Every Straw Is a Straw Too Much: On the Psychological Burden of Being Racialized While Doing Art
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung
I. THE STRAW
Can you throw this away Maybe you should hire more Black staff
Where are you really from You’re not busy are you You look ethnic today
Where’s the African American section Can you turn the music down
Fasterfasterfaster Let me see those eyes Beautiful If you were mine
I’d never let you leave the house It’s like you went straight to Africa
to get this one Is that your hair I mean your real hair Blackass
Your gums are black You Black You stink You need a perm
I don’t mean to be
You’re scarred over, I’m the one bleeding
You’re just going to rip apart whatever I say
You’ve said sorry only two times
We tacitly agreed
Then dead me
II. THE CAMEL’S BACK
When you born on somebody else’s river in a cursed boat it’s all
downhill from there. Ha. Just kidding. I’d tell you what I don’t have
time for but I don’t have time. Catch up. Interrogate that. Boss. Halo.
I juke the apocalypse. Fluff my feathers. Diamond my neck. Boom,
like an 808. One in a million. I don’t want no scrubs. You don’t know
my name. Everything I say is a spell. I’m twenty-five. I’m ninety. I’m
ten. I’m a moonless charcoal. A sour lover. Hidden teeth beneath the
velvet. I’m here and your eyes lucky. I’m here and your future lucky.
Ha. God told me to tell you I’m pretty. Ha. My skin Midas-touch the
buildings I walk by. Ha. Every day I’m alive the weather report say:
Gold. I know. I know. I should leave y’all alone, salt earth like to stay
salty. But here go the mirror, egging on my spirit. Why I can’t go back.
Or. The reasons it happened. Name like a carriage of fire. Baby, it’s
real. The white face peeking through the curtain. Mule and God. I’m
blunted off my own stank. I’m Bad. I dig graves when I laugh.
—Angel Nafis, ‘Gravity,’ after Carrie Mae Weems’s ‘The Kitchen Table Series’
One can’t say for certain what the last straw is that leads to depression and/or suicide. In too many cases, especially when it comes to anti-Black and anti-POC racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and other forms of hate, the first straw is often directly connected to the last. The first straw is a seed that is planted and that initiates a violent process of destruction. Once this seed is planted, it becomes extremely difficult to uproot. That first straw too often hits like a hammer, and the magnitude of that hit stretches forward to the moment the camel’s back breaks. It is a spectrum of interconnected, domino-like falls, a violent force of gravity stronger than the gravitational pull that takes one down a rabbit hole, a too-slippery slope that doesn’t differentiate the first from the last straw.
Being in the World While Black / Being Black in the World
Living as a Black or POC or racialized person in a majority-white society, one is confronted almost daily by various forms of racism or discrimination related to the otherness projected on you. As the poet Angel Nafis points out indirectly, these racisms come in different shapes and sizes, different rhythms and tones. They may not be intentional, but they have the same impact. They come in the condescending way people talk to you, the way your decisions at work are questioned just because you’re Black, the way your nationality and thus belonging is questioned when you dare state that you’re from a Western country. They come when cultural stereotypes are constantly imposed on you; as a Black person, you must be good at dancing or basketball. They come when people comment on your outfit or hair, when they even touch your hair. They come when ‘jokes’ are made about your palms or the soles of your feet. Racism is omnipresent in majority-white societies—not only as a vulgar quotidian condition but also as an institutionalized phenomenon, in our political infrastructures, administrative bodies, law and order institutions, schools and universities, archives and museums.
That first straw, like the last, is particularly shattering because of the irrationality and sheer absurdity of racism. It’s not really about you, not about what you can or cannot do, not about the knowledge you have or don’t. It’s not really about where you’re from or how you look, despite the fact that you’re made to believe that it’s about that. It’s more about the psychological condition of the person and society enacting racism upon you. It’s about this person and their society projecting, externalizing their own psychosis onto you. Regrettably, this externalization is too often successful, and racism becomes the problem of the victim of racism rather than the perpetrator of racism.
In his seminal text from 1963, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin breaks it down as follows:
You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.
It’s this violent psychological projection that aims at dehumanizing others by constantly imposing upon them a sense of worthlessness, a feeling of mediocrity, stupidity, and ugliness that eventually, in manifold ways, breaks racialized individuals and pushes them over the edge into that dungeon of depression, and eventually suicide.
Imagine being one of the most gifted football forwards of your time. Imagine playing for one of the best football teams in the world and scoring regularly. Imagine playing for one of the most successful national football teams of all time. Imagine being the twenty-two-year-old Brazilian football star Vinícius Júnior and going on the football pitch in Spain as your club Real Madrid plays against Valencia. Valencia’s fans swear and hurl all kinds of racist abuse at you, including chants of ‘monkey.’ Then imagine being Vinícius Júnior and seeing an effigy of yourself hanged from a bridge in Madrid. If this were an isolated case, one could sweep it under the rug, as the Spanish football association’s president tried to do, even putting the blame on the victim of racism. But this racist abuse is experienced by countless racialized football players and other athletes every day, every week, every month in majority-white societies all over the world.
When George Floyd was brutally murdered by American police a few years ago, people around the world went into the streets in protest against racism. There was a feeling that something was about to change. That an awakening was coming. But not only did things go back to normal soon after; another tendency became evident: it was easy to point to the US as the epitome of anti-Black racism, while in many European countries, racialized individuals faced similar assaults from the police and other institutions of law and order.
Imagine being a friend or relative of thirty-eight-year-old Mamadou B., an African man who was arrested on New Year’s Day 2023 in Braunschweig, Germany and died in police custody. As the Braunschweiger Zeitung and taz reported:
Mamadou B. attended a party at Braunschweig’s Charlie Chaplin Pub, where the police were called because of a pepper spray assault. When police arrived, Mamadou B. was reportedly identified as the perpetrator and was violently arrested, which he tried to resist. At the police station, a doctor was supposed to test Mamadou B.’s blood for drugs or alcohol but instead found him unconscious in his cell. Despite efforts to revive him, he died on January 3 at a clinic in Braunschweig. While we can only speculate about why Mamadou B. became unconscious and what lead to his death, it is now clear—after the public prosecutor analyzed video of the incident in the pub—that Mamadou B. was not the perpetrator of the pepper spray assault but rather the victim. The perpetrators were three white men in their twenties who assaulted multiple people in the pub, including Mamadou B. What would be the odds of Mamadou B. being mistakenly arrested and jailed, leading to his premature death, if he were a white man?
There is a long list of such tragedies. It doesn’t seem like they’ll stop any time soon. In Garnette Cadogan’s critical 2016 essay ‘Walking While Black’, he describes his experiences as a Black man in a predominantly white America:
One night in the East Village, I was running to dinner when a white man in front of me turned and punched me in the chest with such force that I thought my ribs had braided around my spine. I assumed he was drunk or had mistaken me for an old enemy, but found out soon enough that he’d merely assumed I was a criminal because of my race. When he discovered I wasn’t what he imagined, he went on to tell me that his assault was my own fault for running up behind him. I blew off this incident as an aberration, but the mutual distrust between me and the police was impossible to ignore. It felt elemental.
Cadogan’s experience of being suspected before the crime is something almost every Black person in a majority-white society has faced: being ‘mistaken’ for a criminal, being thought of as a liar, or being put into a box in which you don’t belong just because of the colour of your skin. This is a reality that has taken the lives of many people, including Mamadou B.
These prejudices are not only found in bars or on the street. They are also found in mainstream politics, as was demonstrated by a speech delivered by Olympic athlete and German federal police officer Claudia Pechstein at the 2023 Christian Democratic Union convention. Wearing a police uniform, she said that elderly people and women should be able to use public transport ‘without anxious looks’ from migrants. Here she equates the presence of migrants—she probably means non-white migrants—with danger and fear. As one newspaper article pointed out, ‘Pechstein’s speech is one thing above all: racist’.
Being in the Art World While Black / Being Black in the Art World
The so-called art world is not a vacuum or an island. It is connected to the world and reflects exactly what happens in the world. But as a space where people expect progressive discourse, avant-garde politics, and liberal institutions, it comes as a surprise to some when racism is mentioned in the context of the art world. For this reason, racism is rarely thematized in the art world.
In recent years, the dust of racism in the art world has been stirred up by some, while others have swept it under the rug.
Because racism is never a salonfähige (socially acceptable) topic in majority-white societies, because it’s a topic that elicits shame in both the victim and the perpetrator (who in many cases can’t accept that they’ve done something racist), because racism is anything but progressive, it is too often sidelined in the art world, even though it is omnipresent in various forms.
Already in art school, Black and brown students are faced with racism when professors make derogatory comments about their looks, hair, or skin colour, or when they question whether the kind of art these students are interested in is really art. Black students are confronted with pinkish paints that are labelled ‘skin colour’, while black and brown tones are not labelled as such. When you leave art school and enter the ‘real’ art world, or when you don’t have the privilege of attending a western art school at all, the question of whether your artworks are really art becomes a refrain. When Okwui Enwezor curated documenta 11 in 2002, the most common question posed by mainstream German art critics was whether all these brilliant artists he had brought together from across the globe were really doing art. Fast-forward twenty years to documenta 15 in 2022. The critics—the same people who would have celebrated as revolutionary Marcel Duchamp’s 1914 ready-made urinal—had not become more inventive in the packaging of their racist rhetoric; they still posed the unimaginative question of whether the works by these predominantly non-western artists were art, craft, or decoration. It is alarmingly obvious that the number of Black artists in museum collections is dramatically lower than white artists, while in too many art collections one finds depictions of racist stereotypes, which racialized people are confronted with when they visit these institutions.
In recent years, there have been reports of anti-Black racism at film-festival screenings across Europe and America, without any contextualization or apology. Meanwhile, in some western museums, POC curators have been mistaken by colleagues and visitors as kitchen staff, security, or janitors because of the colour of their skin.
The issue of anti-Black racism always came up when one talked to the young Zimbabwean-German artist and educator Heiko Thandeka Ncube. As a student at the Universität der Künste Berlin, Ncube encountered racism on a daily basis. He went on to speak about, write about, and organize against racist structures before, during, and after the Black Lives Matter movement erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murdered.
In the 1980s, the Ghanaian-German artist, poet, and educator May Ayim experienced similar racism while studying at the University of Regensburg. When she submitted her Diplomarbeit (diploma thesis), which was titled ‘Afro-Deutsche: Ihre Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte auf dem Hintergrund gesellschaftlicher Veränderungen’ (Afro-Germans: Their Culture and Social History against the Background of Societal Change), it was refused with the statement: ‘There is no racism in today’s Germany’. This was a refusal of Ayim’s lived experience by a nonracialized person. But she continued organizing—she cofounded the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany)—and continued expressing her experiences and her fight against racism in her poems. These became a testament to the reality of racism and sexism at a particular moment in German and European history.
On August 9, 1996, May Ayim took her own life in Berlin. She was thirty-six.
The Cleanup Campaign, the Victim as Solution
Speaking of George Floyd, you might be asking yourself: Why all this now? You might think that a lot has changed since Mr. Floyd was sacrificed at the altar of integration.
Indeed, since May 2020, cultural institutions have been very quick to make amendments, to render themselves more ‘diverse’, more worldly, more ‘integrated’, and more reflective of the demographics of their cities and countries.
As a gesture of solidarity, many European and American cultural institutions invoked on their websites and in their social media feeds books and essays on racism and anti-racism. They also issued statements in solidarity with racialized people. These laudable actions were in many cases limited to the realm of rhetoric. Some institutions actually went the extra mile to recruit one or two Black or brown people as curators, but mostly to perform ‘outreach’, in the professional jargon. To put it in polite terms, the person charged with doing ‘outreach’ is supposed to translate, transmit, and sell the institution’s programs to so-called ‘diverse communities’, although these programs are rarely ever formulated with these communities in mind. Historically, this position has been occupied by white middle class mediators who have friends or family in these communities. But since the murder of George Floyd, more and more young Black art professionals have been invited to fulfil this ‘outreach’ role.
While some of these ‘outreach’ programs have been successful in opening up art institutions to new audiences, in many cases they are a trap for the young Black and brown people invited to spearhead them. In the past few years, a number of trends and trajectories have manifested themselves in what one might call the ‘outreach-complex’:
–Many ‘outreachers’ have complained of being asked to promote programs they do not believe in, programs far removed from their lived realities—programs that are delusional, elitist, and in some cases white-supremacist.
–‘Outreachers’ have been put in the position of correcting or rehabilitating the violent racist histories of institutions. As ‘representatives’ of these institutions, they are confronted with having to apologize for them—sometimes for things that the institutions did to their own forebears. Take, for example, the case of a young Namibian ‘outreacher’ working for an ethnographic museum that not only violently expropriated cultural objects from Namibia during the German colonial era, but also exported human remains after the Herero and Nama genocide. These remains are still found in some German museums and research institutes. This Namibian museum worker now has to clean up the mess of hundreds of years of violence committed against her own people, convincing them to embrace the museum’s programs.
–To be asked to be the face of an institution is one thing; to be asked to do this without the power or mandate to change anything is another. In many cases ‘outreachers’ become messengers between institutions and communities. But while messages are carried from the institution to the community, messages from the community to the institution often fall on deaf ears. The ‘outreachers’ find themselves misused, impotent, and exploited, as the institution’s one-way communication upholds the power disparity between the institution and the community. The ‘outreacher’ is then called upon to stand in front when a photograph is taken of the museum staff, to give the impression of diversity.
–In many cases, the ‘outreacher’ is alone in the wilderness of the white institution. Without adequate support and funding, they cannot realize the ‘diversity’ or ‘integration’ that the institution claims to aspire to. Slogans about inclusion remain empty phrases that make the people in the communities doubt the institutions even more.
–How much inclusion or integration can actually be achieved if the people who make up the institution don’t really believe in inclusion or integration, or merely believe in a whitewashed version of it? When cultural worker of colour complain that artworks or films presented by their institution are racist, the institution often reacts by not only doubting the lived experience of the worker, but also questioning the historical depiction of racist violence. Colleagues in art institutions who have experienced racism and have filed complaints have usually been met with denial, not only from the perpetrator but also from the management and the board of the institution, who demand evidence and insinuate that the victim is being too sensitive. Even worse, the victim is sometimes accused of capitalizing on their race and playing the ‘race card’.
These are the many straws that break the camel’s back. These experiences and many similar ones weaken the centripetal force that keeps racialized people in the orbit of society. The destruction of this force throws them out of orbit. To invoke W. B. Yeats by way of Chinua Achebe: things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. As a result, we have witnessed more racialized art workers in predominantly white institutions doubt their capacities, develop inferiority complexes, and lose self-esteem. They become worn down, falling into depression, burning out, or worse.
The Psychological Burden of the Struggle
When Black people and other minorities experience racism and speak out, it is not only their colleagues and employers who often refuse to take them seriously; psychiatrists and other mental health professional often do the same. In predominantly white societies, these professionals are mostly white themselves. There are countless examples of racialized people in the art world who have experienced mental distress and have gone to a counsellor or therapist, only to be told to sleep it off. Their complaints are downplayed. Their experiences of racism are essentially ignored and belittled. After experiencing structural racism within the context of art, they also experience structural racism within the context of psychiatric care.
In a 2021 article titled ‘Telling the Story of Racism’s Role in Depression’, Robin Warshaw writes: ‘Racism, racial injustice, and racist treatment practices are woven into psychiatry’s history up to the present day. That’s why racism continues to deeply affect mental health for people who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).’
This fact has led the American Psychiatric Association to apologize for its role in structural racism and to issue a statement about its commitment to being more sensitive towards racial injustice in psychiatry, to doing more to promote anti-racist mental health care, and to adopting racial-equity measures in clinics and communities.
In a 2020 lecture titled ‘Racism Is a Public Health Crisis: Now That We See, What Do We Do?’ Camara Phyllis Jones discussed how institutionalized/structural racism, interpersonal racism, and internalized racism become pathological and manifest themselves as depression symptoms.
The anti-racism fight is tiring. It is exhausting. The rewards come when things change, but structural/institution racism takes a long time to be dismantled. The anti-racism fight isolates, estranges. In a predominantly white society, in a capitalist society where finding allies isn’t easy, where one can feel misunderstood even by one’s own, the anti-racism fight requires one to build a hard shell. Eventually, one’s batteries drain. How do we create a safety net for such people in our societies, in our work places, in our families?
How can the institutions we all claim to want to ‘change’, either from the inside or the outside, actually fight against racism? While doing so, how can these institutions also provide psychological support for those mentally and physically harmed by racism, for those mentally and physically torn apart by the fight against racism?
How do we concern ourselves not only with our own narrow practices as curators, artists, cultural workers, and activists, but also with caring for those who bear the burden of racism and wage the anti-racist fight? Can museums provide psychological first aid? Can they set up systems of accountability and care? Systems of personal-institutional empathy that recognize when someone is struggling in silence, or when they’re close to the edge? The Cameroonian Afrobeat musician Libianca asks similar questions in her acclaimed song ‘People’, which is about depression:
I’ve been drinking more alcohol for the past five days
Did you check on me?
Now, did you look for me?
I walked in the room, eyes are red and I don’t smoke banga
Did you check on me? (Did you check on me?)
Now, did you notice me?
Nobody wey know di paranoia, oh
‘Cause I put a smile on my face
A facade you can never face (hoo)
And if you don’t know me well, well, oh
You won’t see how buried I am inside my grave
Inside my grave
I can hear you asking: ‘Why is this guy writing about racism when he is the head of one of the biggest cultural institutions in Europe?’
The moment you discuss racism, you are reminded of your privileges. As if your privileges automatically eliminate the racism in society. One is reminded that one needs to be thankful for one’s sheer existence and thus shouldn’t complain. If you complain, people are quick to respond: ‘If you’re unhappy, why don’t you go back to where you come from?’
But this is not about me.
It’s about all the people who have to deal with racism on a daily basis in an art world that writes ‘EQUALITY’ and ‘DIVERSITY’ in capital letters. It’s about all those who find themselves in a dark alley with no way out. It’s about all those whose batteries are drained from both racism and the anti-racist fight. It’s about that first straw that leads to the last straw.
Every time I met the young Zimbabwean-German artist and educator Heiko Thandeka Ncube over the last eight years, he spoke to me about racism and his anti-racist fight in art school and in the art world. He often expressed his tiredness. Too often he seemed depleted, despite his bright eyes. His smile was gentle and shy.
One can’t say for certain what the last straw is that breaks a back, a psyche, a life.
Last week Heiko Thandeka Ncube took his own life. He was thirty-two.
His society failed him.
We failed him.
May he find calm.
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
—Langston Hughes, ‘Suicide’s Note’
This essay was originally published on e-flux Notes: https://www.e-flux.com/notes/548186/every-straw-is-a-straw-too-much-on-the-psychological-burden-of-being-racialized-while-doing-art.
 After South African psychologist N. Chabani Manganyi’s 1973 publication ‘Being Black in the World’ and Garnette Cadogan’s 2016 essay ‘Walking While Black’, Literary Hub 8 July 2016, https://lithub.com/walking-while-black/.
 Cadogan, ‘Walking While Black’.
 Pauline Jäckels, ‘Claudia Pechstein und die CDU von Merz: grundsätzlich rechts,’ 20 June 2023, https://www.nd-aktuell.de/artikel/1174093.kommentar-claudia-pechstein-und-die-cdu-von-merz-grundsaetzlich-rechts.html.
 Robin Warshaw, ‘Telling the Story of Racism’s Role in Depression’, Columbia University Department of Psychology, July 21, 2021, https://www.columbiapsychiatry.org/news/telling-story-racisms-role-depression.
 Camara Phyllis Jones, ‘Racism Is a Public Health Crisis: Now That We See, What Do We Do?’, 2020 Bray Health Leadership Lecture, https://health.oregonstate.edu/eid/camara-phyllis-jones.