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:
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.
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.
This 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.
Racial 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.
In 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.
After 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.