cultural load".

bamboo ceiling mental health Nov 14, 2022

A few weeks ago, my close friend and I were spending time together and decided to not talk about work during our catch up. This was the first time in many years that we felt like we had run out of things to talk about.

My first thought was, ‘Is this the decline of our friendship? If we have nothing to talk about any more, does this mean this is the beginning of the end?!’ 

Catastrophizing aside, it hit me that when a lot of us are engaging in advocacy work, sometimes friendships become the only safe space to unpack this work. 

This then prompted a discussion around how a lot of our catch ups revolved around providing informal cultural supervision for each other. 

There is this unspoken heaviness we can all carry from our work, that can manifest into burnout - the heaviness of having to represent our community, in spaces where we might be one of the few diverse folk. 

First Nations researchers have called this the ‘cultural load’. 

In the Asian Australian context, it is the unspoken expectation that we will know everything about the Asian Australian experience, and that we will represent and be representative of our communities. This load can manifest from smaller tasks or responsibilities, but with time, it can build up to a weight that is crushing or debilitating.

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This cultural load can be experienced for employees in all different industries. And sure enough, it can lead to exhaustion and burnout. Vi-An shares some examples of cultural load in other corporate workplace settings:

Having the burden to represent an entire minority group can happen quite often in the workplace -  especially for those who are fighting for equality and are involved in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. I remember witnessing many seemingly tiny actions that piled up and consumed a lot of mental space over time.

These are just a few examples I’ve either experienced or heard from peers:

 

  • In a meeting with senior leaders, the conversation centered around performance in the Asian market. My director then turned and gestured at me, the only Asian person in the room, as if I represented the entire Asian market when it actually had nothing to do with my role or background.
  • During a team-building workshop, the facilitator asked one person of South Asian background to teach a yoga exercise to the group. They put this person on the spot, and the person later told me they didn’t have any yoga training but it seemed like an assumption was made because of their overt cultural appearance.
  • My organisation held a culturally-sensitive meeting where they asked people of colour to share their experiences at work. They asked me to join and in the email said “hope you’re not offended by this approach.” The questions then asked me to select from a list of barriers that prevented people of colour from progressing in the organisation. The session and questions seemed presumptuous and I felt a lot of pressure to represent marginalised voices, rather than just speak to what I’ve experienced myself.
  • When discussing a client's cultural identity, the workers at case review described this person as, "just normal... they look a bit different but, they're... just normal". Which implied that there was a clear dominant group and all those outside of whiteness were something other than "normal" They then saw me in the meeting and said, "oh sorry I'm not being rude, you know what I mean!".

 

While these examples seem small, it can add to the mental load of representing marginalised groups when that responsibility should not have to be worn by you (unless you are specifically hired and paid for a role specific to diversity, equity and inclusion).

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We need spaces where people, particularly Asian Australian mental health practitioners can talk about complex and nuanced experiences among peers who deeply understand.

That’s why we created our quarterly peer supervision sessions for Asian Australian psychologists, registered therapists, mental health social workers and counsellors. Students on placement are also welcome to join!

Our final session for the year runs on Tuesday 22 November at 7.30pm AEDT and there's still time to sign up HERE.

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You're not alone in navigating the intersections of race, culture and mental health. Find out more about our Shapes and Sounds Community, designed for and by Asian Australians.

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