I am a mental health advocate for Black and Brown womxn. Therefore, I cannot continue to discuss mental health and wellness without discussing the effects of racism on mental health. Society grossly neglects this topic. Like intersectional feminism, mental health needs to be intersectional.
From my own experience, I can see how growing up in a predominately white environment has negatively impacted my life, even today. I will never forget one of my first days in Kindergarten, the first time I was not in the house all day with my family. Naturally, I gravitated towards the only other Black child in the class, a boy. One time, I decided to be polite and tell him I had to go to the bathroom while we were playing. His response, “I don’t care”. This was the beginning of a harsh reality and a long road of self-hate, doubt, and the spiral of my mental health.
Racism itself is a mental health issue
“Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma. And trauma paints a direct line to mental illnesses, which need to be taken seriously.”Racism And Mental Health, https://www.mhanational.org/racism-and-mental-health
This is where we will start. Young Black children do not have the privilege of not knowing racism. We live with generations of trauma and violence. We see images and videos of our murdered brothers and sisters every other day. Then we also have to witness the fear we see in people’s eyes as they pass us on the sidewalk. Many of us experience depression, PTSD, suicidal-thoughts, misdiagnosis, and addiction from these experiences. Most of the time, it goes unreported.
The trauma that is inflicted on Black bodies in America is widely accepted. It is so deeply rooted that some may not know what America would be without it. Because of this, we face the consequences of hate and prejudice. Not a day goes by when my community can just breathe and be. This is so much stress and worry just because we exist.
The experience of oppression leading to low self-esteem
We hear it all the time now, but representation matters. We see the world and its possibilities through media while we absorb our surroundings. Living in a white world, young people of color do not always see themselves portrayed in a positive light if a light is shown on them at all. For example, if you are growing up and see the epitome of beauty is a thin white, or now racially ambiguous woman, chances are you are going to compare yourself to that. As a result, that is now your standard.
Growing up, the world tells young Black girls (both directly and indirectly), that our skin and hair are not pretty. This conditioning sticks. We will go through life feeling less than and not desirable leading to low self-esteem and little to no self-worth.
I find it extremely upsetting as an adult to remember how much I hated my Black/Afro features. I hated my hair, my nose, my lips, my skin, even my butt and muscular built. It was a different world in the early 2000s. Not me wishing I had thin lips and a flat backside…whew. We are conditioned to prefer Eurocentric features. This conditioning encourages self-hate, anxiety, and depression.
How oppression leads to imposter syndrome
Living in a white world it is easy to fall into feeling like the “other”. We can change many things about ourselves in the hopes to fit in. Many things, except our skin. Being a Black woman in the workplace, I can say that we have to try twice as hard to achieve the success of White cis men, all while seeming that we don’t try. We are constantly challenged to determine if we really belong in spaces.
From our hair to our attitude, we are always questioned. In turn, this eventually can make us question ourselves. We can have multiple degrees, years’ worth of experience, and live being invalidated. So invalidated that we can sometimes lose ourselves completely feeling like a stranger in our own body.
The feeling of never feeling good enough or there’s nowhere you belong is devastating and can lead to mental health issues including depression and anxiety.
The angry Black womxn
This one….this one sets me off. Black womxn always have to have a smile on their face. If not, we are automatically unapproachable and angry. We experience endless microaggressions in our places of work, and young girls experience it while trying to get their education. It is almost as if, for us to exist, the Euro-centric world demands for us to make everyone comfortable except ourselves.
First, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being angry. We have a lot to be angry about. To be honest, I am subtly angry on a daily basis. Second, it is insulting, tiring, and flat-out racist to pass these judgments and stereotypes onto Black womxn.
When a person is told something enough, guess what, they will begin to believe it. Also, this misconception being projected onto us fills us with doubt. It prohibits us from speaking up in fear of creating conflict or a tense environment. We even begin thinking that, maybe we are angry about everything. Maybe that unprofessional comment our white coworker made was appropriate and I’m just always looking for an issue. These are the effects of racism on mental health.
The importance of mental health advocacy in the Black community
It is great that now, many influential Black people are stepping up and using their platform to illuminate the importance of mental health. But we are far from ideal. I grew up believing that depression was “a white people thing” and that is something that still echoes in our community. Mental health care is not easily accessible, and many in our community suffer from generations of trauma and do not have the help they need or deserve.
Our Black children are labeled as “bad kids” because they do not have the emotional support needed to succeed. Our elders walk around chronically depressed because they have not had the space to process their grief from the years. Caring for our mental health is not a weakness. The first step we can do as a community is to continue having the conversation. Bring awareness to the importance of mental health and wellness. Let’s have an open dialogue on the effects of racism on the mental health of our community. Also, shine a light on all of the options people can rely on in their time of need. There is also a good NPR article that gives an overview of the effects of racism on our health as well as ways to care for yourself while facing racism every day.