Those “Crazy Colored People”: Reading Race in Mental Health

The facts of race in America too often mean that non-whites are crazy by definition. Non-whites have even had to prove that ‘race’ still impacts all of us today. One of the clearest examples of this is the pathbreaking American presidential race of 2008- the longest, most covered and most expensive campaigns to date. The real deal is why’d it cost so much for America to elect it’s first non-white president?

As a presidential candidate, for example, Barack Obama had to explain ‘race’ in an eloquent 37-minute speech, as if it were his (racial) responsibility. Recall that many folks could not connect with Obama’s main presidential rival because she never made clear how gender impacted her reality; she ‘pretended’ it was unimportant, and even ‘wore the pants’ until it was too late. If Hilary Clinton had early on made speeches like her concession speech, Americans might have responded to her very differently. I would imagine that many people of color in America have felt such pressure in their daily lives, and continue to deal with the stress of this pressure on their own. The denial of the impact of race is enough to send someone into a frenzy, but luckily there are now ample studies demonstrating racial disparities in all facets of American life. As an American voter, I would appreciate knowing how any candidate perceives race in America, as well as gender and class disparities. But the reality is that it took a crazy Negro candidate to lay that path in any meaningful way. Never has any politician spoken so clearly about the impact of historical social differences on the social disparities of today. Back to racialized insanity…

It’s easy to pretend that race doesn’t matter if you benefit from white-skin privilege, or class-privilege has managed to counter the reality of race; the mere mention of race probably sounds CRAZY! Mentioning race at all often gets boiled down to ‘racism’ in mixed company, and the conversation stops there with the accusation of playing the race card just by the forthrightness to interrogate the impact of race. Now, we can all rely on statistics to show racial disparities in all areas of life. There are now plenty of studies providing evidence to demonstrate, for example, that in a classroom setting, teachers ‘read’ the same sets of behaviors differently on white versus non-white students. Where one kid’s bad behavior is a symptom of depression, that same behavior on another kid is seen as pathological. And of course, the impact of culture might also lead folks to deal differently with stress, and our culture likely values one way of dealing versus another. For example, I pump up the music and dance real hard, and poof, stress is reduced! Music is my crack and I am well aware that I might appear crazy on the dance floor. Others go for substance abuse to escape from their living hell, and certainly cheaper versions of the same drug carry a heavier prison penalty than the more ‘refined versions of the powdered substance. It helps to have money to stay out of ‘the system’. Indeed, as Whitney Houston sad: Crack is whack!

Anyone who has better healthcare coverage or the ability to pay out-of-pocket might get a massage, take a well needed vacation, or genuinely seek professional psycho-social support. But that’s left up to the healthcare debate, one supposes; now back to the crazy colored folks: The January 11th episode of NPR’s Tell Me More alludes to one such disparities, which has life-long ramifications, since kids getting into ‘the system’ can follow them forever. Prompted by the show’s host Michel Martin, University of Illinois at Chicago Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health, Dr. Carl Bell offered:

There’s also some evidence that, you know, different ethnic groups, different cultures, show symptoms differently. For example, European-American depressed adolescents, when they get in trouble with the law or get in trouble with school, that’s sort of a symptom of their depression. But when you look at African-Americans, that is not as robust as a predictor of depression. So there are differences in different ethnic groups. It shows up differently. So there’s a risk of misdiagnosis.

And in addition to all of that, there’s a fairly strong push by some anti-psychiatrists to suggest to people of color that psychiatry is a profession that seeks to kill and they promulgate their propaganda, their negative psychiatry propaganda into minority communities, which may not be as sophisticated, and they believe this garbage that psychiatrists want to put everybody on antidepressant medication.

NPR has also reported on the same sets of racialized readings of behaviors by social workers investigating potential issues of neglect in homes, leading to actual reports that show that a social worker will doubt responses from Black parents to questions like history of drug use and abuse. Such doubts have obvious and measurable impacts on the lives and destinies of those kids whose parents are seen to be lying to social workers. Best believe that this carries over into other areas of this American life, and other inter-racial interactions. If nothing else, President Obama has lessened the burden of individual Blacks to explain race to the uninitiated, and for that he deserves a huge prize (whew…sigh of relief).