White supremacy is where my PTSD and intrusive thoughts intersect
I feel absolutely crazy all the time.
by Ja’Loni Amor Owens
“The bus is late. Again,” I mumbled to myself.
A lanky white man plopped down next to me even though there was plenty of room for him to sit further away, and not invade my space.
“You waiting for the bus?” he asked.
“Yeah, I am. It’s late though.”
“You mind watching this stuff for me for a second?”
Yes, I mind.
“No, I don’t mind.”
The lanky white man made his way across the street, almost being hit by a garbage truck in the process. I checked my phone. The bus was now 10 minutes late. I looked up to see that the white man who had been sitting next to me had thrown a garbage can into the street during a heated argument with a local store owner. None of my business. I looked back down at my phone.
“Fucking spic,” I heard from across the street.
I looked up and the lanky white man was making his way back to sit next to me.
It’s happening. Right now, I thought.
“Oh no,” I whispered to myself.
I felt my hands start to shake. Droplets of sweat began to pile up on the hem of my pants.
Was he talking to me? God, and the last thing I ate before I died was going to be a wake up wrap from Dunkin’ Donuts. How Massachusetts transplant to New York is that?
“God, I hate that guy,” he mumbled. Okay, he’s not attacking me. Could I be any more dramatic?
I was silent as the lanky white man plopped down next to me again.
“What size shoe are you?”
Oh my God, he has a foot fetish. Or he’s going to chop me up feet first and sell my shoes online to throw people off his trail.
“I-I’m a six…and a half,” I said avoiding eye contact.
“See if these fit. I’m going to catch another bus.”
He threw a pair of sneakers in front of me and started walking away from the bench. I got up from the bench, too. My legs felt like overcooked noodles. I started walking as fast as I could towards the subway.
Not to be even more dramatic, but I haven’t even been to that side of my neighborhood since this incident. I also haven’t tried to take the bus again.
Around this time last year, I authored an essay for Black Youth Project about how my PTSD makes Black Liberation feel impossible, even working as an organizer. I wrote about a racism-induced PTSD episode that came after I took on a lead organizing role in Jefferson Has Gotta Go, a racial justice campaign based at my alma mater, and being on the receiving end of rape and death threats for more than 48 hours. I assumed that these episodes could only be triggered in when I was organizing. A year later, I realize that I was wrong.
Since graduating from Hofstra University and moving out to Queens, I’ve been on somewhat of a break. I didn’t think I needed one, but then I started crying in front of my senior thesis advisor and realized that maybe I am a little tense. I haven’t organized a single thing since graduation. I haven’t even separated my whites from my colors when doing laundry.
So why the hell am I still losing my mind? I don’t know.
Freaking out is to be expected when slurs are being flung around, but I freak out even when they’re not. That man sitting next to me was what sent me into a panic. Him actually being racist just made me feel better about the pint of ice cream I ate later that night.
When I’m on my way to the grocery store and I realize how many more white people than people of color there are on the subway, I start sweating profusely, my muscles tighten, and the air in my lungs stops feeling like a guarantee.
Is that white guy going to follow me off the subway? Judging by his shoes he probably has enough money to get an assault charge erased from his record.
How long has that white woman been holding her purse like that? Is she clutching it? Because of me? Is she going to call the police on me? Does she think I’m going to rob her?
That guy over there looks a little jumpy. Maybe he has a gun. Yeah, his pockets are a little lumpy. Is today the day I’m trampled in a mass shooting? Wouldn’t shock me.
All day. That’s what my mind does. It doesn’t take a day off. It doesn’t stop just because I’m with friends or family. It’s always making my location the most dangerous place to be.
I feel absolutely crazy all the time.
I’ve read enough blog posts to know that one of the ways people manage intrusive thoughts like mine are to focus on the irrationality of these thoughts. Unfortunately, these thoughts aren’t exactly irrational. Just last month, some internet troll colonized my inbox, writing me revolting paragraphs over a piece I wrote months ago. Some say the proof is in the pudding. I say that the proof is in the PTSD.
The trending topics on Twitter over the last year are evidence enough that I’m not going to be able to manage this by poking holes in my own stream of consciousness. I can’t use mind games to reprogram myself when there’s a plethora of trauma porn in my Facebook feed for my brain to soak in and terrorize me with.
The only thing that’s changed since last year when I first started to write about my PTSD is that I’ve realized that the problem isn’t how I engage whiteness in my capacity as an organizer or as an intentionally visible Black person. It’s whiteness period. The head-on collision between my PTSD and these intrusive thoughts is consistently triggered by white supremacy.
How do you take a break from racialization?
How do you divest from the imperial core that you’re living in?
How do you put the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade on the back burner?
In the piece I wrote last year, I made a plea for psychologists to wisen up when it comes to treating Black and brown people with PTSD. At the time, I was snarky and even said that I wasn’t holding my breath for the material conditions I live in to improve. But now I am holding my breath. Partially because maybe my brain will be a little kinder to me with less oxygen, but mostly because I don’t know what else there is to do.
Ja’Loni is an Afro-Puerto Rican community organizer and freelance essayist. At her alma mater, Hofstra University, she served as lead organizer of the Jefferson Has Gotta Go Campaign, which demanded the removal of the campus’ statue of Thomas Jefferson. She is currently pursuing a degree in public interest law at CUNY School of Law.