The GLAMOUR Women of the Year Awards aims to create and nurture conversations for change. In that spirit, two of this year’s winners, Charity Gamechanger Black Minds Matter UK– represented by its co-founder Agnes Mwakatuma – and Gamechanging Influencer Munroe Bergdorf, have come together to powerfully discuss Black mental health after a gamechanging year.
Last year was a gamechanger in many ways. When the Covid-19 outbreak hit, many declared 2020 was cancelled. But the social justice movements that were born, and reborn, during this time ensured it was a year that wasn’t cancelled, but rather one that propelled us forwards. In the wake of the horrifying murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on 25 May, a wave of protests was sparked across the globe, with people of all races coming together to demand an end to systemic racism in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the same time, conversations around mental health opened up like never before, in response to increased social isolation due to lockdown. But many felt that the collective trauma of the Black community, especially in the aftermath of such a triggering year, was not being addressed. So in June 2020, Agnes Mwakatuma and Annie Nash came together with one mission: to connect Black people with free mental health services and, crucially, Black therapists who could better understand their needs. They hoped their charity, Black Minds Matter UK, would eradicate the stigma around mental health in the Black community.
In just three months BMM UK saw 25,000 donors, with 2,600 people signing up to access mental health services. But with a wait list of 1,400 people yet to access therapy due to lack of funds, BBMUK has just launched the #BMMUK21K challenge, aiming to find 21,000 donors who will commit to giving £5 per month long term. BMM UK is also partnering with the Black Trans Foundation, to improve access for Black trans people to mental health resources.
Someone who knows the impact discrimination has on Black transgenderpeople is Munroe Bergdorf. The 33-year-old has long been campaigning for marginalised voices. Her 2018 documentary What Makes A Woman explored changing ideas around gender and identity and showcased her as one of the UK’s most progressive activists.
She has since been appointed UN Women UK Changemaker and sits on the Diversity and Inclusion Board of L’Oréal Paris, working to ensure that Black, trans and queer voices are represented. In 2020 she was heralded as a Next Generation Leader in Time Magazine, she has modelled for major brands including Calvin Klein and has been a GLAMOUR UK coverstar. Now, after an 11-way bidding war, Munroe has won a six-figure book deal for her 2021 debut Transitional, a discussion of gender, sexuality, love, relationships and race.
Here, Munroe and Agnes join forces to discuss systemic injustice and the effects of racism on Black communities…
Munroe: We wanted to come together to speak about the past year – it’s been a ride and you’re doing so much amazing work with Black Minds Matter. Black mental health is such an afterthought for many – we need a charity that specialises in that, so thank you! Tell me Agnes, what has been a gamechanging moment for you?
Agnes: The Black Lives Matter movement, not just for me – but for a lot of Black and non-Black people – taught me so much, not just about my power, but the power of community and of addressing issues of racism. Most importantly, the ways in which systemic race pours into the healthcare system, it’s quite scary. How do you feel about it?
Munroe: We’re having a lot of conversations about Black women and Black people in childbirth – the high death rates is really concerning. This year has been really formative, because we’re speaking about how systemic racism infiltrates so much of our experience of our day to day life. It’s been a really traumatic time, too.
Agnes: It was sad that a lot of people assumed police injustice has only happened in the US, but Black men were stopped more than 20,000 times in London in lockdown alone. People think racism isn’t an issue within the UK. Our racismis different. It changes as you move throughout the world.
Munroe: What was really encouraging for me was seeing the amount of people, especially public figures, speaking up about their experiences with racism in a way that I felt was affirming.
Agnes: Do you remember there was a time when, as Black people, we were so scared of playing up racism? In my old job, racist things used to happen and I used to be so scared of even just saying anything because I feared I could lose my job.
Munroe: I lost a job for speaking up about that. It’s a very real fear of the repercussions of, “What if I speak up?” The reality is we’re not taught about racism or white supremacy. The history of the UK is taught in a way that isn’t accurate, and is definitely not from the perspective of Black people.
Agnes: When it comes to hate crimes in the UK, since 2009 they have doubled. So you really can’t deny that there is a problem.
Munroe: The same with trans hate crimes. They’ve gone up 85% in the last two years. So it’s about the holistic experience of minorities, and lifting up the most marginalised members of society because if we’re centreing them then everybody wins.
Agnes: It’s our responsibility to also ensure that we are standing up against other forms of racism against other groups. We can’t just be for Black racism.
Munroe: Whether or not that’s anti-Semitism or anti-Asian racism, racism against Black people, transphobia, homophobia, at the end of the day, it’s all the same. It’s condemning somebody for being who they are. Which is why what you’re doing is so incredible.
Agnes: When we talk about Black mental health, sometimes we forget that Black trans people have had an incredibly difficult time. We noticed it at Black Minds Matter, we didn’t have enough trans therapists, or people who were LGBTQ+ friendly. We had to ask ourselves, “What are we doing to serve our Black trans friends and family?” I can only imagine what it’s like because as a Black woman I have had to complain about the accessibility of mental health support for myself. But then I can’t imagine what it’s like for a Black trans person trying to seek mental health support, and constantly being faced with so many obstacles. This is why we have partnered with the Black Trans Foundation. What does Black trans mental health mean to you and how could we be doing better for our Black trans brothers and sisters?
“A therapist has the power to say, ‘No, you’re not trans. I’m not referring you.’ That’s traumatic in itself convincing people that you are a Black trans person.” – Munroe
Munore: When a Black trans person is seeking out therapy, we’ve already gone through a lot with regards to gatekeeping. When you’re trans and you want to begin your medical transition you need to be referred to the gender identity clinic by a therapist. Who is often not a trans person and often not a Black person. That therapist has the power to say, “No, you’re not trans. I’m not referring you.” That’s traumatic in itself convincing people that you are a Black trans person. Especially in the UK where only 3% of this country is Black – we’re a minority of a minority. Not enough people who are gatekeepers of our ability to transition medically are aware of the power they wield and how at risk a lot of trans people really are.
Agnes: I realised how important it was to thoroughly vet each therapist. When we first started we found that one therapist had tweeted an article about trying to stop people from transitioning in the UK, especially young Black children. Just thinking that we had someone on our roster and what could have happened if we had exposed people to that, was quite scary. We need more vetting, not just going on qualifications, but also what their thoughts are on equality, gender and sexuality.
Munroe: People would be really surprised if they knew how many obstacles marginalised people face in the healthcare system. The job of a healthcare professional is to treat everybody equally, but that just doesn’t happen because the thing with the implicit and unconscious biases, you don’t know it.
A lot of it is conscious as well. I’ve got trans friends who were actively discouraged to transition. Now they’re eight, 10 years into their transition, but in their first instance of trying to get help, they were discouraged. I went to my GP 12 years ago to tell them that I wanted to transition and he had to Google what to do with me. He had absolutely no idea, because he’s never met a trans person before. I knew more than he did about what I needed. When you go to a healthcare professional, you want them to know how to help you because it’s distressing, isn’t it?
Agnes: It is! I had my first therapy session over six years ago and my therapist didn’t even know where Tanzania was. I sat there crying, because I’d just lost my brother, and I was trying to explain it to her. And she was like, “Just hold on two seconds. Where’s Tanzania?” That just put me off even bothering going again because, it’s like, “I’m having an emotional moment, and you don’t even know where that is!” I can only imagine what it’s like trying to transition and then having someone sit there and Google.
I had to explain the importance of having a Black therapist and the importance of not having to explain what it’s like to be a Black queer trans woman. It’s retraumatising to sit there and reeducate a white person who should really understand, but can never, because that is not their lived experience. – Munroe
Munroe: I’m sorry you went through that. I was explaining it to my mum. My mum’s white and she’s gone on her own journey with me as her child who’s trans, and understanding racial equality. But she wasn’t really prepared for having a Black child because we weren’t having the conversations. I think that my mum just didn’t think in a consciously racist way, but she wasn’t thinking about the obstacles that would come and I had to explain to her the importance of having a Black therapist and the importance of not having to explain what it’s like to be a Black woman, a Black trans woman, a Black queer trans woman. That’s time you could use working through your trauma and it’s retraumatising to sit there and reeducate a white person who should really understand, but can never, because that is not their lived experience.
Agnes: They almost invalidate your experience. One of the five pillars of wellbeing is community and at the moment we’re all relying on our virtual communities – what does having a positive virtual community mean to you?
Munroe: It’s important that we find balance within virtual spaces because what we’re seeing right now is a lot of traumatised people with no real-life outlet, so social media is where we’re releasing our trauma onto each other.
Agnes: It’s also very important that people question what their virtual communities stand for. The power of community is great – look at Black Minds Matter and what we’ve been able to achieve – but there’s so many things that can go wrong if you pick the wrong community online.
There are sometimes topics that we don’t know enough about, or information that is not 100% accurate. That could even be things like Covid-19, which has a huge amount of misinformation circulating. Just seeing how that’s impacted people’s mental health is crazy. Whenever something big happens on social media – I’ve noticed this especially on Black Twitter – we do get quite a few requests for mental health support. There are people in the background feeling suffocated, vulnerable and getting dragged into drama.
Munroe: A lot of people want to say and do the right thing on social media and there is a pressure to say the ‘thing,’ post the petition, get behind the right cause and signal to the right organisation. When people aren’t seen to be doing things, we instantly think, “Oh, they’re not doing anything,” especially now that the real world is less of a factor.
Agnes: I used to get that when we were at the height of creating Black Minds Matter, I was working 72 hours a week every week. It was stressful. Something would happen and people would DM me and be like, “Oh, are you going to say something about this?” And it was like, “I’m literally working 72 hours a week. I’m stressed out because I’ve got a thousand clients who we look after. We’ve got donations to raise. You expect me to run a whole organisation, and also get involved in debates?” But then, you still get sucked in, because you feel like you are responsible for saying things.
“There’s this pressure for everyone to be an activist, especially, if you’re a marginalised person. Which is traumatic because the reality is we can’t always take that on. Every single time that we see a Black person die or be murdered in a viral video, that takes a piece of our soul away.” – Munroe
Munroe: There’s this pressure for everyone to be an activist, especially if you’re a marginalised person. Which is traumatic because the reality is we can’t always take that on, you almost feel like you’re becoming a news station and you’re having to talk about things that are retraumatising you as an individual. Every single time we see a Black person die or be murdered in a viral video, that takes a piece of our soul away.
“Social media ends up asking far too much of you than you are willing to give. It can be very difficult with people bringing you down constantly.” – Agnes
Agnes: It does, and we’ve become so desensitised to it. With social media and activism as much as you go into it with good intentions, social media does end up asking far too much of you than you are willing to give. It can be very difficult with people bringing you down constantly. How should we be using social media as a powerful tool for change versus harming other people’s mental health?
Munroe: You’ve got to be conscious of it. You can’t log on to your apps without thinking about the effect it’s going to be having on you. I found that social media was more controlling me than I was controlling it. Even though the majority of people on Instagram are giving me praise, the majority of people on Twitter are giving me hate, telling me I am the worst person on earth. To exist within the middle of extreme praise and extreme hate is really not normal. I’m taking time out to renegotiate the relationship that I have with what I want to share. This is the most isolated we’ve ever been nd the most time that we’ve ever spent on social media and we don’t even know how it mentally affects us in the long run.
“I do fear that if I did something wrong, even if it was very small, and I apologise, I fear the effects of being cancelled.” – Agnes
Agnes: One of my biggest fears is cancel culture. Even though I have dedicated a huge part of my life to doing incredible things, I do fear that if I did something wrong, even if it was very small, and I apologise, I fear the effects of being cancelled. That limits how I show up on social media. What are your thoughts on cancel culture?
Munroe: There’s a difference between somebody that holds and abuses their power to someone who makes a mistake, or even someone who changes their mind. We don’t let people change their mind these days. It’s one thing saying something and then educating yourself and then getting to 32 and what you said at 23 comes back to haunt you. If we go through everybody’s lives, regardless of social media, we’ve all had a journey and we need to be encouraging people to grow instead.