Emancipation, Trauma Triggers, and Racism in Canada:My Thoughts on Juneteenth 2020
Updated: Oct 6
This Juneteenth, I stood with my skin folk in the US in celebrating their emancipation for the first time in my life. My country had emancipation on August 1, 1834. That is thirty-one years prior to the US which freed enslaved people on June 19, 1865. Growing up in the Caribbean, Emancipation Day didn’t have quite the same personal significance for me. Coming from a predominantly black country and from a place of privilege within it, I never gave much thought to my racial identity. The Jamaican context is different since we did not experience official post-emancipation segregation. However, moving to Canada has made the whole concept of racism real.
In Jamaica, we don’t generally divide people into rigid categories, we are JAMAICAN. This is why when people tell mixed race, white, Chinese or Indian Jamaicans that they don’t “look Jamaican”, we are usually simultaneously amused and irritated. Every mixed-race Jamaican has at least one story about this bizarre experience if they have ever left the country. Memes and videos abound on social media about this and there are comedians like White Yardie who have built careers on making fun of the assumption that all Jamaicans are black Rastafarians. Stereotypes about Jamaicans abound and people often have a hard time accepting that this narrative is not representative of who we are.
We grew up seeing black people in government, management, entertainment and on local TV. For us, it was quite normal to have an obviously black friend whose last name is “Chin” because somewhere in their history is a Chinese ancestor. Many of us are descended from British colonial masters and claim “Irish roots”. Mixtures across the spectrum are very common in Jamaica. There is German Town where people of German origin settled centuries ago and are just part of the society. Jamaicans are known for being very confident in who we are and for exhibiting a generally stubborn refusal to blend in to another society. To quote comedian Russell Peters, “a Jamaican will never act like you”. Jamaicans have our own issues with the class system but, the normality of walking outside and blending into society is an aspect of our existence often taken for granted. We are an innovative and proud people who excel in everything to which we set our minds.
For this reason, it was very strange to me to land in a context where micro aggressions, erasure and systemic racism abound to the degree that they do in Canada. As an obvious outsider, my capacity to see the society for what it really is was acute because none of this was “normal” to my Caribbean eyes. I noticed my own sense of “otherness” almost immediately and I have been in that experience every day for just under five years. Very often, I have had those who are not POC minimize or rationalise things that to me were obvious mistreatment of BIPOC and for years, I wondered if perhaps I had become “too sensitive” as they repeatedly, dismissively suggested. Thankfully, I was assured by some beautiful souls in my circle that I am not.
Doing my job and supporting black clients who present with numerous versions of race-based trauma is hard to do without becoming personally triggered. This is why I post about race so much. Racism has become my lived reality by virtue of my geographical location. I appreciate my ancestors who chose to fight and die for freedom that much more since I can see the systems that oppressed them still firmly in place. I now believe that the only way for me to honour them is to do my part to push for equality. A key element of furthering that cause is to educate others on what is happening to certain groups within society whose history is misunderstood, minimized or white washed.
I have been seeing a number of black clients who have returned to me since the explosion of the uproar about race began in North America in early to mid 2020. Some are recent immigrants and others are first- or second-generation Canadians. It is interesting to observe how folks who came to see me as a counsellor to get support around general life and relationship concerns and were doing well for years came back in tears recently, carrying tremendous anxiety about the state of affairs in regard to simply “living while black”. These previously high functioning clients are now finding themselves struggling to cope with being black in a hostile environment and now, they were in crisis.
In some of my clients who fled war and genocide in other countries, I am seeing trauma responses that are consistent with PTSD. I am hearing stories that tell me they have seen this lead up to civil war before and that they are afraid it is happening here. I am hearing frustration at the lack of appropriate organisational responses to the plight of black employees even as we recognise other marginalised groups. I have been told about encounters with overt and covert racism that leave them feeling like their insides are vibrating with pain, rage and sadness. The common thread among all these stories is that they are dealing with chronic physical and psychological distress rather than a single traumatic event which is usually how psychology, an admittedly white and racist discipline, constructs trauma. For marginalised people, trauma is anything but a single event. Instead, it is an ongoing collection of oppressive circumstances into which we are born, we live and we die.
This observation brings to mind the concept of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy DeGruy. I met this idea in 2013 when a friend sent me a copy of the manuscript of her book and I was floored by what I read. In her book, she lays out the chronic psychological distress of black Americans and links it directly to the ongoing generational trauma stemming from hundreds of years of enslavement. Reading it brought tears to my eyes and deep emotional pain but, it was life-changing.
In one of her short videos available on YouTube here , she explained the idea of “appropriate adaptation”. It is the practice among black mothers of denigrating their children in order to protect them from harm. She explained that black children with potential are targets of abuse by white people and therefore, in order to protect them from exploitation, she cannot celebrate their talents. Simply put, in order to ensure that their children survive, black mothers were forced to ensure that their children lacked the capacity to stand out because they would then be read as a threat. In the plantation society, this meant that her child would be sold to another plantation thereby severing the familial ties. She would have to downplay her child’s intelligence lest they be punished for being smart.
According to the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, immigrants and refugees who are new to Canada have higher levels of physical and mental health than the Canadian-born population. However, over time, their mental health worsens the longer they are in Canada, (see here). This is not surprising to me since my anecdotal observation since childhood is that relatives and friends of mine who migrated to the UK, US and Canada tended to either become very proud of their heritage or very “strange”. It never dawned on me until I came here myself that they were responding to the ostracism of white societies. However, now that I have mental health training and I work with many clients who are immigrants or refugees, I can see the truth behind the observation of CAMH. Systemic racism makes even healthy people mentally ill.
The words of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, prominent Jamaican and outstanding philosopher, immortalized by Bob Marley state “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”. In order for black people to truly be free, we have to process our generational trauma, reconnect with our African history and stop the cycle of breaking our children. This means that as we begin to recognise the importance of physical freedom from chattel slavery in the Western hemisphere, we must begin to dismantle the systems that continue to mentally enslave us. As Garvey also said, “the man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind”.