Sheila Houlahan — an Indian-American actor, singer, producer, writer and mental health advocate

Sheila Houlahan

Sheila Houlahan, is an Indian-American actor, singer, producer and writer who recently played a supporting role in Warner Bros.’ “The Little Things” with co-stars Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto. Houlahan had leading roles in “Beloved Beast”, a Lionsgate film in which she played the older version of leading character Nina, and “Wallflower”, a film hailed by Variety as “one of the most haunting films of 2019”.

Currently, Houlahan is the executive producer and showrunner for a new, innovative feature film adaptation of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Night, Mother. Set on Zoom during the Covid-19 pandemic, the film highlights isolation and the mental health crisis brought on by chronic lockdown and quarantine.  Set to exclusively screen on the streaming platform Twitch, this production is a hybrid of filmed and live performance that aims to encourage discussion of the state of the mental health care system and to empower people with resources for mental health support.

ABILITY Magazine’s Melissa Ancheta met with Houlahan to discuss her career, mental health, advocacy as well as the rise of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI)-targeted hate crimes. Houlahan shared the depth of who she is as a person, her internal struggles, her growth and what eventually led to her own self-acceptance. As activism is an important part of her life, Houlahan explained how we can reach out, listen and show up for marginalized people in need.

Melissa Ancheta: As an AAPI myself I wonder if you and/or your family have been affected by Asian-American hate crimes?

Sheila Houlahan: We now have had enough time to actually have accurate statistics demonstrating the huge uptick in anti-Asian and anti-AAPI crimes that are happening, and it’s centered around this absolutely wild and misinformed notion that somehow a certain racial group created the pandemic that we’re in—which is, I mean—we don’t even have enough time to unpack the ableist nonsense surrounding that. But, I quickly want to say a lot of the slogans that I’m seeing surrounding the anti-AAPI crimes say something along the lines of, “Hate is a virus.” And I want to just flag that a lot of the language that we’re seeing is actually super ableist. This language is diminishing the ability of the folks who are enacting these hate crimes. I think that does a huge disservice to the differently-abled community. It also shirks the blame off of violently racist folks and makes it seem like they had no agency in committing racist acts of violence. I think we should be comfortable saying that these people committed a hate crime. They are in the wrong at the end of the day. We don’t need to throw our own  differently-abled community under the bus while advocating for AAPI. But yeah, I remember posting about this on social media and immediately, like a bunch of—frankly, white allies—like jumping on board and being like, “I haven’t really seen this talked a lot about in the press. I’m not sure it’s as important as Black Lives Matter.” And immediately it was like, “Wow, OK. I didn’t realize we had to prioritize certain activism. I thought that our work as activists included everyone, but silly me.” As if somehow there is some scarcity of white folks sticking up for POC and that I’m silly to even consider asking for folks to walk-the-walk and show their support. Then, of course, as more and more of the attacks against Asian-American elders got publicized, people started speaking up a little bit more about it.

But to be honest, I think the thing that’s affected me, my family, and my friends the most is the silence. Like, the same people who went out and protested for BLM and were super vocal about their stances on that are pretty noticeably silent. It’s confoundingly quiet in terms of how people are not talking about this. And I think that’s telling. If our activism only appears for certain causes, I think it’s immediately suspect. 

Ancheta: What kind of ableism have you seen in recent activism?

Houlahan: I mean, in my community at least, there’s so much stigmatization. I noticed this with BLM and I am noticing this again with” Asian Lives Matter,” that I feel like folks in the differently-abled community are just kind of getting left behind, which is fascinating when you consider that a lot of the targets of these recent hate crimes are technically differently-abled. A lot of them are elderly. And while ageism is a separate topic, I think there’s a lot of intersectionality between ageism enabling these attacks—in terms of how these people committing these hate crimes are targeting undocumented folks, older folks, and folks of differing abilities—because they know that they’re “easier” targets.

So, what I keep telling everybody who wants to help and show up, first and foremost, is, of course, check in on your Asian-American friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, but specifically focus on folks who are differently abled—whether it be mentally, if they’re if they struggle with mental health issues, if they’re cognitively neurodivergent—check in with those communities the most. Those are the first communities to get targeted and also the first communities to be left behind. So, I think as we amplify Asian voices, we need to remember that we do have a lot of privilege within communities of color. And as such, there are certain marginalized folks within our community that I think we should be focusing our efforts on and around instead. 

Ancheta: In immigrant communities, there is a huge stigma especially when it comes to disabilities, even if they have disabilities themselves. How have you gotten through to the elderly who are more stubborn about going out and don’t really feel like they are potential targets?

Houlahan: You know, I’m glad you mentioned that because there’s this weird thing that we as AAPI need to address, which is sort of like different generational perceptions of our race. My mom immigrated to the United States in 1980 where she was one of the first South Asian/Indian-American people in our neighborhood. So as such, my mother really heavily assimilated into white culture, which is really different from a lot of the folks who are now moving to where we’re at on the West Coast. There’s a huge influx of recent Indian immigrants and a really rich diversity of culture. Now we have a temple nearby that we could attend that wasn’t here when my mom first immigrated. But because of this previous void, I think that the folks in her generation of immigrants are a little bit more hesitant to identify as people of color. I think it is interesting—because I think we sort of see this within white communities who face economic difficulties or struggles—is this notion of really wanting to fight against the fact that they do have less privilege—like, talking about them being less privileged is actually insulting to them. And it’s hard to be able to talk about these things, because there is this feeling of old, decades-long defensiveness. In order to accommodate that, we have to sort of tread carefully and avoid speaking directly about their identities as marginalized people. 

And, you know, personally, I don’t have all the answers. I can talk about my own experience, which is when I was like, “Hey, mom, we should have a check-in situation. I’m going to check-in with you when you go to the grocery store. Do you want me to come with you?” She did the same thing. She was like, “No, no, no, I’m fine. I’m not going to be targeted. Don’t worry about me.” All of that mentality really stems back to the fact that deep down, she identifies as white. She had to in order to have any sort of passing privilege in this country when she first came here.

Furthermore, there’s the model minority myth surrounding AAPI. The idea of, “Oh, AAPI don’t have to deal with as many struggles as black or indigenous folks because we are the model minority” which is this gross rhetoric supported by white folks, emphasizing that “Asians are compliant, they’re in high paying jobs. They really stick to the rules that we set up.” But those rules are inherently racist and ableist, and we need to be taking a good, hard look at that anyways. However, I know that my mother and her siblings—their generation—really bought into that myth of “If I behave in X, Y, Z ways, I am not going to get hurt.” The first thing is, always approach that generation with gentleness. Recognize it’s probably going to take multiple conversations. It’s going to take a lot of time, which is of course hard when in this urgent moment in the here and now when we want to be able to protect them. But being able to give your elders agency as well—to not strip that of them, to not do anything to encroach on their rights, their privacy, and just slowly remind them, “Hey, the model minority thing is, first of all, a myth and also is not really applicable right now. Let’s talk about why there are certain demographics that just see the color of your skin and how they’re angry, how they don’t care if you’re an upstanding citizen.”

Ancheta: Do you think that the media is not showing enough, or maybe even there’s a language barrier?

Houlahan: Yes. I can’t speak for all news outlets, so please take my generalized statement with approximately 5000 grains of salt. But yeah, I mean, in South Asian news outlets, I haven’t really seen this talked about a lot. I’m going to be the first one to say that social media advocacy is never enough, but right now I’m also paradoxically saying that everyone should please do the bare minimum and share posts about anti-AAPI racism. Everybody who’s listening to this: share, share, share articles that you see coming out about this, because I think we just need to get folks within our community, specifically elders within our community, to acknowledge that this is happening. And if we aren’t talking about it—frankly, if white folks with a lot more power are not talking about it—then our elders aren’t going to take it seriously either.

Sheila Houlahan

We need our own news channels to be able to talk about this, too, especially to combat the language barrier that you mentioned. I mean, my grandma recently passed away, so she’s no longer with us. But she didn’t remember how to speak English because of her dementia, so she would have needed to see this in Indian publications to be able to take it seriously. I think we just have to continue to flag that this is important and that this is not going away. So that—like you’ve said—it’s no longer just the onus of millennials and Gen Z to be able to put this on a platform and say that it’s important to our elders right now.

Ancheta: Do you feel having grown up in a white culture, their own experiences as people of color doesn’t really matter?

Houlahan: I totally get what you’re saying. That breaks my heart. That’s why it’s on us folks with more privilege—those of us who should not be taking those resources meant for more marginalized people—to encourage white folks, the people with the most power, to talk about this. We need people to know that they matter first and foremost, because they’re not going to even feel like they can reach out for help. Don’t wait for the AAPI folks in your community to reach out to you on how to better show up as an ally. Reach out to them, initiate—it takes two seconds. They might be too scared or have feelings of imposter syndrome/ an inferiority complex, which makes it a lot harder for them to reach out to you. So, do some two-second activism and reach out to AAPI folks in your community. Share all of the articles, all of them on your Facebook, on your Instagram, Twitter, all your socials, and reach out to folks. We have to let people know that they do matter, and that doesn’t happen through silence.

I think we have to amplify our own stories and experiences right now to destigmatize talking about it. If you have a story that you want to share about how it does affect you—I want to encourage folks to share and advocate their own stories so that we can make it more informative. Actually, I’m going to make an offer right now through my Instagram handle @sheilahoulahan: if any of you reading this have stories about facing discrimination as AAPI, especially if you experience significant discrimination simply by being AAPI and also being differently-abled and how that affects you, DM me and I will share your stories on my profile. We just need to amplify these voices right now and be like, “Hey, we exist, we’ve always existed, we always will exist and you should care.” And I encourage anybody out there who’s reading this who has a large following to do the same. But seriously, DM me, let’s get your stories heard.

Even though primarily only young people will be seeing these stories online, hopefully if there is enough coverage online, traditional news outlets will pick it up. Like as much as I am mega eye-roll status about Blackout Tuesday, (what does this black square do to actually immediately help folks in need) it did get picked up by the mainstream media. So, I think we can’t dismiss that significance in terms of it just starting a conversation. And to that end, I think we need to produce versions of that on our own, so that we can get folks to talk about what’s happening. I think creating programs in different languages so that everybody has access to it is really important, as well as getting international media outlets to pick up the story and publish in their respective native languages. 

We as a country, as a world, need to start figuring out how we’re going to bridge these gaps that we’ve built. I think us as activists have sort of painted ourselves into a corner by being like either you’re with us or you’re not with us. But that isn’t actually the best strategy to get people to come to your side. I understand why cancel-culture came about and I’m going to argue that the folks with more privilege need to be the bridge-builders for tomorrow.

For instance, I know I have a lot of privilege, so I am trying to be a bridge-builder by being like: “OK, I see where you’re at over there. Some of these beliefs are hateful. And also I see that we want the same thing deep down, which is we want economic security and happiness.

How do we connect to that common need so that folks feel confident supporting causes centered around equity for all? I think if we paint the other side in one color, that’s very dismissive. And that actually erases a lot of folks who, probably with just a couple of conversations, would be more willing to come to our “side”.

Ancheta: Considering how strong bias against disability and mental health is in our communities, how have you’ve navigated growing up in a space that might not be as accepting of your beliefs about mental health and disability?

Houlahan: Oh, it was hard to navigate. I think as a kid growing up in the Bush administration, especially—those conversations were just discouraged. I didn’t really think about my identity as a person of color, a woman of color, or as queer or differently-abled person until my 20s, to be perfectly honest. Until recently, it just wasn’t something that was talked about. And because it wasn’t talked about, I was like, well, I guess we don’t talk about it. Until, of course, it became like a clanging bell in my head, and it hit me how I have to talk about this. And my family and I have really healed together by talking about it and sharing our feelings and lived experiences. 

But at first, my immediate family—and certainly my Indian family—didn’t understand what was happening. There was a lot of prejudice. There was a lot of feeling like, “Oh, what’s wrong with her?” My relatives were just chalking it all up to personality flaws. And I remember being a 15-year-old and thinking, “My family doesn’t like me.” And that, of course, only contributed to me feeling more hopeless, to me feeling more like I was this monstrous burden. So there’s been a lot of work for myself in my twenties to just be like, no, I’m not. I matter and I belong here exactly as I am.

This script of who I am is something that was handed to me, and it isn’t actually how I identify. I’ve struggled with my own mental health, with my own invisible chronic physical illnesses, my own autoimmune problems.The way that I really identify is differently-abled. I have struggled with it my whole life, and it’s only in the past several years that I’ve been able to have a positive spin on it, to be able to stand on top of a proverbial mountain and declare who I am, that I’m proud of who I am and that who I am is not a burden. It’s not that I’m monstrous. I’m not any less capable of doing the things that I want to do. I’m just going to do them differently. 

The people who I surround myself with and the people that I work with; the folks on my team fundamentally understand that about me. I can no longer work with folks who don’t want to make space for that. I think it’s something really important as we move forward out of the pandemic. Quarantine has suddenly highlighted all of the vast inequity between abled folks and folks who are differently-abled. Now we’re like, “Oh, we actually have the tools to bridge those gaps and we’ve always had them.” Moving forward, I say we must keep our work-from-home options. We must keep different accessible ways of accessing work and life so that people can participate in society without needing to look or act or be or speak in a certain way. I think we can burn that nonsense once and for all and be done with it. We can say, “OK, that’s in the past, let’s move forward,” and I’m going to challenge companies and say you have the skills and the tools now. So if you don’t do it, you are ableist. We have the technology, let’s use it for good.

But certainly, there’s been a lot of healing with my own family in terms of understanding how I am, how I operate, how my brain works, how my body works, and making space for that. And I’m grateful that there has been that healing. But, my God it was hard. It takes years, and the work is still not complete. It’s never complete.  Life is never complete. And thank goodness, because otherwise it would be so boring if it’s just, “OK, I’m done. Everything is done. No reason to get out of bed in the morning.” Forget that! No, it’s a daily affirmation. It’s a daily reminder of “I matter.”

I grew up with a mother and a grandmother who were advocates for neurodivergent folks and folks on the autism spectrum, so I grew up with the cool privilege of getting to be around so many neurodivergent people. That’s not to say that I don’t have my own work that I need to do with how I interact with the neurodivergent community, because I do, just like anybody else. I have a lot of work to do, but growing up and having some exposure to folks different than me made it safer for me to initially come out to my family and talk about what my internal life is like, what my struggles are like, and what is happening under the surface that they can’t see. So even though it was hard and it has taken years to heal—and it will continue to take my entire life to continue to affirm to myself that I matter as I am—it definitely helps to have that structure. 

Ancheta: How do you think growing up with mixed heritage affected your views on your own identity?

Houlahan: Racial identity is fascinating because as more and more people are mixed, we need to really unpack why race needs to be in boxes. Mixed-race folks no longer fit into the typical boxes we see when discussing race; am I Asian or am I white when I fill out a census form that doesn’t include multiethnic as an option? That was my experience growing up, as I wasn’t “Indian enough” to be included with the Indian-kid crowd. And, I wasn’t really white enough to not be at least given heavy side-eye while I was participating in white spaces. But. because I pass as Caucasian, I ended up growing up in more white spaces than Indian spaces. I was kind of pretty violently excluded from Indian spaces growing up, which was hard. 

I do understand that my culture needs space to be my culture without needing to perform whiteness. We need spaces that are just for us. But I’m also like, “Hi, I’m one of you, despite the color of my skin. We need to have conversations about why you’re triggered by my face, because I am one of you.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I feel like I did deserve to be a part of those spaces that I was excluded from. We say things like race is a social construct, but then we ourselves, as activists, end up reinforcing boxes—which is only going to get worse as the decades go on and the majority of the population is mixed race.

In terms of my own internalized racism—yeah, growing up, looking white, being half-white, I feel like I was a pretty racist kid. Again, growing up with the Bush administration—I still have to contend with those demons. I probably am going to have to for the rest of my life. I think you’re never done with that work. You’re never like, “Wow, I did the work, I’m done, I’m free, I’m safe. I don’t have to battle my own internal demons anymore.” You’re always going to have to invest in challenging your preconceived notions about people and life. 

Regarding my own privilege, a lot of white friends have reached out to me in the recent weeks that the attacks have become publicized. And every time I was just like, why are you reaching out to me? Like I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not the one that needs this care and this emotional support right now, because I do look white. As somebody who looks white, I’m not going to be the one that’s targeted at the grocery store. So in terms of resources—you said at the very beginning of this that you wanted to talk about communities that people can get involved with or donate to—and I think, please, everybody who’s listening, focus on differently-abled communities and on organizations that specifically work to improve the lives of undocumented immigrants and folks who are differently-abled. I think that’s where our attention needs to be going. Please don’t donate to organizations that aren’t specific in their goals. If they’re just vaguely saying that they are supporting AAPI, and that’s it, that is immediately suspicious to me. I’m think, “OK, well, what actions are you taking to actually improve the inequity within our own community?”

Ancheta: So in terms of your own healing, do you mean specifically just years and years of engaging with those parts of your family that are hard to talk to?

Houlahan: I don’t want to put all the onus on external validation. I think that it is really important to come out to our loved ones or just acquaintances about who we are—whatever that looks like. I think too much of the emphasis is too external, like the idea of “Well, if you’re not accepted by the world, then you’re not accepted.” And I think that takes all the power and agency away from ourselves.

Honestly, a lot of the work has just been up to me saying to myself that I am awesome as I am, I am worthy as I am. I don’t need to look or be or act a certain way to be worthy of my goals, my dreams—to be worthy of love, to be worthy of happiness. Most of the work is internal and if people don’t accept it, it doesn’t ultimately matter. When you have that really strong base inside yourself, it’s easier to start to do the healing within people in your circle. And once the people that you trust really understand it and they’re there to support and lift you up, then forget everybody else. Do activism, speak your truth, encourage better access and freedom for those who can’t speak up for themselves.

Again, I am trying to focus all of my financial resources towards community organizations that specialize in undocumented immigrants and protecting them from ICE. I would say that a lot of the resources shouldn’t go to folks like me who hold a ton of privilege in society. But also, there are a lot of folks who are fully AAPI, who have a lot of financial and economic power and privilege. And I’m like, maybe you shouldn’t be collecting those checks. Maybe make sure that they go to the folks who really need it right now.

Ancheta: What about elderly loved ones separated by distance?

Houlahan: This is a hard, as we are in the middle of a pandemic. I’m going to say first and foremost that if you do not feel safe or you feel—because of any sort of complications going on in your physical health—that you cannot leave your home, then do that first and foremost. And then in that case, reach out to the folks who aren’t compromised and get them ready to show up and commit for your loved ones, if need be.

With elderly folks, I would say check in with them often. Don’t do anything that encroaches on their privacy. As tempting as it is to turn on that location tracking service, do not do that without asking them. We want to make sure people have agency. Call your grandmother a few times a day to make sure that she’s answering the phone, that she’s OK. Have a plan in place if she doesn’t. And furthermore, in terms of people outside of your own immediate family—you know, folks who do identify as AAPI and differently abled—talk to them. So much of it ends up simply being able to just talk to them. Listen and ask, what do they need right now? For instance, if you know somebody who is blind or deaf, like, are there any ways that you can show up for them? If they’re neurodivergent, how can you show up for them? Some of them might say, “Hey, I feel slightly offended that you’re lumping me in that category and that you’re assuming that I need more help.” And they’re entitled to feel offended if you reach out. But I think you’ve got to reach out first and listen. There may be some folks who respond saying, “Wow, thank you for reaching out, because nobody has.”

I think a lot of folks don’t know how to reach out to folks who are differently-abled. My answer is to reach out to them like they’re any other person, because they are. Check in, ask what they need, what would help them. I think that those are the voices that are not getting amplified enough and certainly aren’t being heard. So, I think it just starts with having conversations to see what they need, and then show up in those ways.

Ancheta: How would you address cultural competency in healthcare?

Houlahan: It has to be done with respect for other cultures and, well, as reductive as this is about to sound, when you acknowledge people exist, people will respond better. So, I think just showing that we’re here and that these struggles affect us as well is a huge step. I think having cultural appreciation—not just appropriation—but also recognizing like these are real people being affected by what’s going on in the world today. We should give back to the cultures that we take from. And I think once we acknowledge that these struggles are happening to folks in our communities, then we have no choice but to create programs tailor-made to those communities.Sheila Houlahan

Thinking about my own experience with the mental health-care field—like how most inpatient facilities are in rich, affluent white neighborhoods and tend to cater to that demographic—once we acknowledge that these kinds of things affect marginalized communities too, then I think we need to start petitioning and advocating for those sort of inpatient centers existing for folks in our own community. I think it just starts with acknowledging that we’re around.

I think I’ve also been noticing—I’m bringing it back to the way our communities have shown up in activist spaces—I’ve seen a lot of discord between communities because since we’re so diverse, so I feel like I’ve seen a lot of disagreements on how we should approach this movement on the slogans that are coming out. But once again I want to emphasize how bad it is to use the slogan “Hate is a virus.” It is being used because people are saying that AAPI created COVID, which is bananas. But still, we have to use a better slogan. We need to make stuff that doesn’t cross over and affect differently-abled folks. So I think it’s just as, again, as reductive as it sounds—it’s just about having conversations and amplifying that perspective as well. That’s how things evolve in a movement.

And also—we won’t have time to get into this, but I mentioned earlier, too, about how within our own spaces there’s a lot of exclusiveness. I’ve witnessed that we tend to pit our own ethnic groups against each other. It’s interesting, because on the one hand, we are painted in pretty broad brush strokes, but on the other hand, are stigmatized to have one very specific image of our identity in a way, which does not even begin to represent the community holistically.

Ancheta: Is there anything else you would like to share as a final note?

Houlahan: I actually do want to share an important reminder. We are winding down—we’re getting ready for a fourth wave, we’ve been battling this pandemic for a while. But this is something that I want to say to everybody who’s seeing this right now: we have another pandemic that we know is on the horizon that we need to acknowledge, and that is the PTSD, the trauma, the toll it’s taken on the mental health of everybody on the planet that’s gone through this. So if you’re having big, scary, dark feelings and you feel like you can’t talk about it, first of all, everybody on the planet with a pulse is having the same feelings. Please speak out about it. Reach out to me if you need to talk to someone. Like I said, I’m really available on my Instagram. I can point you to some resources to begin to help you feel supported. This is going to affect and change all of us. I just want to highlight that these struggles are real. It’s normal to feel this way. We’re going to have to navigate this—for the first time in decades—this feeling of what it was like for all of us to go through the same trauma simultaneously. Just be gentle with yourselves and with each other. 

And I look forward to working with ABILITY Magazine and abilityE.org during the production of Night, Mother.

sheilahoulahan.com

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