Still We Rise
One of the fundamental tenets of the project of colonialism is the perpetuation of the idea that Europe and the White European had the rationality and the right to control and subjugate the rest of the world. These ideas of Eurocentrism and white privilege persist today in our knowledge making spaces, both in the academia and outside it. They shape what is considered to be valid in terms of history, knowledge, and evidence. It has implications for how, and how much, different groups of people get to write their own narratives.
The ‘Still We Rise’ project emerged from wanting to look at these issues in relation to the mental health user/survivor movement in the UK. ‘The Movement’ has been defined as the work of individuals who identify variedly as Service user / Survivor / (Ex)Patient / Consumer / Client / Person with a Psychosocial Disability / Psychosocially Disabled / Person with (a) lived experience / Expert by experience / Mad, and their groups in advocating for their personal and collective rights within the context of discrimination faced as a result of having experienced mental health difficulties and/or being diagnosed as having a mental illness (On Our Own Terms, 2002).
This collective action has included people from racialised backgrounds from the start; we have actively participated in political action for full citizenship, challenging the medicalisation of problems with living and the discrimination arising from it. The collective political concerns of the movement are shared by survivors from racialised groups in their quest for human and legal rights and self-determination.
However, within this space of collective action, we have had to confront the racialisation of our bodies and beings within mental health services and within society, resulting in everyday experiences of racism. The political space of user/survivor activism and advocacy was no different, and many black survivors found themselves having to choose or prioritise a “mad” identity over all other parts of their identity.
“People have said to me openly, oh well you’re here as a service user, you’re not here as a black person, so don’t go on about race really. It’s alright for you to bring up user issues… But look at my skin! I cannot take off my skin and come into this room as a service user.”
Dancing to our own tunes, 2009
The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in the UK were also the period when anti-racism struggles, responding to widespread racism within societies and institutions, strengthened. In mental health, the black voluntary sector and black professionals responded to the increasing evidence on ethnic inequalities, including over-representation of racialised groups within services, often subject to coercive and inappropriate treatment. Psychiatric diagnoses and treatment were quite clearly marked by racist prejudice, not only at the level of individual professionals but also in organisational cultures and practices. Psychiatry itself was being called out for its roots in the idea of the superiority of the White European mind.
Just as we found allies and common ground with the mainstream survivor movement, we also found allies and common ground within anti-racism and race equality movements and within the BME voluntary sector. However, just as survivor spaces ignored, silenced or marginalised our experiences as black people, these black spaces were not free from the prejudice attached to being seen as having a mental illness, or an attitude of paternalism where service users were being spoken for rather than acknowledging our ability and right to speak for ourselves.
“The elephant in the room that is not being discussed is the fact that a large proportion of ‘representatives’ [community ‘leaders’, BME vol. sector, black professionals] … are not immune to being prejudiced, discriminating and holding stereotypical view of service users and what ‘they’ need.”
Doing it for themselves, 2006
In effect, then, the black user/survivor movement occupied the liminal space between these two political movements in their advocacy and activism. We often worked in collaboration with both. However, we have also had to carve out our own spaces from which we could challenge the everyday racism within mental health services, and within the broader user/survivor movement and user-led organisations while at the same time combating the prejudice and paternalism with anti-racism movements and what in the UK is known as the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary sector. Our activism, then, is both in alliance with these two movements as well as in challenge, even confrontation, of attitudes within these movements.
But the history of our work and political action is hard to find as they don’t often form part of the history of either of these political movements. It is this history at the intersection between mad movements and anti-racism movements that Still We Rise hopes to address.
In recording the history, the project has two simple aims:
- To simply tell our history for ourselves (because no one else will)
We can continue to push for inclusion and coproduction and involvement and so on, but the only way to tell our histories in its entirety is to tell it ourselves. As Vanessa Jackson, the African American survivor writer, says, “leadership in a movement is all too often defined by who is sitting on the dais,” and one might add, who does the writing and the publishing, whose work is quoted/taught/read as relevant, who gets funding, whose work is considered valid. Writing one of the first books on African American psychiatrist history, Jackson says:
“There are thousands of African American activists who resisted psychiatric oppression on a daily basis, but many of them are lost to us because they are not recorded in the official history. We can no longer wait for the predominantly white consumer/survivor/ex-patient/ movement to include us as an addendum to their history. We will have to write our own history to celebrate our legacy of resistance.”
‘In our own voice: African American stories of oppression, survival and recovery in mental health systems’, 2002
• To create a public archive
Much of the history we want capture is in people’s memories, autobiographies and in personal archives, and many of its ‘witnesses’ are outside the mainstream user/survivor movement in the UK. Currently, apart from a few mentions in some archives, most notably in survivor historian Andrew Roberts’ archive, there is no existing archive of black contributions to mad activism. So this archive needs to be built from scratch.
The title of the project is inspired by a poem by one of the most gifted storytellers the world has ever seen – Maya Angelou
“Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave