Dear White People…Why Is Your Mental Health So White?
Never Alone Stories
Asante Haughton has established himself as one of the top mental health advocates in Canada.
Recently co-founding and bringing to life Reach Out Response Network which aims to create a non-police mental health emergency service in Toronto.
Here is another reminder for society that Black Lives Matter and Black Mental Health matters.
Dear white people… #BLM
Dear white people…why is your mental health so white?
This is a very serious question.
Listen, I’m a Black male, a rather large Black male at that, standing at a mid-30’s slim-thick 6’4″, but more of a gentle giant than the menacing goliath type. I smile a lot. I make corny jokes. I’m into a bunch of hipster shit. I can recite most of the chorus from Oasis’ end-of-the-white-people-party anthem, ‘Wonderwall’, and can even give you a lil bit of ‘YMCA’ and ‘Living on a Prayer’ as well.
Basically, I make white people feel safe.
I’m not proud of this fact, but it is undoubtedly a (woeful) part of my reality, and as such, I have to acknowledge it. Why is this ability important? Because it allows me to phase in and out of white spaces like Shadow Cat from Marvel’s X-Men. If you don’t know who that is, well, Google is a kind friend.
My proclivity to smile combined with a passable knowledge of ‘white people shit,’ has allowed me to see into and be accepted into your world—well, as much as a Black person can be accepted anyway, which is to say, not much, unless we sort of tuck our identities to the side when we are in your presence.
You see, the thing is, I’m still from the ‘hood’, so I do a lot of stuff firmly associated with Black people, like bust out freestyle raps and play basketball. I also grew up with a mother who never let me forget my Blackness. Hell, I grew up in a society that never let me forget my Blackness either, albeit via much more nefarious, humiliating, dangerous and diminishing methods.
This means, white people, that even though I may make you feel safe, I often feel the stark opposite of safe when I am around you, especially when I'm the only one there.
I feel vulnerable. I am not at ease. I have trouble being myself because I have trouble calming my anxieties. And these anxieties aren’t social. No, these are anxieties born from a lifetime of discriminatory interactions, condescending white-splaining, distrustful gazes, tucked purses, description fittings, hand-up-in-class ignorings, the-thing-I-wrote-was-to-smart-to-be-written-by-a-Black-person plagiarism accusations, oh and don’t let me forget, the actual racist beatings.
Just to name a few.
Yet, I still show up, through this discomfort, because I am trying to accomplish my goal of making sure no influential mental health space in this country is entirely white. That is because when any space in our multicultural society becomes entirely white, it often leads to the stinky-est and watery-est of bullshit for the rest of us. And quite honestly, I’m tired of your BS.
Your BS makes it so I can’t get proper mental health care in this country because, as one example, white therapists—and oftentimes, non-white therapists who have been taught to think through a Eurocentric lens of health, civility and normalcy—*gasp*, do not usually work for people who aren’t of European descent. You see, the Eurocentric lens does not allow me and my life experience to be seen, in fact, that lens renders the perception you have of me to vacillate between a choice of less civilized savage or nonexistence in your purview altogether. In layman’s terms, I go through different shit because I’m Black, think different shit because I’m Black and need to heal from different shit because I’m Black—but you can’t see who I am and what I need because you can’t see Black.
You refuse to see Black. To top it all off, most of this Black-centered pain that I need to talk about isn’t actually because I’m Black, it’s the result of how you treat me because I’m Black.
Let that one sink in.
And yet, I still show up in your white spaces, as uncomfortable as the out-of-town kid introducing themselves in front of their new class. I leave myself naked to your scrutiny. I fend off your offensive non-sequiturs concerning what you think Black folks are like, beating them back with smiled-through corrections like an annoyed Alex Trebek who no longer has time for contestant ignorance.
I do this…no, I make this sacrifice primarily for those who look like me, to open doors for us, so I won’t need to represent us by writing articles like this as more and more Black folks are properly integrated into the mental health space at-large in this country.
See, this mental health conversation is still in its toddler stages, developing, bumping into things, learning the language, and figuring out how to coordinate all of its parts well enough to make something useful out of its blocks. The problem is that whatever answers arise to address the ‘mental health’ problem from an emerging system currently being built.
These answers will be absolutely insufficient for Black and Brown folks if Black and Brown folks aren't given any blocks to play with.
So I put up with the BS, knowing that my smile and knowledge of Freddy Andersen’s GAA (that’s goals-against-average—a hockey stat used to measure goaltender effectiveness) will disarm you enough to let me into your spaces, giving me the opportunity to fully reveal my Blackness and all that it represents, to you. Yes, this is the elaborate strategy I have implemented, which requires a martyrdom that sometimes draws the skeptical ire of my skinfolk, to address the overwhelming whiteness of mental health spaces. This brings me back to my original question…
…why is your mental health so white?!
I’ll tell you why. It’s because you hashtag uncomfortable AF (#uncomfortableAF) with anything, and anyone that isn’t white, white adjacent or in some way isn’t associated with cultural whiteness. My Blackness, unfiltered, uncut and uninterrupted, makes you feel unsafe.
Turbans and hijabs make you feel unsafe. Bibimbap and kimchi make you feel unsafe.
The cleansing smoke of cedar, sage, sweetgrass and tobacco makes you feel unsafe. In short, things and traditions and people that aren’t dipped in a thick layer of whiteness make you feel unsafe. The irony is that holding onto your psychological safety makes the rest of us unsafe, tangibly, in education, justice, healthcare, and for the purposes of this article, mental healthcare.
Your safety is costing us, dearly.
The disproportionate use of physical and chemical restraints against my body is the cost of your safety. The criminalization and imprisonment of my body leading to the resultant diminished potential to generate legitimate income is the cost of your safety. The deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell, Ejaz Choudry, Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore are the costs of your safety. These are the consequences of your mental health being so white.
Yet, you still want to leave it up to us to make you feel safe?
At this stage, you have to recognize that, one, that’s a terribly unreasonable ask, and two, well, it isn’t working. You must reevaluate the cost of your safety. You have to do something.
So, with that, white people, I now make to you this appeal.
White people, I request this of you: make yourselves uncomfortable and unsafe please. Make yourself a minority in other folks’ spaces—only when invited by the majority of course—and take a seat in the background so you can observe, listen and learn. Develop real, meaningful, equal and vulnerable relationships with people who are not like you in culture, thought, tradition and life experience.
Take the time to learn about other people on your own (again, Google says, “hi”) and relieve us of having to do all of the teaching for you. Make me feel safe by making yourself feel unsafe. My life might depend on it, as Regis’ did, and as D’Andre’s, Ejaz’s, Rodney’s and Chantel’s did. Too many people have died, too many people have been harmed and traumatized by a system that continues to subjugate, discriminate and yes, eliminate. It doesn’t have to be this way. I know this. You know. We can do better. We can be better. And while the responsibility is all of ours, the responsibility is predominantly yours because, generally speaking, you have the power.
So the next time you are at a family council meeting, putting together a working group, hosting a gathering of peers or advocating for mental wellness for all, take a look around you and if everyone around you is also white, please reflect on the cost of your safety and ask yourself…
…why is your mental health so white?
What you do with your answer might save me.
It might save us all.