Race + Identity And The Land Of In-Between

Written by Suzan Ahmed

 As a mixed African, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Arab heritage woman, I have experienced others’ perceptions of who I am across various categorical labels throughout my life.

From “Black” to “Black and Asian,” to “Muslim,” or the terms I have typically landed on: “Sudanese and Filipino.” 

Somehow, I believed that the more objectively “accurate” a description I could give myself—the more “right” one.

But “right” for whom?

Looking back on my life, I realize how much time and energy I have spent “fitting in,” being liked, people-pleasing—and rather than judging myself for this, I can now see it as an adaptive strategy. 

SURVIVAL strategy passed down from my parents and ancestors’ lived experiences. 

While I have fortunately felt connected to a real sense of who I am inside throughout life, I can see how I have generally existed without a strong commitment to engaging with and supporting my Black, Asian, and Arab communities. 

I see how I have used the excuse of not feeling “Black enough” or “Asian enough” or that because my parents practice Islam and I don’t, I am, therefore, “not connected” to the Muslim community.

I was fortunate to experience diverse traditions growing up, but I also sensed things like cross-cultural racism and microaggressions–before I knew what those things were.

It didn’t help that my well-intentioned immigrant parents wanted me and my siblings to adapt and assimilate to American culture as much as possible, hoping that our lives would be more comfortable than their impoverished ones in their countries of origin.

In this environment, I learned to ignore injustice and racism by being as acceptable to the world as possible.

Somehow, my parents believed that this would protect us.

But despite—and BECAUSE OF—my Sudanese father, my Filipino mother, and my Egyptian, Arab, wonderfully blended ancestry, I exist in a complicated space.

Beyond my superficial engagement with Filipino folk dancing as a kid, attending Islamic school, visiting my parents’ childhood homes, and generally acknowledging that I am “different,” exists an essential ME.

Even though I have managed to live this land of “in-between” for over 30 years, hoping that my differences wouldn’t cause others to reject or misunderstand me, it has come at a cost.

That cost is a disconnection between myself and my ancestry, lived experiences, community/tribe, and soul.

As I grow more conscious of who I truly am and what that means to the collective, I can no longer ignore these spaces of race in my identity and how I move through the world.

The more I feel my connection to the communities of color of which I am a part, the more I feel its pain and the soul exhaustion that comes from grief, rage, and the natural response to what is happening all the f*cking time

I am seeing and feeling the things I was afraid to see and feel. Disgusting acts of violence, ignorance, and hate. Fear, anger, and hurt.

I am afraid to make mistakes, disappoint my communities, and not be active enough or as informed as possible. I am scared to fall into a helpless state, unable to do anything to effect “real” change. 

I see now that buying into that “not enough” story forms complacency, avoiding accountability, in disguise. 

I strongly believe in using your inherent privileges for the greater good, and I want to use the privileges I do have to show up for my community.

For a long time, I have attached my sense of self to my academic identity, career, and the approval of my parents. Achievement and productivitysuper patriarchal, White American values that provided space for my parents to live more fully than they would have elsewhere—were prized in my family, as they are in most families in the US and abroad.

I am still in the process of continuously coming back to my authentic, core self when I find myself prioritizing those values above self-compassion and my wellbeing. 

Only in recent years have I begun to fully embrace the richness and complexity of my racial identity and history. Before that, I had mostly considered it from an intellectual perspective. 

It felt safer to do that.

I would often describe myself as “this” or “that,” depending upon to whom I am speaking. To some, I am known as a psychologist. To others, I am known as a woman of color. Others see me as Black or African-American; others see me as Asian or Asian-American. Perhaps some would call me “mixed” or “biracial.” 

I want to reject the labels, but they are all a part of me. Rather than pick and choose what is more palatable to my audience, I stand by embracing ALL of those elements of who I am. 

As Dr. Judith Orloff would say, “If you split off even one aspect, you inflict a violence on yourself.”

I feel the paradox of inclusivity and exclusivity all the time.  

I am only me, and yet I am ALL.

I just haven’t made the space to be all of it.

That is, until now.

My wish for you is to be brave and make space for ALL of who you are.

Our whole self is what our world most desperately needs us to be.

I am here to help you embody your authenticity and wholeness, inside and out. Learn more about my integrative coaching or design psychology consulting offerings and how they can support in this process of becoming all of YOU.


About the author: Suzan (sounds like Suzanne) Ahmed (she/her), Ph.D., CIHC, is a clinical + design psychologist, intuitive healer, and integrative wellness coach. Suzan identifies as a cis-het woman with Sudanese, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Filipino heritage. She specializes in conscious wellbeing and design, supporting others, especially WOC, to make space inside + out, so they can be their authentic, highest selves. To learn more about her coaching + design consulting work, visit www.makingspacetobe.com or @makingspacetobe.

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