Post traumatic stress disorder usually makes us think of combat veterans or terrified rape victims, but new research indicates that racism can also be a cause of PTSD. I’m focusing this on the Black community since that is the community I know most about since I’m a Black woman in the United States however other people of color may also suffer from PTSD and racism.
Racism-related experiences can range from frequent “microaggressions” to blatant hate crimes and physical assault. Racial microaggressions are subtle acts of racism, these can be brief remarks such as “You’re not like other Black people”, vague insults, or non-verbal exchanges, such as a refusal to sit next to a Black person on the subway. When experiencing microaggressions, the person loses mental resources trying figure out the intention of the one committing the act. These events may happen frequently, making it difficult to mentally manage the volume of racial stressors. The unpredictable and often anxiety-provoking nature of the events, which are often dismissed by others, can lead to victims feeling as if they are “going crazy.” Chronic fear of these experiences may lead to constant vigilance which can result in traumatization or contribute to PTSD when a more stressful event occurs later.
While most people can understand why a violent hate crime could be traumatizing, the traumatizing role of microaggressions can be difficult to understand, especially among those who do not experience them. Many African Americans also often wonder if what they’re experiencing is a microaggression and often worry that they will be perceived as being overly sensitive.
Studies also show that African Americans with PTSD experience significant impairment due to trauma, indicating greater difficulty carrying out daily activities and increased barriers to receiving effective treatment. Racism has also been linked to other problems, including serious psychological distress, physical health problems, depression and anxiety. A strong, positive Black identity can be a potential protective factor against symptoms of anxiety and depression, but this not adequate protection when the discriminatory events are severe.
Trauma can also alter one’s perceptions of overall safety in society. Black people with PTSD have been found to have lower expectations about the positivity of the world than Whites. This adds to the suspicion many Black people have of the motives of Whites.
Once sensitized through ongoing racism, routine slights may take an increasingly greater toll. Microaggressions, such as being followed by security guards in a department store, or seeing a White woman clutching her purse in an elevator when a Black man enters, is another trigger for racial stress. I’ve experienced microaggressions myself on many occasions. For example, once when I was a social work intern making home visits, I had to visit a White family in a predominantly White area in New York City, and one day the family had a visitor and asked me to hide in another room because they couldn’t explain to their friend why a Black woman would be in their home. I remember feeling helpless, angry, and confused. I felt that I had a good relationship with this family and couldn’t believe they wanted me to hide, when I visited other families, if anyone came over they would introduce me as a friend or a social worker for their children.
Sometimes I wonder how people continue to remain resilient in the face of ongoing, undeserved discrimination. Within the Black community, positive coping with racism may involve faith, humor or optimism. These cultural values have allowed African Americans to persevere for centuries even under the most oppressive conditions. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that we can “fix” people to enable them to manage constant, ongoing acts of prejudice with a smile, and ask them to be perpetually polite, productive, and forgiving. I believe we need a shift in our social consciousness to understand the toll this takes on the psyche of victims so that even small acts of racism become unacceptable. We also need people who witnesses racism to speak out and victims to be believed.