Image: Tsoku Maela, ‘A brief reminder of solitude’, 2016
Dr Tanisha Spratt, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Greenwich, summarises workshop four and considers how racialised academics navigate notions of resilience and self-care practices.
Throughout each of the workshops so far, we have discussed the difficulties involved in researching racism and racist acts of violence as academics of colour. The subject matters that we discuss are, for many members of this network, triggering to say the least, as they often resonate with experiences that we have personally had in clinical encounters and/ or everyday contexts. Our collective recognition of these shared experiences can be bittersweet. Whilst it is sometimes difficult to engage in conversations about racism it is also often encouraging to do so in a space where people not only understand the stories that you’re relating but also resonate with them. In our most recent workshop, we routinely discussed the impact that images of Black suffering and Black death have on our collective health and wellbeing and what that means for us as academics of colour researching race and health. For me, it has always served as a driving force to better understand how racist logics operate in contemporary neoliberal societies, as well as a way to reflect on past experiences of racism that didn’t make sense at the time. It has also been a useful way for me to think about what it means to cultivate resilience in academia as an academic of colour, and the extent to which we should be held responsible for our capacity to do so.
Discourses of resilience are routinely used within academia to encourage students and staff to learn how to individually manage everyday forms of racial discrimination and harassment that happen on campus.[i] In my own previous institutions, I have been told to first report instances when they happen and then employ self-care tactics to ward off any negative effects that those instances might have had on my mental health. These reports have rarely led to any forms of tangible change and have often left me feeling worn out by the bureaucratic systems I have had to navigate. My issue with advice that stresses the need for resilience to cope with racial discrimination is that the onus of responsibility is often placed squarely on the individual and seldom on the institutions that need to change.
Questions about surviving and thriving in hostile environments were central to each session in workshop 4. During the first session, ‘Creative Writing and Black Mental Health,’ novelist Jacqueline Roy discussed the constraints of clinical perspectives in psychiatric care, and how the clinical focus on diagnosis and treatment often comes at the expense of patient care. This failure to acknowledge the need for patient care, Roy argued, is often supplemented by the formation of patient communities on psychiatric hospital wards that come together to share their experiences and frustrations with the system. In this session we also discussed pieces of creative writing that network members had circulated prior to the workshop. Through this discussion, we considered experiences of Black powerlessness within medical systems that fail to recognise Black voices and Black subjectivities. We also discussed the relentlessness of resilience narratives that stress the need for Black people to continue to engage with health care services despite this lack of recognition.
In the second session, ‘Where We Are, How We Care,’ Dr Amanda Thomson discussed her interest in how we come to know place and how places should be conceptualised given their multi-layered histories and possibilities. Relating her methodological practice of walking with ecologists and foresters in the Scottish Highlands, Dr Thomson described why this approach was necessary for her to better understand the forests that were central to her investigation. Additionally, during this session we discussed the commodification of health and wellbeing and how this has contributed to discourses of self-care in the UK.
Our third workshop, ‘Black History, Black Present, Black Trauma: Representing Modern Black Britain’ was led by Dr Clive Nwonka whose research centres on Black British and African American film and the hegemony of neoliberalism within forms of Black popular culture. Using two cinematic depictions of the murder of Stephen Lawrence as illustrative, we considered how social and political contexts influence how we respond to narratives and images of Black injustice, injury and trauma. We further considered how the forms of Black cultural memory that are referenced in both texts heightened, determined and nuanced the kinds of affect, trauma and collective mourning that were produced through both. The final workshop was led by Dr Rochelle Rowe who related her personal journey in academia and offered career advice to members both wanting to stay in academia and wanting to pursue non-academic careers.
What all of these workshops demonstrated was the need to think seriously about how we engage with narratives of Black violence and trauma as academics and the effects that this can have on our own mental health. Resilience is, in many ways, necessary for us to cultivate in order to keep going with this research. Indeed, many scholars whose work centres on resilience argue that it is a necessary tool to prevent and treat mental ill health. This argument is not without merit. When challenging circumstances arise that are beyond our control figuring out how to exist within them can literally save our lives. But academics of colour should not be expected to demonstrate resilience when the emotionally taxing texts that we engage with closely resonate with our own lived experiences. Nor should we be expected to demonstrate resilience when having to navigate academic institutions that routinely discriminate against us and fail to swiftly implement change. What is needed is a better understanding of how we might balance a politics of self-care with institutional change that will lessen the compulsion to demonstrate resilience for academics of colour. The Black Health and Humanities research network offers an important space to begin thinking about what this shift might look like.
[i] For further information see: York U, 2021. Coping with Race Related Stress [online] Available at: https://counselling.students.yorku.ca/coping-with-race-related-stress [accessed 17/12/2021]; Brown University, 2021. Coping with Race-Related Stress [online] Available at: https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/support/counseling-and-psychological-services/coping-race-related-stress [accessed 17/12/2021].