Racism left unspoken: where will our mental health go?
I remember when I was ten playing with a group of peers at school where after a disagreement with a girl from my class she suddenly shouted ‘shut up, Tess, you’re black!’ She turned around and continued addressing the rest. There was a clear intent to hurt me when she said it. I am still surprised by my assertiveness and confidence somehow at that age to immediately walk to one of my teachers to tell him about what had happened. Since I was already very shaken by the amount of racism I had experienced up to that point, I was proud of myself in the moment for standing up for myself. He turned red and I could tell he felt extremely uncomfortable. Not a single word came out of him at first. The girl from my class came around and as she stood next to me, after looking at him like she already knew, she started crying. He immediately consoled her by putting his hand on her shoulder and saying ‘oh no, please, don’t cry. Why dont you go to the bathroom and clean yourself up’ He turned around, looked at me and said: ‘Tess, go back to class, please.’
That, right there, is how I know many of us have been treated surrounding racism. In general, but for today’s topic, this is exactly how, unfortunately, many of us have been re-ignored while seeking psychological support and guidance for our mental health. Still too many people are unaware but, most importantly, too afraid and unequipped to confront racism upfront. The problem is, many of us have to carry and somehow “process” the longlasting and heavy consequences of it, though. Even when we seek help for what is a different topic, it is a large foundational piece of who we are, our self-image, concept of self and emotional history that should not go unnoticed.
‘Oh, but, doesn’t Peru have a lot of brown people?’
‘Aren’t Peruvians and Latinos all happy people?’
‘I am sure you are fine now being in the Netherlands because we are progressive. That doesn't happen here’
Would be a common response from therapists I sought over the years when I would try to begin to explain where I came from. I began to quickly notice how many therapists felt very uncomfortable, far too unfamiliar and resistant to give space for the topic. Interesting, I would think, how something that in a sense is a combination of abuse, bullying, violence and emotional neglect amongst other psychologically recognized realities that should have a clear analysis within psychological practice, did not exist within the four walls of a therapy room session. Quite the reflection, once again, of what we do many times with intense social historical burdens towards a select group within society.
Whether it was the ‘you should come in through the back doors since that one is for the maids’ while leaving my younger sister at day-care. An insinuated “light” comment from a person at a party that “liked me” such as ‘I hate black people but I love you, Tess’. Or, being at a children’s club with friends and hoping to do make-up and hearing ‘I am sorry but I cannot share my lipstick with you, only the rest, because, well, you are black’, it had an impact, of course. These overt forms of racism are sometimes the only thing that make some people, especially, unfortunately, white people open to acknowledging something racist may be going on somewhere.
For many of us, it is needless to say, it is a part of our life from birth. We have experienced it countless times through microaggressions, being othered, stereotyping, profiling, mis- and underrepresentation that are systemic and institutionalized. It is not just about the overt, externalized and more rough behaviours that fall under and form part of racism. Seeking therapy in a critical state having to explain the state of affairs can easily become discouraging, exhausting and we could possibly call it degrading. A tremendous blindspot that will not allow for a key aspect for therapy and counseling: trust.
But, the worst would be when I would be met with utter disbelief that insinuated, before knowing anything, that I was exaggerating and way off with my recounts of my life in relation to racism. Frowns, eye brows being lifted and body posture changing. Since just mentioning it would cause such a reaction I never got to the point of fully addressing it. Rather, I learned to tug it away and somehow pretend like it is a separate matter, when in reality it does directly concern our psychological state and health.
It made me see that many could not believe that explicit, overt and direct racism which I suppose was seen as “the old-fashioned way” still occurred today. Especially, for the Dutch psychologists to believe it is still alive in the Netherlands as well. The thing is, even when it is what maybe some will see as “lighter racism”, therefore not even seen as racist to some, such as microaggressions, the impact has to be fought for to be acknowledged just like any other mental impact we address.
More so, there is no “modern-day racism” that is supposedly lighter than the versions many of us got from the little history taught in school. A lot of extreme expressions of racism still happen today. On top of that, we know we always have to be careful not to assume something that is not physically violent in nature is not causing severe harm in multiple ways. We know the power and impact of words and non-verbal communication. Of all people, I know we would want mental health care practitioners, therapists and psychologists to know this and show the awareness, empathy and recognition of this fact when it comes to the implications of racism and stereotyping in our lives.
Sadly, because oftentimes racism, its origins, large-scale effects and present day perpetuators/motivators are either dismissed or claimed to be misplaced, there is little possible support, whilst, the experience is, in fact, very traumatic. Part of this trauma is the pain and fear being repressed, ridiculed and mislabelled.
I know, like many of you, I have found it to cause a depressive mood, aggression, hypervigilance, hyperarousal, chronic fatigue, re-experiencing the trauma, coping through avoidance, lack of concentration and anxiety, amongst more. All normal responses to what we may be experiencing but difficult when it is not acknowledged and we do not have a toolkit, method or space to process, heal and take part in the grand post traumatic growth idea. Especially, when it is easily re-triggered through daily microaggressions and systemic racism reappears on the news, and through our friend’s and family member’s stories.
One common statement of mental health practitioners and within psychology is the ‘you cannot heal what you do not reveal’. It is important to note, then, that for many of us it is extremely difficult to heal repetitive exposure to racial trauma when the health system does not explicitly recognize racism as an issue still today. We need to acknowledge each other’s reality for us to have better ability and stability to acknowledge ourselves, develop and maintain a positive self-image, regulate our bodies and have better psychological health. This means to me that without external recognition, especially in moments of distress, for the position you are in and what has happened to you, you more easily derail and feel disoriented mentally.
Many mental health practitioners were unaware, uncomfortable, avoidant and because of it dismissive of the whole physiological and psychological experience that comes with racism. It became clear that assessing discriminatory distress of this particular kind was neither in their experience nor in their books. So, I knew it was going to be a journey to embark on mainly outside of the system, which on its own is an additional burden. I know more people struggle with this as well because for many it is already difficult (a privilege) to even get to therapy, then if you do, you are blocked. We then encounter the loss of trust in the mental health care system because they already know many practitioners do not know of, do not understand and may not want to acknowledge the existence of their experience in regards to race and heritage. Saying you should go and find therapists of colour with racialised experiences is not enough. The level of awareness, empathy and understanding has to change.
Since I know of more people in my social network that have also felt driven away by encounters with psychologists based on this, I just wanted to bring light to and recognize that this is a true reality that needs attention and definite change. It is important that if you have also felt unseen, unheard, disregarded and misinterpreted based on race and heritage while seeking mental support, that you get a reminder that you are not alone. Most importantly, you are not the problem.
Sometimes we do need the reminder that we are not overreacting, underreacting, being too difficult, seeing things that are not there and definitely not misplacing feelings and emotions. I believe we all deserve a holistic approach to healing, education, development and general health; for this whole to be complete, the big elephant in the room will have to be addressed.
I am scrolling through Instagram now luckily seeing more psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors reiterating out loud that there is no true understanding of trauma, mental and physical health without looking at social justice and inequality. This is key because at some point we get so caught up and lose ourselves in a diagnosis, symptoms, complete numbness or dissociation that we forget the realness of our story, history, responses and states.
And, let’s not forget, we always use phrases like ‘its the environment in which we grow…’ ‘you are not the problem, its the environment’.
There is so much more to say about this and I hope to provide more specifics in the future that can be of true help to you. For now, I can recommend the following two articles if you can relate and want to learn: the article “I thought I was a lost cause: how therapy is failing people of colour” by Coco Khan in The Guardian, and the research paper ‘Racial aggressions against African American clients in cross-racial counseling’ (Constantine, 2017).
For now, I see you and I hear you.
Keep going. You are worthy.