How Dr Joy DeGruy’s theory of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome can help us understand types of Black Trauma

By Vanessa Hutton-Mills

Black trauma is defined as psychological, physical and emotional injury from experiencing actual or perceived racism, including overt and covert racism (Carter, 2007). It has been a key feature of many African Diasporic communities, spanning several decades. This trauma has become an intergenerational part of the Black experience, as Black people continue to live under a system of white supremacy that penalises those furthest away from whiteness. A few of these penalties can be seen when we look at how Black men are stereotyped and the double marginalisation of being both Black and female. 

In 2001 The United Nations declared via the Durban Deceleration that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was a crime against humanity; and was the source of the ongoing racism and discrimination faced by People of African descent today. The American Chattel Slavery lasted from 1619 till 1865. During this time, Black people were bought and sold like commodities. Slaves in America and British owned islands, such as St Kitts and Nevis and Jamaica to name a few, were tortured and dehumanised. The narrative that is often portrayed and taught in UK schools focuses exclusively and extensively on the American slave trade however, as Black British people it is important to note that while our struggles are similar they are not identical. Even now in 2020 we still experience racism and discrimination, and while it may not be as overt as it has been previously, it is still devastating for our mental health.  Williams (2018)’s research found that experiencing racism can be very stressful and have a negative effect on our physical and mental health. Likewise, Bhui et al., (2018) those who experience racism are more likely to experience mental health issues such as psychosis and depression. 

Psychologists, sociologist and historical analysts have done much work into different types of trauma Black people experience. In furthering our understanding, we can ensure that these wounds are healed in our community.  An emerging contribution to this field is the theory of Post-traumatic slave syndrome coined by Dr Joy DeGruy. This theory explains the adaptive survival behaviours of African American communities across America but can also be used to understand Black oppressed groups globally. She describes this as a condition that exists because of the centuries of slavery, institutionalised racism and oppression that Black people have and continue to experience. This term encompasses the multigenerational trauma and injustices that Black people have experienced, not only from slavery but the recent and unjust deaths of Steven Lawrence, Mark Duggan, Rashan Charles, George Floyd, Belly Mujinga and Breonna Taylor. These reactive behaviours can be positive as they reflect our resilience and adaptability but some argue that they can also be harmful and destructive.

As many of us know Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an adverse mental illness which (NHS, 2018), where individuals relive traumatic events and experience isolation, guilt and insomnia. Someone with PTSD often relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. Similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome ( PTSS) include: avoiding certain places, people, or events and activities that remind you of your trauma, Difficulty concentrating, being easily angered, feeling emotionally numb, feeling hopeless, feelings of depression and having a self-destructive outlook. This can become increasingly heightened when Black trauma is being discussed and shared on social media. A specific aspect tailored to the Black experience, that is expanded upon through PTSS is the racial socialisation and internalised racism, which includes the direct and indirect messages children receive about racism and the meaning of race.

Understanding Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a major step in understanding forms of Black trauma. We now have a clear mechanism which explains how our experiences are damaging to our mental health. This is a phenomenal step in conceptualising Black experiences and could lead to many people recognising their symptoms and making the first steps to receive help.

Here at BLAM, we are currently providing free group workshops to support Black peoples racial wellness. If you are feeling any of the symptoms of PTSS it is important that you seek professional help immediately to break this cycle.

Please also feel sign up to our Racial wellness therapy, where we have trained therapists who are equipped to you give you the tools deal with starting your joinery to Racial wellness.

 References 

Carter, R. T. (2007). Racism and psychological and emotional injury: Recognizing and assessing race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist, 35, 13–105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0011000006292033 

Williams D.R. (2018) Stress and the Mental Health of Populations of Color: Advancing Our Understanding of Race-related Stressors. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59(4), 466-485.

Bhui K., Nazroo J., Francis J. et al. (2018) The impact of racism on mental health. Available at: https://synergicollaborativecentre.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/The-impact-of-racism-on-mental-health-briefing-paper-1.pdf [Accessed 18/06/19]

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