No Justice, No Peace: Racial Trauma
Updated: Feb 15
* I want to start this piece with a disclaimer. I am a white, cis-gendered, straight female therapist and thus, have never experienced racial trauma. Yet, I think speaking about racial trauma is important as this topic is detrimental not only for our BIPOC friends and family, but also as another portion for white people to do the work of learning. I tried my best to pull resources from BIPOC writers only who were able to speak first-hand about racial trauma. I have the privilege to have your attention on this topic and I hope that while I can't speak from experience about racial trauma, I can try to shed light on an important issue through the lens of others.
What is Racial Trauma?
Racial trauma is a specific form of complex trauma. It includes direct, but also vicarious forms of trauma including the mistreatment, abuse, violence, prejudice, and inequalities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Racial issues are considered a complex trauma due to the long, withstanding effects of injustice as well as the many different forms that racism is accounted for in society. Racial trauma does not only include the present-day racial tensions, but also those of the past that also impacted ancestors of generations before. Racism is individual, historical, and systemic. This means that racial trauma is not just present in one situation, it is experienced and causes widespread, long-lasting effects in multiple areas throughout time.
It's been documented that racial trauma leads to negative physical and mental health outcomes. For just Black Americans alone, it was found that 60% endorsed at least one experience of racial discrimination in their lifetime. This does not even account for the numerous other groups that are identified as racial-ethnic minority groups. Not only are the experiences of racial trauma prevalent in probably every BIPOC's life, but these inequalities can even produce mental health concerns that meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. However, these concerns are not taken into account and instead marginalized communities are blamed for their reactions to these traumas.
Racial trauma is exacerbated by intersectional identities, too. Being a part of multiple marginalized communities makes it harder to receive support for racial trauma as well. Stereotypes, judgments, erasure, and being targeted are just a few of the consequences for those who occupy multiple marginalized identities. Take for example the media response to George Floyd's murder vs. the multiple murders that were occurring in trans Black and Latinx communities in recent years (54 in 2021 alone). While both are identified as racial-ethnic minorities, the difference between their intersectional identities may have played a role in media response and, in turn, the outcome of justice.
Specific Impacts of Racial Trauma
Studies reveal that adverse childhood events (ACE) have significant effects on people who experience childhood trauma. While the ACEs study was comprised of 17,000 children from Southern California only, subsequent studies shed a light on the fact that BIPOC experience trauma at a higher rate than their white counterparts. However, the ACEs study does not even take into account racial trauma.
We already know that racial trauma can produce post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and poor physical health conditions as well. The University of Georgia Psychology Department digs in a little further about the specific mental health and physical effects that racial trauma has on racial-ethnic minority groups:
Re-experiencing of distressing events: reporting of discrimination in higher numbers
Arousal: higher reports of somatization when distressed (e.g., stomach aches, headaches, rapid heartbeat), greater perception of behavioral problems
Negative emotion: depression, anxiety, Black/Latinx middle school students have higher rates of depression in the context of discrimination
Avoidance: less willingness to take academic risks, higher school drop-out rates after racial discrimination is perceived
Physical Health Effects
Hypertension, with spikes in blood pressure following exposure to racist stimuli; blood pressure remains elevated thereafter
Higher Allostatic Load (the wear and tear of the body caused by chronic stress) When the body is in a state of distress, it activates the stress response system, which helps us fight or get out of stressful situations (a.k.a. fight, flight, or freeze). However, when experiences of stress are consistent and chronic, the stress response system becomes taxed and hormones can be unbalanced, leading to some of the physical illnesses and conditions listed above.
Digestive issues" (University of Georgia, Dept. of Psychology).
Lucious Smith also beautifully depicts the specific examples of how our brain's survival instinct, fight, flight, or fawn/collapse, is displayed specifically for BIPOC who experience racial trauma:
"Fight: A Latinx young adult takes an aggressive stance when encountered by a white authority figure, after continual experiences of racially-targeted bullying by a supervisor on his job site.
Flight:An African American parent requires her middle school son to avoid the community park where his friends hang out, after a recent event in which a preteen was erroneously arrested due to racial profiling,
Collapse: a young woman of color becomes demoralized and withdrawn after several weeks of microaggressions in a new college course. She eventually stops attending classes" (Smith, 2021).
How To Fight For a Better Tomorrow
I'd like to break this category of potential responses and healing patterns for racial trauma by racial identity. I believe that even those who do not experience racial trauma first-hand still have a responsibility in changing individual and systemic racist practices. I also believe that BIPOC who withstand the effects of racial trauma should not always have to do the work for their white counterparts to understand ways to help.
The University of Georga's Department of Psychology has again provided important ideas on how to cope with racial trauma. Their sentiments are listed:
"Being seen and heard is essential to healing. Connect with friends who are able to engage in racially conscious conversations and willing to help you process your thoughts and emotions.
The benefits of disclosing experiences of racism are demonstrated in science. In a study of African American women, those who experienced frequent everyday racism and reported that they kept it to themselves were shown to have shorter telomeres. Shorter telomere length is an indicator of chronic stress exposure, aging, and morbidity.
Engage in prayer, mindfulness, spiritual practices, and use of mantras.
Practice self-care by engaging in activities that you enjoy and make you happy.
Learn to be aware and recognize the symptoms of racial trauma (e.g., fatigue, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping). Identify similar ways to cope with these symptoms.
Make a list of situations, people, or places that trigger your symptoms of trauma, and make a similar list of ways to cope for each of these situations, people, or places.
Recognize when you are not able to perform optimally because of the above symptoms and rest if you are able.
Roleplay how to respond to negative racial encounters with trusted people in your network.
Engage in activism. Feeling empowered involves participating in actions to solve difficulties. Agency and self-advocacy are associated with leadership, school engagement, self-esteem, and prosocial behaviors. Do a self-check and ask yourself if you need help or someone to talk to.
Talk about your feelings and limit your and your children’s exposure to news media and viral videos. Seek professional help if you need it.
Racism is a huge problem that cannot be solved by a single person’s efforts alone. Coping by engaging in distractions or focusing on any positive aspects of the situation are associated with lower negative emotion. At the same time, it may feel like distracting yourself or focusing on positives is ignoring the problem. Acting with agency, problem solving, and doing something to change the problem are all associated with more positive emotions.
For White People:
How to be a better ally to our BIPOC friends and family:
"Remember that ally is a verb, not a self-appointed title or noun. Saying you’re an ally is not enough - you need to show up and support others through action.
Understand that privilege doesn’t mean that you didn’t work hard or struggle for what you have. It means that there are some things in life that you don’t have to think about or won’t experience just because of who you are.
Know that being an ally isn’t always convenient or comfortable. Moments of inequality or mistreatment may present themselves at any time. Be willing to deviate from your routine to speak up or act when it’s psychologically and physically safe to do so.
Recognize that everyone - including ourselves and our loved ones - holds biases. Reflect on how your biases or privilege surface during moments where an ally might be needed. Resist the tendency to judge yourself or others harshly when biases appear.
Own your learning journey. Commit to finding the answer when you don’t know something. Research, go online, ask questions, and listen. Reach out to other allies who might have grappled with the same questions or challenges. Share what you learn along the way.
Remind yourself that you don’t have to understand or agree with something in order to respect it. You can respectfully agree to disagree.
Practice developing empathy for others. Making time to learn about other identities or communities and the challenges they encounter will increase your capacity for empathy. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes before passing judgment or assigning blame.
Speak up, but not over. Use your voice to educate others in away that does not speak over the community members you’re trying to support and give credit to them for their work instead of saying it as your own.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Allies recognize and define the boundaries of their comfort zone, and then find ways to stretch those boundaries and stretch themselves.
Realize that you will make mistakes and apologize when you make them. Commit to changing your behavior and use mistakes as learning opportunities to seek feedback, to grow and to move forward" (Corey Ponder and Franchesca Ramsey).
The University of Georgia Department of Psychology. (unknown). Coping with Racial Trauma. Retrieved at https://psychology.uga.edu/coping-racial-trauma
Smith, L. (2021). The Complexity of Racial Trauma. Retrieved at https://www.complextrauma.org/complex-trauma/the-complexity-of-racial-trauma/
Ponder, C. and Ramsey, F. (unknown). 10 Tips For Being a Better Ally. Expedia Group. Retrieved from https://s27.q4cdn.com/708721433/files/doc_downloads/InclusionResources/General_-Better-Allies.pdf