Microagression is everywhere, be it in Cambridge or a psychiatric unit
The realities of intermitting: livestock language follows me wherever I go
During my time at Cambridge, I experienced microagressive language here, there and everywhere.
“You’re probably the product of Eugenics!” said a College cohort to me once during a late night discussion of racial politics.
“You African Americans are usually big, tall blokes. You must have some Anglo blood in you, because your skin is pale,” said a Porter to me during my study break while I was getting tea from the Lodge.
“You are an AFRICAN! What type are you?” Or, so said a dumb blonde British woman in a pub. Of course, the qualifier came quickly: “I date an African!”
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am Black American (African American) and not African. Having written before for the Tab, many of you will be familiar with my unvarnished truths regarding Black gay experience and self-hatred.
Experiences like these are what lead to issues for Black Americans in terms of lineage and identity, dehumanization, and objectification.
I intermitted in December 2014, as a result of having severe atypical depression. My mental health has nearly cost me my life four times. Last year alone, I was hospitalized seven times.
Since being back in the US, I have continued to see these microaggressions appear in my mental health treatment.
“Etienne, I hear that you are combative and aggressive,” my white doctor told me. According to my all-white psychotherapy team, I was ‘a bit too outspoken’ in group therapy.
This was decided after I told a therapist that it was not her place to decide how I should narrate my past. Apparently, stating that I wished that the man who beat me until blood trickled down my face would die was not an honourable way for a son to recognize his abusive father.
‘Combative’ and ‘aggressive’ are words too often used in associating Black anger with barbarism. Historically, they brand men like me as deviants in need of discipline. It’s emasculating and belittling.
Simply by expressing my life story in group therapy, I had become the uncontrollable Black man whose unique narrative caused discomfort to the predominantly white audience.
Last week, another psychiatrist decided to make his thoughts of me more explicit.
We were making pre-therapy small talk about Brian Williams, a famous TV personality here in the States. ‘He doesn’t even have a college degree, but gets paid millions just to be an unaccountable news anchor,’ I said.
“Yeah yeah,’ my geriatric white male shrink said, laughing. ‘And you poor son of bitch, you talk for free. People would pay you to stop talking.”
It was in any context a tasteless comment to make to a patient with a mental health disorder.
As with my Girton College colleague and the Eugenics comment, I sat quietly debating whether to confront or to walk out and think it through.
In the end I took it to the program manager of the facility. She promptly called a meeting with her boss to assess ‘safety’ issues. In other words, to decide whether or not I planned to become physically aggressive towards the doctor.
Of course, I was assured that they spoke with him, but only after they had a lengthy discussion with me about what to do when I felt “emotionally deregulated.” I was the one treated as the dangerous animal – not the physician who made such a disgusting remark.
I have been dehumanized and overlooked countless times as a Black mental health patient. The other day, a white fellow patient told the program manager to “put a bucket in the room” for me to urinate in (my Lithium causes severe urination urgency).
For a person like me, with marginality in multiple social spaces, I have to listen to words thrown around in a way that may seem outwardly whimsical, but in reality has deeply troubling, microaggressive connotations.
From all of the examples I have listed, one thing is for certain: language and everyday semantics all too often lead to subjugation and oppression.
My white, privately-educated therapist tells me that my experiences make her feel ‘boxed in’. The cold, hard irony of this is almost too much to bear.
Sadly, I continue to have to deal with microagressions, whether I’m at a high quality university or a high quality medical facility – it doesn’t make a difference.
I can only exist under someone else’s narrative for me. I’m either a Eugenics bred African or a Poor Son of Bitch Combative Negro. Let’s just call it what it is: verbal subjugation. The reality of it is, whatever institution I’m in, it doesn’t seem to go away.