By Arturo R. García
By Arturo R. GarcíaLongtime readers of the blog will remember friend and alumnus Tamara Winfrey Harris: Tami’s voice, which many of us first discovered through her blog What Tami Said, has been essential reading in the POC justice ecosystem for years.
But over the past few years, her reach has expanded, and she’s been published everywhere from The Guardian to Salon to — just last week — The New York Times.
Well, we’re proud and happy today to be able to share with you a part of her most pivotal work yet: The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, in which she takes on the stereotypes regularly used to deride black women in the US — their romantic lives, their mental health, their beauty and more.
“The more Americans face stereotypes about us in media, pop culture and other places, the more they are subconsciously ‘activated’ where real black women are concerned, affecting the way we are seen by potential employers, partners, the government and others,” she writes.
In 2003, the California Black Women’s Health Project found that only 7 percent of black women with symptoms of mental illness seek treatment. And, according to a 2009 National Institutes of Health manuscript, a 2008 study of African American women’s perspectives on depression found that many “believed that an individual develops depression due to having a ‘weak mind, poor health, a troubled spirit, and lack of self-love.’”
A member of the mental health profession currently working in higher education, Adrianne Traylor says, “I am cognizant of our community being left out of mental health discussions, not having appropriate access to mental health support, the cultural restrictions and barriers that keep us from seeking that support and that there are really not enough competent therapists to deal with situations that are unique to the black experience in America.
Finding a black therapist to refer a client to is extremely difficult. Even when it comes to self-care, I think. ‘Who am I going to talk to? Who am I going to refer myself to? Who can I talk to who can really understand what makes my situation unique as a black woman?’ We really lose out in the mental health equation — particularly when it comes to areas of depression, stress, and anxiety.”
Members of the black community often learn that mental health care is something they neither need nor can afford — economically, socially, or culturally. Black folks are encouraged to take it to the Lord in prayer, but Adrianne stresses that many mental health issues cannot be ameliorated by a pastor, friend, or family. Some mental illnesses require intensive therapy or psychotropic drugs, and not getting that treatment can be devastating.
Her own family provided her with a strong example of this cultural challenge. Adrianne says she grew up surrounded by women who exemplified the positive aspects of “black women always being strong and resilient and always being able to carry everything.” But as she grew older, “I saw the [unwillingness to pursue mental health care] weighing more heavily on the women in the family, because it seemed they were the ultimate repositories for sanity and intactness for everyone.”
When she was a teen, the house where Adrianne was born burned down. It was her grandmother’s home and had been the center of many family memories. The loss was devastating to Adrianne. “But I remember watching [my grandmother], who was temporarily living in this itty-bitty house out in the country, and on the one hand admiring her strength. She had lost everything — her physical mementos of her life with her husband — everything. She seemed so strong and seemed on the surface to be coping. But I wondered what happened when she went to bed at night. What did she do then, when no one was looking at her? I started thinking if we were wearing a lot of masks to get through our lives and whether they were helping or hurting us.
“As you become older and more aware of family dysfunction . . . it is an awakening. You’re oblivious to things as a kid and then your eyes open. You realize that the things that seemed like such strength could have really been someone doing what they could to hold things together.”
Thirty-five-year-old Vivian St. Claire* is a high-achiever, perfectionist, and inveterate “good girl.” She earned a PhD before she was thirty “because I was bored.” Vivian also suffers from clinical depression. And three years ago, she had a nervous breakdown, driven in part by her relentless drive to meet societal expectations.
Despite her academic and professional success, Vivian couldn’t shake the notion that she was a failure as a woman. A late bloomer in affairs of the heart, who was always more confident in intellectual pursuits than romantic ones, Vivian was childless and single, having just broken up with the man she once thought she would marry. “I never wanted to be the single black woman, and I think that fear created that whole pressure.”
Her undiagnosed clinical depression began to spiral out of control as Vivian grappled with fears about her personal life, her weight, and other issues. She began taking Ambien to cure the insomnia it caused — Ambien, red wine, and occasionally marijuana.
“I would black out,” she says. “It was just all this very unhealthy mix of me trying to hide from a lot of different things. I know I was all over the place.
“Another part of my depression is I had a pact with myself: if I wasn’t married by thirty-five, I was going to kill myself. I very much planned everything out for my life. At thirty-five, my plans ran out,” she says.
“That came out when I had my breakdown. My parents were in the room. While I was being evaluated, my mom was just sitting there silently crying.
“I would like to be more open with my struggle with depression — let close friends and things know,” says Vivian. But she admits her openness is tempered with the realities of being an academic hoping for tenure and a desire not to “embarrass” her parents. Although they were there during her breakdown, they still have not processed her mental illness.
“My mom is fine with it for other people, but not her children— even though her brother is a paranoid schizophrenic.”
As her parents helped her complete paperwork that would commit her to the hospital, Vivian was surprised to hear her father answer in the affirmative when asked about mental illness on his side of the family.
“‘Oh, yeah, your Auntie So-and-So has this. Your uncle is paranoid schizophrenic and whatever.’”
Black families often keep mental health histories under wraps, treating suffering members like guilty secrets. Quoting author Nalo Hopkinson in the book Brown Girl in the Ring, Vivian points out, “We as a people — our secrets are killing us.”
It was a hard road back to mental health. Healing required that Vivian learn to be gentle with herself, to practice physical and mental self-care, to let go of her perfectionism, and to refuse to see her mental illness as a stigma.
“Today, I would say I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been — mentally and physically. I’ve come to a peace with myself. Yoga, therapy, being open about my mental illness and my medication, having coping mechanisms, and staying healthy — they are just part of my life now.”
Her voice catches as she describes her pride at making it through: “At this point, every day it’s a blessing that I’m happy, that I’m content with myself, and that I’m okay. I’m very proud of myself. I’m proud every day, because at least I keep holding on. It’s not so much of a struggle for me anymore.
“Putting other people’s pressure on me almost killed me. I’ve had to become comfortable with the uncomfortability of not being perfect. I’m amazed at the woman that I have become. . . . Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional, but it’s been hard. It’s been very hard. But I’ve earned a life beyond thirty-five years.”
Learn more about Tamara Winfrey Harris and The Sisters Are Alright at www.tamarawinfreyharris.com.
Today, UC Santa Barbara will cancel classes to mourn George Chen, Katie Cooper, Cheng Yuan Hong, Chris Martinez, Weihan Wang, and Veronika Weiss, the six people whose deaths at the hands of a young biracial man — we will not print his full name in this space if we can help it — over the weekend brought sudden, needed attention to several particularly toxic strains of performative cis-masculinity.
But, while debates continue over the causes of the fatal attacks and the killer’s motivations, what cannot be argued anymore is that this is an outlier.
Driving that conversation were tags like #YesAllWomen and #YesAllWhiteWomen, and When Women Refuse, a tumblr created by activist Deanna Zandt to highlight other stories of men who felt so entitled to womens’ bodies and spaces that they responded with violence to their privilege being rebuffed.
Under the cut, we’ve compiled portions of some of the most informative analyses of the situation.
Editor’s Note: Trigger Warning for the subject matter.
By Arturo R. García
They might be loathe to admit it, but good cheer likely wasn’t the only reason so many people connected to the NBA were so quick to declare Tuesday morning the final chapter in Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s relationship with the league. The problem is, the league’s own mechanics all but ensure that won’t be the case. And that’s just on paper.
By Arturo R. García
If you’ll allow for a moment of first-person writing today, I’m happy and proud to announce that, in addition to being part of the team here at The R, I was asked to be part of We Are Comics, a new campaign created by longtime comics pro editor Rachel Edidin over the weekend to spotlight the fact that comics fandom extends far, far beyond the cis-het white male realm often attached to it.
By Arturo R. García
Just about three months after leading a discussion on #POC4CulturalEnrichment, activist Suey Park hosted another critical Twitter talk on Sunday with #NotYourAsianSidekick.
But this time, the impact spread beyond social activism circles. NYAS was covered not only on sites like Race Files and Angry Asian Man, but the tag trended so highly that Buzzfeed, the Washington Post and the BBC, among others, covered it. Park was also contacted for an interview with CNN anchor Don Lemon.
It also led to this image being circulated around Twitter and Tumblr:
— Catherine Labiran (@cathslabiran) December 16, 2013
“Even if the representation of women is changing in mainstream America, it’s not changing for Asian-American women,” Park told BBC News on Tuesday, and the segment as a whole is worth viewing. We’ll post Park’s CNN interview as soon as we can.
By Guest Contributor Diana Pho, cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine
TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS POST
Dear Mr. Mike Babchik of Man Banter,
You thought you were having fun last month at New York Comic Con when you and your film crew gained access to the convention using your job credentials at SiriusXM Radio. You thought this would be a great opportunity to provide footage for your YouTube show (now defunct, thankfully). You thought it would make great television to pull me aside, to put your mic in my face, to drive your camera’s light in my eyes and to ask if you could buy me.
You thought it was just a joke when you said you wanted to buy an umbrella with an Asian girl — because I was holding a parasol.
You thought you were being clever by mistaking me for a geisha girl, like the many submissive, diminutive women you’ve seen on TV or on the Internet or in movies.
You thought that because I was small and female and Asian, it gave you the right to ridicule my existence.
by Guest Contributor Edna Nelson
On the first night of the Afropunk 2013 festival, there was an onstage twerk contest.
It was not on the program and happened right before Saul Williams was supposed to go on stage. It was an impromptu event that was designed to buy time and presumably build excitement. Big Freedia was playing the next day, so it is impossible for one to say that twerking was something that didn’t belong at Afropunk. Twerking, like any other dance can be a way for a person to claim power in her own body, enjoy her physical possibilities, challenge herself, expand her range of movement and feed her mind with physical knowledge. But in that moment? In that way?
Since twerking has gone viral, commentaries on the trend have focused on the roots of the dance and what it possibly means for various groups to preform it. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough discussion about twerking in a performative context – i.e. what kinds of spaces twerking might be preformed within and for what reason. It feels like the discussion has been more about validating or condemning twerking in a vacuum rather than giving it space to exist within the realm of dance.
Dance movement depends on a dancer or choreographers intention, and awareness combined with the effect of the movement itself. A seemingly “vulgar” posture can convey profound messages. Unfortunately black women’s bodies, and dance expression have been viewed through a white supremacist lens of projected profanity, which is something some supporters of the twerk movement may be seeking to actively oppose. How do we strive to define spaces in which we can use dance and physical expression, including twerking, in a way that promotes a world in which women are free? What does it mean when this effort is confronted with a patriarchy that is vying for the same spaces? Continue reading