‘Racism is very bad for your health’

“A lot of people who come into my office are talking about societal ills,” says psychologist Myrna Lashley. Photo: Contributed
By on February 2, 2022
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A conversation with psychologist Myrna Lashley

Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, has made anti-racism a priority during her tenure as leader of the church. The Dismantling Racism Task Force, with support from the Council of General Synod, is currently in the process of updating the church’s Charter for Racial Justice.

Meanwhile, dioceses have been undertaking anti-racism work of their own. The diocese of Montreal on Oct. 1-2 hosted an anti-racism workshop led by Myrna Lashley, a professor at McGill University’s department of psychiatry. Originally from Barbados, Lashley has served as a director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and as a psychological consultant to First Nations and Jewish communities.

The Anglican Journal spoke to Lashley about the church’s historic role in propagating racism, its current efforts to fight it and the relationship between racism and mental health. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How would you compare the history of anti-Black racism in Canada and the United States?

A. One is more recognized than the other. We didn’t have plantations here, but we certainly had people who were enslaved. We had some horrible things—we didn’t call them Jim Crow laws, but we treated [them] as such. We had officially segregated schools.

We just have to look and see what’s been done to the Indigenous people with the residential schools and then being kicked off their land. Look at what the Maritimers did to the Black Empire Loyalists and how awfully they were treated, and what happened to Africville. Out on the Prairies, we know that we’ve got instances of the Klan at work. But Canadians think that this doesn’t exist. I think a lot of them don’t know and they feel very attacked when that’s pointed out to them.

Q. What role has the church played in propagating systemic racism?

A. The Church of England and the [Roman] Catholic Church were very involved in the slave trade. They invested in the enslavement of people. [Editor’s note: The Church of England-affiliated United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel owned slave-worked plantations in Barbados in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and individual Anglicans were involved in the trade in various ways. In 2006, the Church of England’s General Synod apologized for the the church’s role in slavery.] A lot of the manor houses in England were built because [of] money derived from the slave trade. Some of those people then came over to Canada. James McGill, the founder of McGill University, owned slaves here.

All these people would tell you that they were Christians. They went to church every Sunday. Anglicans and Catholics made the sign of the cross and talked about doing good and saw themselves as good people. But of course, they saw Black people and Indigenous people as not equal to white people.

Q. Has the church done anything historically to fight systemic racism?

A. I think they’ve been brought screaming and kicking into the new world. The fact that the cathedral here [in Montreal] is holding this series of seminars is an indication that the church is understanding things cannot continue the way they were.

But I have to say that there has been movement. It would be a lie to say that the church hasn’t recognized things. Certainly the civil rights [movement] in the United States of the 1960s, with Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” forced a lot of church people to look at themselves because he called out the hypocrisy. Also you had a lot of religious people marching to get rid of racism. But I think at that time it was individual church people, as opposed to the church writ large.

I think what you’ve started to see now, especially since the scandals in the residential schools and how it’s come out that these children were so badly treated, the church is now having to take a look at itself, and very often what it’s seeing isn’t pretty. But a lot of [Christians] are stepping up and saying, “We can’t hide anymore.”

Q. How do you go beyond words to transforming structures that encouraged racism?

A. It’s one thing to say you’re against racism. The question then becomes, are you anti-racist? Are you engaging in anti-racism practices? A lot of people are not.

If we’re going to keep talking about Jesus’s words, then we should get back to what he actually taught, which was, “Get out there among the poor and the sick.” Is there really a place for that sick person on the street? We say there is, but how is that person included within the body of the church?

I find that those questions can be very threatening to a lot of people. I know that we’ve never had a Black primate in the [Anglican Church of Canada]. We’ve got Indigenous bishops and female bishops and bishops of colour, but never had a non-white primate. So precisely what do we mean when we say we’re dismantling [racism]? Then we have to look at our hymnals. “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow”? There’s a lot of that.

Q. Given your background as a psychologist, how do you connect individual experiences of racism with its systemic nature?

A. A lot of people who come into my office are talking about societal ills. They’re talking about being victims of racism and trying to figure out ways to hold on to their resilience. We as psychologists and psychiatrists have a role in society where we can say to people from a position of knowledge: this is what racism does to the human psyche, to human mental health.

For example, we look at the social determinants of health. We know that one of the big problems of people who undergo racism, sexism and all those things that affect them psychologically [is] that there are more cardiovascular issues. There are higher rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, high levels of stress—heart disease, hypertension. We know that people are forced to internalize a lot of the pain to which they’re subjected every day, and that very often they’re afraid to speak out because they’re concerned about the consequences.

How do you tell your boss in the workplace “Don’t do that” if your boss is the perpetrator of the many microaggressions that are coming along? You have to put food on the table, you’ve got to put clothes on your back, you’ve got to support your kids. So you swallow all that anger and stress, and very often [people] go home and take it out on their partners or their family members if they don’t have other ways of coping with it.

We keep saying “Don’t fight the police.” But how many times, if you know you haven’t done something and the police come to arrest you and you say “Don’t fight it”—well, if I go along with it, are they going to punch me again? If I go along with it, am I showing that I haven’t left my slave days, that I’m still trying to appease those in authority?

Racism is very bad for your health. It’s very bad for your physical health, it’s very bad for your mental health. It’s very bad for the health of society, for all of us, because if I can’t cope, one day I might snap and you might be standing there when I snap and you might be the one that I hit—not because I hate you, but because I have no more space inside of me.

Q. What role do you see for groups such as the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples and Black Anglicans of Canada in creating change within the larger church?

A. They’re advocacy groups and they’re action groups. The action [is] what they’re actively doing to change things, to help people, to reach out and create safe spaces.

One thing is that for Indigenous people and Black people specifically, when they would sit down and talk to their white colleagues, often what they got back [was], “It’s all in your head.” So a lot of people have formed these groups [where] we can tell each other the truth. By telling each other the truth, we can look up ways to help each other, to change systems.

It also has the power, since there are all these groups forming, to push the message upwards and not let the priests and the bishops and the deacons just walk away and say they’re doing the work. No. If you want to be my spiritual leader, then get involved.

But they’ve got to be very careful not to allow themselves to become so distant from each other. There’s got to be a space where they can say, “These are the issues which pertain to my specific group”—and that’s fine. But at the end of the day, we then pull them together and say, “These are all the issues that pertain to all of us.”

Author

  • Matthew Puddister (aka Matt Gardner) is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

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