Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a Racist Idea

roots miniseries

For a generation of open-minded Americans, the original Roots miniseries in 1977 uprooted fields of racist ideas of backward Africa, of civilizing slavery, and of African American roots in slavery. The timeworn plantation genre of happy mammies and Sambos was gone with the wind.

I am faintly hoping that the new Roots miniseries on the History Channel had the same antiracist impact, especially in uprooting one tree of racist thought that has grown rapidly in recent years. I am talking about the theory that Black people are suffering from post-traumatic slave syndrome, or PTSS. It is one of the many tragically real and imagined post-traumatic disorders on the docket for recognition this month, this National Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month.

I am hoping that the new Roots opened believers in PTSS to the real history of slavery and on-going oppression: traumatic and dehumanizing oppressions that actually did not succeed in dehumanizing Black people and leaving them adversely traumatized. I am hoping that the believers in PTSS realize that their theory is premised on racist notions of degenerate Black people. I am hoping that the believers in PTSS realize that any idea that suggests any group of Black people are inferior in any way is a racist idea.

But again, my hope is faint. I suspect the new Roots, quite unintentionally, has actually grown more believers in post-traumatic slave syndrome. The brutality of slavery showcased in the new Roots seemed far more traumatic than the original miniseries.

Possibly the leading PTSS theorist is the well-meaning and well-respected healing ambassador, Joy DeGruy. Her critically acclaimed 2005 book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, remains the Bible for PTSS theorists. Black “infighting,” materialism, poor parenting, jealousy, colorism, defeatism, frustration, rage—these “dysfunctional,” these “negative” behaviors “as well as many others are in large part related to trans-generational adaptations associated with the past traumas of slavery and on-going oppression,” DeGruy argued.

DeGruy added PTSS to the library of theories imagining that slavery and on-going oppression had largely fashioned Black behavioral (and genetic) deficiencies. PTSS joined other recent additions to the library, theories with names like the “slavery-hypertension hypothesis” and “hood disease” and the “legacy of defeat.”

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CBS San Francisco’s correspondent Wendy Tokuda first used the term “Hood Disease” in a 2014 story about how inner city children are subjected to “repeated trauma” from living in “virtual war zones.”

When racist proslavery Whites in the 19th century claimed slavery had taken Black people from the wilds of Africa and civilized them, abolitionists and scholars flipped the script in their responses. They replied that slavery (and later segregation) had degraded Black people, ravishing their minds as much as their bodies. Racial reformers, whether they identified as liberal, progressive, or radical, have done the same ever since, agreeing with the racist premise of Black inferiority, and then claiming the inferiority stemmed from the history of oppression. I call this the oppression-inferiority thesis. And its articulators today are usually firm believers that Black lives matter, women and men dedicated to eradicating what DeGruy insightfully terms “an invasive and pernicious racism.”

And yet, anyone can express the racist idea that something is wrong or dysfunctional or inferior about Black people, even Black people, even progressives, even Black progressives. Unlike the more conservative and liberal racist theorists who root “dysfunctional” Black behaviors in biology or culture, these more progressive racist theorists root “dysfunctional” Black behaviors in the history of oppression.

I must confess I was a PTSS theorist for most of my intellectual life. So in pinpointing their racist ideas, I am pinpointing my own racist ideas. DeGruy’s well-intentioned Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome hit bookstores the year I began my graduate school reading binge. I did not confront my own beliefs in PTSS until I started self-reflecting and self-censuring as I wrote my new book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

PTSSLike every other popular racist theory, post-traumatic slave syndrome seems so logical. No one can credibly deny that generations of Black people have suffered trauma from the whips of racist America, as the new Roots showed us. No one can credibly deny that there are individual Blacks who behave negatively in all sorts of ways, sometimes as a result of trauma. No one can credibly deny that Black people deserve reparations for stolen lives and labor.

But the logic and progressive flair of PTSS does not make it true. PTSS theorists rely on anecdotal evidence. And in customary racist fashion, they generalize the anecdotal negativities of individual Blacks in order to establish the problem of negative Black behaviors. PTSS theorists have not proven these negative behaviors are a Black problem; that Black people behave more negatively than other groups, let alone that these negative Black behaviors largely stem from a heritage of trauma.

What’s worse, this historical theory is quite ahistorical. For Americans suffering from racist ideas, it has been inconceivable that the attitudes and behaviors of Black people had not been damaged by the traumas of slavery: that Black people could dance into freedom without skipping a human beat. But when antiracist historians study enslaved and freed Black communities before, during, and after the Civil War that is precisely what we see—an imperfect people behaviorally equal to Whites, even as the equal races were not the same culturally, even as Blacks were not equal economically and politically. According to the historical record, Black people certainly had the physical scars from slavery, but mentally, they were not scarred. Countless historians have chronicled freed Blacks successful struts off plantations and into politics, labor organizing, artistry, entrepreneurship, club building, church building, school building, community building—buildings that were oftentimes razed not by self-destructive PTSS, but the fiery hand of Jim Crow.

For every historical anecdote that PTSS theorists could present supposedly proving oppression’s negative impact on the behaviors of Black individuals, I could present anecdotes of similar behaviors of White individuals. I could present anecdotes “proving” oppression’s positive—for lack of a better word—impact on the behaviors of some Black individuals. We all know all that literature, all those anecdotes and iconic quotes proclaiming the enhancing effects of terrible adversity. We all know those giants from Sojourner Truth to Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells-Barnett to Fannie Lou Hamer to Malcolm X to Muhammad Ali to Angela Davis who fought back harder and stronger after racist trauma.

progress

Only Americans suffering from racist ideas see negative Black behaviors. For antiracists, negative behaviors are what makes Black people a human group—imperfectly equal to all other imperfect human racial groups. Every racial group has a similar number of individuals who behave negatively and positively (even as racist theorists have for centuries tried to convince us otherwise with misleading theories and statistics). That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong or dysfunctional or negative about Black people as a group, to think the racial groups are equal.

Then again, there is one thing wrong with Black people. I am referring to Black people “belittling” Black people. And PTSS theorists have insightfully pointed out this wrong, even as they fell victim to it. Black people—myself included—have consumed this history of racist ideas—all those deliberate efforts to make Black people believe there is something wrong with us and that is why we are enslaved, segregated, and now mass incarcerated—and that is why we are on the low end of racial disparities. It is not (all) about fighting discrimination and exploitation, racist theorists claim. Apparently, Black people—their attitudes and behaviors—need to be healed, civilized, developed too. Though deeply well-intentioned, these liberal and progressive ideas have been deeply racist.

Black people must realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people. Black Americans’ history of oppression has made Black opportunities—not Black behaviors—inferior.

This is the powerful lesson of Alex Haley’s Roots. This iconic story should have showed Americans once again that despite experiencing a modern history of traumatic oppression, Black people have found a way to maintain their equally imperfect humanity.

Black people as a group do not need to be healed from racist trauma. All Black people need is to be freed from racist trauma. That is all Kunta Kinte ever needed—freedom.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a Racist Idea

  • I recently began receiving AAIHS emails as it sparked an interest in me as a black woman. Thank you for addressing Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and utilizing “Roots” as a platform to illustrate the differences in Black behavior. I watched the new Roots and was impressed with how it captured the realities of slavery. How Kunta Kinte every thought, purpose was to acquire Freedom. The Freedom he was born with. His birthright. The birthright that was initially captured by a black man.
    There is so much to be discussed about that which in itself was traumatic. Today, we still are struggling to obtain freedom from racism, oppression and mass incarceration (another story) that is relatable to me. Thank you for educating me and lighting the fire within my soul.

  • Absolutely spot on, and beautifully written.

  • I definitely agree with this piece here. However, I feel like the idea of PTSS shouldn’t done away with completely, but just redefined in realistic terms.

  • Dr. Kendi seems to miss the point in his assertion that “Only Americans suffering from racist ideas see negative Black behaviors. ” Quite to the contrary, many of us are trying to understand “negative Black behaviors.”

    The claim that African-Americans in slavery or freedom were less than human was certainly made by racist American scholars, and just as certainly has to be categorically rejected. But not every argument for African-American social, economic, or intellectual underdevelopment either supports or is supported by that racist claim of black sub-humanity.

    I can accept Professor Kendi’s claim that “Black people could dance into freedom without skipping a human beat.” Our humanity had not been defeated or deleted by the experience of chattel slavery. We did not have a distance to travel to become fully human, for humanity was indeed our starting point! Our challenge was to come “up from slavery”, and the conditions of slavery had indeed limited our social and intellectual development.

    Any argument that is based on a a claim that African-Americans are less than human is racist. But Professor Kendi expands this point to argue that “any idea that suggests any group of Black people are inferior in any way is a racist idea.” Not only do I disagree with Dr. Kendi on this point, but I also protest that such an argument subverts efforts to improve our group performance.

  • This has to be the most disillusion, faulty, perspective on black culture, and the ills that plague our community that I have ever read. To think that an intellectual adult, living in the 21st century, with instant access to current affairs (and buried tragedies of the past) could “faintly” think that ONE television series could somehow uproot a “racist thought” unveils the naivety of the authors scope. That’s almost as bad as believing a black president has marked the end of racism in America…Almost… Mr. Kendi has somehow internalized that PTSS is an idea that suggests Black people are inferior. Anyone who has truly studied Dr. DeGruy’s work understands that she is a Clinical Psychologist that has labeled PTSS as a “disorder” : A medical condition or a disease – which makes “black inferiority”, (a term that Mr. Kendi uses) more of a symptom than a belief. Mr. Kendi rants on about “anecdotal evidence” and “individual blacks.” How can you use the term anecdotal evidence when Dr. DeGruy has accumulated years of painstaking research and correlates all her theories with facts? And how can you use the term “individual blacks” in one sentence, then speak about “mass incarcerations and refer to entire communities in another? Mr. Keni also suggests that black people have not been scarred by PTSS, because, as he puts it, ” we have successful strutted off plantations and into politics, labor organizing, artistry, entrepreneurship, etc. That’s like saying PTSD (another trauma- and stressor-related disorder) is not validated because some Vietnam Veterans came home and became aspiring entrepreneurs. He ends his essay with “black people do not need to be “healed” from racist trauma – All Black people need is to be “freed” from racist trauma.” In making this claim he doesn’t realize that he is in accord with Dr. DeGruy. If he would’ve taken the time to google PTSS he would have seen Dr. DeGruy’s quote: DeGruy states that PTSS is not a disorder that can simply be treated and remedied clinically but rather also requires profound social change in individuals, AS WELL AS IN INSTITUTIONS THAT CONTINUE TO REIFY INEQUALITY AND INJUSTICE toward the descendants of enslaved Africans. He ends his tirade by stating: “you have to be an American suffering from racist ideas to see negative black behaviors.” I would say, all that is really required, is an unabashed, unpretentious, realistic perspective, but in this age of “me”, “I” and narcissism – that may be to much to ask for.

    • Elliott Miller, I love your answer!

    • Thank you for responding to this article. I truly respect the work of Dr DeGruy. More recently much of what Dr. DeGruy spoke of in her research regarding “Epigenetics” is being more closely examined in the transference of trauma from holocaust survivors to their descendants. Dr. DeGruy illustrates the lasting effects of slavery on African Americans and the genetic connections that are linked to these outcomes. These articles suggest the same trauma has an effect on descendants of the holocaust.
      Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones …
      http://www.scientificamerican.com/…/descendants-of-holocaust-survivor...
      Scientific American
      Mar 1, 2015 – A person’s experience as a child or teenager can have a profound impact on their future children’s lives, new work is showing. Rachel Yehuda …
      Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes
      http://www.theguardian.com › Science › Genetics
      The Guardian
      Aug 21, 2015 – New finding is clear example in humans of the theory of epigenetic inheritance: the idea that environmental factors can affect the genes of your …
      Genetic Scars of the Holocaust: Children Suffer Too – Time
      content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2016824,00.html
      Time
      Sep 9, 2010 – The Holocaust is a crime that never seems to quit. Even as the ranks of survivors grow smaller each year, the impact of that dark passage in …
      Holocaust survivors pass the genetic damage of their trauma onto their …
      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/…/Holocaust-survivors-pass-genetic-damage-trauma-...
      Daily Mail
      Aug 21, 2015 – Holocaust survivors pass the genetic damage of their trauma onto their children, … that traumatic events can alter a person’s genetic make-up, meaning the effects …. genes | Science | The Guardian · Descendants of Holocaust ..

      The information is being more widely accepted, because the sources is privileged to already have the acceptance.

    • Post Traumatic Stress Slave Syndrome labels a pathology with discernable features that is present in many Black people but not all Black people. Yes some individuals and families may not exhibit
      the symptoms, lucky for them, but that does not negate the damage that was done to others during
      the oppression period and passed down culturally and genetically.

  • Dr. Kendi poses an interesting counter-thesis to DeGruy’s PTSS. Although I cannot wholly agree, I certainly respect his perspective. For me, this piece demonstrates the methodological tensions between intellectual history (humanities) and psychology (science). This makes more sense to me as a methodological difference in the study of black folks…as opposed to an actual dismissal of PTSS. I would like to see how Clinical Psychologists and behavioral psychologists respond to this piece. Thank you Dr. Kendi for writing this piece…I think it will inspire further critical thinking.

  • There is nothing inherently racist about pathology arguments, and they have been promoted by racists and anti-racists alike. No one has ever confused Randal Robinson with being a racist or the dupe of racists, yet he has always been a proponent of some form of pathology argument.

  • I think Brother Ibram gets off track when he lumps DeGruy’s PTSS theory with a set of theories that are clearly racist–for example, “hood disease” or the cultural deficit models espoused by black scholars like Orlando Patterson and William Julius Wilson.

    Patterson and Wilson frame Black pathology as a failure to conform to white norms. This is in stark contrast to DeGruy who is careful to note that centuries of white terrorism targeting Black people has diminished *all* Americans, that racism requires power thus only white people can be racist, that PTSS is not a Black problem but an American problem which will continue to fester until we as a society deal with the psychic harm caused by slavery, Jim Crow, colonialism, imperialism and ongoing oppression (In a video available on Youtube, DeGruy wrongly suggests that America is pathological in ways that post-apartheid South Africa was not). The evidence for internalized pathology is overwhelming. Grada Kilomba talks about it. Frantz Fanon talked about it. Assata Shakur talks about it. Malcolm X talked about it. Marcus Garvey talked about it. Carter G. Wilson talked about. Amos Wilson talked about it. Bobby Wright talked about it (“mentacide”). Frances Cress Welsing talked about it.

    DeGruy does not claim that African Americans are inferior to white people. Internalized negative behaviors, colorism for example, doesn’t make us inferior or non-human. To the contrary, it points to our humanness (compare with other oppressed groups like Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, Māori). Likewise, the fact that some *individual* Black folk are more resilient than other Black folk doesn’t disprove internalization. It simply means some are better able to cope with trauma than others.

    Brother Ibram concludes by stating we need freedom not healing. But Black healing is an essential part of Black freedom. Ayi Kwei Armah wrote a book about it (“The Healers”). The Association of Black Psychology foregrounds healing in their mission statement (see their official website). We must address those negative internalized behaviors whilst simultaneously attacking the white source. That’s healing work.

    Brother Shabazz (Kwame Zulu Shabazz)

    • Interesting analysis – Thanx for the book list brother.

  • I appreciate the need to critique racial reasoning that perpetuates the notion that there is something uniquely wrong with Black people (whatever the etiology) or that there is anything “Black” about behaviors widely believed to be self-defeating or self-destructive. I also think it is important to recognize the impact of traumatic experiences on groups of people without overstating its impact, particularly when human behavior is influenced by any number of factors. It may very well be that some of the proponents of PTSS subscribe to the underlying ideologically racist ideas that the author is concerned with. However, the author does not address a number of issues that should be kept in mind. First of all, theories of historical trauma and its impact on populations have been developed for many groups of people, not just Black people. Are all all such theories “racist” or just when they are applied to Black experience? Secondly, the author appears to believe that the only possible response to traumatic experience is dysfunction and failure. It is now recognized that some people experience what is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. Historical trauma experienced by black people does not preclude successful lives (depending on your definition). The presence of achievement is not evidence for the absence of trauma. There is also something distinctly ableist about conflating a belief in psychiatric injury with a belief in group inferiority. People can struggle with injury, even chronically while still being fully human. Finally, while I am also wary of the various ideologies of “healing” in terms of justice, racial or otherwise, that far too often become a substitute for addressing underlying issues of power and material conditions, healing from trauma and being freed from traumatization are not mutually exclusive. If the author’s goal was to add a note of caution to what may appear to be an uncritical embrace of PTSS theory, this is an important contribution and hopefully will spark discussion. If the goal was to successful discredit the theory entirely, the reasoning employed does not achieve that.

  • Please define “inferior.” Liberating ideas and movements, like religions, “spirituality,” psychoanalysis, democracy, communism, nationalism, etc. call all become oppressive if taken too seriously. PTSS is an extremely liberating idea. Also, it is not difficult to support with empirical evidence. Also, it has enough able and intellectually rigorous defenders to be able to stand up to scrutiny.
    To me, Dr. DeGruy REALLY started to get down to business when I attended one of her presentations in which she illustrated and analyzed the other side of the coin, which is the dehumanizing experience of being a white child in the age of chattel slavery (e.g. picnics at lynchings and burnings, after church). Also, I was able to “diagnose” the origin and presence of my own deficiencies in empathy, for example, assuming that if someone was arrested and jailed, or homeless, or derelict, that they must have made some error in moral reasoning. I realize now that it is possible to actually take a pure soul and crush it to the point of being unable by itself to recover. Lacking that understanding, I used to be more apt to blame the victim, of course in the back of my mind more that publicly, since I was surrounded by those who were much more judgmental than I, and I found it disgusting.
    As a mental health professional, my perspective from working with minority patients for 25 years has taught me that the person is not their illness, and that diagnosis, literally, to “know [the illness] through [it’s telltale signs]” is not an end in itself, but simply the second step in the process of administering comfort, knowledge, and hopefully, healing treatment. The first step, by the way, is seeing the other as suffering fellow human being, and allowing oneself to be seen.

  • Extraordinarily able and apt commentators/comments here. Again using the disease model, one could posit that white European powers had a “disease” of ignorance of the oneness of humanity with which they were “infected.” The chief symptom of the disease was antisocial behavior toward the forcibly subjugated black brethren, wreaking havoc known as slavery and its aftermath. This is just like a teenager with severe behavior problems with no complaints, who says he feels fine, but the bullied peer has a bloody nose and a wounded spirit. As in most schoolyard situations, when the bully’s Dad is a rich senator or businessman and the bullied kid is from a less powerful family, the kid with the bloody nose and depression is sent to my office, while the bully gets at most verbal rebukes and a wide berth. It has been my experience that in a dysfunctional family it is generally the healthiest members who come in for help, while the more toxic ones, who need it more, avoid it like the plague. That is why we must all band together and interfere with our oppressors. The first priority is to stop the abuse. Reforming the abuser is secondary. So the perpetrator of oppression is always more fundamentally disordered than his victims.

  • You have to heal the mind to free the mind. If not as Paulo Freire author the Pedagogy of the Oppressed wrote, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. Now, how can people who do not have a healthy self concept become free? is the question that you need to answer based on your criticism. As all actions start in the mind, it is obvious that a healthy mind will function much better. This is why healing must take place prior to anything else. As i see it, when our history is put into perspective there is a progressive track of move forward move backward but always moving forward. At one time we would not be having a conversation like this, so this is great. Thanks for the post.

  • There are not many black psychologists or social workers in the field of psychology or social work. African-Americans have been historically disenfranchised and silenced. YOU are in fact belittling the work of this brilliant woman and are showing your own mental scars. Is affirmative action racist? How about, the website you’re publishing you’re article,”African American Intellectual History” racist? Just because a product, organization, or theory, caters to the black experience does not inherently make it racist or inferior. If that’s what you believe, than you’re anomalous for even contributing your writing to this website.

    Admitting that slavery was traumatizing does not make African-American’s inferior. You are projecting your own belief of inferiority. Our behaviors are already being pathologized in a lot less culturally insensitive ways by people with no consideration of the African-American experience. There is agency in addressing that slavery was a traumatizing event in history that did leave our psyche scathed. It is revolutionary to acknowledge that systems of oppression affect African-American’s in the past and the present. ESPECIALLY when countering images that slavery was enjoyable and mythology of needing master in order to be civilized people. There are still many efforts being made to “civilize” African-American’s currently with privatized prisons and privatized education. Rather than using the term “African-American”, words such as “urban”, “inner-city”, or even “super-predator” are used. We are scared and have a lot of self-hate. If that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t have African Americans in the community backing policies that demonizing their own people as criminals… we have little knowledge of self & the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

    I am not too narcissistic to say that African-American’s need healing. It is racist to say that we are superhuman and invincible to abuse. You cannot move past trauma by pretending it doesn’t exist. I would argue that invisibility and silencing only makes more it powerful. The African-American community has made false progress by falling for the illusion of living in a post-racial society. No, watching Roots does make you up to date with the legacy of slavery. Watching roots should make you disillusioned that the majority of us are still in literal chains and shackles. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander or Reign of Error of Diane Ravitch is a required reading.

    Just because white people have failed to acknowledge their own white racist pathological issues doesn’t mean we don’t have to address our own demons. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Maybe a more positive criticism would be to ask Dr. Joy to develop an equally relevant, POST TRAUMATIC SLAVEHOLDER SYNDROME (PTSS)? But can you blame her for being too focused on healing her own people?

  • I think I have one drop of ‘black’ blood. Does that mean I also suffer from PTSS?

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