The use of mental health or disability status to perpetuate anti-Black violence and dodge accountability is not only incredibly violent, but morally irresponsible.
Conversations about mental health and how it affects our lives is something that is picking up steam both in social justice-oriented circles and in the world at large. From hashtags to publications, people are beginning to redefine how they interact with and define their mental health. The push for normalizing mental health challenges and struggles is powerful to see.
However, it is all too common to see mental health weaponized to continue oppression. In particular, this tactic is used to perpetuate anti-Blackness, especially in social justice-oriented circles.
So what exactly does weaponizing mental health look like? It comes in many forms that can range from insidious to innocuous in nature. It can look like a white or non-Black person of color using their mental health or mental health-related terminology such as triggers to dodge accountability from other oppression.
It can be in the form of forcing Black people to explain, at length, and in great detail the harm that they experience while simultaneously ignoring how they may need time to process and heal away from the experience, or otherwise need support. It can also be in how when we talk about mental health, we continuously leave out Black people and how our specific experiences and history can affect how mental health is manifested and discussed.
The assumption that Black people are not affected or cannot experience mental health – or its related challenges – is rooted in the anti-Black assertion that Black people lack emotion or any human characteristics that can connect non-Black people to empathy or sympathy for our experiences.
Our society is inherently anti-Black and its effects are all around us. Modern medicine has advanced because of racist and anti-Black policies that made it legal to experiment and create medical “breakthroughs” at the expense of Black people who were seen as inhuman. To disregard the weaponizing of mental health as something that isn’t connected to upholding white supremacy and anti-Blackness is both dangerous and untrue.
Of course, some may find this conversation difficult to have because of our discomfort with addressing ableism. But forms of oppression can be internalized and materialize when merged with other kinds of oppression and it’s important to address the particular harm that comes from weaponizing mental health. This is not discrediting the very real experiences of individuals who experience ableism and mental health-related challenges outside of racism or anti-Blackness – but rather a call to broaden the conversation to be more inclusive.
Related: “BUT SOME OF US ARE BRAVE”: ON KANYE WEST AND THE DISPOSAL OF BLACK WOMEN & FEMMES’ MENTAL HEALTH
No matter what oppression they individually have, white people can still actively participate and benefit from anti-Blackness. If we are to dismantle and actively work towards unlearning racism, we cannot ignore how ableism and racism coexist for a particular kind of violence.
There is also the assumption that weaponizing mental health isn’t anti-Black because Black people sometimes don’t exhibit “classic” symptoms. This is also a manifestation of this anti-Black violence. Our definitions of mental health and disabilities are still viewed from a particular lens – one that is rooted so firmly in white, able-bodied, cis, maleness that it cannot move outside, even when it means the difference between life or death.
Weaponized mental health & gaslighting occurs through the assertions that Black people should “get over slavery” or that the anti-Black racism that persists today “isn’t as bad as [they] think it is”.
The truth is that because of systematic oppression, the Black community at large is affected by largely unresolved mental health struggles. Many do not address it or deal with it not out of malice, but out of survival.
The health industry is built on anti-Blackness and because many mental health professionals are unversed in addressing their own internalized racism, Black people – whether they have the privilege to seek out professional help or not – are often left to resolve the mental health challenges they face on their own.
Finally, by allowing the weaponizing of mental health to perpetuate the same violence against Black people that we’ve seen, we are allowing white supremacy to continue unchecked. What good is social justice activism, theory, rhetoric, or space when it cannot absolve itself from continuing to perpetuate the same violence that the society at large encourages?
Black people do have mental health challenges, like everyone else. The use of mental health or disability status to perpetuate anti-Black violence and dodge accountability is not only incredibly violent, but morally irresponsible. Even without the need for them to disclose, non-Black individuals should be working to check their own anti-Black racism and dismantle the idea that Black people cannot be affected by mental health challenges in the same ways as everyone else.
The next time that you see an online or IRL exchange where victim-blaming, white fragility, or digital violence is occurring at the expense of Black people, the best thing that you can do is to intervene, de-escalate, and check in with the person to see how they want to be supported.
Understanding that ableism and other forms of oppression can impact the ways that marginalized people navigate the world, and actively working to understand and include that in your own activism can radically transform how social justice can begin to help, and not harm those most vulnerable.