What is “normal”?
Many people consider the answer to that question to be “common sense.”
However, some of us feel the same way about “normal” as we feel about the definition (or existence) of “common sense.” Subjective, biased, socially constructed, perceptually based, and culturally and demographically variant. These are among the ways social scientists examine “normalcy” and normative versus deviant, morality versus immorality, and appropriateness versus inappropriateness.
When sociologists say much of people’s awareness and understanding is created and socially constructed, we are not saying our awareness and understanding are any less “real”, “true”, or “factual” as far as people are concerned. Social construction means individual and group identities and forms of reality are, to varying extents, up for debate and subject to change. One illustration of such fluidity and conceptualized realness is when people say “men are dominant” with such definitiveness and assertion, as though this is 100% provable and unquestionable fact.
Well, here is the thing about people’s behaviors that have persisted for generations and for centuries: it can become “real” and “true”, not because it is provable fact; innate; or provably hormonal, biological, or genetic. It is one of many examples of ways in which our beliefs and behaviors influence us physically and mentally. Beliefs and behaviors persist because they are taught from generation to generation—within and across generations. In addition to learned beliefs and behaviors, this is also about people’s attachment to other people and social institutions— including the family, employment, education, and spirituality (or faith or meditation or religion).
Through these institutional attachments and learned beliefs and behaviors, people often exaggerate and attach unprovable or disproven meanings to biological sex, for example, that exaggerate differences between females and males. These turn into exaggerated and unfounded meanings and differences between girls/women and boys/men in a cisgender system. This also can apply to how people understand sexuality, race and ethnicity, and all other meanings and differences across groups of people. People are willingly or unwillingly placed into identities, categories, and groupings which include gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, spirituality, religion, socioeconomic status, physical ability and mental ability, and other sociocultural dynamics. Historically and contemporarily, people tend to compare and contrast themselves to other people and to identify with similarly situated people. This tends to result in what Charles Tilly (1998) called “durable inequality” through which within-group and across-group comparisons and distinctions lead to inequalities.
People have used stories, myths, fables, and spirituality-faith-meditation-religion to understand life, explain life, and justify life across different societies and cultures. Understanding how people operate shapes our understanding of the subjectivity of “normal.” “Normal” exists in the sense that it is culturally variant and contextually relative. It is through this lens that I do work (also) in mental health, suicide and self-harm. Yes, mental health is “real.” Yes, mental health conditions are “real.” But, no, mental health and suicide and self-harm are not objective and culturally neutral. While there are trends, patterns, and generalizations to be made, a factor that influences the well-being and life outcomes of one individual or one group does not necessarily have the same effect on the well-being and life outcomes of another individual or another group.
So, what do we do?
One of my first missions is to add voice to Black women (across various demographics including spirituality-faith-meditation-religion, gender identities, and sexual identities) who experience sadness, depression, anxiety, and other longstanding mental and emotional conditions. A common misconception is that mental health concerns, suicide, and self-harm are uncommon in African diaspora communities around the world. Historically and contemporarily, people of the African diaspora have been taught and encouraged to use denial, silence, submission, violence, aggression, assertion, defensiveness, or spirituality-faith-meditation-religion to “heal” or “cure” physical and emotional ailments. This is partly based on the strongly held notion that if something is ignored it does not exist— an example of this is the persistent message in spirituals and gospel songs that “trouble don’t last always” and “God does things for a reason”.
It is my argument that mental health among the African diaspora and especially women of the African diaspora is negatively influenced by a number of factors including overt and covert reproductive force and reproduce coercion. Examples of force and coercion include longstanding cultural beliefs that reproduction is not about personal health, personal decision, and choice, but instead about cultural obligation, true womanhood, and spiritual or religious meaning. This is one of many examples of “pronatalism” in almost all societies.
Since I used the “p” word, let me say, it is quite difficult to call something “pronatalist” and criticize “pronatalism” in a manner that is culturally non-combative and sensitive. In turn, it is understandable when people are dismissive or outraged when told their beliefs, behaviors, and overall way of life are potentially problematic. Although this can be disconcerting for most people, women across (predominantly patriarchal and gender unequal) societies are the people left with the responsibility of investing in and using their fertility, and women are also the ones who primarily care for their offspring. This responsibility tends to be forced upon women (overtly and covertly) through cultural, religious, social, and physical means. There are also millions, if not billions, of women who seem to willingly and voluntarily commit to such a life. Is this, however, the true meaning of “choice”? It remains a topic debated by some feminists, Black feminists, womanists, and gender egalitarians whether this is the true meaning of “equality” and “liberation”— when women can choose whatever they please even if it is a lifestyle that might be frowned upon in certain settings.
Is it possible to not be presumed judgmental, condescending, and patronizing when telling women of the African diaspora that they are not, and do not have to be, perpetually strong for the sake of raising children and saving families? Can women of the African diaspora be told to focus on self-identity, self-health, and being self-aware? Because, after all, people who are not physically healthy and mentally healthy cannot make their families physically healthy and mentally healthy.
Is this an unreasonable request?
Or, are women of the African diaspora free to choose a life in which they might end up stressful, worried, exhausted, and in which their identity and happiness are fully within the context and confines of other people (their families, religious institutions, and anything other than self-health)? Can women of the African diaspora define their happiness and fulfillment in that manner?
Is this “normal”?
And is it okay for this to be one person’s “normal,” let alone billions of people’s “normal”?
Kimya N. Dennis is a criminologist and sociologist with interdisciplinary research and community outreach on suicide and self-harm, mental health, and people who choose not to have children. Kimya reaches a wide range of communities with particular emphasis on underserviced communities and Blacks/African diaspora. Originally from Richmond, VA Kimya collaborates with community activists and researchers in New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. Kimya gives presentations and participates in panels on various correlates of crime and deviance, mental health, suicide and self-harm, and cultural dynamics including gender, race and ethnicity, and religion-faith-spirituality-meditation.