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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

After the murder of George Floyd, and further acts of anti-Black racism and discrimination, many African, Caribbean, and Black people came forward — online, in mass media, and in the streets — to advocate for justice and change. Yet, for some, carrying the torch gets heavy as movements evolve and injustices continue. Finding the activism that’s right for where you’re at.

One of Melicia Sutherland’s earliest memories was from the day a teacher called her the n-word. She was in Grade 2.

“I was outside during recess, and I remember the teacher saying, ‘Everybody come inside now,’” Sutherland said. “The students were entering through the large doors, and I was next in line. The teacher slammed the door in front of my face and called me the n-word. I didn’t know what that word meant. I just felt like I did something wrong. Otherwise, why would this grown-up close the door on me and let everybody else inside?”

Sutherland recalled feeling a gamut of emotions while returning home from school: anger, embarrassment, shame. But later, curiosity arose after she asked her mom what she thought the teacher meant. “My mom was like, ‘I don’t know,’ and we kind of left it alone.”

Becoming the other
If only it was that easy. In the face of constant reminders of her Blackness, there was actually no way for her to leave it alone. After her experience with the teacher, she realized that she’d sensed something like it as far back as kindergarten, when she felt separated from the other children physically and psychologically.

That was in 1989, when at age five she moved with her family from Montego Bay, Jamaica, to the Toronto suburb of North York. Immediately, and for the first time, she had a sense of being an “other.”

“Teachers would take me out of the classroom and play with my hair while other kids were learning the alphabet,” she said. “I’ve always been like this little Black doll that non-Black people wanted to play with.”

Living with discrimination and the experience being treated as other eventually led Sutherland to realize the importance of seeking social change. “As I got older, and as I was trying to create and maintain a certain character and value system for myself, I reached the point where I had to become an activist,” she said. In the summer of 2020, Sutherland joined the Remember The 400 march in Toronto, motivated by the quest for justice for the killing of George Floyd.

She has still not seen the nearly 10-minute footage showing how he lost his life at the hands (or knee) of a police officer. For her own mental health, Sutherland intentionally stepped away from the 24-7 news cycle about the incident. “I was being bombarded with images and people were sending me videos. I don’t want to see anybody die; it hurts my soul. I came off social media because it’s not good for my mental health,” she said.

She also believes this act of self-care does not diminish her activism.

“It’s self-preservation. I don’t like those things because it becomes like Black death porn. People want to see it, and this kind of voyeurism happens, but I’m not here for that. So yeah, I’ve never seen the video, though I wanted to be a part of something I thought was going to bring significant change.”

And, while traumatizing, the response to anti-Black violence — seen, heard, and felt in the media and within African, Caribbean, and Black (ACB) communities — has also helped make a difference. According to a peer-reviewed National Academy of Sciences study, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have broadened the social conversation on anti-racist topics.

As the research showed, street demonstrations were an important first step for creating social change and shaping how people think about racism. Protests have also helped redefine the ways people learn and consume information about Black communities as they seek to reconcile issues about race and police violence. In addition, the study noted how individuals are showing up and re-making their own activism against racial inequalities.

At the same time, activism isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. The “active” part of activism doesn’t need to be direct or even active. Nor does it always mean marching, holding picket signs, or chanting the need for social change.

Sutherland’s activism “has always been through the arts, through spoken words, through language, through visuals — even doing hair. It’s not just marching,” she said. “What changes things is engaging at the ground level. It’s what you do in your immediate community, in your family, and with your friends and neighbours.”

Disengage to re-engage
Nicole Franklin, a registered social worker, psychotherapist, and clinical director and founder of Live Free Counselling and Consulting Services in Toronto, shares that belief. Since 2017, her Black-led, Black-owned organization has helped fill the gap of too few Black therapists in racialized communities. It has also provided education and training in Black mental health. For Franklin, “Black resistance” involves Black people’s everyday acts of resistance against white supremacy and colonialism within the political, economic, and social systems that push ACB communities to society’s margins. Such resistance is diverse and can take many forms, whether in classrooms, boardrooms, or on the streets. “Black people access self-care through joy, art, dance, passing down recipes — even cooking, which can also be an act of self-care and community care,” she explained. “This is the stuff we don’t talk about enough.”

While there is a diversity of forms, Franklin is quick to mention that continuous resistance can be counterproductive. “We shouldn’t always have to be resisting as Black folks. We also have the right to just be. Disengaging or tapping out can allow you to reconnect with self and the community, because part of activism is knowing when to pause and take a rest. Ask yourself what brings you joy? What ignites your creativity? It is our birthright to re-imagine oppressive systems and to have safe spaces to thrive rather than just focusing on surviving,” she said.

“Being Black can sometimes carry heavy expectations to be a spokesperson for BLM and similar movements on behalf of the entire Black community. Black people are not a monolith, and it’s not our job to teach co-workers, peers, or others when we don’t feel safe, ready, or able to engage in these conversations. (Plus, we are tired!) Black folks require safe spaces to respond on our own and must not forget to celebrate Black excellence and Black futures.”

For Sutherland, that means authentically and unapologetically embracing the freedom to explore her Blackness, including her “dark skin, kinky hair, thick lips, almond eyes, and full cheeks.” That said, her activism in her east-end Toronto community — which includes running leadership programs and facilitating violence intervention programs — supports all shades and colours, not only Black ones.

“People are always like, ‘Oh, Mel, you’re so pro-Black.’ I don’t want to carry the burden of representing my race because, and I say this with a gentle heart, skin-folk don’t mean kinfolk,” she said. “Many of us are Black and don’t at all share the same values, the same ideals, or the same goals. I don’t want to feel like I’m representing my entire race. I’m not a Black supremacist. I can’t stand white supremacy — why would I support Black supremacy? It’s weird. Thinking you’re better than anybody else is a weird thought process to me.”

Melicia Sutherland

Melicia Sutherland

One of Franklin’s goals in her therapy and community wellness practice is to support Black clients through their experiences of racism and racial trauma by developing action plans while validating their feelings and letting them know they are not alone. But she also stops short when it comes to Black people carrying the burden of anti-Black racism on behalf of the entire race.

“Racism, which is often internalized, impacts our mental health; it should be viewed as systemic issue, not treated as a personal deficit. I don’t think it’s always our responsibility to be out in the streets or online educating people all the time,” she said. “Sometimes all one can do is just be. Rest is also an act of resistance.”

Like the diversity among Black people across Canada, there are many ways for a Black person to decide how to participate in activism — and in their own self-care and community care. The overwhelming, traumatizing, and tragic events in the media around anti-Black racism involves radical transformation and cannot be sustainably or justly carried on the shoulders of individual Black people.

Activism for where you’re at
Angelique Benois, an advanced practice mental health nurse, psychotherapist, mental wellness consultant, and the director of Nurturing Our Wellbeing, recommends that the ACB community strike a balance between staying informed and internally absorbing the news on anti-Black violence.

“I strongly advise that, when people get informed about world events and receive media updates, that they do so with intention,” she said. “Because we are exposed daily to events that can cause emotional turmoil, our self-care practices need to become part of our lifestyle.”

In describing the way our mind and body can hold onto these images — and eventually let them go — Benois said, “It goes back to how our brain works. One of the many things our limbic system is responsible for is storing our memories and helping to assign meaning to them. By storing every racial aggression we’ve witnessed, every harmful event we’ve experienced, it has the potential to influence any of our future decisions and encounters, including our regular daily flow. As we become clearer on how certain internal mechanisms and systems in our body influence how we feel, think, and act, it starts to make sense how certain self-care practices could create a shift in outcomes.”

Franklin echoed this idea in terms of how each of us can re-evaluate what self-care means individually, apart from any commentary or criticism of what activism “should look like” from an outsider’s perspective.

“Redefining what self-care means is built within community care and is about healing ourselves and our Black communities. It doesn’t always have to be loud actions. Everyday underground acts of resistance are also important,” she said. “And for Black people, the self-care conversation goes far beyond discussions about ‘spa days’— it’s about engaging in social justice and taking time to rest. We need to bring new realizations to the exploration of self-care and community care, while allowing space to reimagine post-colonial worlds. As a Black woman, I feel one of the strongest things we can do is learn how to take care of ourselves and our mental health, while supporting one another and working together toward change.”

For the next generation of ACB activists, this is the self-care advice Sutherland gives and practises herself — including showing up for fellow members of the ACB community. “I feel like that’s the best way I’ve been able to maintain a healthy mentality and make sure to be around allies because I don’t want to have these ‘everybody hates us glasses’ on.”

I asked Sutherland what she would say to the teacher who called her the n-word if she could travel back in time.

“I would say, ‘It’s not right, but it’s OK,’ like the famous Whitney [Houston] song. At that time, I didn’t even know what that word meant. But I understood the intent: it was to hurt me. Words for me are very powerful and I take them to heart.”


Further reading:
Black Like Whom? Why we use ‘ACB’ over ‘Black’ from the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Inset photo: Melicia Sutherland. Credit: Juanita Muwanga
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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