By Muse Berhe
The recent rise in popularity of Black Lives Matter is something we should all celebrate. Any cause that aims to improve the state of the world is something commendable. Yet, for myself and a lot of other people, this movement has also had negative side effects on our mental health.
Before George Floyd died on the 28th of May 2020, I was extremely easy going. The pandemic had hit, which had somewhat affected everyone mentally, but I was determined to do well in my exams. After George Floyd died and I heard all the news surrounding his death, I did nothing. I did not share anything on social media. I did not discuss the issue with family and friends. I did not care that another black man was a victim of police brutality. I had become desensitised to this sort of news, despite being black myself.
It was only after I saw friends and family sharing information that I decided to jump on the bandwagon. I will forever be ashamed that instead of striving to do the right thing of my own will, I waited until it became trendy to do so. I shared deeply personal accounts of my experiences with racism via Snapchat stories daily, which worsened my emotional state. To have to rethink experiences that I did not want to think on again just to educate others was unfair on myself, but I did not complain. “Why would my mental health matter when there were black people who were experiencing so much worse?”, I said to myself. I thought this was the very least that I could do.
I remember talking to my older sister about how this was the first time in my life that I had felt truly helpless. Normally, when I encounter an issue in my life, I improve my skillset so that I can rise to the occasion. But this time, no matter how much I improved, there would still be people who were racist. After all, there are knowledgeable figures who are more qualified and educated than me who still get racist hatred directed towards them. “Racism has existed for so long, so what do you even think you can do?” I told myself.
I realised that educating people was not going to be enough: I had to act. When I was 14, I had a teacher who ‘stimulated’ racism within the classroom. They did this by segregating the classroom, belittling black and ethnic minorities (BAME) and degrading the quality of BAME students work compared to white students. No one had complained or come forwards about it, so I took it upon myself to contact my school to complain about the incident. This was during exam season, which was already very stressful. But, at this point, I was too angry to not do anything. This unfortunately came at the detriment of my studies and my newfound activism.
I decided to expand my reach via Instagram stories as well, as more reach meant I could educate more people. Self-doubt clouded my judgement when the school informed me that the lesson was educational, essentially invalidating my feelings. I had to gain the perspective of more people to appreciate the severity of what had happened. Something that helped improve my mental health was watching a funny episode of Naruto. I was reminded that I should not take myself too seriously and it is alright to be happy every now and then.
Through this project to get my secondary school to apologise for their unacceptable behaviour and outline their anti-racism initiatives, I was placed under a lot of pressure. A lot of people told me that doing this was making myself a target for racist people. I put on a front in front of other people that I was fearless, but really, I was worried for my family and myself. I knew it was the right thing to do, so I pushed forwards. I had someone undermine what I had went through as well as make a counter petition to oppose the one that I had started to gather support. This made me question the validity of my own feelings, yet again.
I felt, and still do feel, incredibly guilty that I had been complacent with the current situation for so long. Up until May, I thought I was a good person. But what kind of ‘good person’ would ignore widescale suffering? I really wanted to ease my conscious, so I kept myself busy when I was gathering support for my ‘project’. I found this was great for me, as it provided me with a sort of escape where I was not thinking about the current situation. Another thing that I found provided me with some relief was support from my family and friends. Being consistent with posting about the issues that black people were facing and how to support them made people stop doubting my motives. A strong support circle was critical for this, which many people unfortunately lack.
Ultimately, I cannot go back in time and change who I was back then. But it is never too late to turn over a new leaf and do what is right. Moving forwards, I want to encourage people to be more empathetic. A lot of people, who were not black, helped with the Black Lives Matter activism. I told myself that when something terrible happens again, I would be proactive in sharing important information, like them. Following the explosion in Beirut, I organised a charity fundraiser alongside some friends. I also shared a lot of information on the situation and how to help. I did not want to be complacent with injustice any longer. I am using my prior experience of how bad I felt after jumping on the bandwagon with BLM as feedback to respond quickly to future important causes.
Muse Berhe is a final year Biochemistry student at the University of Surrey.