Young Brown teens are using TikTok to open up about their complex families

Belonging to two cultures is tough. But through TikTok, second-generation immigrants are finding solidarity.

by Serena Smith
17 July 2020, 5:00pm

Myore, 19, is a TikTok content creator from Kent with over 17k followers and over 474,000 likes on her videos. It's a pretty impressive following, and in part it's down to one of her viral TikToks, captioned “put a finger down brown kid edition”, which has 1960 likes at the time of writing. “Put a finger down if you have that one room or one area of your house which is solely dedicated to gods,” her self-made audio says. Myore puts a finger down. “Put a finger down if you have to type out all your parents’ text messages for them”. Myore puts another finger down. For anyone with a Brown parent, it’s gut-wrenchingly relatable.

The “Asian Parent Stereotype” is a cliché by now: mothers that don’t let their daughters bring boys home, fathers that don’t let their sons study anything but medicine or law, aunties that treat their children like trophies and boast about their achievements at any family gathering. While there can be some truth to these tropes, ultimately, they’re pretty reductive and lacking in nuance.

Which is why it’s so refreshing to see TikTok creators like Myore go beyond these stereotypes and discuss the more niche aspects of growing up Brown: the horror of accidentally eating aniseed in a biryani, navigating puberty when all your new body hair is extremely dark and thick, the panic when you’re ushered towards an ‘aunty’ you swear you’ve literally never met before -- and the impact a confused cultural identity can have on your mental health. “Originally I started making these videos for fun, but as I continued I started to realise that there’s actually a lot of not-so-funny things that us ethnic minorities can relate to,” Myore says. “My audience are young, and I wanted them to feel like their feelings are valid and normal. Although I may not have all the answers, I want them to have a space where they feel heard and understood”.

It’s vital that Brown young people have spaces like these, as it’s not easy growing up in a diaspora. Parent-teenager relationships can be hard to navigate at the best of times. Of course, universally speaking, literally no generation thinks their predecessors fully understand them, but if you’re a second-generation child to a first-generation immigrant parent, it’s clear that things are even more complicated.

There are so many factors which can put strain on these relationships. Language barriers can mean communication is not as smooth as it may otherwise be. Cultural differences can lead to a lack of mutual understanding. Enmeshment trauma is endemic among South Asian communities: while to second-generation immigrants, assimilation and acculturation may happen naturally, to first-generation parents this can potentially feel like a personal betrayal.

Saffya Fatima is a counsellor and psychotherapist who specialises in culturally sensitive therapy for BAME communities in London. She explains that it can be incredibly difficult for first-generation parents to see their children have opportunities that they never did. “Lack of choice, freedom and options in their own childhoods and arrival to Britain could perhaps be projected on to their children,” she explains. “It’s important to note that this is largely happening unconsciously, so parents are not aware of what is driving their behaviour or that it is potentially problematic.” Saffya believes that TikTok is a great way of finding solidarity and realising that you aren’t alone. “Once there is recognition that many others also face what we have had to face, there can be some solace and a sense of freedom within that.“

Zainab, 17, is from Buckinghamshire. She’s also been making TikToks -- accruing a total of 686,000 likes -- about her experiences. “Having Brown parents has been difficult mainly because of how strict they are, and the lack of freedom compared to white friends,” she says. Zainab feels her content is helping other young people feel less alone. “They may not know that a lot of other people are in the same position and going through the same struggles,” she says.

These struggles are plainly having a long-lasting psychological impact on second-generation immigrants. A 2015 study found that “life satisfaction is lower among minorities as a whole but is particularly low among those born in the UK”. And it doesn’t help that mental illness carries considerable stigma among some South Asian communities. Suffering children and adolescents are sometimes too ashamed to seek help -- and go on to carry this shame with them well into adulthood.

But ultimately, this is not about bad parenting. It’s about the difficulties of navigating a completely new, multicultural world, where there’s no straightforward frame of reference for ascertaining what is right, wrong, or ‘normal’. It can be as bewildering for first-generation immigrants as it is for their children. This isn’t to excuse or enable the behaviour of genuinely toxic parents -- but understanding the complexities behind such parent-child relationships can help the second generation process their upbringings a bit better. As Myore says of her own experience, “It’s not that my parents are bad parents. It simply comes down to a difference in generation, culture, country, and upbringing”.

And it’s not as if there’s no overcoming this. “A second-gen child who has not yet worked on their trauma might be feeling depressed, anxious, angry, abandoned, isolated, demonised,” Fatima says. “A second-gen child who has worked on their trauma will still be feeling all of these feelings too, but the difference is they will be able to tolerate these feelings without them becoming all-consuming.”

If you are in need of more help or resources, the South Asian Health Foundation are dedicated to promoting good health -- mental as well as physical -- in the UK’s South Asian community. The Black, African, and Asian Therapy Network also has a long and useful list of counsellors and psychotherapists who are adept in dealing with culturally sensitive issues.

Or, if you’re looking for some lighter relief, scrolling through the #brownparentsbelike hashtag on TikTok can also serve as a helpful reminder that you will never be alone.

mental health