Of Erasure and Difference: The Continuing Colonial Project in Trancultural Psychiatry
Drawing on the personal stories of people of colour who have been in contact with psychiatric spaces, I argue that transcultural psychiatry commits itself to a colonial project which aims to do the following: exclude people of colour from determining and making narratives about their own bodies; erase ongoing violence against people of colour; and reproduce a form of cultural racism which locates illness in the cultures of racialized others. A number of theorists, including Francoise Verges, Ranjana Khanna, and Nadia Kanani have highlighted the ways in which psychiatry was based on the colonization of bodies of colour from its very inception, and the ways in which this continues today. As a person of colour myself, who has been institutionalized within space of psychiatric "care," it is important for me to understand my story alongside the stories of other people of colour in order to give meaning to my experience that does not have to be legitimized by psychiatrists. Through sharing my own personal story and those of other people of colour, I have centered the narratives of people of colour as a major method of critique against transcultural psychiatry, and as a way to understand psychiatry through the words of those who are often left out of transcultural psychiatric discourse. The stories that I have shared give rise to themes that illustrate the ways in which transcultural psychiatry engages in the reproduction of the colonial project. These include the following: that for many people of colour, experiences with mental health systems are often intertwined with experiences of criminalization and confinement; that the history of confinement and criminalization is a cause of emotional distress and a site of further violence against bodies of colour; that transcultural psychiatry continues the tradition of cultural racism which espouses that mental illness is linked to deficiency, which is now located in the racialized cultures; and that people of colour are silenced within both psychiatric spaces and within spaces connected to psychiatric spaces. These spaces include academic and government institutions which produce emotional distress by controlling and silencing racialized people, and neglect to fulfill their own mandate to provide mental health services for those who express a desire for them. The silencing of people of colour and the disengagement with a colonial past by transcultural psychiatrists has helped reproduce people of colour as mere objects of difference to be studied. This paper thus argues that transcultural psychiatry as a subdiscipline within psychiatry needs to address its colonial past. It more broadly understands psychiatry as a colonial construct which relies on the reproduction of cognitive difference between European and Non-European bodies – a difference without which transcultural psychiatry could not sustain itself in its current form.