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This is a guest post by Mel Vee.
Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.
This post is the second is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.
Content note for racial violence, intimate partner violence, suicidality, graphic description of self-harm.
I learned from a young age that I was valued less than others. My brown skin, femaleness, queerness, working class family, speech impediment and quiet, thoughtful nature, mistaken for mental slowness, marked me for hardship and struggle. No one told me in those exact words, but no one needed to – that much was obvious.
My mother was the first person to impart this lesson and spell it out for me but she did so from a place of love. “NEVER EVER follow those white kids around; think they’re better than you! Don’t believe them, they are not better or worse than you. They are human, same as us. But they will think they are high and mighty because they’re white,” she warned us.
She was specifically referring to my cousin, who hung around the playground and in class desperately following white kids around for their coveted friendship. It is a painful memory to reflect on now. My cousin with her dark brown skin, boxer braids and almond eyes following around blonde and brown haired, blue and green-eyed girls with impossibly straight hair and pale white skin.
They were the epitome of beauty, goodness and wholesomeness and my cousin desperately wanted to be beautiful and good and whole like them. She followed them around like a shadow. They often shooed her away, cussed her, threw things at her and even made fun of her. One time she came home to her mother in tears after one of the white girls spat on her and called her darkie; tar baby. My mom was quiet, but her knowing eyes said, ‘See, this is what I warned you about.’
Looking back, I cannot blame my cousin for wanting to distance herself from her blackness. All I learned about Black people in school was that we were slaves. Our history began with slavery and ended with Martin Luther King Jr (bear in mind this was taught in a Canadian school – hello Black Loyalists!). The only Black person I remember seeing in an elementary school textbook was a hunched over Black woman, obviously enslaved or a sharecropper, with a filthy black and white handkerchief on her head, glaring into the camera from a cotton field. That was it. We had no history prior to enslavement; there was no mention of Africa prior to European colonialism, the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, current and global Black independence struggles and the connection to diasporic Blacks or even Black people during enslavement who resisted, taught, created art or invented.
Our history was reduced to this picture of a tough-looking, stooped over woman with a mean glare.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my mom was doing her best to shield us from a tide of white supremacy which would seek or simply by design devalue the lives of her children – which taught and continues to teach that we were nothing more than the descendants of enslaved people who contributed little to history; that we were less than Europeans and non-Black People of Colour. Our skins marked us as inferiors. Her efforts in hindsight were commendable, given the impossible nature of the task. I remember she blasted Peter Tosh’s African as her primary act of Black affirmation and pride regularly. Her favorite lyrics were:
Don’t care where you come from
As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African
No mind your nationality
You have got the identity of an African
She would belt out, “As long as you’re a Black man, you’re an African,” much to my chagrin. In spite of her efforts to instill in us a sense of pride in our Black heritage, her African diasporic consciousness was no match for the cruel reality of the white people around us, who viewed us as novelties at best or troublesome inferiors at worst; nor the pervasiveness of white supremacy in public and private institutions and in social life.
As a result, I had few friends during my formative years. I followed my mother’s stern warning but I couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret when I saw my cousins, who she chided years ago for following white kids around, now had the cool (read white) kids as friends. I realized though that my mother’s words rang true; nearly any Black kid I noticed hanging around with white kids in my junior high and high school would be following along behind them, like a shadow.
The Black kid in the social group always hung out precariously around the edges, as though they never truly belonged. Thankfully once I entered junior high school, we were no longer the only Black family in the neighborhood, but the dynamics remained unchanged. There was an implied subtext of the Black kids being other than or merely tolerated.
The Black kid in the group also always served a chillingly particular purpose – the comedian. If the Black kid was not providing amusement, they were swiftly ostracized as I was. As a nerdy, smart, quiet and thoughtful sort not accustomed to serving up guffaws, I had no purpose to the majority of the white kids around me (with the exception of my small, racially diverse band of merry misfits). Not only did I not entertain the white kids around me, I was also a threat to them academically and intellectually, as I was always at or near the top of my classes in those years.
A Black kid with a brain who refused to debase herself for the entertainment of whites? That was completely intolerable and I suffered the social price. Black kids were allowed to hang out with the white kids, so long as they knew their place.
In spite of myself, loneliness crept in when my merry band of misfits and I parted ways for high school. For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone. Since I stubbornly refused to sacrifice my stellar grades for the cheap compensation of male attention (which I cared for little as a budding queer), I watched from the sidelines as the white girls who were former friends and acquaintances begin to reach those adolescent milestones and I remained stubbornly inexperienced. Although I sensed a budding attraction to women, I couldn’t shake the sting of being spurned by the mostly white boys around me. My brown skin, chemically relaxed hair (which was never silky straight like the other girls), thin frame and nearly non-existent breasts marked me painfully as the other. The few black boys and boys of other races worshiped the white girls – I was non-existent to them. I had not yet met any queer people or girls who liked girls. I was awkward, out of place and alone.
Unsurprisingly, my mental health deteriorated.
Accustomed as I had become to spending the afternoons alone in my bedroom after finishing my homework, on one particular day I sat down on the floor in silence and stared at my arms. I had already begun self-harming by then as a way to express the rage I felt towards myself and my circumstances but something inside of me snapped.
The last thing I recall thinking that day was how much I hated my brown skin.
It always got in the way; it made me different.
I did not remember how I got the razor but before I knew it, I had a huge slash on my left inner forearm. It was the deepest cut I had ever inflicted on myself. I did not recall wanting to cut that deeply, but in the fury of my self-loathing I simply had no control. I panicked. I had always heard we were the same colour underneath but now seeing the white flesh beneath the brown skin was too much. I became nauseous, and in my panic I did something uncharacteristic of myself – I got help. My mom freaked out when she saw; she didn’t know whether to cry or scold or pray. Instead, she called my aunt who was a nurse’s aide at the time. They both kept talking to each other while my aunt did her best to stitch me up. They both spoke as if I was not there:
“Why would she do something like this?”
“The poor dear…”
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”
My aunt, finally coming to her senses, said there was no way they were taking me to the hospital.
“They’ll take her away. There’s no way we are going to the hospital.” And that was that. My mother and aunt knew instinctively getting social services involved would be ruinous to the family. My mom and aunt didn’t bet their and my collective well-being on the charity of social services, a fate we had so far escaped.
Unfortunately for me, the lack of intervention (partly due to that understandable resistance) contributed to further decline. The situation grew more dire as I became involved in an abusive, tumultuous relationship with a white girl who exploited my mental health struggles for her personal gain. She was the first person to ever express any interest in me sexually and I was hooked.
Due to her erratic and abusive behaviour, I became estranged from my family for a few months and opted to live with her and a friend of mine where I deteriorated even further. I learned intimately the extent to which a white person would weaponize their race against mine to exploit and cause destruction. My partner continually called services on me, which led to a trip in the back of a police cruiser. Calling the police on a mentally ill Black person can lead to violence and death – I cannot stress this enough. It is an extremely hateful and vile thing to do. Yet when she was confronted about her despicable and nakedly abusive behaviour by various people, the white girl waterworks began and that was the end of the conversation.
Of course, she was well aware of my struggles with race and with mental health – it was why she singled me out of the crowd for her predatory behaviour. Yet it never ceased to astound me how a person who claimed to love me could also attack with such racist vitriol or stay silent when others did. But instead of being furious at her blatant racism, I began to loathe myself and my race more intensely. Not wanting to be victimized further, my desire to identify with the oppressor grew stronger in a mistaken bid to become the abuser instead of the abused.
When that relationship reached its terrifying conclusion, I was thrust into the world of mental health professionals. The mental health professionals I encountered were exclusively white. I never encountered a single mental health care professional of Colour. The mental health professionals I met with expressed puzzlement at my suffering. By appearances, I was raised in an intact family (I did not disclose the volatility of my home life and my father’s explosive rages and violent outbursts), had stellar grades, played sports, worked part time and volunteered regularly.
I never told a single health care professional the real reason I began self-harming – I hated myself. I hated my brown skin, African features and curly hair. I now cursed my dear mother, who so tenderly attempted to prepare me to live in this racist society, for not being white. I was so close to being white and she was the reason I wasn’t. She received specific vitriol for the then-perceived mortal sin of being Black. I internalized the rampant and unabashed racism of the people around me and it was quite literally killing me.
I planned to end this post on some highfalutin note about how considering the impact of race and systemic inequity on mental health is a moral imperative blah blah.
But I believe that would be too simple of an end. That much is obvious.
Instead, I want to stress the importance and deep implications of the fact that the mental health of racialized people in a white supremacist society is not only simply complicated and impacted by race, but rather that being racialized itself can be a cause of mental health trauma.
This is the controversial part.
I am not a psychologist nor do I claim any expertise in the area. However, my lived experience speaks for itself. How does a queer, young, working class Black woman talk to an aging heterosexual middle or upper class white man about her most vulnerable life struggles? How can you possibly be vulnerable with someone who may have no frame of reference for your life experiences or worse may become hostile at the suggestion that race could be a factor in mental illness?
Though I did find understanding mental health practitioners in time, I never discussed race with them. Yet it was and still is vital for my mental health to be able to talk about what was actually near and dear to my heart – the complex stresses of my life being devalued based on who I am and navigating through the compounded effect of trauma on marginalization.
This is the key message that is missing desperately from the mental health conversation. Most people do not know that I have struggled with my mental health for a reason. The mental health profession as a whole is not equipped to deal with race in a way that is clinically significant to racialized people. I believe this is why I am becoming more candid about my mental health struggles – I want people to understand how psychologically scarring racism can be and how redressing justice can be powerful for improving one’s mental health.
I want to end with a thank you to my mother for her ceaseless efforts to affirm our Black heritage and instill racial pride.
This post is part of the third in the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!