I was fourteen years old when I realised that blackness, depression, and anxiety were not mutually exclusive.
It was a burden and a mercy. The “Unbreakable Black Girl” fallacy I had tried to uphold for so long had been pummeled to pieces. But as the remnants of that false truth fell at my feet, I began to realise just how much of a backhanded assault that label had been on my vulnerability.
Words like “sassy” and “strong” were no longer compliments to me as a black female — they were dismissals. Dismissals of the depth and dimension of my emotional capacity, a confirmation of the world view that a black girl’s emotions only jump between three main factions; humour, hyperactivity, and hot-headedness. It was no longer a flattering amplification of my strength, it became a gross violation of my right to show weakness.
It was a revelatory moment, and while it never made the anxiety attacks any easier, it at least validated them. My feelings of anxiousness and awkwardness no longer equated to me “acting white” — whatever that means. They equated to me acting human.
With this knowledge, I got through school somehow and walked with open arms into university life, assured by promises of diversity and inclusivity that things would finally be different.
But in truth, I have not been this hyperaware of my mental health and blackness since secondary school.
No one really prepares you for it. You get told that university is nothing like school, but I often feel like I am back on the playground. With the nagging anxiety of the new kid, my ‘black girl strength’ has been physically and mentally manhandled — by fingers that tug, rake, and rip through my ‘pretty hair’ without my consent, by slow interrogations of where I ‘come from,’ by a persistent, inexplicable sense of isolation, and the pause that comes when I am asked to explain why I feel this.
It is often difficult to describe the racial anxiety that comes with positioning yourself in the academic world as an ethnic minority. The ways in which it manifests itself are subtler, more intelligent now. Being the only black kid in an English classroom is no longer the quick, apologetic glance you get as your classmate whispers the word ‘nigger’ in a reading of “Of Mice and Men.”
It is looking around a full lecture theatre and realising you are the only black face; it is the way in which the line between your seminar tutor’s constructive criticism and condescending quips becomes increasingly blurred; it is the elation you feel as you find a class on nation and identity, only to find the syllabus sails no further than the Irish Sea. It is the exaggerated raise of eyebrows in silent surprise at “just how articulate you are!” It is remembering the boasts of diversity and inclusion you had once signed up for, and realising just how violently you have been let down.
“If you are black and breakable, it’s okay."”
Racial anxiety is the feeling of the eyes of dead men’s statues leering over your shoulder to read your dead men’s books, and silently questioning whether you really belong here.
And through all of this? You feel a pressure to remain composed.
You don’t want to come across as an angry, black woman now, do you?
Being black at a university can be an incredibly difficult world to navigate, so when you throw mental health into the mix, it can often feel like you’re holding the map upside-down. However, navigating this journey that I and many other black students have to take is made so much easier when we choose to be honest and transparent about our mental health. Talking about mental health in the black community seems to go beyond being a taboo topic in many ways — it simply isn’t discussed. But it is important that the false notion of mental health being a purely ‘white issue’ is totally dismantled.
If there is anything I would like you to take away from this piece, it is that your emotions and your vulnerability are totally valid. If you are black and breakable, it’s okay.
You are not alone.
This piece was originally published on Medium.