What is Race-Based Traumatic Stress?

(An African American Horror Story)


Hotep Family, Race-Based Traumatic Stress (RBTS) feels like being trapped in a bad dream from which there’s no escape.

The dream starts out to be a simple, harmless imagining of yourself engaged in some type of everyday, random activity: maybe taking a road trip with your family through a scenic landscape; or you’re at work discussing a new project with your coworkers during a staff meeting; or maybe you’re in bed making love to your soul mate. In your dream you are a part of a world that is safe, happy, beautiful, and full of wonderful and magical possibilities. You feel relaxed, peaceful, warm, content, and optimistic about the future. You feel connected with everyone and everything around you. In the beginning, everything seems right with the world.

But with RBTS the dream suddenly takes an unexpected and negative turn: someone becomes terribly, deathly ill on the road trip, or you turn into a roadside café where the shop owner and her friends rob you and your family; or during your staff meeting at work your supervisor begins to make personal, rude, insulting, and humiliating jokes and comments that questions your competency with veiled threats about your continued employment at the company. Or, the person you love begins to do things to you sexually without your consent, and you realize that your partner has transformed into a monster that is hurting you.

Now you realize that the dream has become a nightmare. You’re frozen in shock and terror. Surely, this cannot be happening; this can’t be real. There must be some mistake; some misunderstanding and all that needs to be done is to straighten things out.

First you try to reason your way out. You think that if you appeal to the other person’s sense of decency and talk things out respectfully, that together you’ll be able to resume the calm, peaceful story with which the dream began. Or, perhaps there are others around who can provide help and intervene to solve whatever miscommunication has taken place and come to a reasonable solution. But in this nightmare, everyone continues going on by their business as if you don’t exist. You’re screaming, and no one can hear you. You’re in pain and no one notices. You grab someone by the shoulders: shake her, to try to get her attention. For a moment, you seem to see some hint of recognition in her eyes that she notices you, but then she disengages from you tries to convince you that YOU are being unreasonable and acting out of control and returns to carry on the nightmare story.

You become increasingly fearful and distressed because you are in pain, but, on one hand everything around you still looks like that pleasant dream: the sunny day on the road, the hustle and bustle of a successful business, or the warm and familiar surroundings of your home. But, at the same time, everything is also an image of another world; almost like a superimposed image on top of “their” is world of a world of terror – where danger is all around you, like landmines, ready to explode at any minute if you make the wrong move, say the wrong thing, look the wrong way… think the wrong thought… if you do anything that gives them the idea that you aren’t happy; that you’re in pain, things could go badly for you.

You can’t get out of the nightmare. It starts over again with the happy, sunshiny day, the friendly co-workers around you, or the fun time at home. Your first thought is that it was your fault that the dream went sour; that subconsciously there’s something wrong with you that you would make a good dream go bad. So, you determine in your mind to be happier, be satisfied, go along with the group so that the dream has a happy ending and you can wake up from this.

But, no matter how hard you try, the story twists into the nightmare. The frightening, violent plot might be a little different this time, but, essentially it ends up turning into the same freakish horror story with you as the victim while everyone around you carries on as if nothing is happening.

To exist in this world of double-existence, you try to cope with this nightmare by shoving your pain down deep inside you; self-medicating yourself with drugs, food, shopping, sex, or violence. But nothing ever makes that nightmare go away, so you medicate more, which leads you into another nightmare, called incarceration; that’s the jail inside of jail. Jail can disguise itself as chronic illness, life-long debt, assimilation (believing that you ARE one of the OTHER PEOPLE in the nightmare) or prison. But it’s all the same unending nightmare because you still have not learned any way to escape.

For people of color especially people of African descent, this is what Race-Based Traumatic Stress looks and feels like because we live in a society that created imaginary classifications of humans, called “races” that put “White” people at the top of a hierarchy of power, resources, and morality. Everyone else is “below” human, according to how close your skin color is from “White”. Race-Based Traumatic Stress refers to a set of reactions to a racially-motivated trauma that:

  • Causes emotional pain
  • Ambiguous (vague, unclear)
  • Creates repeated or increasing stress responses
  • Sudden or unexpected
  • Uncontrollable

Symptoms of RBTS

  • Intrusion (re-experiencing the event in your mind)
  • Avoidance (numbing) of stimuli associated with the trauma
  • Increased arousal or vigilance

Victims of RBTS can suffer many forms of racial violence, such as:

  • Racial discrimination
  • Racial harassment
  • Racial assault

Due to the systemic and pervasive nature of the violence, people who inflict the injury, the perpetrators, often are not conscious that they are doing it and thus will deny it. Consequently, the person who is the victim of the injury is made to look foolish or overly sensitive.

The key to healing from RBTS is to first admit that you are experiencing it, on one level or another, then you can begin to wake up. It’s staying asleep and trying to escape a nightmare that keeps you ill. Recovery begins with believing that you can be a free human being.

Many people do not recover from RBTS because there are benefits to staying asleep. Anger, violence, drugs, validation from the “Whites” can provide emotional “highs” that become addictive. Most importantly, if you stay asleep, you don’t have to take responsibility for your own life and work to build a world where you are free and can determine your own future. RBTS has kept most of us asleep for so long that we don’t even think about being free anymore. We tell ourselves that the idea of freedom as an illusion and we should learn to accept and survive the world as it is now. If that’s how you feel, then you should stay asleep and stop reading or listening to these blogs.

If you want to continue to explore the idea that perhaps there can be life outside of the horror story illusion in which we now exist, begin by identifying one thing today that you do that is designed to support the illusion and don’t do it; just for today. See how it makes you feel; does it make you anxious, afraid, empty, lost? Or do you feel a little excited, defiant, or more real, grounded, and more fully alive than ever before?

.... Hotep