While advocates say it’s a good first step, more needs to be done to address systemic and institutional forms of racism.
“Overall, I think it’s really good to have a platform and that we’re starting this conversation. But I also feel like I don’t want this to be the only conversation,” Asante Haughton, a motivational speaker and mental health advocate, told Global News.
“I would hope that this is the start of what will become a deeper conversation about how our system operates and how racism operates and what racism really is.”
The City recently announced a campaign on anti-Black racism, in partnership with the TAIBU Community Health Centre, as a part of its Toronto For All anti-discrimination initiative, which has focused on Indigenous and transgender youth communities, as well as issues like Islamophobia, disability inclusion, intimate partner violence and anti-ageism.
“Anti-Black racism is a historic, pervasive and systemic issue in Toronto – affecting the life chances of more than 400,000 people of African descent who call Toronto home,” according to a statement on the City of Toronto’s website.
“Experiencing systemic discrimination and microaggressions are social stressors that increase the risk of negative physical and mental health including anxiety, depression, suicide or suicidal thoughts, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, high blood pressure, and premature mortality.
“On top of that, Black Torontonians cannot easily access culturally appropriate mental health supports and services.”
The awareness campaign will see three different posters placed in transit shelters until Feb. 23, followed by Black Mental Health Day on March 2.
“A day dedicated to Black mental health will shed light on and encourage a deeper social commitment to addressing the profound and systemic harms of anti-Black racism on the mental health of Black Torontonians,” the City statement said.
“An annual day to confront anti-Black racism’s negative impact on mental health in Black communities is only the first step, but an important one to rally people to take action.”
‘Death by a thousand cuts’
Haughton, along with David Lewis-Peart, a college lecturer and mental health advocate, both described their lived experiences with anti-Black racism.
“I think sometimes in our society folks don’t want to call it racism against Black people unless they’re being called the N-word or where someone is very clearly making it about your race,” Haughton said.
“One thing that my brother says is that racism is hard to describe, but it’s easy to feel when it’s happening — and I really agree with that.”
Haughton recalled several instances where he said he felt he was the target of racism. He described how he sought treatment for a torn Achilles tendon.
“It seemed like he didn’t want anything to do with me,” he said while remarking on the doctor’s demeanour, adding that it became more prevalent during a second visit when he noticed he was the only Black patient in the waiting room.
“The way that he was talking to them and the way that he would speak to me was completely different.”
Haughton also cited an experience where he was with his mother and he pulled up to a subway station to pick up a friend, noting he was running a few minutes late. It was then when he said a police cruiser pulled up behind his vehicle — lights on — and an officer approached him.
“He’s like, ‘What are you doing here?’ The officer said, ‘We stopped you because you looked dangerous.’ Now, let me describe to you what I was wearing. I was wearing purple skinny jeans and a canary yellow polo that was probably half a size too small for me,” he said, noting he explained why he was at the subway station.
“I used to get this on a monthly basis when I was a teenager, and it was always unfounded. I’ve never been arrested. Most of the time I kind of followed the rules and tried to be a good kid — straight A’s my whole life, student council vice-president, captain of the basketball team, all these different things, and this is how you get treated every day.”
“To this day, the most anxiety I feel is when I’m around police. That is because of the way I have been profiled and surveilled by police my entire life … Being surveilled that much, you get in this habit of feeling anxious all the time even when there is nothing to be anxious about.”
Lewis-Peart described a recent meeting he was trying to get to near Toronto city hall. He said he ordered a vehicle through a ride-sharing app, inputted exactly where he was looking to go to, but the driver dropped him off in front of a courthouse instead.
“He apologized and he was really gracious about it, and it wasn’t ill-intended. But despite seeing the address inputted into the system, he assumed that I was going–that he was taking me to the courthouse,” Lewis-Peart said.
“One would say, ‘Oh, that’s a simple mistake,’ most definitely. But if you think about the fullness of someone’s life experience — whether they are 25, 45 or 65 — and those occurrences are happening daily, those little occurrences happen daily, it’s the death by a thousand cuts.”
Racism, identity and how it affects mental health
As the campaign focuses on how anti-Black racism impacts the mental and physical health of residents, Haughton said in his case the symptoms became so severe that he contemplated ending his life.
“There was a point in my life, where, for two weeks, I absolutely refused to take the subway. I knew that if I went down underground into the subway, I was going to jump in front of a train,” he said, noting he became depressed over an eight-year period.
“I have several suicide letters. That was a real thing in my life.”
Haughton described how years of negative interactions have taken a toll.
“Every single time I leave my house, I’m worried about what I’m going to experience. Am I going to experience racism that day? Every interaction I have all of sudden becomes something I have to figure out. Is this person treating me based on my race or are the way they’re treating me the way they’re treating everyone else?” he said.
“When you go through so many of these experiences, you start to see racism everywhere — and that in itself is anxiety-producing.
Haughton cited several examples of anti-Black racism he said he’s experienced. He described the incidents, no matter how small they may seem to others, as the “systematic chipping away of your self-worth.”
“Constantly being shown in different ways that you are less, that you are unworthy, that folks don’t think you’re credible, they don’t think you’re smart, they think you’re dangerous, they don’t trust you, they don’t think you’re honest, they think you’re going to steal from them… it makes you feel like you don’t belong in the world that we live in. That’s something I still feel to this day, and it takes a toll on you.”
While he said he is now in a better place personally compared to where he was years ago, Haughton’s identity still plays a major role in terms of his mental health and the mental health of the community.
“It’s hard to describe the erosion of self that happens at the hands of discrimination, lack of voice to express that discrimination, lack of representation of yourself in the media,” he said.
“A large part of what I was experiencing in terms of my depression and suicidality when I was growing up was a result of identity issues, like I just did not know where I fit in the world.”
Calls for action, systemic change
Part of the City of Toronto’s anti-Black racism awareness campaign, which is part of a larger plan, called for affected community members to seek mental health care or to encourage others to do so, as well as to share personal stories. It also called for organizations and institutions to put in place plans for increasing access to culturally-responsive mental health supports and for increased community-led initiatives.
Lewis-Peart described the campaign as an awareness- and capacity-building opportunity, adding he appreciates it deals with the larger issue of poor mental health within the community.
“Anti-Blackness is about the ways that our relationships with each other and with the world as Black people have impacted our health and well-being,” he said.
“And it’s really just an opportunity for us to acknowledge the structural and institutional and social factors that make the health and well-being of Black communities poorer.”
He said mental health has historically been looked at mainly through a biological and a psychological lens, but not as much through a social perspective — something he said he tries to reiterate to students who are studying social work by telling them to factor the climate their clients are in.
“If you recognize that the climate that a lot of Black community members, myself included, are moving in, is oftentimes anti-Black,” Lewis-Peart said.
“That has an impact on the ways that we experience health and well-being but also the ways that we engage services — if we engage services at all — and then our experience of those services when we do engage them.”
Lewis-Peart also said there needs to be extra supports for people who have intersectionality — for instance, for those who are Black and also LGBTQ2 or for women who are Black.
Haughton said on a systemic level, one of the changes he would like to see is an overhaul of the education curriculum. He recalled a history textbook in Grade 10 and said he only remembers two pages that discussed diversity-related history and issues. Haughton said the curriculum needs to teach about cultures across the globe.
“So that kids can grow up normalizing the actual reality that as human beings we are way more alike than we are not alike. Human beings kind of all want the same thing: love, community and comfort,” he said.
“I think if we have an education system that exposes children to different stories from different parts of the world and different people from different parts of the world, that when they meet different people in their actual lives, they’ll have fewer assumptions and way more curiosity.”
In the meantime, Haughton said there are things all residents need to be doing to support the Black community and especially those whose mental health is being impacted.
“Believe Black people when we say what we’re experiencing is racism, or at least to be able to consider that that might be true — and for that to be the first consideration,” he said.
“When Black people try to explain our experiences, there is this evaluation of what we express and this process of differential diagnosis that happens where folks are trying to figure out what could have caused a thing that we experienced, but maybe what we experienced is just a thing that we experienced
“Listen to the stories that Black people have to tell and to put yourself in the shoes of experiencing what Black people experience every day and to think about how that would make you feel about your safety in the world, how they would make you feel about yourself when you’re a child that you don’t understand why you’re being treated badly for no reason, and to try to think about what it would feel like to experience that over a lifetime and what that would do to your trust in the world and your desire to want to live in it.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Black Health Alliance, the TAIBU Community Health Centre, Across Boundaries, Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.