I can talk to my sister but not my Mom about the abuse at an early age. My Mom cannot accept that something heinous occurred on her watch, though it obviously wasn’t her fault. My sister and I talk about it from time to time.
My sister several months back informed me that our Dad received death threats when we were little about the work he was doing in the deep South. When my sister and I were growing up, my Dad ran a non-profit to help Black men find meaningful work. This was in the 60s and 70s and for a light-skinned man to be doing this, was not the norm. To this day, I have no idea whether the abuse I sustained is tied in some way to these death threats to my Dad. I assume he had many enemies given the fact that he was so progressive for his time. Maybe those enemies wanted to extend the death threats to my Dad’s family which would explain my early encounter with abuse. I don’t know for sure if this is the case, but it is one scenario that seems plausible.
This disclosure brings us full circle to the events of today – racial justice and Black Lives Matter. Let it be known that some light-skinned folks were in for the fight 50 years ago. Good for them but not so good that we have not progressed further in the course of those 50 years.
What strikes me as poignant is that the stigma/judgment/prejudice associated with mental illness is less visible or more delayed while the stigma/judgment/prejudice associated with darker skin seems more immediate. To the average Joe, I look like a white housewife with no major troubles. It is not until my mental health behavior gets in the way that someone might recognize me as having a behavioral health disorder and therefore might judge me as less than. Behavioral health stigma is not generally associated with the way a person looks right off the bat unless that person shares that information upfront. Whereas, with black and brown skinned people, it seems to me (from the outside looking in) there may be no such “delay” or “invisibility.” Someone with brown or black skin appears to be judged even before any behavioral questions good or bad emerge just because of how he or she looks on the spectrum of dark skin to light skin.
I hope I have not offended anyone of color with this comparison or that you think I think I can comprehend what it is like to be black or brown and to be judged by your appearance alone.
I do not make the comparison to mental health above because I know how it feels to be judged by the color of my skin. I don’t. I have not experienced that. But I would like someone of color to know that I do understand very well what it is like to be judged for something I was just born with. Perhaps I am not at liberty to make that comparison because I am not dark-skinned. But I do think part of the solution in the Black Lives Matter movement is that we become unafraid to talk about our perceptions of race and racial stigma.
From here the conversation atrophies into the question: why make a comparison between skin color and a disability? It is not a good comparison to make. Yes, I agree a disability is not the same as skin color. The whole “Black is Beautiful” movement underscores that.
Then the conversation atrophies again, as a person with a disability, I am supposed to think of myself as a person WITH bipolar illness not that I AM bipolar. I am not my illness. I am supposed to not let that “label” define me. Should we in turn say someone of African American heritage is a person with black skin rather that black? Probably not. For the behavioral health person, we typically don’t want labels to define us. But for those with black and brown skin, the difference may be in embracing that difference and celebrating it along the lines of “Black (or Brown) is Beautiful” from the 1960s or 1970s.
Somewhere also in the midst of this conversation is the reality that up until the 1950s people with behavioral health problems were locked up in institutions largely for life. Families sent them away to institutions where they were often forgotten and buried as a number in a mass cemetery for the mentally ill rather than by name.
So all in all, the parallel between having a disability and having darker skin has limits. Perhaps this is just an ice breaker into a conversation of what can be and what we want to be different for those experiencing racial pain and stigma and those experiencing mental pain and stigma.