- Janine Miller
Black Lives Matter – blog post from a Therapist of Colour
I am a psychotherapist, a person of colour and a South African living in Sweden. I’ve been watching the news of the events unfolding in the US, not only now in 2020, but over the past decade. I am angry and I am sad.
When I was growing up in Apartheid South Africa, the loss of a Black life was not something that necessarily translated to prosecution or justice for the victims. This was in the 80s.
It is outrageous to know that this is still true for Black people in 2020.
I was born in South Africa during Apartheid. Apartheid South Africa was all about racial labels. The broad category my family fell into was called non-White which covered 90 % of the population. The specific category we fell into was called Coloured – a classification for all people of mixed origins.
In the race hierarchy, Coloured people were not as acceptable as White people, but were more acceptable than Black people. Black people were treated as inferior and regarded as sub-human in South Africa.
Segregation in South Africa determined where you could live, what jobs you could get, your healthcare, and the infrastructure and resources you had access to. Signs with the words “WHITES ONLY” were commonplace, making it really clear where you were welcome (or unwelcome) according to the colour of your skin.
State schools were segregated by race and non-white pupils received inferior education by law. But my parents chose to send my sisters and I to a private school where students of all races were welcome if their families could afford the school fees. I was somewhat sheltered from the harsh realities of segregation and I couldn’t imagine a school without children of all races.
As a child, I would sit in my classroom alongside children of all races – Black, White, Coloured and Indian (official South African classifications). As an adult, I realised that I had no idea what life was like for the Black kids in the same room as me.
About a year ago I asked a friend I went to secondary school with, who is Black, about his experience during that time and this is what he shared:
“As for my perspective, I could always tell that any person of colour was persona non grata in the system of governance, but I think the one thing that stood out for me as a kid was what that meant for how our lives were valued.
From the superficial yet symbolic relative treatment of the family pet versus the gardener: (Dog sits in the warm passenger seat while gardener sits in the back of the van in the Winter wind) to the ultimate examples that informed the exile movement of the time.
People weren’t going into exile because they feared jail… they moved into exile because they feared death.
The death of a black person at the hands of the state was an act almost guaranteed to have no consequences for those who carried it out – and we all knew it.
My Dad was a journalist in the ’80s and was summoned to appear in court because he had been in the presence of, and written about some freedom fighters, who were on trial. When he travelled to the Transvaal from the Free State, the police raided the house back home where my mother was… no warrant, no warning. They turned the house upside down looking for any piece of evidence that could tie him to the accused on a personal level and expose him as being a conspirator.
I remember as recently as my primary school years … I was home from school, late afternoon/early evening. Suddenly the entire township was stirring with activity – cops were chasing kids (literal school kids) and beating them with batons, some were being trampled in the melee, others were bleeding from their wounds, kids were running into our house asking for shelter… all because they had participated in some protest action the week before. I was always struck by how the police were hunting down kids with no fear of opposition in the flimsy excuse we had for a sanctuary: our very homesteads.”
– Lebo Mochudi
I was horrified that this was the experience of someone that I sat next to, that I spoke with every day. And yet I had no idea that this was his reality outside of the school grounds.
The reality of people who are different from us needs to be heard and acknowledged. And how people experience their reality needs to be respected.
No person deserves to live in fear for their lives. No person deserves to be treated as less than human because of the colour of their skin.
As a psychotherapist, I am invited to hear and hold people’s most vulnerable experiences. I am invited to sit alongside them as they dare to explore their most painful feelings. As a person of colour from South Africa, I have my own pain to deal with. I fully absorbed the belief that I don’t deserve to be valued or respected. And I know that, for Black people, this is much worse.
Yes, there’s hope, there’s positive outlook, there’s moving forwards, there’s focussing on, growth and healing, etc. And at the same time, we have an opportunity now to make space for Black voices to be heard. Hearing people’s pain does not mean that we have to stay stuck there. There is a way of shifting out of the pain. But before change can happen, there must be understanding.
The most important thing I’ve learnt is to find compassion for myself first and to then find empathy and compassion for others. Without judgement. And without defensiveness.
Let’s first seek to understand, with deep compassion for others, and then use our rage and grief to create an impact where it matters most.
Black Lives Matter.
First published at nisad.ngo on 17 June 2020.
Please also see my TEDx talk where I share more about my experience of growing up in a political system of racial oppression:
What do we choose when cultures collide - TEDx Slottsparken June 2019