Let’s stop treating everyone the same

“It’s hard when people claim to treat you as a person, but their concept of “person” is so centered on the Caucasian experience … But I’m NOT white. My race is a significant part of my personhood. It affects how I experience things, including jokes about Asians.”

I’d never thought about this aspect of “colour blindness” before I read the above quote in an Empathize This cartoon (see below) created by an anonymous Asian American woman and published on Upworthy. By not acknowledging a person of colour’s race and seeing them as “just another person”, I’m actually ignoring an essential part of who they are, an identity that does impact their life every day, whether I like it or not. As a white guy, my default perception of a “person’s” life experience is white, and so treating a person of colour like my default person is essentially whitewashing them and erasing a part of them that I cannot fully empathise with, no matter how hard I try.

20170227-stop-treating-everyone-the-same-2

This cartoon has been especially topical this month, as February is Black History Month in the USA. Today, the general history we learn has still been recorded and is still retold from a white man’s perspective, even when discussing key elements in the black liberation struggle during apartheid and slavery in the USA. It would be easy for a white man like me to ignore the reality that the oppression of the past still impacts the lives of black people today, in terms of income, opportunities and tacit prejudice that I take for granted as simply the way the world works.

I don’t want to detract from that conversation about black heritage, but I do believe that this “blindness” to someone’s individual personhood is not just a racial problem. It also applies to unconscious discrimination of women, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people with disabilities.

20170227-stop-treating-everyone-the-same-1

As an amputee, I’m aware of how others often behave thoughtlessly and insensitively to people with disabilities. Sometimes I’ll arrive at an event I’ve been invited to, only to realise there are activities I can’t take part in, toilets I can’t access, or a large staircase in my way. I try to be as independent as possible, and I don’t mind climbing steps on my hands and stumps, but I still need someone to carry my wheelchair. I often find such situations humiliating, even though most people are more than willing to help. More importantly,  different people with other disabilities may not be able to manage this well.

How can someone make circumstances like these easier for me and other people with disabilities? Obviously, it is not always possible to remove every obstacle in the way, and I would hate to live such a limited life that I only go to places that are easy for me to navigate. It means a great deal to me, however, when someone has already considered beforehand all the challenges I might face and given some thought to how they can help, without me needing to ask for it. I am incredibly grateful when someone has given my disability some thought and come up with a plan.

In my experience, people are more conscious of being sensitive to those with disabilities than to people who identify as LGBTQ. As a gay man, I often feel uncomfortable about the way others joke about LGBTQ matters and offer opinions that are clearly not based on any knowledge or understanding of someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bi or trans. I tense up every time someone in my office or in the mall mocks a colleague or friend with that throwaway line, “That’s so gay.” It makes me feel worthless, scorned and shamed, even though it isn’t being directed at me personally.

Of course we all want people to see beyond our differences – our disability, race, and sexual identity – to the essence of who we are. I’m only just beginning to understand, however, that our differences are not merely optional adjectives attached to the periphery of our being – they are inherent to that very same essence we want others to know of ourselves. It’s time we realised that respect and equality is not about overlooking our differences, but about acknowledging and honouring those differences in one another.

Below is the full comic that inspired this post, but check out others created by members of minority groups on Empathize This.

colourblindness-1

Colourblindness-2.jpg

Colourblindness-3.jpg

Psychiatrists can help break walls of racism and discrimination

This guest post written by journalist Munyaradzi Makoni is the third in a series of posts reporting on the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) International Congress 2016, which I attended in Cape Town in November.

As racism and discrimination grow, global society is “a few words before a world war,” but psychiatrists can help fight the problem, an expert said at the World Psychiatric Association Congress.

“Racism and discrimination cause poor mental health,” Professor Levent Küey, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Bilgi University in Istanbul, Turkey told the congress. In theory, the practice highlights the obstruction of people’s capacity to perform, it speaks to power control, denial of educational opportunities, the limitation of socioeconomic opportunities, and condemns people to poverty he said.

Küey, the author of The Book of Peace 2015, says border walls perpetuate discrimination and racism across the world. “What really has changed after the Berlin Wall came down?” he questioned. Küey noted that research had revealed that by 1989, 16 countries had border walls and by 2015 the figure had risen to 67. “A third of countries are building walls on their borders,” he said, adding that walls encourage fear or feed hate.

According to Küey, the “wall disease” was growing, entrenching discrimination as walls simultaneously banished people outside and imprisoned those inside them. “In the coming years, I’m afraid there will be more suffering as a result of these walls,” he said. Newly-elected U.S. President Donald Trump has been emphatic about his plans to build a wall between Mexico and the USA.

Küey said that in the 19th century racism was “authenticated” through scientific studies as “evidence” was produced to show that one race was better than another. Those attitudes persist. In 2014, for example, Nicholas Wade wrote a book which said some racial groups had genes that made them incapable of grasping certain mental skills.

Discriminatory behavior that has seen people split according to race, ethnicity, gender and religion has caused immense suffering to humanity. Worse, Küey maintained, it complicates emotional response. For instance, when self-discrimination is internalised, it is the hardest thing to overcome.

Mental health professionals have the expertise to deal with discrimination problems through anti-stigma studies and public awareness efforts, according to Küey. Education alone may have some effect, but it is limited. Using experience alone may have negative effects. Experience combined with supervision could have the best effect, he suggested.

“Psychiatrists must start challenging racist attitudes in their daily practice,” Küey said, adding that one way of doing that was to increase the competences of experts who understand cultural differences, class and gender.

The previous post in this series covered African Union Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s address at the opening ceremony of the WPA Congress, in which she called for international organisations to place more emphasis on mental health funding and activism.