Cover photo credit: Adam Vaughan
Natasha March is a black and indigenous human rights activist and academic. She recently was a speaker at the Black Lives Matter march in Manchester and has since been speaking publicly about the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the decolonisation of British society.
Natasha’s research particularly focuses on the way that colonial legacies have impacted the wellbeing and lives of indigenous communities around the world. She has witnessed and researched the way that the legacy of colonialism has left a huge impression on black and indigenous communities’ mental health.
She spoke to us recently about how racism impacts mental health in today’s society.
5 ways that racism impacts your mental health
Denial and silence - not able to talk about emotional pain
Q: What do you mean by denial and silence? Is this something that appears in your life?
A: As a woman of Jamaican-English descent, I have witnessed a lot of denial and silence in my own community regarding slavery and our racial history.
It’s important to recognise that for many black people living in the U.K. and U.S.A. today, there is an interrupted history because of slavery. We often don’t know our own stories, they are lost in time.
Particularly people from my background, the children of carribean islanders, we don’t even know which tribes in Africa we historically come from.
The impact of stolen history is silence. People can’t talk about what they don’t know, and what they do know, they have been encouraged to deny or repress or not share in British society.
For instance, when the windrush generation came to Britain, they were encouraged to be “British” not “Jamaican.” This legacy of silence continues in modern life. It’s my experience that people don’t want to talk about mental health and their pain, and that’s something that they’ve learned from their own ancestors who were silenced.
Impact on body image
Q: Have you struggled with your own body image due to racism?
A: Self image can be really difficult for women of colour, particularly women of colour in a white society or community.
I grew up as the only girl of colour in my year group at school. When you are surrounded by white friends, and all of the beauty standards are white (when I was growing up, everyone wanted to look like Kate Moss!) it can corrode your self-esteem in a way that stays with you for such a long time. I am still unpacking it all now as a grown woman! Boys always told me I was ugly, and it was just because I was different, but I also experienced a hyper-sexualisation or fetisation of my body from white men.
I’m so glad to see that millennial women of colour are celebrating their natural bodies, the #blackgirlmagic trend is amazing to see. I really hope that young black women of colour can feel more secure in their bodies in society.
Lack of belief about your mental health from medical professionals
Q: Can you expand on this a little more?
A: There is institutional racism inside the medical system. There is a trend of predominantly white doctors or nurses who lack essential race-relation skills, either due to lack of training or because the government has not prioritised understanding the unique medical needs of people of colour.
There are multiple studies that show people of Black, Asian and ethnic minority heritage have experienced racism from the medical system which then leads to a lack of care. In my own experiences, within the last year, I have been dismissed by medical professionals who don’t see that racism can be a detriment to a person’s mental health.
When I was in a really bad place mentally, struggling largely because I was experiencing a lot of racism and it was really getting me down, this wasn’t treated as a “proper” mental health concern.
Studies show us that patients of colour are less likely to be taken seriously, and their unique mental health concerns are less likely to be addressed. Even though we know that, statistically, people of colour are more likely to need to access mental health services! But why would anyone want to access a service where they are not heard, or where they are being judged?
It creates social anxiety and paranoia
Q: Can you speak a little more about what that means?
A: As a person of colour, I am constantly affected by society’s resistance to my true self and heritage. As a person of colour living in modern British society, I feel hypervigilant to society’s reaction of how I present.
In my research into historical colonialism, I use the term “white judgement.” British society and colonialism has been built on the inequality of peoples; just look at cities like Bristol and Liverpool who flourished financially directly from the slave trade. This inequality is hard to overcome. Racism is not always a bad word, or a horrible facebook post – sometimes it is internalised prejudices and a lack of education. The fact that British schools teach a largely white-washed history curriculum, despite the recommendations of history across the country, is part of the problem. Sometimes racism is not a conscious thought, but an ingrained habit that needs to be challenged and addressed.
When I challenge that, even just by having natural hair or visibly showing elements of my own culture, I feel ostracized from what is considered “normal.” This can produce a lot of social anxiety in people of colour – the constant worry of not fitting in, or worrying that you are being judged for being different can have a huge impact on mental health.
Emotional fatigue - also known as ‘racial battle fatigue’
Q: Can you explain what racial battle fatigue is? How does it impact your daily life?
A: At the end of the day, as a person of colour I am always carrying all the micro-aggression of daily life and, rightly so, feel exhausted by it. This is part of my motivation, and the motivation of others who were with me, behind the Manchester Black Lives Matter march. We call this exhaustion with racism and racist behaviour, “the struggle.”
For many of us, this refers to all the ways we have to navigate and exist in a world still steeped in racism and usually, just put up with it, for the benefit of our wellbeing. Our motivation to march was not just the death of George Floyd; his murder was a tipping point for many people of colour living in Britain today who are living with racial battle fatigue.
In research terms, this is also known as ‘post traumatic slave syndrome’. That sounds really theoretical, after all, most people think we are long way away from the slavery of the past, but studies show us that trauma is inherited as well as experienced.
For example, studies have shown that the children of holocaust survivors experience genetic markers for trauma. When an entire race of people are enslaved for 400 years that is going to have a significant impact on the following generations mental health. It is the same mistreatment of the colonisation of indigenous people and African Americans.
Racism is a mental health issue, not just a political issue
Photo credit: Adam Vaughan
What we need to do is to work together as a nation to heal the colonial wounds of racism in this country and around the world. This starts with acknowledging that white colonial history does have an impact not only on black bodies but black minds. Mental health is a global issue, and when one community’s mental health is neglected, everyone’s mental health is neglected.
If you would like to delve deeper into any of the topics raised by Natasha, she recommends the following books for further reading:
- “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” by Joy DeGruy
- “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- “Critical White Studies – Looking Behind the Mirror” – edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
- “Black Skin, White Masks” by Frantz Fanon
- “Black Feminist Thought – Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment” by Patricia Hill Collins