Racial trauma is real

Just imagine, every day you are poised for something bad to happen.  You may not be conscious of the tension, but it’s there. You’re primed for fight or flight. That’s a part of what it’s like to be Black in America.

Sometimes you’re just ready for someone to follow you in a store thinking you’re a thief or for someone to make a disparaging comment about a section of town or to offer the backhanded compliment (microaggression) of how articulate you are. But often you’re waiting for the next big shoe to drop.

I’ve been tense, expecting something bad – some racially motivated event — since 2012, the year that Trayvon Martin was killed.  The catalyst wasn’t just Trayvon Martin, it was the series of lost lives that came after his, but there is no doubt that Trayvon Martin was my ground zero. I experienced his death personally, viscerally. It was hard for me to read the news or watch the coverage. My son and Trayvon were born 364 days apart. When I learned of Trayvon’s birthday and the normalcy of that evening when he was killed, I immediately connected my son and Trayvon. My son could have been walking home from the grocery store near our home. Nothing but time, space, and fate caused this to happen to Trayvon and not my son. 

While incidents of violence against Black people, especially boys, and men, have always been known and discussed in the Black community, it wasn’t until the years immediately following Trayvon’s murder that we started to regularly see the images. Suddenly, video cameras were everywhere – home and business security cameras, police body cameras and just citizens with their phones. We weren’t only hearing about tragedies; we were watching them, a lot of them, one after another.  

Imagine, for example, watching violence happen routinely to women with blonde hair. If you were a blonde woman, maybe you’d choose to wear a wig or dye your hair until the source of the violence was discovered and addressed. As a member of this subset of the white community — blonde and female — you would probably feel confident that the source of the violence would be identified quickly and taken care of. 

Photo by Julian Myles, Unsplash

Now, imagine you are a Black man or boy. You cannot and don’t want to camouflage your skin color or race. The causes of much of the violence you face are already known – racism, prejudice, ignorance, and fear. Unlike the anticipated response to the blonde women, there isn’t a widespread effort to address the causes of violence against the Black community. In fact, some want to ignore the causes, like the response to teaching the entirety of our country’s racial history. Or the response takes an inordinate time (anti-lynching legislation was first introduced in Congress in 1918 and passed over one hundred years later in 2020 following the televised “lynching” of George Floyd). So, there’s little to make the Black community think this violence/ trauma will end.

I don’t live in fear for myself, primarily because of my age and my gender, but I do live in fear for my son. He assures me that he isn’t afraid. I hear him, but I believe he carries this fear with him every day, subliminally. He knows that his physical presence alone is causing some white woman to fear him and to know that she can call the police and say a Black man is threatening her and be believed.

This feeling of being in danger or having a loved one in danger is constant for most Black people. It may not be at the surface of one’s day to day life, but it’s there. According to all that I read, living with stress – and this fear certainly causes stress, acknowledged or unknown — contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, all conditions in which Black people are disproportionately represented. 

A few days ago, I was watching the evening news with three friends, two of us were Black, two were white. The anchor began to discuss the death of a Black man, Keenan Anderson, after he was tasered by Los Angeles police officers. The video came on. I averted my eyes. Every time I see another incident, the fear for my son increases. The other Black person in the room didn’t watch either. I guess we’ve both seen enough. We can’t watch the inhumanity against Black people any longer, but I’m glad that our white friends watched. While the images cause me pain, they have revealed our reality to many in white America. But, must our continued pain and death be necessary to open eyes, hearts and minds to the need for change?

NOTE: This post was written before the murder of Tyre D. Nichols in Memphis. 

8 Replies to “Racial trauma is real”

  1. I don’t really know what to say about your reflections; I will never experience this in the same way. I can’t conceive of what it is like to live with this underlying tension EVERY day.

  2. My heart is with you, Tamara. I’ve never had to worry about anyone’s safety in my extended, white, middle-class family, so I’m sure I can’t know the real impact it has on you and all my Black friends and neighbors. However, I cannot stand to watch any more of those videos either. My heart goes out to the Nichols family, and it would just be too painful to watch people who are supposed to be there to “protect and serve” all of us beat him to death.

  3. Thanks Tamara, for your courage in voicing the ongoing pain from generations of racism and abuse. This past week is a dramatic and ugly reminder of how deep abd broad the pain of past traumas run and how we can’t heal until we admit. Thanks for helping us all face the reality of racial trauma. Tom

  4. As always, your posts make me stop and think, and reflect. The seemingly never-ending news of tragic wrongs/tragic deaths is terrible fodder for a writer, but what you say in your posts are all things that must be said. Hard truths that must be heard/read. With hope, they open even one set of eyes, reach a single hard heart, and eke out a foothold of compassion that grows and changes someone who might not have otherwise. Reading this powerfully written, heartfelt piece, Tamara, I try to imagine how you and others have endured and still endure such an ordeal. Especially the fear not for yourself but for the children. All parents worry, but my concerns for my four daughters are not near the scale/scope you write so articulately about. What you write of so powerfully, unfortunately, is not Black History; it is the Black Present… and the devastating effect of racism that jeopardizes Black Futures.

  5. We have so far to go. Thank you for revealing in such a personal way the ever-present drain on you, on our communities, on our nation that racism costs.

  6. When you told me about your son being stopped by police in front of your house…that was a wake up call that I’ve never forgotten. Keep writing and reminding us. No one should have the burden that Black people have to carry.

  7. You continue to be a strong voice as you remind us of the inequities in our legal system and in our society. The violence against Black men in particular that is systemic in law enforcement needs to be addressed constantly. It can’t be ignored. Thank you for keeping us aware.

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