Growing up Black in Cumbria. Racism and My Mental Health

Author: Sarah Saunders

It is mental health awareness week and the theme this year is ‘Connecting with Nature’.  The last twelve months have been challenging for everyone and prioritising mental health and wellbeing has never been more important.

Over the past few months, I have been forced to confront and reflect on my own mental health, and the impact of growing up in Cumbria, one of the most beautiful parts of the world – the perfect landscape to connect with nature, but also an incredibly challenging space if you aren’t White.

Since May 2020 it has been impossible to escape the images, the footage, the comments or the opinions.  The whole world was talking about George Floyd and the conversation of race, and racism was catapulted into the centre of a world that had paused.  Nothing stirs emotions or tensions quite like the death of a Black man at the hands of a White police officer.

As a Black, British woman, I mourned for George, his family and friends, but also for Black people around the world and ever since he was murdered, it is difficult to predict exactly what will make me cry.  Sometimes it will be the face of another victim of police brutality, sometimes it will be the tirades of ‘anti-racism critics’ who emerge on social media, in some of the UK’s most reputable news outlets and, occasionally, in government. Sometimes it will simply be the thought that tomorrow will be just as draining – the ongoing dialogue on the television, radio and online, by those who refuse to acknowledge or deny my lived experiences – some who I had considered friends.

Racism is like death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s not necessarily one big thing, it’s a million little things that you absorb on a daily basis.  It’s 500 years of interrupted history, of hidden truth, of oppression and survival in a system that was never designed to value you, support you or protect you.

“Go back to your own country”

“But where are you really from?”

Growing up and living as a Black person in Cumbria, a community where 98.5% of the population are White, I regularly hear this.  I am British, but my belonging is constantly called into question.  I was born here, I have nowhere to go back to!

I was routinely told that either racism no longer existed or that it “really isn’t that bad anymore” (I should not be so sensitive and learn to “take a joke”) I knew that this wasn’t true: I saw how it impacted Black people in the media. I could identify racist behaviour as quickly as I could recite my ABCs, but not always when it was happening to me.  So often I have heard ‘I’m not racist, but……’ or ‘But you’re not like one of them’ (although I never actually understood what that meant) and I should ‘stop playing the race card’…..

 

I’m now realising that, over the past 43 years, I have erased experiences of racism from my memory or gaslighted myself into believing they were my fault.  I’d told myself that maybe I wasn’t smart enough, polite enough, witty enough, pretty enough. Maybe I was just wrong. When really, it was because I wasn’t White.

When I started recalling experiences, it’s as though my mind found a key to unlock secret places in my brain where I had buried not all, but many of my most traumatic ones.   Of course, there were overt acts of racism – name calling, physical abuse, and intentional exclusions, but it was the other stuff, the stuff that is difficult to describe, the impact of subtle and systemic racism; the gaslighting and micro-aggressions which over time could be compared to grooming and emotional abuse on the shaping of a young mind.

When I was young, I didn’t fully understand that my skin colour stirred certain feelings in others that in turn affected the way they responded to or treated me.

I was quite shy and very self-conscious of my differences and desperately wanted to fit in but by the age of about seven, I began to understand that I lived in a different world to my White friends and family.  I believed that if I tried harder, was better, that people around me would accept me.  As a visible outsider in most groups, I discovered I often processed events and experiences in a very different way to those around me and I developed a sense of disconnection.  Like I was living in an alternate reality.  A feeling of only-ness.

Both myself and younger sister were adopted as babies.  We grew up in an incredibly loving and supportive family and had close friends.  But being loved is very different to feeling you belong.  There was nobody in my space who looked like me.  In the 1980’s there were no books or stories that reflected my experience or the way I looked and that had a profound effect on my sense of self and identity.  I desperately wanted to fit in.  When I got called names by other kids in the street, at the park, or at school, there was no-one who I could talk to about it, who had the lived experience and could empathise.  Nobody who could tell me they understood because it had happened to them too. I was the only ‘Black kid’ in my friendship group, my class, and most of the time in my school and I stood out like a sore thumb.

I grew up accepting that being spat at was part of life and believing it was normal to feel alone.

When you are the only Black person in the room, in the school, on the train, on the bus, in the pub, in the shop, on the street, in the village or town, you spend a lot of your life feeling on show and alone.  Being dual heritage, it constantly felt like I wasn’t “enough of something” I didn’t quite fit into any of the tick boxes. I was either too dark, or too light.  My hair was too big, too curly or not curly enough. I didn’t sound like I was from Cumbria, I was either too posh or too ‘street’.  I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.

As a Black person in a White space, I never knew if relationships were authentic or genuine.  Hearing friends, neighbours and other familiar adults, perhaps unconsciously (perhaps intentionally?) talking about their pride in the ‘Empire’ or how the country is ‘being overrun’ or peers using racial slurs towards me, and in-front of me was confusing.  It’s not knowing what people’s thoughts about you are and knowing that every relationship and friendship is formed within an imbalanced power structure. How do they see me? Do they understand their position in relation to me? Will they use it against me? often finding that I didn’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find prejudice, ignorance and quite often hate.  I became guarded and defensive, building a wall of protection around myself and finding it increasingly difficult to trust people – Do they see me? Do they value me? Would they choose me?

As an adult and mother to four children, I am now aware of how vulnerable I was, but at the time I didn’t understand the impact on my mental health – I was developing my character in an environment of confusion, hostility and prejudice.  How does a child learn and thrive in an environment like that? An environment of perpetual heightened senses, a permanent state of fight or flight, searching for identity, acceptance and a sense of belonging.

I learned skills of survival, self-preservation but also appeasement. I was aware my presence made people feel uncomfortable – they let me know by their words and their actions.  By a young age I had worked out that I needed to read situations carefully, observing subtle words, body language, facial expressions and implied intention.  I worked extra hard to let people know that I was a nice person. That I was just like them. That they didn’t have a reason to dislike me.  As a Black person, making White people feel comfortable is something you also learn.  Even today, I feel a pressure and responsibility to mould to my environment. That my Blackness offends people, and from experience being ‘more White’ in a space, makes me more acceptable than being ‘too Black’.

As a teenager I felt awkward and uncomfortable, I was frequently told that I looked like a boy, that I was masculine and ‘not very girly’ or ‘pretty’.  I didn’t have long flowing hair and ‘fair skin’.  Nothing about me met the standard of European beauty which I saw everywhere.  I had muscular legs and big shoulders.  I was told my hair was ugly, that I was ugly, and regularly listened to comments such as ‘I would hate to have ‘Brown skin’.

It was impossible to mould myself into the beauty expectations of my peers or what the media told me I should look like – in fact I was everything that was considered undesirable.  I couldn’t escape the feelings of being different – I couldn’t buy hair products or makeup locally, I remember feeling like an outsider and frustrated when I missed out on the shared experience of going to Boots or Woolworths on Saturday afternoon to buy hair products, dye and makeup. Nude and ‘flesh coloured’ underwear and tights, didn’t represent my ‘nude’ even plasters didn’t match my skin tone. 

I couldn’t find or see myself anywhere. 

I believed my thoughts and feelings were unimportant and that it was up to me to try to make myself fit, to make others feel comfortable and I spent a huge portion of my life trying to be and conform to a standard that I knew I was never going to achieve.

My early teenage years were negatively impacted by what I was experiencing. It was a time when people attempted to be ‘colour blind’ but that meant that even well-meaning people ignored that I was experiencing things differently and outside of my family, nobody ever asked how I felt or if I was finding things difficult.  I was angry, scared, hurt, confused and incredibly defensive.  As I began to better understand how the world saw me and treated me, I knew there was an expectation that I had to show up differently.  At school, there was no understanding or support from the systems around me and that hugely impacted how I interacted with those around me, and I felt an incredible amount of pressure to be something I wasn’t, nor ever going to be.  I attempted to disconnect myself from my feelings and developed a ‘hard’ exterior, indifferent and numb to complex or difficult emotions as a way of coping – it was easier that way.  I wanted to keep people at a safe distance, so I created a tough exterior, a persona that protected me from potential emotional harm.  In reality, this just led to more misunderstanding and labels.

Standing out as being too good at anything at school added an additional layer of pressure.  As a Black person in a White space, it feels like your actions, thoughts and feelings are under a microscope of continued scrutiny, there is zero tolerance for mistakes, and that you have the responsibility of representing the entire Black community, your actions (positive or negative) informing and feeding existing prejudices of those around you.  Failure is never an option, and the responsibility to be perfect, to work 100 times harder for the same results is exhausting.  This is an incredibly unhealthy environment for well-rounded development, particularly when your peers appear to be set against different standards and expectations.  I can remember being told on countless occasions that I would ‘always be seen/remembered/found out’ because I stood out and was easily identified so therefore, I had an ‘added responsibility’ as I wouldn’t be able to ‘get away with anything’

I was very conscious of not being too ‘clever’.  Teachers had called me ‘cocky’ or ‘arrogant’ and told me that I had ‘too much to say’ or that I was being purposefully disruptive if I had ‘too many questions’ I was always too loud, too aggressive or too confrontational – never focused, articulate or driven.  On the rare occasions I did reach out to teachers or friends, I was made to feel like I was the problem.  That perhaps I had said or done something, that I had misread the situation, that I was overreacting, that perhaps the other person didn’t really mean what they had said or done – nothing was ever seriously done about it.  It taught me that my voice had no power but I quickly learned that my actions did generate a response, which often resulted in me taking matters into my own hands.  On reflection, this only served to play into and inform the negative stereotype of me being an ‘angry Black kid with a chip on my shoulder’, and in turn lead to low expectations and negative relationships with teachers and low motivation from me.  It badly affected my self-esteem, but it also nurtured in me a deep sense of justice.

What I was really searching for a sense of self with limited personal understanding and zero representation in the world around me – you can’t be what you can’t see.  The sitcoms on TV at the time ridiculed Black and Brown people or portrayed them as violent, hostile, lazy or stupid.  There were no Black characters in the books that I read, the illustrations never depicted anyone with skin the same colour as mine.  At school, the curriculum taught me nothing about Black history or Black identity, or of the countless amazing achievements and history of Black and Brown people across the globe. Everything I learned in my environment was based on racial stereotypes and at the time, that led me to believe that Black people did not feature in anything good or worth celebrating (or even mentioning) and that I didn’t matter.

Despite encouragement and support from family and friends, speaking out about these issues and my experiences still feels incredibly scary and emotionally taxing.  There is only so much I can say, and only so much that I want to say.  The weight on my shoulders feels so heavy that sometimes it feels that it may completely crush me and revealing myself so personally makes me feel incredibly vulnerable.  Even now as I write this, a part of me worries about how it might change my White friends’ opinions of me, that these conversations are confrontational or uncomfortable, but you get to a point when you have a decision to make.  Speak your authentic truth for the sake of others, so they know they are not alone, or for the sake of your own mental health, simply because of the structural and systemic racism, bias and careless ignorance that surrounds you, stay quiet and protect yourself.  Today, I chose to speak out.