#SpaceWoC: Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade

A brief foreword: I believe wholeheartedly in feminist documentation. And so I have decided to write about Space International’s herstoric event, Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade. The following essay is a personal account –subjective and subject to human error. But it’s written with love, in sisterhood, and complete as I am able to make it. At points during women’s testimonies, I became too emotional to write down everything said. I have done my best to convey the essential facts, and pay tribute to each of the phenomenal women who spoke her truth.

This one is for Jenny, dedicated in the spirit of international Black feminist sisterhood.


 

On the 21st of February, Space International hosted Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade at Conway Hall. This event was the first of its kind to take place in Britain: Black, Asian, and Indigenous women – a mixture of survivors, campaigners, and service providers – sharing their perspectives on the sex industry. In mainstream feminist conversations about prostitution and pornography, women of colour tend to be spoken of rather than listened to. It was encouraging to find a feminist event where women of colour were centred without apology, something that opened up the space for a discussion about the symbiotic relationship between racism and sexism within the sex industry. So I booked a ticket and arranged a trip to London.

The journey south is blessedly uneventful. I crochet a hat and listen to The Color Purple on my headphones, a sense of calm nurtured by the magic of Alice Walker’s voice. This is the first time I have left the quiet, controlled environment of home for any significant length of time since experiencing a mental health crisis last September. But it feels important to learn from these women, and to show them support. Lots of other women feel the same way: the event is completely sold out. The hall fills up quickly. Many women attending are local to London, but there are sisters who have travelled across continents to be here – which puts my paltry six hours on a train into perspective. It’s a powerful feeling, to be in a room filled with women from all different backgrounds who are united in feminist struggle.

img_8151Taina Bien-Aimé, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, is our moderator for the evening. She begins by pointing out that this event is historic, the “first time in the UK that women of colour have got together to talk about the legacy of colonialism found in the sex industry.” To Taina’s thinking, there is no strict binary between survivors and non-survivors – as women of colour we are all survivors in one way or another, living through the racism of white supremacy and the misogyny of patriarchy. I like her way of breaking down barriers between women. When feminists talk about the sex industry, there can sometimes be too much focus on making ‘expert’ and ‘survivor’ into two different categories – which ends up othering survivors in a way that is not only cruel but illogical, given that one in three women experiences violence in her lifetime.

Session One

Session 1.png

In her opening remarks, Taina highlights that racism is a fundamental aspect of the sex industry. She shares a story of a brothel in Nevada, about an African-American woman whose pimp grew dissatisfied because she had fewer johns the white women in the group – and therefore made him less money. The politics of desirability favour white women with European features over women with distinctly African heritage. And so the brothel manager came up with a solution: he advertised KKK themed role play with the woman in question to boost her commercial attraction. This combination of racist and sexist domination appealed greatly to white, male sex-buyers.

img_8153The first member of the panel to speak is Rosemarie Cameron, a Black feminist activist with fifteen years of experience working in the women’s sector – five of which were spent working directly with Black women in prostitution. For Rose, it is very much a political choice to work within a feminist organisation. She makes a passionate case for the importance of BME-specific services, sharing the ways racist bias among mainstream services has put Black women in particular off accessing them. One woman Rose worked with had previously been told: “You don’t look as if you are a victim.” Because she was Black, a white woman was incapable of seeing her as vulnerable to or in need of protection from male violence. When a Black woman don’t fit the mould of a mainstream service , Rose says that it’s more likely that the organisation will be label her as ‘chaotic’ or ‘challenging’ rather than questioning why they are failing to meet her needs.

Workers who understand the challenges faced by Black women, the layers of stereotype attached to Black women, are essential. Yet BME services are experiencing a funding crisis. Research shows that the combined income of London’s 15 BME-specific organisations devoted to ending violence against women and girls is lower than the income of the main service provider in the city. London has the highest concentration of BME-specific services in Britain, fitting for a city where 40% of the population are people of colour. But, as Rose asserts, services geared towards women of colour are made to fight for scraps thrown down from the top table.

I’m hurt that this country doesn’t feel that BME women are important enough to deserve a safe place for us to live, breathe and work in – whether we’re seeking refuge from an individual violent partner within the same town, or whether we’re seeking refuge because another country has become unsafe for us.Marai Larasai, Executive Director of Imkaan

During Rose’s talk, she gets emotional and pauses. The women on the panel and in the audience hold space for her. I love that Rose doesn’t pretend to be separate from the issues she’s discussing, that she has the integrity to acknowledge that racism and sexism are deeply painful rather than repressing her feelings to try and meet a white, male standard of supposed objectivity. I admire that even while she’s being watched by a room full of people, Rose takes the time to find her sense of calm before continuing.

img_8152Next up is Suzanne Jay of The Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, a volunteer service group based in Canada. Suzanne reminds us that women are in prostitution because of the structural inequalities caused by racism, sexism, and enforced poverty. She observes that the prostitution of Asian women is a global phenomenon, including Canada and London. Finding my way to the venue, I noticed three different massage parlours nearby on Google Maps. Suzanne says that massage parlours, health and wellness centres, and nail and beauty salons are standard fronts for the brothels to which Asian women are trafficked. They’re beside shops, restaurants, and playgrounds, hiding in plain sight.

Many Asian women are caught in the double bind of racist stereotyping and poverty. Asian women are marketed as being small and delicate, with child-like features, to fulfil the racist fantasies of sex-buyers. The racist trope of Asian women as submissive and eager to please is used to justify their exploitation within the sex industry. Historically, Asian women have been targeted for the sex industry. Women and girls were forced into a life of sexual slavery by the Japanese Army before and during WWII – having ‘comfort women’ was, in Suzanne’s words, “a government sponsored war project.” When the US Army took over these ‘comfort stations’, it is estimated that at least 70,000 women were raped by American soldiers. This influenced the western practice of sex tourism.

Suzanne is consistently opposed to male violence against women, and objects to the revisionism behind re-framing trafficked women as migrant sex workers. Her organisation has identified a pattern of men recruiting women by going to Chinese villages, promising jobs or claiming to have arranged good marriages, securing documents for the women in question, and using their family ties as a form of coercion. When the women arrived in Canada, their documents would be confiscated by pimps. If they resisted being prostituted, the pimps would point out that their families were in desperate need of the money that was to be sent home. In this context, the concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ are meaningless.

img_8157The third speaker is Dr Vednita Carter, Executive Director of Breaking Free – an organisation devoted to helping women and girls exit prostitution. She is clear that the sex industry is “where racism and sexism intersect”, highlighting that the majority of women trafficked to be prostituted are of colour. Vednita shares a little of her own story, how she entered the sex trade by becoming a dancer – which really meant becoming a stripper. Although she joined along with a white friend, they were immediately separated – the white girl was assigned a venue with more security, while Vednita danced in more precarious places. Her experiences led Vednita to found the Breaking Free programme in her home state of Minnesota.

While Black people make around 10% of the Minnesotan population, Vednita is conscious that we are hugely over-represented in the sex industry there. This is a consequence of institutional racism. One woman to access the Breaking Free programme was picked up by a police officer, along with a white friend who was also in prostitution.  The officer told her to “go back to what she was doing” – prostitution – but took the white woman back to the station with a view to helping her find an exit programme because “she had potential.” Black women are seen as natural candidates for prostitution by law enforcement, but made to pay a bigger penalty for it.   “Racism in the courts results in Black women paying higher fines and facing more fail time than white women.”

When it comes to racist stereotyping, Vednita cites pornography as responsible for perpetuating the idea that Black women are hypersexual animals, which has a knock-on effect in shaping how we are understood and treated by others.

A variety of the worst, most harmful tropes are used and amplified within porn: tropes that we are steadily attempting to get rid of from the big screen for good. The submissive Asian woman, the spicy Latina, and sassy Black woman that we’re gradually pushing out of the mainstream continue to have a home on porn sites. And just like mainstream films, the majority of those at the production end of mainstream porn are white men – though that doesn’t seem to bother many within this context.Yomi Adegoke

Vednita concludes by asking how the feminist movement can claim to care about Black women when so many self-proclaimed feminists are prepared to ignore the racist violence taking place within the sex industry.

img_8154We are then fortunate enough to have Roella Lieveld talk to us by video link. She thinks that people outside of Amsterdam have a romanticised view of what legalising the purchase of sex looks like. Roella shares research which found that 96% of women in prostitution experience violence in Amsterdam – since buying sex was legalised with the goal of reducing violence against women, she considers this policy to have failed. Femke Halsema, Amsterdam’s first female mayor, is beginning to challenge the sexism of the Red Light District – but Roella fears she is more concerned with what image it presents to locals than listening to the voices of trafficked Black women. While the Netherlands has a progressive reputation, in Roella’s eyes the country “consistently fails women forced into the sex industry.”

Before the interval, we have a brief Q&A. The most pressing question, one which I nearly asked the panel, is this: what one thing could we do that would make the biggest difference to the lives of women in prostitution? Rose advocates the provision of secure, ample funding for women’s organisations becoming standard procedure. Suzanne argues that a basic income would improve women’s quality of life, meaning women are less in men’s control and therefore less vulnerable to abuse. Vednita encourages us to end the buying and selling of women and girls by lobbying politicians, campaigning, and throwing our weight behind existing abolitionist organisations.

Another woman asks the panel their thoughts on the terminology of ‘sex work’. Rose doesn’t mess about. She says that “If I hear the term ‘sex work’ one more time I’m going to lose my will to live. She’s a woman, not an object to be bought or sold.” Suzanne sees ‘sex work’ as “a liberal guilt phrase”. She believes people say ‘sex work’ in an attempt to “show respect for women”, but is not convinced: “if you want to respect women, you stop men from buying them.” Vendita sees the term ‘sex work’ as a way of covering up the reality of coercion, abuse, violence, illness, and exploitation.

When asked about the profile of sex-buyers, the panel were unanimous: mostly white men, many of whom are middle-class with a high income and respected profession.

Session Two: Survivor Leadership

Session 2

When she introduces the second panel, Taina tells us about a recent news story of 20,000 Nigerian women and girls being trafficked through Mali as one group. She connects it with the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, describing this as the middle passage of a journey, and points out that inter-governmental corruption is required to enable systematic mass-trafficking. In the face of all this harm, Taina reminds us of the importance of feminist organising: “What gives me hope is this survivor-led movement. They are called survivors because of what they survived, and because of all the sisters they left behind.”

img_8156Ally-Marie Diamond is the first to share her testimony. Ally was first abused by her uncle when she was five years old. He spoke words that are familiar to countless women around the world: “Nobody will believe you.” And because of her status as biracial in an otherwise white family, nobody did believe Ally. Racism and sexism built a wall of disbelief. Children at school would ask if her family could afford soap, because Ally was “brown and dirty” in their eyes. This racist bullying escalated to sexual abuse. Nobody listened to Ally or intervened on her behalf, with words like “easy” obscuring frequent sexual abuses and justifying the failure of adults in authority. “I quickly learned that the only thing men wanted from me was sex.”

A pimp recruited Ally by promising her safety, love, and security. Of her time in prostitution, Ally says that “men paid for the right to beat, sodomise, rape, and abuse me.” A white john who was well respected in the community told Ally “that’s all you’re worth.” Since men have been raping women throughout history, Ally rationalised what was happening to her by telling herself it was better to be raped and paid for it than raped and not paid. Ally’s conclusion is met with a storm of applause: “Sex work is a glorified term for paid rape. The sex industry is a sustained, international attack on women and girls.”

img_8149Bridget Perrier, co-founder of  Sex Trade 101, is next to give testimony. At 12 she was lured into prostitution from a group home, which is the average age of entry for Indigenous girls. The johns were overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. Bridget cites Pocahontas as the first documented example of a woman from her community being trafficked. In Canada, First Nations women are massively over-represented in the sex industry. 52% of women in prostitution are Indigenous. Intergenerational trauma, poverty, and displacement are all factors behind this systematic abuse. Bridget describes generations of women falling victim to the sex industry – grandmother, mother, and daughter. Despite all that she has faced, Bridget ends on a note of resistance, reading a poem by her daughter which challenges genocide. Bridget has raised a fierce young feminist.

img_8150Ne’cole Daniels echoes Bridget’s point about intergenerational trauma, describing herself as “a third generation prostitution survivor.” She is clear that intergenerational trauma is passed on as a consequence of men’s sexual violence. Ne’cole’s mother was raped by an uncle, sent away, her first child put up for adoption. She ran away at 14, and was picked up by an “infamous pimp.” Ne’cole herself was raped by a family friend who was “around all the time.” He told Ne’cole that she needed to get better at pleasing men. So in the third grade, Ne’cole performed sexual acts with boys from school. The school didn’t question that a child of her age, eight or nine, understood sex acts. They suspended Ne’cole, and her mother beat her.

Within African-American families, Ne’cole says, there can be a mentality that you “don’t air your family’s dirty laundry.” In Britain, we have a similar thing – from a young age, lots of Black kids are told that we need to behave in front of the white people otherwise they’re going to think we’re all [insert racist stereotype]. Ne’cole thinks this approach leaves girls vulnerable to sexual abuse, because the silences that are allowed to grow end up shielding men’s violence.

Ne’cole’s mother told her that “as long as you have a vagina, you’ll never be broke.” But it was the urge to protect her own young daughter that gave Ne’cole the strength she needed to exit. She found “no services for a person like me, no services run by a person who looked like me”, but ultimately moved into a shelter because there at least they would both be safe from men.

img_8155Mickey Meji, the advocacy manager at Embrace Dignity, is our final speaker. She grew up in Sea Point, South Africa, where her mother worked as a maid. The men who owned the houses would strip in front of Mickey’s mother while she cleaned – at least one forced her to watch as he masturbated. Mickey says that South African feminists describe prostitution as a gendered, racialised apartheid. It is overwhelmingly poor Black women who sell sex, and almost entirely wealthy white men who buy it. The women who go into prostitution are in desperate need of money, but according to Mickey they come out even poorer. Instead of accumulating money, they acquire physical, mental, and emotional scars. Mickey spent nine years in prostitution.

The earliest South African brothels coincided with the arrival of white imperialist settlers. Black women’s bodies were objectified and commodified. Like some hellish inversion of the Nordic Model, South Africa criminalises the selling of sex – but not the buying. Mickey informs us that white madams escape legal repercussions even as the Black women prostituted in their brothels are arrested, as the police “had no reason” to consider a white woman “involved in prostitution.”

Mickey resists attempts to separate prostitution from trafficking: “Women wouldn’t end up in all sorts of locations if men didn’t want to buy them.” Poor Black women are not seen as valuable enough to be worth protecting in South African society, or anywhere else. Black women are not seen as important enough to merit meaningful intervention where the sex industry is concerned. She finishes by challenging the racialised power dynamic at the heart of the sex industry: “When you look at who is spearheading the drive to legalise prostitution, it is always privileged white men and white women – never poor Black women.”

In Conclusion

Above the stage in Conway Hall is painted a popular quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” Every woman who spoke was true to herself, and generous enough to share her truths with others. Only by breaking the silences maintained around sexual violence can we hope to change the culture that enables it.

Our chair, Taina, drew the evening to a close by asking every man in the audience to raise his hand. There were six in total. She requested that those six talk to the men in their lives and communities about the harm done by purchasing women for sex. This is, I think, how change will happen – by taking action and using our voices wherever possible.

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Black Studies: On Race, Place, and Headspace

A brief foreword: A short course in Black Studies is running in Edinburgh. It is, as far as I am aware, the first of its kind in Scotland. I decided to write a series of personal reflective essays about the experience as a way of processing and sharing information.


 

Half a year has passed since I last put pen to paper with the intention of blogging the results. I do not, as I have previously written, believe that I owe anybody an explanation for how much or little I publish as Sister Outrider. And yet I believe that breaking the silences surrounding mental illness goes some way towards removing the stigma attached to it. Since experiencing a mental health crisis last September, I haven’t felt much inclination to write or share any significant aspect of myself publicly. What writing I have done is for the chapters of a book, which will make its way out into the world sooner or later. But now, with my medication in balance, my mind is starting to feel alive and curious again. It’s funny – I had always feared anti-depressants would dull my creativity and blunt the edge of my critical enquiries of the world. Instead, anti-depressants have brought me a steady stream of good days. And within those good days are good writing days.

With this newfound curiosity, I booked a place on the Black Studies course hosted at Edinburgh University. It’s an experimental series of lectures exploring themes of Black liberation politics, decolonisation, and the Africana radical tradition. The 6am start on a Saturday morning feels a small price to pay for entry to a space that is specifically for people of colour to come together and learn.

During the journey to Edinburgh, my stomach ties itself in knots. I put down Black Skin, White Masks and do a breathing exercise, letting myself be lulled by the gentle rocking of the train, and try to locate the source of my panic. In spite of knowing how much I’m likely to learn from the Black Studies sessions, I find myself anxious about going. Or rather, as I realise somewhere around Polmont, I’m anxious about going because I know how much I’ll learn.

Certain types of knowledge aren’t always easy to hold. I don’t mean the things we consider trivial or irrelevant to our lives, although that’s almost certainly why I can’t remember a single thing from the Higher Maths syllabus. There are deep and fundamental truths about the world that we cannot extract from our minds, no matter how much we might long to set down the burden of knowing. Whether or not we want to know it, whether or not we have the power to act upon it, the information stays with us. On a fundamental level, it shapes how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Deep truths, no matter how painful or challenging they may be, cannot be set aside – not even temporarily. What I settled on, in trying to pinpoint the source of my anxiety, was this:

Baby Beans

Baby Beans

The other day my mum sent a text about a dream she’d had. Her dream was about Baby Beans, a doll I’d kept with me as a child. Baby Beans was part of my daytime adventures, and she was also a core member of the Bedtime Gang; the set of dolls and plushies that had to be arranged beside me, just so, if I was to fall asleep. It would be fair to say that I loved Baby Beans – she is currently wrapped up snugly in a blanket, nestled deep in the nostalgia box under my bed. But it would also be fair to say that, as a young child, I hated Baby Beans with a fury I couldn’t make sense of. Baby Beans was the first Black doll my mother gave me.

Without anybody ever telling me so, I knew that Baby Beans was uglier than my white dolls, that she didn’t deserve cuddles and gentle treatment the way my little stuffed clown did. I knew that she was not good the way my white dolls were. Years before I ever heard about the Doll Test, my childhood played out its results.

Two African American psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clark, conducted a ground-breaking experiment in the 1940s. The experiment presents a child with two dolls, identical except for hair and skin colour: one is blonde and white, the other dark-haired and Black. The child is then asked which doll they would play with, which doll is the nice doll, which one looks bad, which one has the nicer colour, and so on. To this very day, children of all racial groupings consistently favour the white doll over the Black doll. Among other things, the Clarks’ research highlights internalised racism in Black children.

Looking back, it seems obvious that my rejections of Baby Beans were a rejection of my own Blackness. I projected all of my early fears of what it meant to be Black onto that doll. It suppose it was easier to blame that little doll for being Black than to understand or acknowledge how deeply racism is entrenched in this society.

When my mother messaged me about Baby Beans, I remembered getting into trouble calling the doll Bastard Beans. I was around 3 or 4 years old, and had picked up the curse from my grandfather – he never learned to filter his speech around children. Less obvious is where I learned to connect the word bastard with Blackness. But somewhere along the lines I had learned that bastard meant bad, and that Black was bad. I also remember my aunt asking me not to call Baby Beans a ‘dumb tourist’, because it wasn’t very nice. I have no idea where I picked up such an oddly specific phrase at such a young age, but do remember knowing that Black wasn’t seen as British. Those memories used to be accompanied by a hot rush of shame, and so I did not think about them for years. But when my mum’s message brought them to the surface, all I felt was sadness.

My train is late drawing into Waverley Station, so I make a beeline for the taxi rank. When I name the university building and show the taxi driver the map on my phone, he suggests that I don’t know Edinburgh sufficiently well. In a way, he’s right: Glasgow is my city, and the only place I can find with confidence in Edinburgh is the Book Festival. But, as the first taxi driver refuses to put the address into his GPS and drive me there, I know it’s about more than that. He denies me service because of the tension he perceives between race and place, between my Blackness and my Scottishness. The joys of getting a taxi while Black. The second taxi driver has witnessed this exchange, and talks to me kindly as he navigates the streets of Edinburgh, locating the building without any difficulty.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Waiting to greet me is Fatima, the brilliant mind behind Edinburgh’s first Black Studies course. She guides me into the building, towards the elevator. Our classroom is on the top floor, so high above the city that I feel almost separate from Edinburgh and the sense of conspicuousness I get walking through the streets below.

The first lecturer is Guilaine Kinouani, of the Race Reflections blog, who does trailblazing work connecting racism and trauma. Learning that Guilaine would speak about her work is what gave me the final push to enrol. Her plane has been delayed, so I take a seat and do a few rows of crochet to stop the shaking in my hands. Only when my mind is calmer does it fully register: everyone else in this room is a person of colour.

Stand Up to RacismThis is the first time in my experience of formal education that I’ve sat in a learning space filled completely by people of colour. I taste a dizzying kind of freedom. Is this, I wonder, how white people feel in classrooms? In school I was always one of two Black children in the class. At university, though international students made up a significant portion of the student body, I was regularly the only Black person in a lecture hall or seminar group. All of my classes were taken by white academics, with one exception, and I’ve never had a Black teacher or lecturer. There are only 25 Black female professors working in British universities, with Black women making up just 0.1% of active professors in the UK. It is a strange and welcome feeling to blend in so completely in an academic setting. I am not on guard against racism, and there is no expectation that I do the work of justifying my presence in the room.

When Guilaine arrives, we start by spending a couple of minutes in silence to “ground ourselves.” I repeat the breathing exercise and by the time the two minutes have passed, I feel calm and open, receptive and ready to learn. More classes should start like this. As Guilaine delivers her introduction to Blackness and psychoanalysis, it quickly becomes clear that she’s the kind of clever that’s about bringing everyone in the room along with her rather. Certain academics can be more about cementing their own status as a genius by showing off rather than sharing their knowledge.

We read Bobby London’s Depression is Political aloud, line by line. Though London’s account of the connection between depression and anti-Black racism resonated deeply when I read it earlier in the week, I got chills when we took turns lending our voices to her words. It was powerful to read those words aloud as a shared, collective experience – different from reading silently, individually. We said:

I am depressed because I live in a white-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist world. I am depressed because people that look like me are constantly being murdered. I am depressed because the State has purposely made it difficult for black families like mine to survive. I am depressed because I have suffered traumas from white supremacy and the police state.

EveryoneRacial trauma has been on my mind a lot recently. Being Black in Scotland is like death by a thousand cuts. I have heaps of racial trauma, and the interest rate on it is high. But the thought of speaking it aloud, outside the safety of a therapy session, has terrified me. Or, to be more accurate, white people’s inevitable denials of that trauma is terrifying. And yet in this room we speak the words: racial trauma. No shame is attached to them. Nobody sneers or laughs, as though racial trauma is some far-fetched fairy tale. I say the words racial trauma without a second thought to a woman who was, until half an hour ago, a total stranger. It feels natural and right. The tightness eases from my lungs. To paraphrase Guilaine, the pain of that trauma is cut in half when it is acknowledged.

Guilaine shares the results of her doctoral thesis with us. Her work is brilliant, though I will not go into detail as she hasn’t yet published. She speaks of the silences that are built around racism, even within a family context. Children as young as 5 hide their experiences of racism with their parents to keep from burdening them. Parents don’t talk to their children about racism in the vain hope that maintaining this silence can shelter them. She talks about how silences are maintained in a wider social context, with shame used as a deterrent to keep people of colour from talking about racism. If you raise the subject, you have a chip on your shoulder or you’re too sensitive. Guilaine describes silence as a transmission agent of racial trauma. And I’m certain that the work she does as a psychotherapist is crucial to breaking those silences.

Although therapy is necessary for my ongoing survival, I am conscious that it has harmful roots. I have heard lesbian feminists dismiss therapy as reducing political struggles to purely personal problems. Some reject psychoanalysis as a form of social control designed to keep women from becoming conscious of and rising up against the injustices of heteropatriarchy. And, as Guilaine points out, racism and homophobia have historically shaped the field. Psychoanalysis – especially when it is centred around a white, western, masculine perspective – has the potential to be harmful. But it also has the potential to do real, solid good.

In my last round of therapy sessions, I unpacked the relentless isolation of being Black in an overwhelmingly white country, community, and family. My therapist recognised the political dimension to the sheer loneliness I feel in this context. He listened without judgement as I talked about what it meant to watch white relatives all take white partners, having white children who go on to take white partners of their own – the result being that my Blackness will always be an anomaly in that family setting. By keeping the personal tied firmly to the political, my therapist enabled me to imagine a future living somewhere my Blackness not only blends in but is reflected in the community around me – a future when I might build a Black family of my own. Mental healthcare is inherently political. De-politicised treatments lack the capacity to deal with harms that are structural and systematic in nature.

We cannot separate what happens psychologically with what happens socially and politically. You cannot separate the social from the psychological. – Guilaine Kinouani

Towards the end of her lecture, Guilaine talks about white people’s tendency to situate their discomfort with racial politics with people of colour in the environment. By making people of colour into the location of disturbance, they’re able to maintain a sense of equilibrium and avoid being conscious of their own role in a racialised dynamic. This stays with me.

During lunch, I mull over all that Guilaine has said. Her words on the location of disturbance call to mind a quote from Sara Ahmed:

Feminists who give the problem a name can then become a problem for those who do not want to register that there is a problem (but who, at another level, know that there is a problem). You can cause a problem by not letting a problem recede.

still-we-rise.pngIn the feminist movement, there is space for women to acknowledge the toll men’s hatred and violence takes on us. But a lot of (white) women don’t make room for feminists of colour to talk about the sheer burnout caused by repeated acts of racism. This is because white feminists regularly inflict racial traumas on the Black and Brown women, inside the movement and out. To acknowledge the harm their racism causes would be to take a step towards accountability – something that white women, racially coded as innocent in all things, are notoriously bad at doing. Through dismissing feminists of colour who name the problem of racism as ‘uppity’ or ‘angry’ – making us into the location of disturbance – they can avoid the problem of racism and their own role in maintaining it.

The second lecture is by Georgia Mae Webster, inspired by her pioneering thesis: The Effects of Racism on Psychosis – Decolonising Mental Health Care. Georgia’s talk is brilliant. It is also full of devastating revelations. In Britain, Black people are almost six times as likely as white people to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. For every one white person detained under the Mental Health Act, four Black people are held. I wonder if there’s a connection between Black people being over-represented in British diagnoses of schizophrenia and Black people being over-represented in British prisons.

Historically, the medical industry justified the enslavement of Black people through pseudo-scientific claims of inferiority (to white people). Georgia points out that this rhetoric is still deeply ingrained in society, normalised by celebrated scientists. James Watson, heralded as the father of DNA, claimed that he was “gloomy over the prospect of Africa” because “…all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – where all the testing says not really.” For all its claims of objectivity, science is as subject to racist bias as any other field.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, psychiatrists Walter Bromburg and Frank Simon outlined a new category of schizophrenia: protest psychosis. The two main symptoms were given as ‘hostility’ and ‘anger’. Black men were overwhelmingly among those diagnosed with protest psychosis. Treatment was described as necessary to maintaining the social order of white America. Over time, Georgia explains, the diagnostic criteria of schizophrenia shifted and were used as a political tool.

In the Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes once compared the trauma caused by witnessing and being subject to segregation-era racism to the shell-shock of soldiers. Georgia draws a parallel between Jim Crow shock and the trauma caused by consuming images of Black people being hung, beaten, and killed that circulate freely on the internet. Being exposed to anti-Black violence and Black pain, often without warning, is deeply damaging. While these images are vital to documenting anti-Black violence, evidence that can be used to hold perpetrators to account, they are soul-destroying to look at. There are days when I can’t bear to check Twitter for fear of seeing yet another video of a Black child being dragged or thrown by a white authority figure.

CybermanAfter the lecture draws to a close, I stop to chat with faces familiar and new. Before leaving, I make a point of telling Georgia how brilliant her lecture was and how brave she is to take on this work. The academy can be a very hostile environment for women of colour to inhabit, and it doesn’t tend to build the same confidence in us as it does our white male peers.

There is a spring in my step as I venture out onto Edinburgh’s cobbled streets. I have plans to meet up with a friend at a little gay café. And for all the challenging material covered, the first day of Black Studies has left me feeling optimistic about this life and the connections we can make in it. From beginning to end, there was a sense of community in the classroom. Free from the work of making ourselves understood, we could direct our energies to making this world a better place to live in.