By Debrah Makinde, Biology and Humanities student
Growing up I have always loved school. As a young black female immigrant who moved to Canada at the age of 11, school was the only thing that I looked forward to. For me, school was a place where I could connect, learn and engage with other students and teachers. I felt that school was the perfect opportunity for me to contribute to the community and to create a “home away from home” in a sense. However, I quickly realized that this new community that I so badly wanted to be a part of wasn’t so welcoming.
I remember feeling like an outcast because no one understood me or even tried to. Not only did they not understand me, but they judged me. Due to me being the only black student in the entire school, I felt defeated. I felt like my voice would never be heard. All of this affected me physically, emotionally and mentally – up until today I am still healing from this. I mention all of this to emphasize that education, health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked, especially in the black community.
Education shapes lives – it is key to reducing socioeconomic and political inequalities. It is also associated with health behaviours and plays an important role in health by shaping opportunities. According to Statistics Canada, black men and women were almost half as likely to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to their counterparts in the region of their population. Thus, the unemployment rates for both black men and women were about one and a half times higher than the rates for women and men in the rest of the population.
These statistics prove that higher education is essential for the black community because it plays a role in our wellbeing. Not only is education important, but diversity in these institutions is critical. In the article “Imbalance: Mental Health in Higher Education”, Heather Clark mentions that “diversity in education is intersectional and mental health is a significant social identity impacting the experiences of students in higher education.” This article also mentions that minority racial and ethnic populations are more likely to have poor mental health. Thus, having a more diverse institution would help to decrease mental health disorders among black students. Having a more diverse and inclusive education system helps to enrich the educational experience and overall wellbeing of individuals.
I noticed that once I was able to find a community in school that I related to, school became easier and my overall health improved. For example, at Carleton University I was able to join many organizations such as Carleton Women Interested in Medicine and Health (CWIMH) and Campus Rush which have aided in my education experience and the development of relationships. Once I realized that I was not alone and how much education matters in the black community, I endeavoured to share my thoughts and journey with other students as well. This fosters a sense of community and belonging which is what all students need to thrive physically, emotionally and mentally.
As mentioned earlier, education, health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked. Therefore, through education and community work, I think it is important to strive to address anti-Blackness in order to create a world where we feel more included and safe for the betterment of our health.
We want to hear your stories!
The CHAIM Centre will be publishing articles written by Carleton students in recognition of Black History Month. We are now accepting submissions for brief (500-700 word) blog-style articles that focus on issues related to Black health and wellness in Canada. These stories could include social and environmental determinants, health promotion, health inequities, strengths and resilience, in addition to opportunities for change. We welcome personal style articles.
Our goal is to raise awareness about health and wellness in relation to ethno-racial groups. We recognize that Black people face disproportionate health disparities and that race matters in health research. This is an opportunity to amplify these issues through your voice.
The CHAIM Centre will select the 3 most compelling articles to be published on our website. They will be assessed on quality of writing, argument strength, and key messaging. If you cite sources or use interviews in your blog, please include the full citation at the end of your document. The deadline for submissions is February 24th.
By Kianna Mahmoud, 5th year Neuroscience student
‘You are NOT the father’ – I remember at a young age tuning into my favorite daytime TV show Maury, where I watched a pop culture icon read the DNA test results of predominately African American men, accused of being the ‘baby daddy’ to the children of predominantly African American women.
While the sensationalized family drama may be entertaining for some (including my younger self), it perpetuates longstanding stereotypes about Black people. As in the belief that collectively, most Black people have irresponsible sex and make babies with complete strangers. As in Black women being angry ‘welfare queens’ who are unfit mothers. As in Black men being ‘hypersexualized thugs’ who are absent fathers.
Now you may be wondering: no one forced these individuals to go on the show, so, why did they do it?
The less obvious reason for choosing to appear on the Maury show is that out-of-town guests were given free airfare, hotel accommodations, and a small stipend. This is appealing considering most of the guests selected to be on the show were from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The more obvious reason is that these paternity tests provided guests with answers to legitimate problems for which other forms of resolution were costly.
But why are there so many Black single mothers, and why is the paternity of the fathers a form of mass entertainment, specifically in the United States?
The disorganization and instability of Black families can be traced back to the systemic deterioration of Black families by primarily White institutions. Historically, the buying and selling of slaves, slave-breeding, and rape of Black women by white men, have, in part, contributed to the disorganization of Black families. Looking more recently, the ‘War on Drugs’ first declared by Richard Nixon in 1971 and the continued overincarceration of Black men has exacerbated the instability of Black families – let's be real, the war on drugs was not about keeping the community clean and safe; it was a war on Black men, Black people, Black families.
It is well known that the Maury show highlights and glorifies the social inequities experienced by Black people. Although there are tangible incentives for participating in such a show, this is only one example of the construction and commodification of ‘Blackness’ for consumption within a White supremacist culture.
Dominant Cultural Narratives
For many of us, these overlearned stories about Blackness are no surprise given the historical representation of Blacks. Like in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation wherein a White woman throws herself off a ledge in fear of being raped by a White man in Blackface; like in Disney’s 1931 cartoon Santa’s Workshop, in which a blond-haired, blue-eyed doll comes down a slide and Santa teaches it how to say “Mama”, but then a Black doll stumbles down the same slide, landing face first, and hoarsely screams “Mammy”; like in the majority of European history books and academic literature written by Judaeo-Christian scholars that propagates the myth of Blacks as savages and Whites as being racially superior.
Click for more examples of the historical representation of Black folks
Dominant cultural narratives are normalized and weaponized to maintain positive distinctiveness for White people. The constant framing of Blackness as lazy, morally inept, unintelligent, dangerous and brutish reinforces longstanding racial biases wherein the value and goodness of ‘Whiteness’ is assessed relative to the badness and darkness of ‘Blackness’.
These systems of representation communicated through media and other social and cultural institutions function as a not-so-subtle mechanism to maintain the subordination of Blacks and the imagined exceptional identity of Whites. For many Blacks (like my younger self) the internalization of these myths can manifest into psychological problems like decreased self-esteem, self-hatred, internalized racism and inferiority complexes, which, in part, influences our self-perceptions, expectations and behaviors in White spaces.
White is right, Black stay back
For many of us, engaging in self-regulation to comply with White normative standards is instinctual. From a young age we become conscious of the perceptions of Blackness, and as a result we micromanage our appearance and mannerisms in order to make ourselves more palatable for the White gaze. We avoid acting in ways that could be perceived as ‘too Black’ in fear of discrimination and/or being associated with an undesirable stereotype.
We learn how to be a ‘safe Black’.
For example, I am often asked by White folks if they can touch my hair. In response to their (probably) harmless fascination I want to scream out, “surely this cannot be the first time you’ve seen Black hair!!!” but, instead, I silence myself in fear of being perceived as sensitive, or worse, an angry Black woman; I silence myself to avoid the emotional labour of explaining how their question is a subtle reminder that Black hair is abnormal and White hair is the default; and even more daunting, I silence myself to avoid the exhausting task of comforting White fragility, and managing their denial and defensiveness.
Racial stressors are a type of chronic stressor. The experience of racial discrimination, threat of exposure to racial discrimination, cultural racism and internalized racism can all negatively influence the physiological regulation of stress. It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to deal with racial stressors and our bodies become exhausted making us vulnerable to illness. Among Black people, racial stressors have been linked to a number of physical and physiological conditions like depression, anxiety, hypertension, breast cancer, and even mortality.
In order to adapt to the pervasive and often uncontrollable race-related events, we alter our cognitive and behavioral responses. These efforts involve (but are not limited to), putting on ‘armor’ in anticipation of a race-based threat, self-regulating in White spaces to avoid discrimination and negative stereotyping, and suppressing emotions in response to racially charged comments.
Yet, despite having access to an extensive coping toolkit, we still feel exhausted – Why? The tools in the toolkit do not resolve the problems we experience, and sometimes can have psychological and physical consequences of their own. For example, making the conscious or sometimes unconscious decision to not fully be authentic in order to fit into White spaces can compromise our self-esteem, increase feelings of helplessness, isolation and fear.
Black Lives Matter
We do not have to experience racism in order to feel the taxing effects of it. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic many of us, including myself, turned on the TV, logged into social media or flipped the newspaper to read headlines like: Black EMT shot dead in her own home by police in Louisville, Ky; FBI investigates death of Black man after footage shows officer kneeling on his neck; Former police officer and son charged in shooting of Black jogger; Black Wisconsin man hospitalized after police shoot him in the back.
Second-hand exposure to real life racial violence can have severe effects on mental and physical health.
Police brutality cannot fully be realized if one does not understand the narrative and ideological discourse that kills Black people. Although the violence towards Black people is not a recent phenomenon, the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and the brutalization of Jacob Blake have re-invigorated the Black Lives Matter movement. Widespread anti-Black racism protests emerged throughout the globe and as a result, it appears that now more than ever, in recent years, Black people are demanding change.
Social media has been used effectively as a tool for social movements to promote their messages, articulate core beliefs and offer a frame to the public. Most notably, Facebook is a popular platform for scaling up the Black Lives Matter movement through the creation of online spaces; where Black people can mobilize participants through the rapid dissemination of information, and form coalitions through sharing narratives and ideologies. Although these spaces are commonly used by Black people to cope collectively with the psycho-emotional trauma of the constant dehumanization of Black lives, it also provides us with a safe space to engage in purposeful, meaningful and culturally relevant dialogue. It is in this space where we can challenge, resist and deconstruct dominant cultural narratives; re-affirm our cultural values and traditions by the promotion of afro-centric values; and be intentional about building a stronger community through advertising and supporting Black owned businesses and entrepreneurs. For example, the table below displays quotes taken from newly formed Black communities on Facebook. Let me be clear – these groups are more than strangers ‘chatting’ online. These exchanges help create a shared collective understanding and build confidence among group members that empowers off-line actions.
Black Ottawa Connect (May 11, 2020): “Let’s connect and support each other. This group is for us, by us. Post about community events, Black-owned business, travel tips/deals, financial/life advice, job postings, etc.”
Black Lives Matter is more than a freedom movement, it is an intersectional movement that affirms all Black lives across the gender spectrum and calls on Black people to “buy Black, live Black, and love Black.”
It is not easy to liberate ourselves from the social myths and dominant cultural narratives about Black people, especially when we turn on the TV and see Black people participating in the perpetuation of these narratives. We self-regulate our appearance and mannerisms in fear of being perceived as ‘too Black’ or being associated with a negative stereotype and yet this is still not enough. Assimilating into Whiteness does not help us combat anti-Blackness, but rather, it permits the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and attitudes (with our assenting selves being regarded as ‘exceptions’); and worse, such self-regulation further alienates us from our authentic self and from one another.
Through Black Lives Matter and the creation of safe spaces online, Black people (strangers or friends) can come together and collectively cope with racial stressors. I am not suggesting that collectively coping with strangers online is the solution to all of our problems. Rather, I am suggesting that through online communities of support we can foster resilience, encourage and empower each other to tackle the Whitewashed versions of ourselves and embrace our diverse Black identity. We can reaffirm our values as Black people and embody resistance to dominant cultural narratives through the enforcement of unapologetic Blackness. We can build the collective confidence to challenge the dominant narrative of our daily living, and to contend with the push-back.
There is no room for White shame or Black victimization in the embodiment of unapologetic Blackness – It is simply existing and moving through spaces as Black people without being complicit in our own subordination. By embodying unapologetic Blackness, we are rejecting White measures of worth and choosing to live authentically as Black people.
By Mysa Myers, 4th year Cognitive Science
For as long as I’ve been a Carleton student, maybe even before then, I’ve always been interested in research ethics. I’m curious about noble and selfish motives alike for research studies, but I specifically want to understand why controversial studies were carried out the way they were. It sickens me when I read researcher and subject accounts of projects such as Unit 731, the Tuskegee trials and Mengele’s experiments, but I do it anyway in the hopes of answering a seemingly meaningless question: what made the researchers think this was a good idea in the grand scheme of things?
No matter how many angles I view studies like these at, it’s clear to me that they would have resulted in a catastrophic lose/lose situation for all relevant parties in the long run. Even if some of the acquired data is indeed valuable, history proves that outcomes have more impact than results, especially if they affect the typically minority subject sample. Despite the establishment of research ethics boards over time, a sizable amount of biomedical research still fails to account for the variability of individual differences in populations. Passionate as I am about bioethics, I wasn’t aware of this until I eagerly accepted to take part in the Ethno-Racial Analysis (ERA) Project. I had no idea that to this day, we were still having issues with proper ethno-racial representation in empirical studies. The effects are more subtle, as often as not due to their absence, making them arguably just as damaging as historical human rights violations in the name of science.
Biomedical research has a pretty irksome tendency to be exclusive. Even when studies have samples with diverse races and ethnicities, researchers usually lump them all into one group for data analysis. Sure, important results are still reported, but this standardization doesn’t do minority groups much good as far as developing effective treatments is involved. The fact that this is still a problem didn’t dishearten me as I was analyzing fifty genetics studies at once; I saw it coming, as it was apparent that the methodology never changed. At the same time, I was shocked that there didn’t seem to be much effort into making the samples more inclusive or data analyses more precise. For such an apparently progressive field, it was puzzling to see this complacency to the detriment of improving the quality of life of so many people globally.
All in all, this experience opened my eyes to realities that don’t seem to be acknowledged by those living in them. I’m proud and grateful to have taken part in the ERA Project, as it gives me hope that if Carleton can start the conversation, awareness will be raised among biomedical researchers more broadly, and the results of research will have positive and appropriate benefits to all people. To some, this may seem to have been a questionable undertaking, reflecting more ideological than empirical concerns, but I don’t see it. Regardless of what views and beliefs scientists maintain, they are scientists first and people second when conducting research. Empiricism is progressive by definition; in order to progress, we must be objective so that we’re far from the only ones to benefit from our work.