I am an organizer and sometimes my PTSD makes Black Liberation feel impossible
I cannot escape whiteness because whiteness is a shapeshifter.
By JaLoni Amor Owens
In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which was released in May of 2013, there was a significant change in the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These changes specifically impacted recognition of race-based trauma in racial and ethnic minorities.
Prior to the publication of this edition, race-based PTSD was a much rarer diagnosis and a diagnosis exclusive to victims of pervasive, fear-inducing, racially-motivated events, such as physical assault. With the change to the criteria for PTSD in the DSM-5, there is now a field-wide acknowledgment that experiencing racism, even in such the forms, over the course of one’s life naturally compounds, and the effects can be as long-lasting and devastating as any racially-charged event.
While I understand the weight of this development, especially given psychology’s racist past (and present), I cannot help but feel like this development is just a whole lot of words I barely understand thrown together to tell me that I am never going to get better.
To me, all of the theses and survey results can be summarized as a confirmation that I will experience re-traumatization again and again and again, and every time I make a little bit of progress it will happen again and could completely destroy me.
Even worse, this cycle will continue for the rest for my life. My entire life will be consumed by attempts to outrun trauma and to building myself up again when I cannot, because I cannot escape the hostile environment that traumatized me in the first place. I cannot escape whiteness.
I cannot escape whiteness because whiteness is a shapeshifter. Whiteness once manifested itself as the pale-faced captain of a slave ship. It evolved into a plantation owner and slave master, transformed itself into the predator who entered the sleeping quarters of women and girls who look like me to forcibly impregnate them. Without hesitation, whiteness took shape as the murderer who lynched the same children they forced enslaved women to carry and deliver.
Whiteness has been reinventing itself for centuries and adapting to the ever changing world around us. It cannot be escaped.
Textbooks would ask you to believe that whiteness became dormant after slavery “ended” and rose again just in time to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968. That is simply not true. Neither is the idea that whiteness is no longer a threat because President Barack Obama thrust us into a “post-racial utopia,” whatever that means.
Whiteness remains to be the biggest threat to our survival and continues to permeate every single facet of our lives, from the institutions we must navigate to interactions with our white counterparts. I am dealing with whiteness every time I leave the comfort of home.
Whiteness is my non-Black professors being way too comfortable using Negro and N*gger in the classroom.
Whiteness is the security guard assuming I’ve entered the office building to ask for directions to the closest abortion clinic rather than to be directed to the location of an interview.
Whiteness is the way white men look at me after reading one of my pieces and ask, “How did you learn to write so good? Do you speak just as well?”
Whiteness is the white frat boy who came up to me this past spring while I was wearing my dashiki to inform me he studied abroad in Africa and, of course, did tons of humanitarian work, and so he’s entitled to take me out at least once.
Whiteness is scrolling through through rape threats, and “white hating n*gger”, and “i can’t wait until police kill this one, too”, and “you f*cking half breed” every time I publish something or make a public statement about racism.
And with PTSD? Whether it be a serious threat or just unchecked privilege, my body prepares itself to fight a war. Whether a white boy DMs me to say that I am “pretty for a Black girl” or a police officer takes time out of their day to harass my friends and I, I feel my entire body surge with panic and fear.
There are times when all it takes is making eye contact with a middle-aged white man in a public place to set me off, for my heart rate to increase, for my hands to begin shaking, for the paranoia to kick in.
I’m in defense mode all the time and it’s exhausting. The result is extended periods of time where I am filled with nothing but rage, where it feels like I am always on the brink of crying, where I feel so vulnerable that I cannot handle seeing people who do not look like me, where even spending time with the white people that I call my friends induces racial anxiety.
And when I am not overcome by intense bursts of emotion, I feel nothing. Anyone who knows me knows that I love my family and my friends dearly and I exude passion in my voice alone. But when I’m in those numb periods, I don’t even remember to check in with the people I’m closest to. I don’t remember much of anything. I feel and act like I’m being dragged from place to place.
These are all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that I have experienced regularly over the last two years. These are also the symptoms I can expect to continue experiencing for the foreseeable future, especially since I am an organizer.
After circulating a petition calling on Hofstra University, my university, to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from a high traffic point on campus and subsequently working with my peers to organize a protest in March of 2018, I received a significant amount of backlash. Fox News published my school email address on their website and showed the address on the air. Bill O’Reilly caught wind of the story and tweeted about the protest as well as did a short segment about it on his podcast. Like clockwork, my inbox was filled with hateful messages from Fox News viewers and all seven members of Bill O’Reilly’s fan club.
That 48-hour period was all it took for me to slip back into the fits of anger, inability to sleep more than a few hours a night, and episodes of numbness. Everyone around me kept telling me to take a break and to take time away from organizing. I tried. I really did.
I even spoke with an on-campus psychologist. I explained my concerns as well those of my friends. She, being a white woman, of course did not have any advice for me beyond to “take a break.” Frankly, even if she had been Black, I don’t think she would have had the solution I needed.
In May, Hofstra University President Stuart Rabinowitz released a statement announcing Hofstra University’s refusal to remove the statue. Upon reading the statement, I was overcome with a rage that has only intensified as summer progresses. I have worked my hardest to channel that rage into action, into the content posted to the campaign’s Twitter and Facebook pages and into coalition building, but I’m not always successful and I cannot help but feel discouraged knowing that I must navigate this forever.
Racism is not going to disappear without a trace. Meaning, neither will moments that inspire me to organize nor will the symptoms I am struggling to manage.
It seems though, that since 2013 when the DSM-5 was published, the experience I am having with race-based PTSD is more widely discussed in the mainstream than ever before. So while the progress in the field of psychology feels slow and useless to me currently, perhaps we will get to a point where there is a pathway to healing.
Maybe someday psychologists will truly understand how to support Black and brown folx struggling to survive in a society built on the bones of our ancestors and reliant on our continued subjugation, or maybe white people will just stop being racist. I’m not holding my breath for the latter.
JaLoni Owens is a New York based community organizer and freelance writer as well as a rising senior at Hofstra University. Driven by her passion for social justice and politics, she is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree with Public Policy and Public Service as her primary focus of study and Journalism as her secondary focus of study.