Written by Andrea Nwabuike
I have a collection saved on Instagram titled Black Joy. It contains videos of men frolicking, babies dancing, women laughing and families harmonizing around the dinner table. There are pictures of couples celebrating anniversaries and graduates gliding across convocation stages.
It is healing to see joy exuding from Black bodies, because far too often we see Black bodies subjected to violence and harm. I started this collection because my near-constant consumption of Black pain was taking a toll on my mental health.
My desire to be informed about what was happening in the world gave way to an obsession with reading, seeing, and hearing about as many incidences of racism as I could find. The consequences of my overconsumption of injustice included a heightened awareness of the world’s dangers and a growing sense of anger and anxiety.
Our brains and bodies were not designed to carry this level of rage. Several studies in the United States have identified clear links between experiences of racism and poor health outcomes. It is more difficult to determine whether the same connections exist in Canada because most Canadian healthcare institutions do not collect race-based data.
However, trauma functions in the same way regardless of nationality. When we experience a traumatic event, our sense of safety and security is disrupted. In response, the brain initiates the fight-flight-or-freeze response. When we are unable to hide, run, or fight our way back to safety or when danger repeatedly threatens us, our physical and mental health suffers.
In her paper “The Traumatizing Impact of Racism in Canadians of Colour,” psychologist and University of Ottawa professor Monnica Williams explains that racial trauma “consists of reactions to direct or vicarious exposure to real or perceived threats, experiences of humiliation and shame, and racial discrimination towards people of colour. Racial trauma is associated with phenomena such as anxiety, depression, despair, suicidal ideation, and poor physical health.” Those suffering from racial trauma are also more vulnerable to chronic stress, low self-esteem, isolation, excessive gambling and substance abuse.
Whether through personal experience or in witnessing the experiences of those that look like them, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Colour) Canadians are consistently confronted with reminders that the world is not as safe for them as it may be for others.
In the past three years, Indigenous communities have grieved the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of former residential schools, Asian Canadians have grappled with the rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes triggered by prejudice during Covid-19, and Black Canadians have wrestled with long overdue reports of Anti-Black racism and systemic inequality in numerous Canadian institutions, including education and policing.
These recent events find their place within the historical context of racism in Canada, from colonialism to WWII Japanese internment camps and the destruction of Africville, an African-Canadian village in Halifax where essential services were neglected and residents were ultimately pushed out of their homes.
Racial trauma also carries significant spiritual implications. When the triggers of trauma initiate the fight-flight-or-freeze response, we may be tempted to fight God with accusations against His character or to run from His presence and hide under the weight of our shame.
As Michelle T. Sanchez writes in her book Color-Courageous Discipleship, “Obviously, our God does not traumatize us, but it sure can seem that way. Why, for instance, does God allow racism and oppression to thrive, bullies to taunt, inequity to be perpetuated? Why has God allowed slavery and other racial atrocities to flourish for so long […]? Questions like these weaken the faith of some and cause others to reject Christianity outright.”
But for others, questions like these lead to a deeper experience of God’s love. The intentions and expectations behind our questioning are more consequential than the questions themselves.
If we come to God expecting simplistic or clear-cut answers, we will likely leave unsatisfied.
While I have found it empowering to equip myself with more knowledge about racial injustice and inequality, information has not healed the wounds of these realities in my own life. It is only when I have sought God’s presence amid my questioning that the burdens of anger and anxiety have lifted.
God invites me to run to Him when the dangers of the world overwhelm me, to hide under the shadow of His wing and to fight against evil through the power of His Spirit. I do not have to keep my defenses up with Him because there is safety in His presence.
My relationship with God has not erased the pain of racism, but it has given me the assurance there is meaning behind the pain. Of all people groups in the world, Jesus took on the flesh of a despised and oppressed race. Jesus came to save both the oppressed and the oppressor, but He intentionally aligned himself with the experiences of those who are rejected and marginalized. I am convinced there is a special blessing awaiting those who persist in faith despite these obstacles. On this side of heaven, that blessing has come to me in the sweetness of Black joy that has not and cannot be overcome.
Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer living in Toronto, Ont. Read more from “Church of many cultures.”