As a self-proclaimed advocate for the mentally ill, I think the following is important to consider/think about/act on.
I have learned a lot from social media interactions. Approximately three years ago I started to see way more discussions around people of color, LGBTQ, a variety of religions, disability, etc. I know now that all of these things fall under the title (and when talked about by conservative media outlets, a negative title) of identity politics. I have spent a significant amount of time over the last two years trying to read the books and hear the voices of a wide variety of people. I have been trying to educate myself about racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. I have to admit I have spent the majority of that time trying to learn more about racism.
I feel like I have come a long way toward allyship. I have written and made some mistakes along the way (these mistakes are very public and are still available online), but I am a work in progress. I have started to notice much more racism and in much more subtle forms. I would say this is progress. It is as if I have fine-tuned my ears and eyes a little bit and now can see what I couldn’t see before. I am not congratulating myself or even saying that I am “woke.” I still need to understand more about the privileges I have because my skin is light and I am a heterosexual woman. I still learn from discussions on social media, books, movies (and the critiques that follow), etc.
There is no denying my background and history. I was born in the 1960’s and was influenced by racist images and stereotypes. Those things do not automatically change because you want to be an ally. It takes work to change those negative, oppressive, hurtful constructs. In short, I have more to learn or a long way to go.
One error I made formerly was to compare racism to the stigma of mental illness. Racism is not equal to the stigma of mental illness although the two do intersect (mental illness exists in communities of color) and they do share some things in common (microaggressions are all around us). Although nothing is like slavery, the mentally ill have a history that is painful and frightening as well.
The treatments for mental illness used to be torturous, and the Nazis used the mentally ill and others with disabilities to “perfect” their killing methods. Still, there is nothing like being hated, discriminated against, stereotyped, disliked, mistrusted, criminalized, ignored, etc. because of the color of your skin. At the end of the day, when I go the grocery store, no one can easily tell that I have schizophrenia (at least if I am not psychotic). So, there is a way for me to just be a middle-aged woman out in public. The same is not true when you are Brown or Black. There are other differences too, but as I said, the two intersect so as a mental health advocate, it is important for me to learn about racism as well as other marginalized groups because that intersection is present within all communities. No group escapes mental illness. (*See note at the bottom of page).
If you are an advocate for the mentally ill, I hope that you will, or have, or are interested in upping your allyship with other marginalized communities. I don’t think we can be the best at advocating if we operate with blinders on and only concern ourselves with people who are “like us.” Mental illness impacts every community and becoming an ally to those communities makes your work more powerful, thorough, and well-informed. For example, how can you speak or write about mental illness without including the population in prison and how can you speak or write about the population in prison without considering racial issues? So many of the issues and people we care about are tied together this way. We need to consider these things. We need to be broader in our approach. I know I intend to be, and I hope you’ll join me.
(*Note: Some people would call the use of the word intersectionality as appropriation. The term was coined by a Black woman, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw is a feminist, activist, and scholar. Many people feel that the work of Black women is often stolen and used by others. I do not doubt that fact, but I simply don’t have another word that is as good as hers. I ask that you please just be aware of the history and Crenshaw’s work in bringing about these critical ideas).