The University of Toronto Students’ Union held an event titled “Anti-Black Racism and Mental Health” on February 15 as part of its annual eXpression Against Oppression series, coinciding with Black History Month. Closing out a week of events directed at challenging oppression and highlighting the experiences of marginalized people, the event addressed the negative impacts of anti-Black racism and discrimination on mental health.
Rania El Mugammar, a Sudanese-Canadian writer and anti-oppression and liberation educator, hosted and led the discussion.
When asked about why it is important to address the issue of mental health and anti-Black racism in a conversation with The Varsity before the event, Mugammar replied that the dehumanizing effects of racism and the resulting hypervigilance negatively impacts mental health.
“If [it’s] not part of our understanding of [the] mental health crisis and mental health issues then how can we actually address it in a way that helps people find coping mechanisms that work, find treatment plans that work, and find sustainable ways to support themselves and their communities, and also have language to talk about it?”
Mugammar especially stressed the importance of having the language to talk about mental health in her culture.
“I remember when I was younger and all the Black women around me would say, ‘Depression is for white girls,’” Mugammar said.
“We don’t have the luxury of falling apart, right? So it’s not something that’s allowed for us. So we don’t have a language around it and I think it’s really important that we do.”
Addressing this absence through an anti-oppression framework during the event, she discussed the theory of intersectionality, how it concerns Black communities, and why it’s so important to incorporate intersectionality into mental health interventions and conversations.
According to Mugammar, approaches that do not have an intersectional lens end up saying that being a “woman is a white, cis, able-bodied experience. Everyone else is a deviation.”
Due to this belief, she talked at length about how the study of psychology is “rooted in the world of wealthy white men,” and why it’s important to break that barrier and include more people from Black communities when designing mental health supports for them.
When asked by a student how her work aids and supports important academic research in psychology, Mugammar replied that her work does not support the academic community.
Instead, she framed most of her work as “pedestalling and giving [a] platform to community-based interventions and grassroot interventions and culturally relevant interventions that don’t get access to academic spaces.”
She expressed her disdain and distrust of academia by pointing out that the very “fathers” of psychology and mental health studies are from “a very particular social location,” adding that the “roots of this tree are rotten.”
Instead, she said that she needs to know the social location from which the researcher speaks: “who the researcher is, what their purpose is, etc.”
Mugammar also addressed the issue of intergenerational trauma in Black communities as the last topic of the night.
According to Mugammar, one cannot talk about mental health in Black communities without addressing intergenerational trauma, because intergenerational trauma can seriously impact mental health.
“Trauma fucks with you,” she said.