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The Intersection of Mental Health and Anti-Racism with Anthony McLean

Joining us for this week’s Virtual Speaker Series session, mental health and diversity advocate Anthony McLean shared a mix of personal experiences, practical advice, and thoughtful commentary on the importance of committing to anti-racism. For Anthony, the conversation around diversity, inclusion, and equality dovetails with supporting mental health work. Racism and inequality are huge factors in creating negative, unhealthy spaces for people to live and work. Throughout his presentation, Anthony made a clear case for why the overlap between these subjects is so crucial for everyone to be aware of, understand, and how the fight to make things better is helpful for us all.

Anthony got things underway by telling several anecdotes of stereotyping and racism – sometimes subtle and sometimes flagrant – that he had experienced as a person with a mixed-race background. Examples included meeting a young boy who made assumptions about Anthony’s profession (basketball player or rapper), being accused of stealing by a shopkeeper as a boy himself, and being pulled over by a police officer despite not having broken any laws (the officer wanted to make sure his car was not stolen.) Overall, these experiences reinforced feelings of paranoia and being uncomfortable day-to-day life for Anthony. Feelings, he said, which are commonly shared among many people of colour.

As he talked about the details of these experiences, Anthony then pivoted to the importance of having a space to share these experiences. And, importantly, how others can make sure they are listening with empathy. Empathy was a quality that he returned to again and again throughout his presentation as something we should always strive for. Anthony mentioned how painful it can be when talking about experiences of trauma and frustration, only to have the person listening question the validity of the feelings they felt in that moment. He said that we have to keep in mind that when someone is sharing their experiences to meet them with empathy. Some advice he gave so we can be more empathetic listeners:

  • Don’t minimize someone’s experience – however they felt is how they felt, don’t replace their emotional response with your own.
  • Don’t give advice in a moment of frustration, trauma, or grief – even if it comes from a place of support.
  • Don’t center the conversation on yourself.
  • Don’t gaslight the other person – meaning that we should be careful not to make the person sharing their experience question their perception of that experience.

This conversation about empathy naturally led to an important, sometimes controversial, subject: white privilege. Anthony spoke on the idea of white privilege, what it is and why it matters. White privilege is an important subject to understand in regard to white people listening and supporting BIPOC people with empathy.

To help clarify how white privilege plays a part in these conversations around lived experiences, Anthony used a simple analogy from his own experience. Speaking with a friend about their process of booking a hotel room, this friend told Anthony they found the perfect room but unfortunately had to cancel the booking because it turned out the room wasn’t wheelchair accessible. Anthony’s friend was in a wheelchair. Anthony said he caught himself in this conversation considering how he’d never once thought about wheelchair accessibility in terms of booking a room while travelling or on vacation. That was his privilege, as an able-bodied person. This is how we should think of white privilege, he said: some of us face issues every day that others don’t even know exist in the first place. He was quick to remind us that having privilege does not mean we don’t face our own challenges and difficulties, just that there will always be a category of roadblocks and hazards in life that people of colour face which white people do not.

Continuing this line of discussion around how our day-to-day lived experiences can differ, Anthony also spoke about a common concern in the workplace: microaggressions. These are the subtle, indirect, or off-hand comments and actions that work to “other” someone. They help create the feeling that someone doesn’t belong or that they are different from what is “normal”—a term that can be problematic in its own way. A clear and common example of microaggressions that Anthony highlighted was how black people, especially black women, will have people touch their hair, often without even asking. What might seem like a harmless action can be dehumanizing, painful, and downright traumatic for many people. Anthony urged us to think carefully about how we interact with others, and to actively do the work of trying to educate ourselves on the common ways that BIPOC people face microaggressions in daily life.

Among the Q&A section that followed Anthony’s main presentation, one audience member asked if he had any books to recommend for people interested in learning more about these subjects. His recommendations were: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma and Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned from Trauma and Triumph.

Wrapping up, Anthony reminded us all that it takes courage to do the work of anti-racism but it’s so important to building a healthier environment for everyone around us. This is the fundamental area where anti-racist work meets positive mental health work: creating a safe and welcoming community makes us all feel freer to be ourselves and support one another openly. He urged us to be mindful, to take action where we can, and advocate for these important conversations in larger organizations.

With a background in theatre, Anthony McLean delivers lively presentations on diversity, anti-racism, and mental health. He has delivered hundreds of inspiring talks across Canada, the US, and Australia. As a respected voice in his field, McLean has appeared on CBC News, Global Toronto’s Morning Show, and Breakfast Television. Delivering research-backed tools and actionable strategies, McLean always leaves his audiences inspired to bring their best every day.

Speakers’ Spotlight has been offering virtual presentations since 2009. We work with a range of speakers who are comfortable with presenting virtually on a variety of topics. If interested, contact us for more information.