Don’t Leave Black Immigrant Femmes Out of the Mental Health Conversation

By Fiza Pirani Feb 24, 2021

Despite making up about one-fifth of the overall Black population in the United States, Black immigrants and their children are often neglected when it comes to the research and discourse around mental health or wellness. A new report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration explores the disproportionate burdens facing Black immigrants, particularly women and femmes, and reveals the numerous overlapping factors that often contribute to poor mental health in these communities. 

For the comprehensive Our Stories & Visions: Gender in Black Immigrant Communities report, where BAJI decided to focus on mental health, the organization recruited four Gender Justice Research Fellows in four cities: New York, Miami, Minneapolis and Los Angeles—cities populated with large and diverse Black immigrant communities. Instead of solely relying on survey data for the report, these fellows recruited participants and coordinated in-depth interviews with all 84 involved in the study in order to make the process more personal and to encourage meaningful dialogue. Each participant was compensated $50 for their time.

Of the 84 individuals, 37 fell into the 18-25 age bracket, 24 were aged 26-35 and 23 were older than 35. The majority of participants (96.4 percent) identified as cisgender, a limitation that BAJI researchers make note of in the report. Nearly 60 percent of participants were first-generation immigrants; 40.2 percent were second-generation immigrants.

“Research is important when it’s heavily statistical,” said report author and BAJI Gender Justice coordinator Catherine Labiran. “But it’s the stories that really make things more personal and beautiful, and allow us to connect with the significance of people’s experiences.” 

The report itself is primarily divided into two halves: “Stories” and “Visions.” 

The “Stories” section addresses the six most prominent themes affecting Black immigrant well-being observed among the participants: 1) the role that responsibility plays in families both here and abroad; 2) abuse and discrimination in schools or the workplace; 3) criminalization related to anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy; 4) sexual assault and harassment; 5) the relationship to religion and faith-based practices and 6) past experiences with healthcare practitioners in the U.S.

There, as you browse through accessible graphics and hard data, you’ll find quotations from the participants strewn across whole pages and in the margins offering glimpses into their raw human experiences. 

More than 65 percent of the participants reported experiencing sexual assault or harassment, and several shared stories of abuse or neglect at the hands of medical providers. Many also voiced concern over the erasure of Black immigrants in conversations on immigration, underscoring a need for solidarity among all Black people—immigrants or no—to ensure communal protection.  

For the second portion of the report, “Visions,” researchers asked participants to envision the kind of world they would create if they were free from financial restrictions, an effort to ensure the research “moved beyond trauma,” Labiran said during a Feb. 10 webinar on the report. “We wanted to create space for participants to talk about joy, to talk about pleasure and to talk about care.”

An overwhelming number of participants simply sought intergenerational discourse on mental health within their own families and communities—conversations devoid of shame or stigma. They especially yearned for the cis-heterosexual Black men in their lives to be held accountable for gender-based violence and misogynoir.

Beyond self-care and culturally-competent therapy, researchers urged community care that works to challenge the superhuman stereotype common to Black women and femmes.

“The trope that Black women and femmes are unwaveringly strong is killing us,” Labiran wrote in the report’s introduction. “Even positive phrases like ‘Black girl magic’ are weaponized and used to justify the lack of support that we are given.”

As immigrants, this is compounded by the issue of non-belonging, she added. “We know,” she wrote, “that our liberation cannot be fully actualized while our loved ones are incarcerated. We know that our liberation cannot be fully actualized when our families are separated at borders. We know that our liberation cannot be fully actualized while we are unable to fully explore our genders and sexualities. We know that our liberation cannot fully be actualized while we are unable to freely discuss our mental health and receive holistic, quality, affordable care.”

To close out the report, Labiran and other BAJI researchers offer a straightforward list of policy-related and community-based recommendations to actualize such liberation based on their research, from providing more affordable housing and restoring asylum and refugee resettlement to expanding holistic training on intimate partner violence and training faith leaders on mental health and wellness.

 “This report simply scratches the surface of the mental health of Black migrants in the U.S.,” wrote Labiran. Future researchers, she and fellow researchers suggest, should continue to uplift individual stories and center Black transgender and non-binary people, as well as Black immigrants in detention. 

Our Stories & Visions: Gender in Black Immigrant Communities is available to read and download at

Fiza Pirani is an Atlanta-based writer and editor and founder of the award-winning newsletter, Foreign Bodies