How discrimination can impact mental health
Black writer Likam Kyanzaire has experienced prejudice and mental health challenges on the road — and used them to grow as a writer
Last week, Steph was brutally honest about how anxiety and stress have impacted her working life as a travel writer and how her working life as a travel writer impacts the amount of anxiety and stress she experiences. Travelling can be stressful for anyone — not just professionals like us — but it can be particularly so for anyone who experiences prejudice when they travel, whether that is as a consequence of their gender identity, sexual orientation or even the colour of their skin.
We asked Likam Kyanzaire to tell us how the discrimination he has experienced while travelling has impacted his mental health and his work. He chose to write about a particular incident in Ireland. While this could be considered an isolated occurrence, it’s reflective of the experiences people all over the world have on a daily basis.
We wanted to shine a light on the mental health challenges that can often go under the radar because many of us won’t ever experience them. Here’s his story.
Likam Kyanzaire is a writer and researcher based in Montreal. Obsessed with big ideas and critical conversations, he loves to travel and explore ideas, peoples and cultures.
As a black writer, I enjoy my profession because it gives me a chance to explore the world around me, and also avoid a lot of the workplace anxieties I have faced over the years. As a minefield of racial insensitivity and misunderstandings, the office has never worked for me. Yet, even travelling, I have found it hard to escape the stress of being a black man, in a white world.
Travelling while black also has its challenges. Entering new, non-black spaces brings out anxiety in me. Where I live in Canada, it's uncommon to meet people who have no understanding of black people, sensitivity and tolerance, but abroad I have come across the spectrum of racial discrimination, from exotification to outright fascism.
Each time I grab my passport I’m hit with racial anxiety, something that stems from never knowing what sort of people I will meet while travelling. Perception Institute describes racial anxiety as: “The heightened levels of stress and emotion that we confront when interacting with people of other races. People of colour experience concern that they will be the subject of discrimination and hostility.”
Racial anxiety also intersects with my ethnicity as an African. Dealing with the misconceptions others have of Africans as poor, stupid or ugly has been as harmful to my mental health. Spending time in Galway, Ireland, I can never forget the most egregious display of anti-African racism I have experienced while travelling.
After taking a picturesque bus ride through the Irish countryside, I entered my hostel and instantly found a great group of people. Introductions are difficult when you’re from one place, but born in another. At home (in Canada), I can just say I'm African, and when in Kenya or Rwanda, I say I'm Canadian. But what do I say when I'm in Ireland? Feared to be judged by my Africaness, I had learned to introduce myself as Canadian when abroad. Having a skin tone not associated with your nationality can lead to weird stares, but that pales in comparison to explaining "third culturism”.
Our multicultural crew did the mandatory “where is everyone from?” There were some Brits, as well as people from Thailand, Southern Europe and Chile. After drinks and dancing, a smaller group of us began chatting more. Getting to know everyone, it came up that I was Kenyan. It takes a long time to explain the history of my parent's lineage and immigration, so I tend to avoid that talk, but everyone seemed really interested. After finishing, a girl enthusiastically yelled:
“Oh, my co-worker lived in Lagos!”
More confused than anything, I replied, simply correcting her. Lagos was in Nigeria, on the completely other side of Africa. And then she continued……
“Oh whatever, the same thing,” she responded.
The anti-African judgments that I feel when travelling — but always try to convince myself are actually my own paranoia — came screaming back. I could feel my body tense up as anxiety turned into depression and, despite being in such a crowded bar, I had never felt so alone. I would have given anything for a black person — or any person — to be there to back me up and make me feel seen.
But instead, the crowd seemed to agree with her. Someone else, who clearly thought that Africa was just one country, even joined the conversation. At that moment, I became sober with dejection. She was not just miseducated on blackness; her attitude was actively racist. Like every other racially charged time, my legs were jittering under the table, as I didn’t know whether to cry, yell or leave.
The rest of my time in Galway I spent by myself. And while I did love seeing Ireland, there has always been that asterisk. When I began writing about Galway, I tried not to have that experience affect my writing. But in the end, I couldn't write a full article about my visit. As a writer, it is my authentic experiences that shape the words I type, and my experience was painted by that incident. After that trip, I lost a bit of my wanderlust. This incident was nothing like the stares and hair touching I was used to. When Chinese tourists in Thailand ask for pictures with me, I am taken aback but try to be understanding. But the rudeness I experienced in that bar was insidious.
During the pandemic, I’ve reflected on that time and realized how important incidences of racism are as an opportunity to educate others. While I cannot force that girl in that Galway bar to unlearn her racism, as a writer I can at least make other people informed. It would be great to live in a world where I can look at a person and say, “it's not my job to educate you,” but it kind of is. I wouldn't open up my laptop and type if readers were not going to learn something new from my work. As writers, we should take that duty seriously.
Nowadays, I start my introductions by proudly identifying as African, and if I have to spend another fifteen minutes explaining my identity, so be it. My writing has also since become a tool to improve others’ knowledge about Africa and other developing regions. My anxiety, in turn, has become an opportunity to grow as an African — and as a writer.
This was the second edition of our October mental health series. We’re making this month free for all subscribers because we want to show all travel writers suffering from mental health difficulties that they’re not alone. Want to support us? Subscribe now for just £5/month.
Thank you for sharing your experience. (I lived in Niger & Zimbabwe for a long time. I lost count of the Africa is a country comments. While not in any way the same because I am a white woman, I share your frustration)