Racism Can Cause PTSD

When I was twenty years old on the rez, my cousin, with his long hair and deep brown skin, told me about the wristbands he always wore. They were the rubber jelly kind to raise awareness for Lance Armstrong’s foundation or other such things. He never took them off. Then one day, they broke off. How, I asked. Oh, the handcuffs, he told me, the handcuffs were too tight on my hands. He went on to tell me about being shoved into the back of a cop car and beaten, brutally, savagely, while restrained. He fought back, but they had to drop the charges, he told me. Still, he missed those bracelets.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an increasingly common mental health difficulty that can be faced by soldiers returning from war, battered women and individuals who have experienced mental, physical or verbal assault or abuse as children or adults. An experience of racism like my cousin’s could also cause PTSD. But under changing definitions of the disorder, we are learning that more subtle racism can also cause the same symptoms and therefore be classified as PTSD. 

Under the previous definitions of PTSD, one specific, or many concurrent localized events of fear, gripping horror or trauma were required to have occurred in order to be diagnosed. The definition now removes the localized event, allowing for broader experiences of subtle racism to be actualized in something not unlike the “battle fatigue” a soldier endures, causing anxiety, stress and, yes, PTSD. Dr. Jose Soto puts it like this: “While the term [racial battle fatigue] is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments.” 

This brings to mind the many articles, memes and social media posts about growing up Black. Black children are taught differently than white children. They are taught to walk a certain way, to be meeker to authority figures, to speak in a dialect that may not be their own in order to be perceived by a White Supremacist society as being non-threatening, and even this so-called “respectability” is not enough to save them. Tamir Rice was a child playing with a toy gun. Trayvon Martin was a boy walking home with Skittles in his bag. Even if you don’t experience this racism head-on, witnessing it around you, and being in fear for your life when you go to the grocery store, is a form of PTSD. It is no different for Native Americans like my cousin or myself. If you are constantly faced with racism on a daily or near-daily basis, you can become so worn down that PTSD is not too strong a term for the mental health pain that you suffer.