Trigger Warning: There is discussion surrounding mental illness, specifically depression, anxiety and PTSD. There’s also mention of racist and transphobic violence. Please practice self care.
When it was first announced that the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, widely known as the DSM – 5, contained changes in the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that would allow for better recognition of race-based trauma many mental health professionals of color were floored by this development. Other professionals and general members of society, most not of color, felt much differently. There was an outpour of commentary opposed to these changes. Most of the commentary sounded like, “How could the experience of a racial or ethnic minority even compare to that of a soldier fighting in a foreign nation?” I ask the same question all the time. How is it that anti-blackness and all of its manifestations are so emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing that I and many other Black people are being diagnosed with a disorder traditionally associated with returning from war? Unfortunately, when most people ask themselves that question it is with the intent of invalidating black people and minimizing the extent to which experiencing racism can impact a person.
Given the amount of racism and misogynoir that remains unconfronted within the psychology field, it’s unsurprising that the tone has not shifted very much from then to PTSD Awareness Day earlier this week. It’s even more unsurprising that the response many, including myself, have when receiving such a diagnosis is to invalidate our own experiences because PTSD is a diagnosis that is “off-limits” and “exclusively for veterans”. Black people, especially black women and black queer and trans people, are taught that the trauma comes with the territory, so to speak. For many people, that message is broadcasted by both the racist psychology field and their own communities. The subliminal (and sometimes not-so subliminal) messages that only white people have mental health issues, that depression is something rich people make up because they wish they had problems, and that PTSD is a diagnosis that you must “earn” the rights to.
One of these reasons is that when you are told and shown how little your humanity and your identity are perceived to be worth on so many separate occasions, you begin to perceive your identities, your experiences, and all aspects of your being to be worth little as well. You begin to adopt the “it comes with the territory” mentality, too. You begin to believe that when you’re called a n*gger, when white men threatened to beat and abuse you, when that abuse trickles down to the most important people in your life, when the white women who wear the label of feminist refuse to defend you and take on a role of complacency, when people tell you to shut up about race, when you run out of fingers to count how many people walk out of your life, that it’s something you are responsible for and should have anticipated and prepared for long before it happened.
My experience with PTSD began in 2016 close to the time I graduated high school. My senior year began with a student forum organized by myself and a few my peers to address a series of racist incidents, namely a now former teacher taking to Facebook to communicate violently racist beliefs about the Black Lives Matter movement and those protesting, as well as issues of misogyny, transphobia, ableism, racial profiling, and sexual harassment. At this student forum I read aloud a list of demands that I continue to firmly believe would greatly improve the culture of the building and are echoed by a study completed through Brown University. My peers and I made the assumption that after airing our grievances in front of hundreds of people, some of which were government officials, educators, parents and our high school administration, that action would be taken to alleviate the pain students of color, students with disabilities, students who are trans and queer identifiers, and women felt each day they came into the building. We were wrong. That same month a teacher fabricated an incident in an attempt to discredit me and provoke disciplinary action to be taken against me in retaliation for my decision to lead the charge against discrimination at my high school. Unsuccessful in that attempt, this same teacher decided to go after me once again and this time she chose to involve my father. She began to ignore me in class, to scream at me in front of other students, to make passive aggressive statements about me during lessons, and to attempt to isolate from my friends. After a parent meeting with my father, an eleven year administrator, she chose to report him to human resources claiming him to be “intimidating” and playing off of the historically deadly “protect the white woman from the scary black man” trope. Long story short, I arranged a co-op opportunity for myself so that I would not have to deal with this teacher and would only come to my vocational high school to take my academic classes. Being in my school for only 50% of the time did not alleviate any of the retaliation. Not long after this incident I was referred to as an ape during a class. The white male who did this was not disciplined. I was told he received a long, hard talking to though. I uninstalled the Twitter app from my phone repeatedly since the harassment was not limited to school.
The harassment was also not limited to students. Teachers regularly would speak negatively about me to each other and even remain silent while students did it in the classroom. An English teacher told another administrator that I was a “f*cking b*tch” and that I was ruining the school. One of the students who participated in the forum was verbally harassed by a group of students while in class. I was referred to as a b*tch and a cult leader. My best friend, a transgender woman, was the punchline of a number of transmisogynistic jokes and the cis students expressed anger over having to use her pronouns and be “politically correct” aka decent human beings. We reported those students to our guidance counselors and to the oh-so helpful security office. The resolution? A phone call made to my mother stating that the incident was a “fall-out between friends”. My friends and I stopped reporting after that incident until December came. Though I know longer participated in the vocational part of my education, one of the girls who remained my friend throughout all of this wanted to include me in Christmas festivities. By some random coincidence the same white male student who referred to me as an ape, was given the task of buying me a secret santa gift. My gift? Toilet paper with President Barack Obama’s face on it. My mother came into school the following Monday. To my knowledge the student was sent home for the remainder of that day and was no longer in the classes I was in. That punishment did little as the harassment continued and eventually the administration became so complacent with those who harassed my peers and I that my parents demanded something be done to protect me. By this time the principal’s son had even threatened me on social media. The response was to send me home for the remainder of the year and have me email my teachers my completed work. The administration refused to protect me. I had hoped that once I was removed what was left of my friend group would be safer. They weren’t.
My best friend was assaulted in February, about three or four weeks after I left. When she reported the incident to security and explained the retaliation and harassment she’d been on the receiving end of since she came out as a trans women in September of 2015. The security office did not discipline the boys who did this. The office deemed it an accident. Another student became the victim of sexual harassment by a teacher. This teacher had reportedly been pursuing female students for years. He’d been matching with female students on Tinder and hitting on them during the classes he taught. One student informed me that the administration had been aware and actually put a cap on the amount of student he could have because of his predatory tendencies. Another student became the victim of another predator. He has a history of grooming, the predatory act of maneuvering another individual into a position that makes them more isolated, dependent, likely to trust, and more vulnerable to abusive behavior, female students and abusing them. This teacher backhanded a girl in his class and because he’d groomed so many girls and incited fear in so many others, no one spoke up and he’s managed to keep his job.
Incident after incident occurred. Each reported to me. I championed the cause from home utilizing social media, local media, and the ears of any activists who would give me the time of day. I’d hoped that at some point that something I told the mayor, the city council, the local NAACP, and other local organizations and high profile people who claimed to care about education and protecting students would be vile enough that they would step up. That time never came even after the administration unjustly fired my father in April of 2016. My father, while the predators and bigots I mentioned received little to no punishment for their actions, was escorted out of the building in the middle of the day as if he were a criminal and told that he couldn’t return to the school’s property without an escort.
Of all of the low points my senior year brought, the firing of my father was definitely among the lowest. At that point, I’d felt that not only had I made my closest friends targets through association, not only had I been unable to be there when my best friend was assaulted, not only had I not been to provoke enough outrage for the predatory men in that building to be disciplined, not only had I not been able to motivate the school committee, the city council, or the mayor’s office to step in, not only had I failed to make the story sexy enough for father reaching media outlets to pick it up, not only had it been months since the student forum and none of our demands had been met, but I’d caused my father’s career to be stolen from him and the little advocacy group I started had put a target on my, my family’s and my friends’ backs rather than a movement. I just wanted to fix it all for everyone in my life and for the 2,000 other students attending. My mother told me that it was impossible for me to singlehandedly stop a building that’d been burning for decades from crumbling before me, but I didn’t care. I had to fix it. I ended up burning myself out trying to put out that fire and support everyone else. I’d burned myself out posting everyday, sending emails begging for intervention, speaking to lawyers two and three times a week, waking up before the rest of my family did so I could cry in peace, putting on a smile as the white liberals in my town sat by and did nothing while offering me hugs and “keep up the good fight” whenever they’d see me, pretending that I was made of steel and that this work was prettier than it was taxing.
It wasn’t until prom and graduation came closer and until my therapist all but begged for me to show some type of emotional response to the things happening around and to me that I finally broke. Probably assuming I was going to just say I’m fine or give a sarcastic response my therapist asked me how I was and I felt tears form in my eyes and I just stared at her and let them fall and like those annoying Just Girly Things posts I cried harder when I tried telling her that I was okay. Then I decided to just give up trying to stop crying and tell her I was okay and to just tell her what’s up. I remember just looking at her and saying “I’m tired. My joints hurt constantly. I feel sick. I can’t sleep. I’m angry all the time. I can’t do my homework. I haven’t answered my teachers in two weeks. My hair is falling out. Whenever I go outside of my house I’m angry. I keep cancelling my plans or wanting to cry twenty minutes into them. I don’t want to go to college. I ruined everything. I should’ve shut my mouth and graduated like everyone else. It was all a mistake. I hate myself” I remember her asking me if I really believed that and really wish I said nothing. I shrugged. She told me how worried she’d be when I’d leave our sessions and when I’d come back with more to tell her. She told me that it was okay that I was angry. That session was the first time I recall her ever explicitly saying that I endured a series of traumatic events. It could be because I’ve attempted to suppress the entirety of my senior year, but I also remember this being the first time we really talked about depression, anxiety, and acute stress disorder, a term which was foreign to me at the time. I did research when I went home and remember rolling my eyes at “PTSD”, taking the suggestion of such a diagnosis as an insult, feeling as though if I were to embrace it and to begin making a real effort to heal as a cop-out, taking that session as further motivation to work harder and to ignore my body begging me to stop.
Senior Awards Night came and went. I did not attend. Prom came and went. I did not attend. Graduation came and went. I did not attend. I received my yearbook and my diploma, which I’ve buried deep in a storage bin somewhere in my closet, from my guidance counselor after almost half an hour of the security team pretending to have no idea who I was and informing me that I was prohibited from entering the building without an escort. I had to dump out my backpack in the middle of the foyer to return my textbooks and borrowed supplies to the school. Still, I did not stop. I continued pushing. I pushed until I completely exhausted myself and didn’t even have the energy to finish meals, to shower daily, or to take care of myself overall.
So, when I read about how “silly” it seems to people to say that racism can cause depression, anxiety or PTSD, it takes me back to that ten month or so period in my life and I relive all of it. When I read your comments about how “black people don’t get depression” and how “that’s some white people shit”, it makes me want to pretend all over again and to throw away all of the progress and healing I’ve done. When I reflect on the amount of white folx who want to talk to me about my experiences and my work in comparison to the amount that financially or emotionally support it, I become enraged. Each time I refuse to preform emotional labor and am told I’m a b*tch, selfish, or a threat to progress, I want to slap whoever’s suggesting that in the face and explain that the real threat to progress is asking black people to preform emotional labor for you until we can’t find enough energy to get up in the morning and to carry every social movement on our backs until our bodies break underneath the weight.
We need to stop pretending that black activists are made of steel. We need to stop dismissing depression, anxiety, or PTSD and regarding them the same way we do the sniffles. We need to stop making activists feel that if they take a break that they are too weak to do this work and should step aside. We need to be advocates for ourselves before we are advocates for any of the causes we claim to champion.