Op-Ed

Op-Ed: Why Do I Have "White People Problems"?

I'm African and I’m black and I suffer from anxiety. Why do I have “white people problems?”

Why do I have “white people problems?”

It was 3AM on a Sunday morning and I could not bring myself to sleep. I had been lying in bed for a few hours going over some terrible scenarios in my head. Basically my brain had decided it was a great time to contemplate all the improbable ways I could have died at that moment.

Yup, I was having an anxiety attack.

It was not my first one, so I eased into it. I took a few deep breaths hoping it would go away and that soon I would fall into a deep slumber but it wasn’t to be. I was still there, eyes wide open.

Desperate for a distraction, I reached for my phone. I discovered that two of my friends were still online, bingo!

“Why are you awake?” one of them asks. I answer that I couldn’t sleep after watching back-to-back episodes of Narcos. We caught up on various areas of our lives and then about an hour later, he inquired again, “so why are you still up?”

Annoyed, mostly at myself, I quickly typed out one word, "Anxiety."

“Why do you have white people problems?😂” he asked with ‘a tears of joy’ emoji adjunct.

I froze for a few seconds as I searched for an answer which I could not seem to find at the time. This led to more frustration and I bought into his line of thought for a while.

 

What is so bad about my life that I should be going through this? I mean people are out there with real problems. I had spent my Saturday relaxing, mostly researching on the kinds of protein shakes and smoothies I could make with my new blender. I was not particularly worried about anything significant at that time like exams or bills, so what was my problem? Let’s just say I had given up on falling asleep that night and instead I focused my energy on figuring out if I was entitled to having such problems.

Every time I have experienced an anxiety attack I have felt utterly alone, as if no one else around me could understand or possibly relate to what I was going through. It took me a long time to tell anyone that I had a problem, partly because I did not want to seem fragile in front of my family and friends.

This is linked to the fact that in African or black communities, mental illnesses are generally viewed as a non-issue. Being strong is valued and voicing out your inner pain is seen as a sign of weakness. Anyone suffering from anxiety right now will tell you that it’s definitely not made-up. There is a perception that depression and anxiety are not African problems, insinuating that perhaps we are not privileged enough to face them. There is also a stigma associated with seeking treatment and it is mostly seen as a last resort. These are the kind of negative stereotypes that prevent many people from acknowledging their psychological problems let alone getting help and actually conquering them.

I will admit that occasionally I get these anxiety attacks when I am under pressure or feeling stressed, even subconsciously. What I will not do, however, is pretend that it did not happen. I am African and I’m black and I suffer from anxiety. I am pretty sure I am not the only black person out there who is going through this and it makes no sense for us to act as if these problems do not apply to us. These mindsets towards mental illness only interfere with the recovery of so many people in our communities who could instead be choosing to self medicate with drugs or alcohol.

According to the Kenya Mental Health Policy, which was published in 2016, about 20 to 40 per cent of those seeking outpatient services in hospitals have one or more mental disorders. There are a number of organizations in Kenya working to dispel negative attitudes on mental health and offering support to those who need it. But as of now it’s difficult to know what progress they are making in that quest. I suppose it should all begin with us as individuals. Depression and anxiety do not discriminate as to whom they affect, and we should try to be honest and open about these issues with ourselves and the people close to us as well.

If there’s anything that helps in the moment, though, it’s music. I love to listen to “Quiet” by John Mayer, a song that any person with anxiety or insomnia would instantly relate to. It is soothing, like a lullaby. He wrote the song more than fifteen years ago but it still sounds brand new in all of my sleepless nights. The fact that John Mayer has openly discussed his own struggle with anxiety and panic attacks also helps me feel less alone in this battle. After all, we are just humans with “human people problems.”

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This Afro-Feminist Marching Band Is Challenging Negative Stereotypes of Black Women In Paris

30 Nuances de Noires is fighting the erasure of black women in public spaces one march at a time.

If you stroll through the streets of Paris and its suburbs and stumble across a parade of black women wearing shiny outfits, singing and dancing, consider yourself lucky: you've just come across the Afro-feminist marching band '30 Nuances de Noires' (30 Shades of Black).

The band was created by dancer and choreographer Sandra Rose Fanchine. Tired of the erasure of black women in the public space and of the negative stereotypes associated with them, Fanchine has brought women (and a few men) together in this project. Professional and amateur singers, dancers and musicians, they have all accepted to embark on this journey and use their talents to launch this much-needed conversation in France.

Sandra Rose FanchinePhoto by SEKA photography

The band's musical coordinator, Célia Wa, is a flautist, singer and composer. When Fanchine invited her to take part in the project, she was very enthusiastic to have the opportunity to play alongside other black female musicians and take part in something that portrays black women in a positive light and in a flamboyant way. She was also keen to play alongside other black female musicians and coordinate them, outside, in the public space, where music is accessible to everyone. But it wasn't easy going. "It's hard to find women who play wind instruments" she explains. "But especially black women. So, we decided to incorporate a few black men musicians—men who understand the meaning of the project and support us. They don't try to dominate the space, they wear dresses and headwraps, they really blend into the group."

Célia WaPhoto by SEKA photography

Wa hopes the project will encourage many young girls to become professional musicians by showing them that being a fulfilled woman, having a music career and a family life, is possible.

Awori is the singer of the band Kamiawori, and a singer and dancer in the parade. She accepted Fanchine's invitation to join the band because she realized a brass band made of women—especially black women—was something unique that she wanted to be part of. "Throughout history, women had been forbidden to play wind instruments because blowing into those instruments was assimilated to a sexual act", says Kamiawori. "As a result, nowadays, the majority of people playing these instruments are men, so the fact that Sandra was looking for black women only was really appealing to me".

Earlier this year the band had the chance to travel to French Guiana to do a performance with black Guyanese women. This is the kind of future she wants for the project. "I want us to go to places in France where there aren't many black people, as well as to the former French colonies and the French overseas territories," she says. She hopes the project will start conversations everywhere, and empower black women to talk about their issues in their own words and organize their own emancipation.

AworiPhoto by SEKA photography

***

Read on for our conversation with Sandra Rose Fanchine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I'm 51 years old, I was born in Martinique and grew up in Côte d'Ivoire. I'm a hip-hop dancer and choreographer. I first came to France 22 years ago to study graphic design but along the way, I found hip hop and started dancing out of passion. With my background in graphic design, I knew I was going to be a choreographer eventually, I was convinced I could use hip hop beyond its performance aspect, bringing my visual artist's knowledge to it and using it to promote a narrative. So, when the age of maturity came, I became a choreographer. My first work considered the social construction of femininity, and I then created a piece which dealt with the memory of the black body. 30 Nuances de Noires is my third choreographic work.

Where did the idea of "30 Nuances de Noires" come from?

It came from my professional frustration as a black woman. When I was looking for a job after my studies, my graphic design work was very culturally influenced by my life in Martinique and Côte d'Ivoire. I was proud to show the aesthetics and the colors, to me it was beautiful but it wasn't seen as such, it was seen as something unworthy and my work was always devalued.

I also had to face that devaluation in my personal life. I wanted to partner up with a black man, but I could see that black men didn't value me, didn't give me space and in general chose to have solid relationships with white women. I am light-skinned so I used to pass black men's colorist filters, but this privilege stopped as soon as commitment was mentioned. I looked around me and saw a pattern in the way black men treated black women, in the way people in general treated black women, how we were looked down upon. I wanted to create something about that topic.

Photo by SEKA Photography

Why did you choose that name?

I chose that name to criticize the movie 50 shades of Grey, which from a feminist point of view is a sexist and misogynist movie, that glamorizes violence against women. Moreover, black women, in the global conception related to sexuality and sentiments, are continually eroticized in a very specific way: animalization, exotification and fetishization. I chose to reclaim these stigmas, just as Audre Lorde writes about in the chapter of her book Sister Outsider named "the use of eroticism, and the use of anger: the response of women to racism."

How did the people around you react to this project?

At first, I wanted to do a piece about sexuality, love and the neocolonial aspects of interracial unions but I faced a backlash from people in the cultural institutions and people in the hip hop industry. Whenever I talked about my project I was completely shut down and called a racist.

After all that rejection and denigration, I went back to university and studied gender studies for two years, and around the same time I became an Afro-feminist activist. In the meantime, the project evolved. I used to work at festivals where there were many brass brands and I already wanted to create a marching band with hip hop dancers so I just mixed the two ideas: highlighting black women's issues and creating a marching band.

After equipping myself with the relevant intellectual tools, surrounding myself with other black women and realizing we were all going through the same things, I was capable of demonstrating the systemic nature of what I was talking about and the barriers fell. I was finally in the right place at the right time. I found the artists very easily, the first musicians I met brought other musicians, the first dancers brought other dancers, it all happened very organically.

Photo by SEKA Photography

What type of women were you looking for?

I was looking for women who were strong enough to embody and address those issues unapologetically. They had to be capable of dancing on the streets with an attitude that says "I am standing up straight, I am black, I am glowing, I am shining and you will look at me and ask yourself how you really see me because I am not all those stereotypes you believe I am." Naturally, it first attracted feminists, women who were already aware of those issues. The women who later joined us and weren't aware of those issues are now more conscious and politicized.

What are the musical and aesthetic inspirations behind the project?

I really wanted visuals inspired by the aesthetics of the 70s and 80s because the dances present in the parade—locking and waacking—emerged at that time. For the musical aspect, I looked for songs that talked about black women and their issues: sorority, colorism, equality and resilience.

Photo by SEKA Photography

How do you see the project evolving in the future?

I want to do a world tour, I want us to dance with Beyoncé and Solange, I want to take this message of empowerment everywhere there are black women who need to exist, shine, go outside and assert their presence in the public space. Because of harassment, sexism and prejudice, it's still pretty complicated for women to simply exist. I consider myself lucky because I can see that the band does what I wanted it to do: it really empowers black women and seeing that happening gives me a lot of strength to take it further.

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Seyi Shay. Image provided by the artist.

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