Post-Traumatic Blackness Disorder: The Mental Toll of Surviving Racism

Illustration for article titled Post-Traumatic Blackness Disorder: The Mental Toll of Surviving Racism
Illustration: Pimchawee (Shutterstock)

We called it “The Bull in the Ring.

Every gridiron competitor in America has likely played a variation of this ubiquitous football drill. It begins with one player in the center of a circle of other teammates, who take turns hitting the player in the middle of the “ring” in an attempt to push them out of the circle. In most versions of the exercise, the person in the center of the “ring” has no idea which direction their opposing “bull” will come from.

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The NFL recently banned the practice tradition but high schools, colleges and even youth football teams still use the popular technique to keep players alert on the field and acclimate them to the violence of the sport.

There is a movement underway to ban Bull in the Ring from all football programs because research shows it can lead to long-term brain damage. But coaches say it teaches players how to deliver a hit instead of passively receiving blows, as well as helping players confront the fear of being hit. Old timers say it toughens players and helps a team get “pumped up.” People who have never played football call it brutal and unnecessary. Some coaches call it “King of the Circle.” Others simply call it “Kill the Man.

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Black people call it “life.”

Like Bull in the Ring, being Black in America can lead to long-term brain damage. The toll that racism plays in mental health has not yet been fully quantified, but ongoing research shows that racial discrimination is a significant contributor to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And, while many people attribute many of these disorders to brain chemistry, poverty or some other social factor, simply existing as a Black person in a nation where every weapon formed against you seems to prosper is enough to leave mental scars for life.

“About one in four Black Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point,” write Dr. Jessica R. Graham-LoPresti, Dr.Tahirah Abdullah, Dr. Lindsey M. West and Amber Calloway, four black female mental health researchers, who called the condition “racial battle fatigue,” adding:

Social anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder, with a lifetime prevalence of 10.8% among Blacks, followed by generalized anxiety disorder (5.1%), panic disorder (3.1%), and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In addition, anxiety is more persistent (i.e, symptoms last longer) in Black Americans as compared to the general population. However, Black Americans seek mental health treatment considerably less often and/or dropout of mental health treatment before the recommended dose of therapy more often compared to the general population.

While the negative impact of racism on mental health is pervasive and far-reaching, these studies suggest a link between racism and symptoms associated with anxiety. There are three specific ways we think experiences of racism negatively impact stress and anxiety for Black Americans:

  • Perceptions of lack of control
  • Internalization
  • Avoidance of valued action

It is easy to point to the overt forms of racism and draw a direct line to mental health issues but, for Minority Mental Health Month, The Root asked a few readers to explain how their experiences with the subtleties of systemic racism affected their mental health.

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Two of the stories stuck out to us.


“The media has focused largely on Black men and rightfully so,” explains 38-year-old Pat, who asked that we not use her last name. “But Black women are also victims.”

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Pat wasn’t shot by a racist cop. She doesn’t attend an underfunded school or live in a redlined neighborhood. But her daily life is still influenced by white supremacy, creating anxiety and depression for which she luckily sought treatment.

In the middle of a pandemic, Pat relocated to another state for a job that she “didn’t particularly want” because a Black woman who works in the IT industry as a “hacker for hire” has very few choices. Pat chose to make the 26-hour drive by herself because she was “more worried about racist cops than COVID-19.” And now that she is alone in a state with no friends or family, Pat explained that she was forced to confront everything, leading to what she called a breakthrough with her therapist about depression, self-esteem how she values herself.

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Researchers refer to this prevalent phenomenon as internalized racism. Although we sometimes equate this term with self-hate, the need for white acceptance or Candace Owens’ edges, studies show that internalized racism is a product of original recipe racism or personally mediated racism and most frequently manifests itself as “self-doubt, eroding self-esteem and -worth, and generating helplessness and hopelessness.”

Echoing the psychological studies, Pat notes that Black people—especially Black women—often internalize racism because it is the only way to deal with the subtle racism in the corporate landscape and America in general. And, as a Black woman working in a predominately white, male-dominated industry, she learned to survive by keeping silent.

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“Due to social media, there is a rise in emotional terrorism, stalking behavior and online bullying,” Pat told The Root. “And now I have become a victim of such acts. It had actually been going on for months and like many women, I dismissed it. But the individual made a very serious and credible threat of bodily harm using the Facebook platform. No woman, especially not a Black woman should tolerate this.”

But you gotta eat, right? And sometimes, if you want to eat, you have to internalize the harm that America dishes out. Women in this position often suck it up to avoid the perception of weakness. Even though the double whammy of racism and sexism seems like something that Black women just have to deal with, Pat agrees that Black women, who often don’t have support as it is, unknowingly internalize this stress, creating a devastating impact on their mental health.

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“I don’t think it is an ego thing,” said Pat. “I think it is a necessity thing... When our men are swept up in the penal system losing their lives at the hands of law enforcement, it is their surviving Black women that are left to pick up the pieces. I’m lucky I have a therapist but many women don’t.”

“For the first time, and how apropos on this day, I am saying ENOUGH,” Pat continued. “I matter. Facebook has been notified, local authorities are investigating and criminal charges may be filed. Please share with your readers that Black Women’s Lives Matter.”

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Sometimes you have to become the bull.


“White people broke me,” says Darryl, whose name we used for reasons that will be disclosed later. “That’s how they broke me.”

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When Darryl was 14, he moved from Florida to a lily-white suburb in Georgia. Both locations were close to the beach. He wasn’t poor—his father was a mechanic who owned his own business. The only difference between the two locations was that his new school was in a predominately white suburb of Savannah, Ga., while his old home was in the Liberty Square development of Miami, Fla., or, as most people know it...

The “Pork ‘n’ Beans Projects.

Built after the Great Depression, the 753-unit public housing development was located in Overtown because...well, during the Jim Crow era, it was the only place Black people were allowed to live. And although Darryl lived there in the ’80s, he grew up in one of the most violent, crime-riddled places in America because it was where his grandparents lived. Darryl lived with his grandparents because his mother was killed by a white police officer who mistook her for someone else. She wasn’t shot and killed; she was beaten to death with a billy club. Darryl was in the car.

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He was 7.

Darryl’s father was an active-duty officer in the Navy, so Darryl moved with his grandparents. They lived in the Pork ‘n’ Beans there because...well...didn’t I just say it was the only place they were allowed to live? Still, Darryl’s grandparents raised him to value education and hard work.

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“When I lived in Florida, I was a straight-A student,” said Darryl, a fact that was confirmed by Darryl’s elementary school yearbook listing him as his school’s “prize pupil” [sic] for the third, fourth, and sixth-grade year.

But when Darryl moved from a place that was literally built by white supremacy, he became the problem child. It started on the first day of school, when, according to Darryl he got into a fight with a classmate who called him a racial slur.

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“He didn’t use the n-word,” Darryl explained. “He called me a pickaninny and so I whipped his ass. Then my daddy whipped my ass. They didn’t suspend him. They suspended me. And when I came back to school, they had me in with a different class.”

The “different class” was in the special-education class. Without testing him, administrators had decided to segregate Darryl from the rest of the students on the first week of school. Because he was now being bullied for being Black and being relegated to special-education classes, more fights would follow, until Darryl eventually dropped out of school at 14 and began working in his father’s auto shop.

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In two years, the father and son had opened up three locations. One day, Darryl received a call from one of the shops. When he pulled up, it was surrounded by police officers, who were standing over his father’s dead body that had been hit by a car.

It was Darryl’s 16th birthday.

Police would later discover that his father had been hit by a car because he crawled into the street after he was shot and killed during a dispute with a white customer. Although no weapon was found at the scene, the killer claimed he fired in self-defense. And, because Darryl wasn’t old enough to officially object, prosecutors offered his father’s killer a plea deal and the man never spent a day in prison.

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Darryl wasn’t allowed to serve as executor of his father’s businesses because of his age, so the businesses he essentially helped build were sold for pennies on the dollar. A family court judge eventually agreed that Darryl could live on his own as long as he enrolled in school and earned his diploma or his GED. Of course, that would take years because he had dropped out so early. But before he could enroll, he had to take a standardized placement test and a battery of psychological test. The results, which Darryl shared with The Root, revealed two things:

  1. He was in the 95th percentile of all Georgia students in math, reading and reading comprehension.
  2. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder and depression.
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Eleven days later, on March 18, 1991, Darryl was arrested for first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

He killed his father’s killer.

Even though he wasn’t old enough to inherit property or determine his future, Darryl was old enough to be tried as an adult. Since 2004, he has been incarcerated in the Augusta State Medical Prison, which houses the “seriously mentally ill.” There is no air conditioning, no outside time and, according to one former employee who spoke to the Augusta Chronicle, food, water and medicine are regularly withheld as punishment and the mental health treatment at the prison was “pitiful.”

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He has no possibility of parole

“Racism broke my brain,” Darryl told The Root. “They say crazy people don’t know they’re crazy but I know I’m mentally ill.”

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“The thing is” he added. “I know who did it.”


The bull does not always survive.

Sometimes the ring wins.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

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DISCUSSION

The domino effect of white supremacy is a painful thing to have to continually witness and experience. To all the bootstrapper assholes who keep saying that the playing field is level, or better yet, that black people are the ones at an advantage, GFY.