The Traumatic American Life: A Closer Look at PTSD within the African American Community

I constantly remind myself to breathe when the time comes that I must leave my home. When I step into a space where I know no one in, I take a deep breath. Breathe, I remind myself when I look around and can see no faces that resemble my own.  A black and white car pulls up behind me. Seconds warp into minutes, while my forehead begins to perspire. In a state of hyper-vigilance, I begin checking my environment. Am I speeding? Do I have my seatbelt on? Is my music too loud? Then I realize – “I. Can’t. Breathe.”

The everyday experiences of a Black person in America are similar to this. An outsider looking in may think, “if you’re not doing anything wrong, what’s there to be anxious about?” And that’s true. If I’m not doing anything wrong, why can’t I breathe?

  • Ezell Ford (1988-2014) was walking in his neighborhood.
  • Tamir Rice (2002-2014) was playing at the park.
  • Botham Jean (1991-2018) was enjoying ice cream on his couch.
  • Breonna Taylor (1993-2020) was sleeping in her bed.
  • Atatiana Jefferson (1990-2019) was babysitting her nephew in her own home.
  • Elijah McClain (1996-2019) was walking home from getting a snack.

The recent event of George Floyd being slain by police before the eyes of millions has brought global attention to the movement “Black Lives Matter.” This video unfortunately is not the only one of its kind. In 2014, Eric Garner begged for his life as George Floyd did gasping the words, “I can’t breathe.” In both circumstances these men begged for their lives while police officers ignored their cries. In both circumstances bystanders begged for the officers to stop, and they too were ignored. An outsider looking in may then ask, “what could they possibly have done to deserve this?”

Since the birth of this country, there have been men dictating the law and those following it. Within this power dynamic, the law dictating majority holds the position as the oppressor, while the minority suffers from being oppressed in every avenue of their life. The remnants of breaking down an entire population of people in order to construct a social order of who is considered human and who is dehumanized to “property”  has led to an entire racial group of people to live with unhealed generational trauma.

The concept of intergenerational trauma is complex. The most common potential transmitter of psycho-trauma stands as a caregiver or parent.  This can be presented through specific behaviors and can modify intrapsychic representations. The trauma experienced by a slave woman watching her son get sold away as if he were an animal is the same trauma a Black mother experiences when society condemns her child to live a life behind bars. The trauma experienced by a slave who is constantly belittled, demoralized, and considered less than human, is the same trauma experienced by black men constantly referred to as savages. The trauma felt when a slave man cannot protect his family from the wrath of the slave master is the same trauma a black father experiences today when the media over-sexualizes his wife and daughters.

Every day I am reminded that when I leave my home, the world sees me as a threat. Every day I am reminded that amidst enjoying my daily activities such as going on a run (Ahmaud Arbory 1995-2020) or getting a bite to eat (Eric Reason 1981-2019), my blackness is the first thing people perceive.

What did Eric Garner, George Floyd, and many others possibly have done to deserve being killed by the hands of police? The answer is “nothing.” Their lives were stolen from them and their families simply because they are Black in America. Being exposed to this imminent threat of being killed solely based on how people perceive you carries a burden that makes it hard to breathe.  This collective experience makes Black Americans more susceptible to experiencing:

  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Outbursts of Anger
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Negative Self Image
  • Dissociation

These symptoms are consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This is the beginning of a series outlining the relationship between race and mental health in America. I invite the reader to contemplate these questions:

  • What is necessary to help an entire race of people heal from centuries of trauma?
  • What kind of conversations should I have with myself first to overcome my internalized subconscious biases/assumptions?
  • How can I use my societal privilege to make tangible social change?
  • Do I truly understand the essence of Black Lives Matter?

As Audre Lorde says,  “Caring for [yourself] is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”  Whether the answers to these questions were blatantly obvious or seemingly unattainable, this series aims to unveil some answers to them. In the process of unveiling the painful reality of the Black experience in America, we as a collective can then begin to heal.

About The Author

Rudairo Segbeaya is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Pacific CBT’s Office Manager. Rudairo received a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of San Francisco in 2018. In 2021, she later received a Master’s degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University.