by Dhruti Modha
CN: brief mentions of PTSD, eating disorders and ADHD, stereotypes, racism, anxiety, depression, neurodivergence
Here’s a little test: PTSD is the veteran’s burden; eating disorders plague teenage girls; ADHD makes ten-year-old boys bounce off walls. To place a metaphorical cherry so precariously on top of the already unstable cake – what kind of skin-tone do you picture these emblematic figures wearing?
It’s not your fault. Stereotypes have long been used to compensate for a hesitation towards embracing complexity and nuance. In the current climate of racial and neurodivergent representation, it seems that these identities are simply not allowed to intersect.
“Stereotypes have long been used to compensate for a hesitation towards embracing complexity and nuance”
To an extent, we can blame media representation for these preconceptions. Films and television shows like Black Swan, Fight Club, and more recently 13 Reasons Why and To The Bone have received praise for bringing mental health to the conversational dinner-table.
This is good. However, the figures in these works are limited to a very particular colour-palette.
“Hollywood is overwhelmingly and disproportionately white”
Largely, this is down to the fact that Hollywood is overwhelmingly and disproportionately white. Not just in terms of acting, but writing, producing, and directing too. Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Jay Asher and Marti Noxon – would any of these people create stories about neuro-divergent people of colour?
Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
In an uncomplicated world, the answer would be for us to write and produce our own projects. But the world is complicated. Media representation is cosmetic, and the lack thereof is symptomatic of a much deeper systemic problem. It’s a difficult story, a long history of scientific racism and a culture which wilfully denies our experiences.
In a talk at TEDxUCL Women, psychologist Giulaine Kinouani describes epistemic homelessness – a psychological phenomenon wherein the systemic, continuous denial of daily experiences leads to dissonance and lack of surety in the sufferer. It causes them to wonder if their perception of events is reliable, resulting in anxiety and depression, particularly in people of colour (even more so women of colour, to the surprise of none who were present).
You may be told that you have a chip on your shoulder and, if you show any sign of offence, distress or anger, you will duly be invited to respond more ‘appropriately’. It is at this point you may start to doubt yourself and your confidence in your capacity to know; becomes eroded. You may wonder; is it me? Am I the problem, am I fabricating the problem? Am I overreacting? I am being oversensitive? Am I going mad? The process of losing anchor has begun.
– Giulaine Kinouani
The displacement of certainty makes it more difficult to recognise and validate lived experiences in the first place. Add to the mix existing clichés, such as those of the ‘strong black woman’, upheld both by minority communities and by white fetishists, and we gaslight the traumatized voice altogether.
“If you can’t be sure of the validity of your own reality, how can you feel confident enough to write it down and then present it to a major TV network?”
For example, since eating disorders are primarily seen as a mental illness for white middle-class girls, it would be much more difficult for a man with orthorexia, body-dysmorphic disorder and exercise-addiction to recognise these disorders as neuro-divergent. Or for a South Asian girl to be diagnosed with autism since they’re ‘supposed’ to be quiet, or a black boy to have ADHD because they’re ‘supposed’ to be hyperactive.
If you can’t be sure of the validity of your own reality, how can you feel confident enough to write it down and then present it to a major TV network, or a Hollywood executive, or perform in front of a crowd?
Even when we look to our communities for affirmation, we find stigma. Collectively, we’ve have internalized the compulsion to just ‘get on with it’. Language and lack of understanding is another barrier. There is, linguistically and societally, no room to be mentally ill as an ethnic minority.
Or alternatively, when we do check ourselves in for treatment, a space which is supposed to be safe for us, for the large part therapists can be clueless as to how to deal with race in relation to mental illness.
‘Mainstream mental health services often fail to understand or provide services that are acceptable and accessible to non-white British communities and meet their particular cultural and other needs.’ – Mental Health Foundation
Moreover, the effects of racism as an ongoing trauma is a field just being medically investigated. An example of this is transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, the transfer of genetics from parent to child that have been altered throughout a lifetime in response to trauma. It’s been found that Holocaust survivors have passed down scarred genes, which in turn has altered their descendants’ regulation of stress hormones.
“The effects of racism as an ongoing trauma are only just being medically investigated”
Apply this concept to the horrors of police brutality, internment camps, Partition, and the endless list of other racially motivated horrors, let alone the dissonance of epistemic homelessness, and you can’t help but wonder about the impact of race on mental health.
Why the negligence? Limited representation of people of colour, even in a neuro-typical context plays its part in the cycle of silencing and denying. When racial politics and mental health coincide, they’re often distorted by the hands of stereotyping. This is not only limiting to creators: these tropes are actually dangerous to sufferers and to wider society.
“When racial politics and mental health coincide, they’re often distorted by the hands of stereotyping”
But there are neurodivergent people of colour in the media. We just don’t hear them. Take this for example: the music industry has long been visibly represented by people of colour, but the act of being a person of colour, (particularly black) is co-opted by non-black audiences. The mental health aspect is disregarded in favour of the fetishized aesthetic of racial struggle, or the notion that any pain expressed by a black artist is again, just part of another stereotype. Black artists are supposed to be sad and angry. That’s just the role they are meant to play in order for us to consume them as non-black audiences.
“Works by us which involve discussion of mental health are not regarded as being ‘about mental health’”
Here is that sad cycle again: because of the lack of representation, the ‘mental health conversation’ seems like it’s reserved for white, middle-class participants in the eyes of many people of colour. As a result, works by us which involve discussion of mental health are not regarded as being ‘about mental health’. In other words, we don’t regard To Pimp a Butterfly as a journey through trauma, there’s no word about mental health in consideration of works like Tyler, the Creator’s Yonkers, Earl Sweatshirt’s Hive, or Sweet November or Babylon by sZa.
If we did, perhaps more of us would realise that how we are feeling is not just one of the crosses to bear as part of being non-white.
Still, creators need to work on their representation of mental health or a lack thereof in general, even in a white context. Both of Netflix’s originals, To The Bone and 13 Reasons Why were received negatively regarding their reductive portrayal of sexual abuse, depression, eating disorders and suicide. To The Bone was called ‘unsightful, insipid and insulting’ and awarded a single star by The Guardian. 13 Reasons Why has been cited as a reason for a spike in suicide-related Google searches.
Chief of the suicide-prevention charity, Lifeline, actually discouraged people from watching 13 Reasons Why because of how poorly it handled depicting suicide as a ‘way out’ to a largely adolescent audience. When showrunners and mental health-awareness organisations disagree on how to grasp the fundamentals of portraying mental illness on-screen (sans the added complication of racial identity politics) how can we trust the stories of neurodivergent people of colour to be well-represented by them?
“Fair representation will not be granted to us out of the goodness of more-privileged hearts”
History repeats itself; fair representation will not be granted to us out of the goodness of more-privileged hearts. But it’s easy to sink into this tangled mess of issues that keep us silent.
Finding myself susceptible to a particularly toothy bout of pessimism, lost at the intersection between womanhood, race and neurodivergence, I sought some creative advice from Dr. Tina Basi at LSE at a panel she was chairing with editor Nikesh Shukla. I asked her: what do we do when we feel the pressure to stay silent, both from within our community and from the outside? Just combust?
‘As a writer,’ she said, ‘as people who have degrees, as people who have grown up in the West, we have the privilege and the duty to articulate experiences of those who cannot’.
So many of us don’t have a space, or a ‘room of their own’ in which to recreate and express their reality. Nowhere to see their own pain, yes, but also nowhere to look and realise ‘I am not alone, then’ or ‘there’s help out there’. We have to be brave and build that ourselves by speaking, and keeping on speaking. Maybe then we can begin to get better, together.
All images by Faria Tabassum