Left, right. Front, side. I look around to make sure the coast is clear. A ritual many young black men are accustomed to. Clear. It’s ok for me to make my way to my destination. Call it paranoia, call it fear, but survival is our number one priority. The dread of being attacked, robbed, or even worse, the panic that your mother will hear about your death from a 10 second clip on the BBC news is not amiss amongst young black men.
Coming from a working-class background where my environment was painted in blood-red somber situations, each day felt like a constant battle for your life. A disproportionate number of young black working-class men have internalised this constant fear. They no longer acknowledge that there is something wrong with instinctively looking over their shoulder at each corner they turn, or averting locking eyes with black boys in an area you are not familiar with.
Briefly touching on the topic in a previous piece, I begin my mental health series looking at the black man. What does it mean to be a black man… More specifically, what does it mean to be a working-class black man growing up in a troubled environment? This is a loaded topic and cannot be covered in a simple blog post.
Still, I hope to depict and shed light on some of the causes of poor mental health amongst black men.
I am happy to see the conversation on mental health has grown; still much remains to be done. Nobody wants to devote time to listen to sad stories. It’s quite clear we don’t let people talk about their sorrows enough. I hope that by starting this series on mental health many will reassess their actions.
Firstly, the paranoia that grows from our constant fear of death places a toll on our mental health. Yet that’s not the only thing. As black men, perceptions play a big part in our lives. More often than not, most black men do not live to be who they want to be; rather, they live to be who others expect them to be. It’s an unfortunate truth. Impressions, perceptions and the black man in between… There’s no escaping the gaze of the world.
We have to be more than the average person, we have to do more than the average person, yet we are never seen as better than the average person.
When discussing how often they were allowed to be who they truly wanted to be, and when, if ever, they were praised for doing their own thing, many of my black male friends could not remember such instances. Most were forced down the route of “masculine” activities. If you were not playing football, you were rapping. If you were not rapping, you were at least listening to hip-hop music. Each day you had to prove you were a “man”.
Many black men have a double identity: the man at home, and the man outside. It varies, but the dual-life is part of us. The man at home being the obedient but masculine father supporting the household. Being the bread-winner from a young age, whilst having to prove his worth to the masses, the black man has always had to grow quicker than his peers. But once he leaves the home, he turns into the rascal who every other person needs to respect or at least fear.
Don’t even get me started on the micro-aggressions we have to battle every day. The subtle racism from the police, under the guise of “stop & search”, adding to our ever increasing troubles.
As a black man in Britain, you are 17 times more likely than a white man to be diagnosed with a serious mental health condition.
With this in mind, why don’t more black men with a mental health illness seek help? Well, when placed in a position of potential mockery for displaying emotions, and vulnerability being seen as a curse, what is your most obvious alternative? Silence has been detrimental to black men. We are silent in the face of oppression, we are silent when our black women are abused, and we remain silent when in pain.
It’s easy to say this needs to stop. We need to speak up, but there is so much more that stops us from doing so. Nevertheless, to my fellow black men, we can no longer remain silent. It’s time we learnt to express ourselves and speak about our troubles. It’s time we accepted that we are not indestructible. It’s time we pushed aside our silence and used our voices to help ourselves and others.