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'Black Don't Crack' Masks A Painful Reality For Many Black Canadians

Here's why I no longer use the phrase.
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Somewhere between melanin and resilient facial structure, there’s a medical explanation for the apparent “agelessness” of Black skin. According to a study from the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Black people have denser bones in their faces that don’t break down as quickly. This seems to be part of why Black people look so young: our faces maintain their shape for longer.

Outside of research laboratories, this phenomenon is captured by a simple phrase: “Black don’t crack.” You may have heard it before on an occasion when a Black person’s age was made known. It’s the 86-year-old grandfather who looks like he’s in his 60s, it’s the middle-aged mother being mistaken for her daughter’s sibling, it’s the 37-year-old who still gets asked by a clerk if she’s over 18, each and every visit — and, trust me, it’s not company policy.

“Saying “Black don’t crack” can serve as a way of pushing back.”

If “Black don’t crack” was merely about appearance, the story would end here. But “Black don’t crack” has a cultural resonance that runs much deeper than age-defying beauty. The saying reflects a deep-seated pride tied to something that no amount of Eurocentric marketing can take away: melanin.

In our beauty-obsessed culture, a culture enamoured with anti-aging creams and wrinkle removers, saying “Black don’t crack” can serve as a way of pushing back against the stifling and overwhelming whiteness of the advertising industry. Perhaps this is why several Black news and entertainment sites showcase examples of Blacks who don’t crack or, as one site calls them, ”Black don’t crack all-stars.” This is also why the phrase was trademarked last year by an apparel brand that helps you “celebrat[e] your victories that have inspired others to push through” and “honour the legacies we have all inherited and the resilient blood that flows through our veins.”

As the phrase becomes part of our lexicon, serving as a stand-in not only for glowing skin but also the physical, cultural and historical resilience of Black people, I find myself feeling increasingly trapped and uncomfortable. While I certainly enjoy the shocked reactions whenever I shave and people think I’m in my 20s, no amount of shock can undo the what’s happening internally to the bodies and minds of Black Canadians.

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All across the country, Black Canadians are experiencing worse health outcomes than the general population. The Black Health Alliance reports that people of Caribbean, East and West African origin in Ontario face a 60 per cent greater risk of psychosis; additionally, Black Ontarians experience higher rates of restraint and confinement under the care of the mental health and addictions system. Among all ethnic communities in this country, Black women have had the most drastic increase in rates of high blood pressure, from 20 per cent in 2001 to 27 per cent in 2012.

Earlier this week, the Toronto Star reported on a study that found that workers of colour often feel isolated from their peers and pay an “emotional tax” at work due to their race, gender and ethnicity. The stress that results can impact their health, leading to depression and panic attacks, for example, and may even cause them to leave their job.

Add the problems in the workplace to the well-documented racial disparities that exist in the health care, criminal justice and education systems, and a startling picture emerges.

“Anti-Black racism not only permeates health care, but all other institutions.”

Alvin Merchant is a Black man living with sickle cell disease, which disproportionately affects Black communities in Canada, and is a member of the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO). He’s had multiple experiences in which he has arrived at a hospital emergency room in excruciating pain, only to be declined treatment because “he looks fine.”

As Merchant reflects upon the challenges he faced as a young man with sickle cell disease in the 1990s, he recalls the “silent bias of doctors,” noting that he was often accused of overstating his pain and discomfort, and that his requests for pain medication were sometimes read as drug-seeking behaviour. “How do you call an eight-year-old, or a 10-year-old, or even a 14-year-old a ‘drug seeker?’” Merchant asks, as he recounts one particularly painful incident with a doctor in Scarborough, Ont.

While pain management protocols have changed since Merchant’s earliest experiences, he notes that he was recently told by a doctor in Newmarket, Ont. to go to Toronto because the hospital “didn’t know what do with him.”

Incidents like these are why Merchant and his colleagues at the SCAO are now advocating for a Universal Hospital Protocol for sickle cell in Ontario.

A Universal Hospital Protocol would outline courses of action regarding hydration, oxygen and pain control that would be followed by all hospitals in Ontario. It would ensure people with sickle cell disease that they can travel freely around the province and receive consistent, high-quality care regardless of which hospital they visit.

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In February 2018, world-renowned tennis player, Serena Williams, went public with the news that she almost died while giving birth to her daughter, Alexis. Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, alerted her nurse to the difficulty she was having breathing and requested a CT scan and a blood thinner due to her history of blood clots. According to Williams, the nurse proceeded to tell her that her pain medication had likely left her confused.

Later, a doctor performed an ultrasound of her legs that did not reveal any blood clots. It was only upon Williams’ insistence that the medical staff eventually performed a CT scan that revealed small blood clots in her lungs. Williams’ experience is perhaps the most visible example of a problem so common to so many Black people seeking care.

“Our humanity is ignored and our life experiences are only taken seriously if visible on the thin film we call skin.”

Anti-Black racism not only permeates health care, but all other institutions. As one 2016 report notes, Black Canadians make up three per cent of the Canadian population, but account for 10 per cent of inmates in federal prison. The same report noted that, in 2013 in Toronto, 27 per cent of all carding incidents were focused on Black Torontonians, despite Black people constituting only eight per cent of Toronto residents.

Whether the issue is pain management in health care, treatment in psychiatric facilities or police profiling, the reality is that our society has a problem seeing Black vulnerability. Black children are often misread as being older than their age and subjected to greater scrutiny from police, teachers and other people in positions of authority. Meanwhile, Black adults are misread as incapable of feeling pain, and Black patients requesting pain medication are misread as drug-seeking. In all of these instances, our humanity is ignored and our life experiences are only taken seriously if visible on the thin film we call skin.

For these reasons, and many more, I no longer say “Black don’t crack.” Black does, in fact, crack. It cracks deeply and painfully and on a daily basis here in Canada, in our schools, in our child welfare system, and our hospital emergency rooms. Black cracks when our peers ostracize us in our workplaces and when doctors label our pain as drug-seeking behaviour. Black cracks when Black children don’t get to be Black children. It cracks in all the ways that our vulnerability is misread and denied simply because of the colour of our skin.

Despite our best efforts to keep our skin moisturized, fresh and taut, the daily forms of violence we experience are aging us internally at an unprecedented rate. While Black Canadians may look great externally, internally the cracks are not only forming, but show no signs of slowing.

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