“When Canadian society says we’re sick that’s like a psychopathic killer complaining to someone he’s tried to strangle repeatedly that she should do something about the marks on her neck and see a psychiatrist about her recurrent nightmares and low self-esteem.” – Richard Bull

Last term, I confided in a professor that I was struggling with anxiety attacks and depression. She seemed understanding.

A few weeks after the class ended, I learned that she had brought the issue up at an informal departmental gathering, telling grad students and professors that anxiety is often an “excuse” used by students who want an easy ride.

I’ve been treated for depression since I was 13 (I’m 23 now), but I had never dealt with panic attacks before last term. Before I had a panic attack, I didn’t understand how they worked. I assumed that a panic attack was something attributable to not having enough discipline over one’s emotions, or something that only occurred during particularly traumatic events.

Seemingly out of nowhere, I had trouble going in to her classroom. I would stand outside the door, pacing back and forth – working up the courage to enter that I knew would never come – sometimes for nearly an hour. Inevitably, I would get upset with myself for not being able to do something as stupidly simple as opening a door and walking into a classroom. “Just do it”, I told myself aloud, but my body would not move. How comical and strange for any onlookers, or for the students on the other side of the door who had no idea of the struggle taking place right outside the classroom. My inability to overcome this predicament using the “rational” part of my brain (a mortal sin for a philosopher) left me frazzled, and though I tried to stop it, I would always start crying.  It was obvious then, as soon as my inner turmoil had manifested on my body in the form of smudged eyeliner and puffy eyes, I absolutely could not enter the classroom. At this point I would give up, go home, and be entirely useless for the rest of the day.

I would never feel comfortable entering a classroom, or meeting, where I can’t afford to show any extra vulnerability if it was visible that I had recently been crying. It is important to me to feel “put together” at school. I take pride in my appearance; it helps me feel confident and capable when I think I look confident and capable. Tanisha C. Ford has an in-depth discussion on the politics of style for women academics of color here. It is apparent that as Women of Color in universities, even as students, we are held to rigorous standards where we are expected to constantly prove that we are worthy of being academics. Presentation, performance, and adornment are certainly a part of this.

I’ve earned a reputation of competence around my school as a senior level undergraduate, but my earlier years were different. As a young Woman of Color (and a visibly Native woman, to boot), not much was expected of me. At my school, 50% of Aboriginal undergraduates drop out in their first year. As the Native woman in a classroom full of white students, studying a white, male dominated discipline, I am aware that my presence is constantly scrutinized. I become the representative for all Native people, and anything I do wrong is attributable to my genetics. If I enter a classroom late, if I answer a question incorrectly, if I misspeak, if I don’t speak, if I speak too much, if I get a bad grade, it’s not just a personal failure but a failed responsibility to break stereotypes and represent all Native people everywhere in a positive way.

…No pressure, kids.

Working with high school and first-year undergrad Native students, I know this pressure is a common source of stress. I, like many others, am the first in my family to graduate high school, and go to university. I am proud of this achievement, but it makes me fear any type of perceived failure to the point where it is often paralyzing. This fear was a major source of my discomfort in the classroom. Well, that, accompanied with a healthy dose of racism.

One of the risks about being in a philosophy class is that you have to be ready to talk about personal, political issues – particularly in an ethics course. Generally, I am not someone who is afraid of standing my ground in these discussions. However, I lost count of the times I felt alienated during discussion in this particular class. I got tired of being the only one challenging casual racism in the pseudo-anthropological musings of my peers on issues of cultural relativism, ex. “Well you know, for the tribal people of X, cannibalism and Female Genital Mutilation are morally acceptable practices. Do you still agree that morals are culturally relative?” that became a near daily occurrence.

At the end of the class, our final essay assignment was based on the following thought experiment by Bernard Williams, from “A Critique of Utilitarianism”:

Jim and the Indians

Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of the sort is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?

After the professor read this aloud, I sat there with every muscle in my body tensed, wishing for the class to be over so I could leave. The worst part, of course, was that no one objected or even questioned the use of this thought experiment – not even me. I didn’t have the patience to explain why it’s messed up to teach an unnecessarily racialized, stereotypical story that deprives Indigenous people of autonomy, in a classroom where you have one Native student, in a discipline that struggles with inclusion of People of Color and women at all levels.

I had become convinced that I was not welcome and that I did not belong in this classroom, maybe not even in philosophy, and “Jim and the Indians” solidified that thought in my mind. I was rendered voiceless. This is a feeling I wish I could share with the professor who told my peers and colleagues that my anxiety was a made-up excuse; who believed that I just wanted it easy.

The rate of suicide in Canada’s First Nations youth is ranked among the highest in the world. Regardless of intelligence, effort, or rationality, I found myself incapable of finding a place to belong in this classroom, as many school-aged Indigenous youth and youth of color do, and furthermore, I was shamed for my depression and anxiety. I still struggle with anxiety, and though hopeful, I recognize that it is something I will likely have to work on for the remainder of my life. I know I will be in situations in the future where I am faced with more “Jim and the Indians”-style content, and I hope I will not be afraid to challenge it.

I choose to share my experience because as Native youth, we need to be open and supportive of each other regarding our struggles for wellbeing. We need to take initiative to recognize and correct unsafe educational environments, and constantly remember that we belong at the university, regardless of the violence that tells us otherwise.