Racism happened again, but this time hit differently

Where are the safe spaces for Black and brown folk

Another week, another racist incident. But this incident was unlike any that I’ve experienced. When I’m subjected to racism, I normally just feel a wealth of frustration in the moments after. I then send a few messages to my family and friends to offload and, for the most part, it’s done. This time was different though; the feelings of despair and powerlessness were unlike any I’ve felt.

I’ve written about racism and mental health before, but I’ve never detailed the emotional turmoil of an individual situation. Before I go into it, let me give you a bit of a background. I’m accustomed to operating in white spaces; I grew up playing golf from the age of three, I studied for seven years in a city that was over 90% white and enrolled on a degree where I was one of the few people of colour. After studying, I got a job at where I am one of a few Black and brown folk. So, yeah, I’m used to operating in spaces that aren’t meant for me (and I’ve made a successful career along the way, I might add!). Being in these spaces means that I have to operate in a different way, compared to if I was with my family and friends. I’ve been doing this since my dad gave me ‘the talk’. You know (or maybe you don’t), the talk where parents tell their children that they’re going to be treated differently, that there are things they can and cannot do, that they are going to be perceived negatively because of the colour of their skin.

Regardless, of ‘the talk’, it only helps us to operate in these spaces, it doesn’t remove the ills of society. Us Black and brown folk are always going to experience racism. I’ve certainly had my fair share. So, what made this particular incident unique? Let me talk you through….I was attending an external training provision on mental health first aid. Given the topic, the hosts started by assuring that this was safe space and asked us to put our cameras on so they could check if anyone was showing visual signs of distress to any of the content. Great, I liked this. We got to a point in the training where the host started discussing relative inequality. After defining it they, as an example, remarked ‘a poor person here [UK] can go to an African village and easily be the wealthiest person’. What?! Which African village (don’t get me started on describing Africa as a homogenous place)? Which person from the UK? Surely, I’ve not heard this correctly? Maybe I’d switched off for a second and made this up? FYI I always have this thought, and not once have I made this up (I was self-gaslighting). We were put into breakout rooms a couple minutes later, but I couldn’t let this go. I exited the breakout room and questioned the host who confirmed what they said. Instantly, they apologised ‘if they caused offence’. I told them that their comments were unacceptable and Eurocentric, so I was going to have to leave. I could not be in that space any longer. In that moment I do not know what stopped me from having an angry outburst. Somehow, I managed to control myself, only allowing tones of frustration and anger to mildly seep into my voice. Now I won’t go too much into the content of what was said, beyond it being abhorrent, grossly false, Eurocentric and racist. I’ll add that the UK can barely feed poor kids (see the work Marcus Rashford is doing) and has rising rates of rough sleeping and homelessness. Why bring Africa into this? Charity starts at home, right?

I left the training and opened the [physical] door to head downstairs to my fiancé. She had heard the tone of my voice and was already half-way up the stairs. I told her what happened and almost started to cry “why can’t these people just leave me alone? Why can’t I just exist peacefully? All I wanted to do was complete my training so I can help others”. It’s hard to describe how powerless, hopeless and lost I felt in that moment. Like I said, I’ve experienced racism more times than I can count. But I’d gone into this space open and vulnerable. Like the host said, nothing was meant to trigger those on the training. This was meant to be a safe space. But, yet again, I was brought to reality; beyond the personal realm, there are few spaces (if any) where Black and brown folk can exist safely (and I don’t mean physical safety). The irony of this situation is that racism has such a profound and devastating effect on Black and brown folk’s mental health, yet someone who is delivering mental health training is void of such knowledge (and compassion). I could go into how we should decolonise mental health, but not now.

Some of you reading this might think that this was a trivial comment….’get over it’, ‘it’s just words’. Well, language is important, words have meaning, and racism, whatever the mode, is awful. It’s also another on the long list of racist acts that I’ve experienced in the past few weeks, and the second time in a row during a training situation. Another thing that exacerbates the issue is that I’m left to pick up the pieces, yet again. I have to speak out and challenge the person when nobody else does (nobody ever does, despite all the black squares on Instagram and empty promises). I have to conduct all the administrative duties that go on behind the scenes, all for the glimmer of hope that this might not happen again. It will.

Anyway, a day later, writing this at 1am, I’m not even sure if I’m fully recovered. The whole experience keeps running through my head as I’m trying to make sense of it. I’m looking for some learning. I don’t know why there needs to be semblance of learning, but at least that way I have some power right? I want there to be a take home for you reading this, but I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s a reminder that even though people might say spaces are safe, that doesn’t apply to Black and brown folk? Maybe it’s that Black and brown folk need to constantly have our guards up? Whatever the learning is, this shit is tough to keep going through. This is the emotional distress a single act of racism can cause.

Dr John Fernandes

@John Fernandes

Senior lecturer and researcher in exercise physiology and strength and conditioning. Active proponent and committee member of EDI in sport and academia.