Racism Is NOT A Mental Illness and It’s Damaging To Say It Is

 

Fuck this this is shit in all the ways it is shit.

Ok, now that I’ve got that out of my system I still make no promises that I will not continue to call it shit over and over again. Because this is a steaming pile of garbage filth feces, and I am not about to censor myself on the way that mental illness gets thrown under the bus time and again to make other people feel good, safe, and normal. The lives of the mentally ill are always seen as less than, wrong, and bad. This kind of bullshit is why even liberals are willing to discriminate against disabled and mentally ill people. I apologize in advance if this is ranty and angry but it has every right to be because this video is senseless drivel, but it’s exactly the kind of senseless drivel that I see coming out of the mouths of people I expect better of.

DEFINITIONS

Let’s start with facts. The video posits that racism is a PTSD like mental health problem because racists exhibit irritability, aggression, and hostility. Let’s talk about what it takes for something to be a diagnosis in the DSM, and why we have diagnoses. First and foremost we have diagnoses so that people can receive treatment. A diagnosis is supposed to help providers understand how they can help someone. Now right off the bat, this video’s suggestion that racism is a mental health problem or that we should treat it as a mental health problem makes very little sense because hey guess what it turns out a. almost everyone has some racist tendencies and b. racists respond to different types of treatment. Some people just need to meet a black person they like, some people need to confront their own traumas and history, some people appear not to be open to any kind of change. There’s no one reason that people are racist or a best practice for interacting with them. These traits vary wildly among racists, and there doesn’t seem to be a higher rate or intensity of them in racists than in the general population (or even associated with instances of racism. People can be racist with a smile on their faces while thinking they’re being kind). So strike one on why we should approach it like a mental health issue.

“Irritability, aggression, hostility,” those are not enough to make up a mental health diagnosis, and NOT EVERY RACIST shows those traits. They would have to be exaggerated beyond all the rest of the population, impact a person’s day to day functioning, and be unique to racists in some way in order to quality as a mental health diagnosis

The other major problem with suggesting that racism is a mental health issue is that in order to be considered a diagnosis, the symptoms have to impair functioning in some major area of life (work, relationships, education, etc.). Now there are some extreme cases in which this happens, but overall racists are pretty functional in our society. In fact, it turns out that you can be openly, disgustingly racist and still get elected president. Our society is one embedded in racism, so the idea that being racist or doing racist things or having racist thoughts will make it hard for you to function is laughable. This is what we’ve been taught all our lives. It only makes sense. In my experience, actively fighting racism is far less functional in our society than accepting the basic racist premises that we grow up with.

There are some other smaller problems, like the fact that not all racist people show irritability, aggression, or hostility (have you seen a sweet racist Minnesotan mom? I have), so if those are supposedly the defining characteristics of “racism”, why aren’t they associated with all instances of racism?

WHY DO PEOPLE DO IT

So factually it doesn’t make tons of sense to assert that racism is a mental health issue because the traits are not out of line with the rest of the population, seen in all racist instances, and don’t impair day to day functioning. What could be motivating this impulse that so many (mostly white) people have to say that racism is a mental illness? What are the larger impacts of this assertion?

The video seems to assert that this label helps us address racism better, because we can use “exposure therapy” a la the therapy for phobias. I personally think it’s a REALLY BAD IDEA to suggest that. First, there’s already a lot of gross misunderstandings about how therapy works, and how exposure therapy in particular works, to the extent that random people will just expose someone to their triggers and call it therapy. Saying that on a society wide level we can engage in exposure therapy by protesting and talking about our past traumas propagates these misunderstandings and suggests that any rando can do therapy. Additionally I don’t see why we need to label racism a mental health problem in order to be willing to talk about it openly and face it head on. We can do that anyway.

The video also seems to suggest that viewing racism as a mental health problem will push people to be more accountable. It says “don’t let your racist friend or uncle off the hook. You wouldn’t abandon them if they had a mental illness.” Now I have to laugh at this because mentally ill people get abandoned all the fucking time so that’s a fucking shitty appeal to people’s decency. But this also implies that people are racist through no fault of their own and we should address racism to help the poor innocent racists. WHAT. THE. FUCK.

STOP CENTERING WHITE PEOPLE DEAR LORD JESUS. The reason not to let racists off the hook is because they are actively hurting people of color. If that’s not a good enough reason for you, then you might be a racist. That’s it. We don’t need to save racists, they’re doing perfectly fucking fine. The more we cater to their fee fees, the worse off we’ll be.

Racism doesn’t HAPPEN to white people. White people CAUSE racism because it benefits us. The end.

SPLASH DAMAGE

Ok ok, so beyond being wrong, what’s so bad about saying that racism is a mental illness? Maybe it can help us understand the phenomenon better or give us ways to approach and change the problem, even if it’s not wholly accurate.

Well in addition to not actually being super helpful, calling racism a mental health problem is seriously hurting a whole lot of people. You know, those people who are ACTUALLY mentally ill. If you label things you disagree with or find offensive “crazy” or “mental illness”, you are part of the stigmatization of mental illness. You’re part of ableism.

Cruelty and dehumanization are not the same as mental illness. People with every diagnosis out there are capable of fighting racism and being good people. When you say that something you find immoral is a mental illness, you are implying that mental illness means violence, means treating people poorly, mean violence, means anger, means hostility. Sure, there are people who are mentally ill who do all these things, but this is the kind of rhetoric that suggests every school shooter has autism or every murderer was just crazy. It takes away people’s responsibility (the video gets it completely wrong on that front. Racism is not a behavior like drunk driving, it’s a belief system and it’s one for which you are responsible), while also opening up the door to mistreat mentally ill people because they are violent and dangerous.

Stop blaming bad actions on mental illness. I don’t appreciate being thrown under the bus so that you can feel like you understand your shitty friends better. It’s complete shit to equate these learned, chosen behaviors with the different way my brain was born.

tldr: it’s not crazy to be racist in our society. It’s not a fluke that so many people in positions of power are racist, it’s part of the system. Calling it crazy only hurts the mentally ill. STOP IT.

 

My Body, My Mind

When I feel overwhelmed I change my body.

I tattoo, I pierce, I dye or cut my hair. Sometimes I starve myself or hurt myself. In positive or negative ways, I change my body.

When I am overwhelmed, I feel as if my body isn’t my own. I feel as if I am performing, as if I cannot take a single iota of power from a larger system around me.

Today I want to take my body back from someone who claimed it as an excuse for murder.

“You rape our women. You’re taking over our country.”

That’s what he said before he killed them. Stephanie said that we, our bodies, are not yours. My body has never been anyone’s but my own, much less someone who will now become a figure for the medical and political institutions to talk about the ways they want to limit my freedom. Yes, you know where the conversation will go. He was mentally ill.

I’m sorry, but he doesn’t speak for my body and he doesn’t speak for my brain. My mental illness is not one of racism, and mental illness is not a catch all for murderers.

The media does not get to claim my mind for this racist system, just as this terrorist does not get to claim my body as his excuse.

I want to take my body back today. I want to shave my hair or emblazon my skin with a giant NO or punch holes in every place that the patriarchy says belong to white men.

There are no failsafes for marking myself out as ‘not yours.’ All I can do is say no. My body has not been harmed by the existence of blackness. My body is not in danger due to blackness. My mind is not the site of murderous racism because I have a diagnosis. That is something else entirely and I refuse to allow myself to be associated with it.

Not today.

 

Intersections: Mental Illness and Allyship

I consider myself a white ally. I know I don’t get to pick this for myself. It is not a label but an action. I need to back up my attempts at anti-racist thought with behaviors. Trust me, I am well aware of my shortcomings as an ally: I have never been to a protest, march, or rally on behalf of people of color. I don’t write nearly as often as I should about questions of race. I rarely collect my people. Sure, I start conversations about race with my friends, I call out my family when they say utterly stupid things, and I try to make absolutely certain that everyone on all my social media platforms knows where I stand on racism. I try to retrain my brain whenever possible, educate myself, and question my problematic opinions.

But I know I could be a lot better. There were protests in the last few weeks for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, protests that I should have gone to. There was a conversation with a friend that I gave up on halfway through because it was too hard.  I know that at least one person in my family still holds to the belief that African American Vernacular is incorrect English, and I’ve stopped trying to correct them.

There are easy excuses. I’m tired. It’s hard. I’ve tried already. These are bullshit.

But where I hit a fence is this: that conversation that I gave up on last week? It wasn’t because I didn’t want to figure out how to get my point across, or because I thought my friend was entitled to their opinion. It was because my anxiety and depression took over halfway through and convinced me that if I didn’t agree with him, he would hate me and I was being a bad person. Like a very capable and competent adult, I spent a few hours crying instead of being the good ally I was trying to be.

The reason I didn’t go to the protests? The fatigue from my depression has been catching up with me lately and I’ve been sleeping 10+ hours every night. I haven’t been able to get out of the house to do even the basic tasks I need to complete for my own life. I tried to convince myself to get there, and I couldn’t escape my own malaise.

I don’t know if this excuses or exempts me from certain forms of allyship. Probably not. I don’t know if the intersection of my mental illness and other causes changes how I should behave in situations like these. Probably not. But I also don’t know how to practice self-care and prioritize my health while also working hard for others.

This all sounds like excuses to my ears, but I know there are others out there who expect themselves to always be the perfect activist. The conversation needs to be had.

 

“This Felon Is Hot”

In what is apparently now news, a felon is considered hot on the internet. For some people, this is a Big Deal that is evidence that the people who think he is hot are Very Bad People because they find someone who did a bad thing aesthetically pleasing.

So first and foremost can we just get out of the way the fact that calling someone attractive is not even remotely the same as calling them good or condoning their behavior, and the elision of goodness and beauty into one element is a shitty thing that needs to stop happening. It is in fact possible to point out a positive (ish?) thing about someone (I’m not even sure “good looking” qualifies as a positive character trait) and understand that they’ve done shitty things and are most likely a not very good person. It doesn’t mean condoning all the good things about that person.

Additionally, someone’s appearance has exactly 0 bearing on their morality. I can’t believe we still have to reiterate that fact. This is something that even popular media has figured out for the most part (see: Lucius Malfoy, among others). You can even (gasp) be actively attracted to someone who is a bad person, be aware that they’re a shitty person, not condone their nasty behavior, and choose not to act on your attraction because you know what kind of a person you are (all while still being able to honestly say that they’re hot). Contrary to popular belief, attraction is not a get out of jail free card for the person  you’re attracted to.

There are so many things wrong with the idea that this is a problem. I’m so sick of the idea that we can judge someone’s character based on their body (fat shaming anyone?), that feeling attraction requires an action (rape culture anyone?) and that women in particular should feel shitty about being attracted to someone (purity culture anyone?).

But perhaps my least favorite thing about this has to do with race. The man in question is black, and many of the women who expressed attraction are black. Color me surprised. How out of place for women of color to be shamed for their attraction and sexuality. How out of place for black men to be viewed as a negative influence on the people around them. How out of place for white people to cast judgment on black people for things that make absolutely no sense and are really just another way of connecting black people with crime.

Yeah, the guy is good looking, but I bet if I had been the one saying it no one would have batted an eyelash.

Intersectionality in Animal Rights

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

Another Trayvon?

Down in our most favorite state of Florida, the Stand Your Ground laws are being put to the test once again, once again in an utterly ridiculous case of a white man feeling threatened by the mere existence of black people. In this case, Michael Dunn stopped at a gas station and was pissed off that four black teenagers had their bass up too high. He told them to turn it down, thought he saw a gun and then fired into their SUV four times, at which point he drove away. What he apparently didn’t notice is that he had killed one of the people in the SUV. 17 year old Jordan Davis.

Of course his defense is that he was threatened. He thought he heard someone say “kill that bitch”, he thought he saw a gun (no gun found in the SUV upon later investigation). Oddly enough despite how threatened he felt, he simply got in his car and left without calling the police or really doing anything one would think you should do after “defending” yourself from potential gunfire.

None of us know how this trial is going to turn out. There are some significant differences with the George Zimmerman trial, most obviously that this was a purely verbal altercation, that Dunn neglected to call the cops, and that he fled the scene. However there are notable similarities as well: Dunn is white and his victim is black. The same attorney is defending both men. And both men are relying on the Stand Your Ground law as a defense.

Most of the people reading this blog probably won’t debate that the Stand Your Ground laws have been used in racially charged ways in the past, and that this trial will be another test of just how important a white person’s feelings of safety are in comparison to a black person’s right to exist. What seems to stand out to me in this case is a.how little media attention this appears to have gotten and b.how bold people are getting when it comes to murdering black youth. The provocation in this case was literally some loud music (kids these days!) and a completely nonexistent gun. The man in question, supposedly terrified out of his mind, drove back to a bed and breakfast with his girlfriend and ordered a pizza. The nonchalance of these actions is mind-blowing and more than a little bit disturbing.

I have to wonder a bit about what was actually happening in this situation. It seems clear that Dunn was upset about the very public presence of these young people. Their music was too loud: they were intruding on his space. I wonder if the music was rap or hip hop and if Dunn would have reacted the same way had they been playing pop or rock. His description of their language is clearly coded as black (kill that bitch). They were infringing on his space and his rights with their voices. Would he have felt the same if their dialect had been coded white? Were these kids wearing “black” clothes? Would he have felt threatened if they were dressed in suits or in slacks and button down shirts? Would he have bothered to get out of his car and see if he injured anyone after firing?

I can’t ever know the answers to these questions. No one can. No one will know whether Dunn would have acted the same had the youth in question been white or Asian or anything but black. What we do know is that there are too many incidents of blackness being coded as danger in our society, too many people who act as though another black body is just another day, and too few people caring.

The priority of fear over the right to live makes no sense in a civilized society in which we have an entire occupation dedicated to keeping us safe (particularly when you’re white and you know that the police are on your side). We know that our fear is not always rational, that quick reactions based on emotions are often harmful, that our perceptions of situations are often distorted. We know that citizens have the right to safety. So why have we said that fear is more important?

Oh right, because blackness is inherently scary and because the most important thing is to make sure white people are safe and secure.

Asexual Trauma

Over at Queer Libido there is an amazing post about why Alok does not feel comfortable identifying as asexual. Alok is a South Asian man, and because of the tendency to emasculate and desexualize Asian men, he does not feel comfortable terming himself “asexual” without an exploration of the fact that it was trauma and colonialization that acted on his body to put him in the position he is in now (very brief summary, please read the article itself as it’s fantastic). As is my odd tendency when reading things from men of color, I found myself nodding along at many of his comments. I have no desire to co-opt his feelings or his narrative, and I deeply don’t want to play the oppression olympics, but his identification of trauma as an important part of sexual identity and his desire to look at a journey rather than a “born this way” mentality felt so important and personal to me.

As someone who never presented as feminine until I reached halfway through high school, I was never viewed as sexual. I never viewed myself as sexual. As someone who at an early age got into her first relationship and had sexuality forced down her throat, I often saw sexuality as invasive, as taking away my autonomy. Guilt has figured heavily into my sexual repertoire: I owe someone my sexuality, I owe the world my sexuality and my body. My partners have often reminded me of this fact, doing everything from telling me what clothes I could wear to guilting me into sex.

Clearly my experience of the violence and trauma of sexuality is very different from Alok’s, as my experience is that of a white woman (someone whose sexuality is deemed compulsory) rather than a brown man (someone whose sexuality is denied). However Alok’s experience of wanting to recognize his own trauma, the violence that he feels when it comes to sexuality, the distance he feels from being allowed to be a sexual subject, all these things feel familiar and important. Each of us feels that we have had our autonomy taken from us in some way, him by his race and me by my gender.

It seems intensely important to me to recognize that actively accepting the role society has created for you is not compulsory. If society bills you as sexless, you do not have to acquiesce to asexuality even if you don’t find yourself strongly pulled towards sexuality. Identities are political and they don’t appear in a vacuum. The trauma that we experience out of our oppressions plays a clear role in how we feel towards our sexuality and our bodies, but it can also play a role in how we feel comfortable identifying. As an example, I have always felt uncomfortable with the fact that the most obvious identities I have are heterosexual, monogamous, and cis, because these are the roles that society demands I have. I have spent time asking myself whether I want to publicly identify myself with these things because they have been used to damage so many women.

While Alok’s experience is one of being forcibly de-sexualized, and so he feels uncomfortable embracing that, mine is one of being forcibly sexualized. Each of these experiences can leave you feel as if you have no space to act, no connection to the body that is being acted on, no intimacy with yourself. Each of them can be traumatic. Alok asks that we openly acknowledge our trauma when speaking of our sexual identities. As I mentioned in a previous post, our histories are an important part of our identities today, and we cannot ignore that. The politics and traumas involved in those histories are part of that, and I want to be open about the fact that my body has been a site of sexual violence and mental health violence, often at my own hands. These are part of what I react to when I say I am asexual. These are part of reclaiming my body.

As Alok says “The dilemma of this brown queer body is its inability to see itself through its own eyes. The mirror becomes a site it which we view what white people have always told us about ourselves. Regardless or not of the status of my libido, I’m not sure I will ever feel comfortable identifying as asexual because it seems like I am betraying my people. ”

This dilemma is true for any person with oppressions. There is no right answer when it comes to sex. There is no certainty about whether we are the actor or the object of our sexuality. Perhaps this is the problem with labels, with identity politics, with trying to be a part of a community based on a sex drive. But perhaps this is the place we can begin to be open and vulnerable, to see ourselves as both the site of others’ violence and our own reclamations. Maybe this recognition could be the beginning of a sexuality more complex and more empathetic than any of us has seen before.

I don’t know how we can proceed from recognizing that bodies are one of the most common sites of trauma, but I know that we need to start there.