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Ever been diagnosed with a Micro-aggressive tumour?

I was watching a show on Netflix called New Amsterdam. Inspired by a novel, the show takes place in the medical world, following the lives of physicians and patients in a public hospital in America. In one of the episodes, a young black boy ended up in the hospital showing sign of weakness, fatigue, and overall feeling “sick”. After a consult with Dr. Sharpe, Chair of the Oncology Department, she concluded that the kid had a tumour near the heart; benign tumour that could easily be removed during a surgery. However, Dr. Sharpe noticed that the origin of this tumor was from a hormone unbalanced, and in this case, his cortisol was through the roof.

Cortisol is one of the main hormones in the human body. It is released when the body is under a certain amount of stress. This hormone when high enough, can cause many other imbalances in the system resulting in a multitude of health problems, from heart issues to blood pressure problems and more. Furthermore, when children are living under chronic stress it becomes toxic and effects the expression of genes. In this 12-year-old’s case, he developed a tumour.

Dr. Sharpe couldn’t help but wonder, “What in the world could a 12-year-old boy be so stressed about?”. She referred the patient to Dr. Frome, Head of psychiatry to meet with the young man. Skip forward, during the surgery, the surgeon realizes that the patient has multiple tumours around the heart, which thankfully were all removable. However, they all became aware of how serious this condition could have been if the tumours weren’t benign.

Dr. Frome interviews the patient and administers a series of clinical evaluations and tests which all pointed to one diagnosis: racism. In his opinion, this child was experiencing chronic stress within his environment as a result of micro-aggressions he had experienced. He expressed to his medical team that he couldn’t prove with 100% certainty that what he was experiencing in his new school was racism because it wasn’t obvious enough. It was embedded in the ignorant comments people would make, the rude remarks made about his English and the recurring actions of certain teachers. For example, his school librarian wouldn’t let him sign books out of the library and yet allowed his peers to do so. This child was internalizing very real everyday micro-aggressions and it was killing him slowly (literally). When the Psychiatrist explained his diagnosis to his mother, he used some powerful words: “Your son feels threatened on the daily basis. And because he can’t name it, he’s internalizing it. I think your son’s tumour was caused by racism”.

I know many of you are reading this thinking to yourselves, “Oh well it’s just a show”. Yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s just a show, but a show that was able to perfectly captivate the danger that is to live in an environment with no positive representation, no sense of emotional/mental security, constant racial self-awareness, fear and lastly but not least, the overall feeling that one doesn’t “fit” in. In my opinion, micro-aggressions are worst then overt racism because they're not “obvious” enough therefore it generates excessive worry and anxiety, which can eat away at a person for days. Living in the unknown is just as devastating for one’s well-being then it is to know and identify racism for what it is. War is easier fought when you know who you’re fighting against... no? I would prefer to know who I’m dealing with than to torture myself to find out.

I was reading an article published by Pfizer named Understanding racial microaggression and its effects on mental health. Most people struggle to talk about microaggressions in its complexity, but to see a giant in the world of healthcare do it with such elegance really brought it home for me. My takeaway from this article is the fact that research doesn’t lie, but instead it just gets ignored because to face reality would involve accountability. More importantly, the research continues to show that racism and discrimination contributes to poor health outcomes among communities of colour which puts them at a higher risk of depression, prolonged stress and trauma, anxiety, diabetes, and heart conditions (Pfizer, 2022). During her interview with Pfizer, Dr. Joy Bradford mentions that “the increased stress related to things like micro-aggressions in the workplace and experiences with discrimination can lead to physical concerns like headaches, high blood pressure, and difficulties with sleep, which of course impact our mood as well.” (Pfizer, 2022).

It would be an understatement to say that I’ve encountered my fair share of micro-aggressions in my lifetime, but when it happens to kids, that’s when it breaks my heart. Those same little kids internalize those experiences, grow up to be like you and I, living in a world they know is so unfair and so unequal. The little black girls grew from being “loud” and “agitated” to being “angry” and “aggressive”. A stereotype in which black women all around the globe are drowning in on the daily basis. No one actually stops to ask the why's and the how's, before feeding into social constructs. I’d like to share a personal story with you as well as some real lived moments. Within my experiences with aggressions, I’ve started to divide my them into two subcategories: macro aggressions and mini aggressions. Macro in this context refers to the greater stage on which an aggression is taking place as well as the larger scale of ignorance that is involved. Mini refers to the small interactions and smaller scale things. Let me give you some real-life examples!!!

A subtle yet obvious macro-aggression - real life story

This happened in 2019/2020 or so, in my role as school social worker with the public board in my area. I don’t think I need to specify that I was the only black social worker, and probably the only black employee as I never ran into another one. The board has 7 high schools and blessed to have a social worker at every school, quite rare in the world of education due to the newest of the roles. If you’ve read “my black Canadian experience” you know that being in this position was not a walk in the park for me. Anyways… I showed up to our weekly school student success meetings when I was cornered by the school administrator in front of everyone... this is a snippet of our dialogue...

Admin: Did this principal reach out to you about a kid at this school?

My defences kicked in early as I was quite overwhelmed at my school already which they all knew. I was confused by her question because that school wasn’t mine, and they had a highly qualified social worker in that establishment, so I didn’t understand why my input would me necessary. (mental state: apprehensive)

Me: I don’t know who that principal is, and no, she hasn’t reached out to me.

At this point, I just wanted the conversation to end, because there were 6 other people in the room and this conversation didn’t concern them. I didn't feel safe and my heart started to race (mental state: rising worry & anxiety)

Admin: *Condescending tone* Can you reach out to that principal today about that kid? I think they would appreciate your expertise with this specific kid.

At this moment, I knew I was being taken for an absolute idiot. My expertise? The social worker at that school had 20 more years of experience than me working in children mental health services and is a brilliant clinician. At the time, she happened to be my neighbour and had invited me out to coffee and we chatted. I knew deep down that I was being belittle and that she wasn't saying what she truly meant to say. (mental state: fight, flight or freeze mode)

Another teacher in the room: Lethicia is already so swamped with this school, isn’t there a social worker at that school already to deal with the student?

I was frozen, boiling with anger and just so overwhelmed with internal emotions. Even my colleague tried to defend me and attempted to end the conversation as he saw how uncomfortable I was. Side note: I am sitting in a Starbucks while writing this today, and my eyes just filled with tears in public, I got so flustered. It’s like my body is taking me back to what I felt in that moment and is attempting to release whatever pain I was feeling. I had to take a quick break and come back. (mental state: distraught then, distraught now)

Admin: Well, I just think Lethicia is the right fit since she's worked with this kind of youth before.

The real reason I was so hurt was because this woman hated my fucking guts and made it very clear. I didn’t drool over her nor kissed her ass like everyone else did, plus I was a woman (yes, she didn't behave like that with men). She felt so threatened by my presence from day one of meeting me, and I’ve never gotten a genuine vibe from her. For her to sit there and tell me she thought I’d be the right fit, and that my "expertise was best", was complete bullshit. On top of all the other racial comments she had made towards me, anything and everything would be triggering at this point. Finally, I unfroze and said something. (mental state: attempting to self-regulate and not become another reason for the stereotype to persist by showing my anger because that'd be aggressive right?)

Me: Could we perhaps not talk about this right now? Let just get to the meeting and I’ll figure that out later.

After that meeting, the principal of that other school had emailed me saying the same bull (as if they rehearsed) and added “we need your expertise with a black student at our school whose experiencing some mental health challenges… blah blah blah”. I don’t remember the rest, but it was some politically correct way of saying; since you're black, and he’s black, can you talk to him? We've messed shit up and need you to clean up so we can check our boxes and call it a day.

I was tormented for days by the layers of ignorance present in this system in regard such situation. What if I wasn't there? What if I wasn't black? What would have happened then? The mental battle began as I was driving home: if I went to the school, I was the fool falling into the social trap and setting a precedent of acceptance for this behaviour. If I didn’t, I was letting down a kid who may have needed that familiar face to comfort him in whatever he was going through. Being guilt tripped into having to choose between helping my community and dismantling social constructs is exhausting. Not only did the social worker of that school not know that people in the same building as her had reached out to me to talk about her client. When we spoke, she had already done everything necessary to support the student and besides me being black there was nothing I would have done differently. Of course, I drove down to the school (completely out of my way and with my busy schedule) to meet the student... what an awkward moment let me tell you. We looked at each other and just laughed and how everyone decided we should be except for us. I knew that deep down he also felt some series of microaggressions deeply in that school as he didn't fully get why I needed to meet with him either. Nobody had even stop to ask him about what HE wanted.

Mini aggressions - brief real life stories

  • People assuming that I’d LOVE to be a part of some equity committee because why would a black person not want equity? Almost acting offended when you say "no". The one time I joined one, I ended up doing all the work as usual and came out of it more exhausted and frustrated than anything else.

  • People touching me and/or my hair as if I’m some pet at the zoo that they enjoy playing with. Someone once said “oh I just wanna pet you” … maybe a way of telling me that my hair was beautiful? I think…?

  • Receiving social work referrals simply based on race and/or being newcomers. The "assumption" that they need my involvement because they are immigrants, people of colour or that me being black automatically makes me the “right fit”.

  • I’ve been working with a school staff member that’s exhibited some behaviours that point to an insecurity around the role she plays within the mental health school team. As a social worker, I can do treatment work that she cannot do and that seems to be something that’s being thrown in my face from time to time. She’d say things like “I’m referring this kid to you because you make the big buck, right?” or “You are higher up in the board than I am, so I guess you should know this” and some other ignorant comments that has nothing to do with our respective career choices. The internal turmoil begins as I start to wonder; is it that I'm a person of colour with higher education than you within this organization? Is is that I make more money and your subconscious is uncomfortable? WHAT IS IT GOD DAMN IT!!! I continue to spiral of course as think: if black people are driven and successful it's a problem. If we're poor and stealing to survive, we're dangerous criminals. PICK ONE... please!

  • When my family lived in Winchester, Ontario (little conservative town outside Ottawa) my little sister used to have other white kids take crayons and write/scribble on her arms. These were grade 2 students.... The kids would say that it wouldn’t be visible because her skin was so dark. Tell me where a child could get an idea like that if not from their environment? My poor sister never wanted to go to school, and nobody blamed her. I wouldn't go either. As for my brother , they wouldn't even cut corner, they called him the "black kid" as if he didn't have a name.

  • In High school, I was the first black co-president the school had ever had in their 53 years of running. Hear this, the school had an ESL program welcoming large diverse populations and minority groups and yet in 53 years, I was its only ever black/ person of colour in a position as such. I shared the presidency with another Italian student, and I remember almost giving up because I didn't have faith in my contribution to the school. From a young age, I realized that unless I made white people care, they wouldn't naturally do so. During that year, I solely attended all the “business-y” stuff and pushed for events that were culturally inclusive, went to senate meetings, promoted DEI while she showed up at the "fun" stuff. My friends used to point it out to me, that's how obvious it was. I was only 17, and yet I felt like it was my responsibility to make a difference and make people/generations at this school feel included because for so long they didn't even share the same spaces with the rest of the school. Physically, ESL student were isolated from the main building, main events and more. During the first ever multicultural event I had put together that year, a mother to a young Filipino boy with special needs came to me and said: "Thank you for including us in this year. We never feel welcomed in the school community and it felt good to see him excited to come to an event that reflected him". I never forgot that mother, and she confirmed my desire to become a social worker.

I could write a whole novel on micro aggressions, but we can stop here for today. All I want you to reflect on today is this; if a plant was to die, would you blame your plant? Or would you investigate the environmental factors that are making it hard for this plant to grow? Human beings are living organisms just like plants and are to be observed similarly. Living organisms require a set of environmental factors based on their kind/needs to grow and blossom. Once they’ve blossomed and reached their peak, they require consistent maintenance to continue to thrive. Being a person of colour in this world whether you are homeless, in prison, stay-at-home or the CEO of a fortune 500 company, without the right environment you cannot and will not thrive at your full potential. I used to think that if I went to school, got straight As, completed higher education with 4.0 GPA excellence combined with my street savvy and interpersonal skills, that it would be enough to earn people’s respect as well as a seat at the table. It is not. I’m learning to accept and come to terms with the fact that this is a white man’s world, and we are all just living in it. Learn to carve your own place, control your own environmental needs, and thrive. If we’re going to wait around to be given a seat at the table, we’ll wait a long time because the people sitting at that table don't hold a single clue that others are needed that in that space. You can either fight for that seat and take it or build your own damn table. I’m building my table… What will you do?

Reed, J. (2022). Understanding microaggressions and its effect on mental health.[]

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