Good Philosophers Don’t Have Anxiety Attacks: on mental health, race, and belonging in the classroom

“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.

18 thoughts on “Good Philosophers Don’t Have Anxiety Attacks: on mental health, race, and belonging in the classroom

  1. shira March 29, 2014 / 12:45 am

    wow!….. thank you for this post…….so powerful that i still feel the tension in my body from reading your description of your painful and overwhelming challenges in your experience!………..i strongly believe that this kind of writing to disseminate in-depth knowledge and understanding of ongoing discrimination against people of color, is a sacred and vitally important contribution to true ethics and humanity.

  2. Ann Levey March 29, 2014 / 6:42 am

    I sometimes teach a chunk of this article and will try to contextualize it by locating in a context of government slaughter of indigenous people. However, what I think I hear you saying is that I won’t be successful in that because the example still portrays the asymetric relation of agency in white Jim to passivity in the case of the indigenous group and that asymmetry will be differentially percieved by members of my class depending on their group membership. While recognizing the problematic language in the example, I had not really thought beyond that before. So thank you.

  3. kelly April 8, 2014 / 11:33 pm

    you have a very good reason to be anxious. you aren’t paranoid or lazy. it takes an inhuman amount of effort to contradict a professor in a position of authority, only to know you will not be listened to… stay strong, because you were already strong. you have survived, you are capable and intelligent.
    please know that you deserve so much more than this experience.

  4. Andrew April 10, 2014 / 12:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing.
    And I thank my fellow grad students for sending me to this post.

    I don’t know you, nor your history. But your post reminded me of my own experiences.

    I don’t think our problem is anxiety but learning to deal with the fact that we are anxious.

    I’m not sure my feelings will ever go away- but I am happy to know that other people feel like me in similar situations.

    We ought to explore this more. This is a GREAT start!!

    Thank you!

  5. Andrew April 10, 2014 / 1:16 pm

    When I first read your post, I only picked up on one thing. Now I think there are two things going on here! (Possibly more!!!):
    Your feelings qua grad-student and your *obligation to teach the material qua-TA.
    I understand your feeling (I think). I also see your concern over what it is you are supposed to teach.
    I wonder if the language of “local natives” helps in teaching Williams.
    The language of “THE Indian” is indeed problematic. I think Williams thought he was saying: Imagine you are in a FOREIGN LAND…. He means something like “I know nothing of THESE PEOPLE… yet I am being asked to DO SOMETHING all the same… what guide to I have?”
    -Who/what is a foreign land?
    Williams’ concern (qua ethical theory) seems to be the idea that HE didn’t matter when making an ETHICAL decision (hence his concern with Utilitarianism… yet some Utilitarian’s seem to share his concern over autonomy [I think Mill here]… so what is Williams’ concern? I’m not sure yet.)
    AS A TEACHER, you need not agree with Williams’ language, yet maybe agree with what his aim was? You want to “do right by your students”. And this is not an easy duty to understand.
    I can’t speak for Williams nor you!
    But I wonder how much of your (and my) anxiety is about: how do we teach what we are supposed to teach while simultaneously not teaching something we don’t agree with. Is this fair?

  6. Arno Jenseits April 12, 2014 / 11:16 am

    The post led me to wonder whether the same thought-experiment would have caused the same amount of mental anguish and pain if it had been called “Jim and the peasants” or “Jim and the Landfill Scanvengers” and set in an imaginary continent.

  7. shira May 10, 2014 / 1:25 am

    i’m sorry, but no amount of my trying to justify any learning value in the absurdly immoral, totally sadistic nature or ‘purpose’ of the ‘jim and the indians example’ works.

    all possible purposes of such a destructive ‘experiment-example’ are built on some of the most psychotic, abnormal, anti-human behaviors imaginable ……….very much on par with what we know from some of the worst Nazi atrocities against anyone or thing human.

    any decision made in such circumstances is totally anti-human, and requires a strong departure from sanity……………..unless you are teaching ‘ the sources and causes of human psychoses’……………………….

  8. Click Here May 14, 2014 / 3:11 am

    I’m so glad that you shared this because this is happening to a lot of people like us dealing with anxiety, I just hate it when they think that we are just making it up or we choose to be this way. A lot of people are not taking anxiety seriously at all, Although I get that the main reason is because they just don’t understand what we’re going and with all fairness it really is not easy to understand anxiety unless you experience it yourself, but what ticks me off are those people that don’t even try and just go straight to being judgmental. I hope that this post would be a start for people to raise awareness about our condition. I wish you all the best.

    – Abby

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