By Brenda Nasr
My husband and I recently sought therapy here in Belgrade, Serbia, where we moved from Zagreb, Croatia some months ago after living there for close to three years. A point of contention in our marriage has been my desire to live — and stay — abroad, and my husband’s wish to return to the U.S., a place he considers his home despite having been born in Iran and living there until he was eight.
I have previously written about my experiences in the Balkans, and how, given the history of the region, anti-Blackness is minimal compared to that of my “birth” nation, the United States. That I was seen and treated as subhuman there was one of the biggest motivators in deciding to leave and live abroad shortly after my husband and I married in 2014.
In fact, the burden of living as a Black woman in America had gotten so great that this was a matter I viewed as “life and death,” both in the sense of my physical safety (Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, etc.) and my spiritual health. Living in America is soul-crushing. It eats away at your humanity, sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once (the latter being personified in those who’ve had their fates sealed permanently by the racist police system or a vigilante, such as with Trayvon Martin).
However, in all “traditional” marriages, compromises are needed to ensure both partners are fulfilled. Living abroad, specifically in this region, has allowed me to re-affirm my humanity in ways not previously afforded to me, and I am grateful for that privilege. (I would not say the same for other Western countries, such as Italy, where I have personally experienced racial hostility and where African migrants have literally been hosed down as if in a concentration camp.) I am open to returning to the U.S. for a time, but I would need to do it with the recognition and understanding that I could leave at any time if again I felt that same overwhelming poison that permeates life for Black people in America. We agreed a therapist could help us reach a compromise in this regard.
Despite the history in the Balkans—specifically the former Yugoslavian countries Croatia and Serbia, which have been insulated from traditional forms of the colonialism of Africans and anti-Black racism—my latest experience in therapy underscores that anti-Blackness, intersected with gender, is not only global but informs every institution (including psychiatry) originating from the West, no matter where it is practiced. Given globalism and the reach of American culture (particularly movies and television shows), it is impossible that biases and stereotypes about Black people have not seeped into the consciousness of nearly everyone on the globe.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) developed by the American Psychiatry Association is the “global” standard for practicing psychologists and diagnosing an array of disorders and mental illnesses. A brief history of today’s manual is spoken about here:
In the United States, the initial stimulus for developing a classification of mental disorders was the need to collect statistical information. What might be considered the first official attempt to gather information about mental health in the United States was the recording of the frequency of “idiocy/insanity” in the 1840 census. By the 1880 census, seven categories of mental health were distinguished: mania, melancholia, monomania, paresis, dementia, dipsomania, and epilepsy.
It is interesting to note that during this time the United States was a slave-owning nation, and other “disorders” of the day, including Drapetomania, which pathologized an enslaved African’s desire to escape their captivity, were seen as valid mental illnesses.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that psychiatry and the DSM has evolved from then, but it must also be acknowledged that the historical context of modern psychiatry has been enshrined, rooted in, and defined by white maleness as the default. In other words, white men were the architects of this system at a time where they literally “owned” other human beings.
This matters because psychiatry does not exist in a vacuum. Those trained in psychiatry also do not exist free of cultural and implicit biases and their judgements, opinions, and diagnoses bear witness to these things.
When I spoke about my desire to leave the States, through tears and passion, the therapist we found in the Balkans showed no empathy, and in fact her body language and facial expressions denoted incredulity. “I know a Black lawyer,” she rebutted in response to me talking about the racial climate in the U.S. I reminded her of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (with whom she was unfamiliar) being arrested in his own neighborhood because of a perceived threat rooted in him being a Black man living in a white upper crust neighborhood. She was unmoved.
I even noted that the conditions of Black people in the U.S. are so bad that we technically qualify, according to the 1951 Geneva Convention, as “refugees” if it can be proven that we have a “well-founded fear of persecution based on … race.” She immediately interjected, looked at my husband and said, “but he was actually a refugee when he left Iran.” At this point, it was clear that no matter what I said, she would not believe me, and I made the decision not to return.
My husband had a remaining appointment with the psychiatrist a week later, and he was told (which I believe breaches some type of ethical code) that I displayed “paranoia” with regards to race, and that my behavior was “abnormal and pathological.”
In other words, just like with drapetomania, my normal and appropriate response to both my own personal experiences of racism (which I explained in detail the first session, along with the experiences of my family— me being just one generation removed from my mother and father having to go to segregated schools) had been pathologized. It was also not surprising that my lived experiences were essentially reduced to paranoid delusions given that it has been shown that Black men are overdiagnosed with schizophrenia and that schizophrenia is perceived as a “Black Disease.”
Later in his session, my husband went on, again, to explain the very real issues Black people in America face, including stereotypes, and she feigned ignorance. But when he mentioned he also fought on behalf of the rights of Black people (in fact, one of the reasons he wanted to return to the U.S. was so we could be on the “front lines” of our activism, so to speak), she did not tell him that he was paranoid. Even though she is a woman, she saw men as inherently more rational, and his lack of visible emotion gave validity to his claims more than mine, despite the fact that he is not actually Black.
Although in my heart I’ve always known it, I now realize for a fact that there’s no place on Earth one can go to fully escape anti-Blackness.
It makes my husband’s desire to move back to the United States a slightly less bitter pill to swallow. Toxic U.S. culture, which is inextricably linked with whiteness, has still shaped perceptions towards Black people in non-imperial regions of Europe, or even regions that were themselves colonial provinces and outposts, like the Balkans. This holds true even if those assumptions are considered “benign” (such as superior athletic disposition or sexual prowess), and not the kind of violent vitriol and subjugation seen in places like America where Black people are oppressed by the State. And although we still do not deal with the same type of overt racism in this region, the fact remains that anti-Black bias is everywhere, and no institution is safe from it.
Brenda Nasr is a writer, photographer, and activist from Northern Virginia. She currently lives with her husband in Belgrade, Serbia, where they co-manage the blog, Nasr Post.