What is Racial Trauma, Anyway?

As a Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color (BIPOC), have you experienced persistent thoughts about your safety in the world based on your race/ethnicity?  Maybe you’ve walked into a meeting room, classroom, or store and been acutely aware that others may be judging your behavior, the way you talk, or even what you’re wearing.  How about your relationships? Does your ethnicity impact your ability to be fully present and open in your friendships or with colleagues?  Do you ever struggle with a sense of belonging?  Who are your people?  Each one of these experiences are examples of how racial trauma plays out in everyday life.

Racial trauma, a pervasive issue faced by many individuals from BIPOC communities, goes beyond physical harm and manifests itself psychologically.  It has many forms including micro/macroaggressions, overt discrimination, and internalized oppression and is comprised of the emotional and psychological residue from the constant exposure to ever-present, race-related chronic stress (Hardy, 2023).  Even though this global phenomenon has been plaguing BIPOC for centuries, recently, there has been a growing recognition within the field of psychology of the importance of acknowledging and addressing racial trauma as a critical aspect of promoting mental health, social justice, and healing.

The myriad experiences of racism, discrimination, and oppression cause psychological and emotional distress that not only impacts us collectively, but on an individual level.  And things like witnessing racial injustice repeatedly in the media e.g. police brutality, global genocidal acts, and systemic discrimination can exacerbate symptoms of racial trauma.  It’s pervasive, yet also insidious, impacting one’s identity, how one relates to the world and themselves and affecting entire communities and generations.  Often times, people experiencing anxiety, fear, and intrusive race-based thoughts regarding safety, etc are struggling to cope with racial trauma. This leads to feelings of confusion, shame, self-blame, and internalization of the negative messages of racial oppression.

As we all know, the first step to healing is becoming aware of the problem and how it is wreaking havoc in our lives.  The effects of racial trauma are profound and multifaceted, impacting various aspects of an individual’s life. Some common effects include:

1. Emotional distress: Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and helplessness are common responses to racial trauma. Individuals may also experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

2. Physical health consequences: Racial trauma has been linked to physical health problems such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and chronic pain.

3. Impact on identity: Racial trauma, like all traumas, can lead to a fragmented sense of self and identity, as individuals grapple with questions of belonging, worthiness, and cultural identity.

4. Interpersonal relationships: Racial trauma can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues, leading to feelings of isolation and mistrust.  It can also impact how we relate to others within our own ethnicity, as well as those from other ethnic backgrounds.

5. Societal consequences: Racial trauma does it job well, perpetuating cycles of oppression and inequality, reinforcing systems of power and privilege that marginalize minority communities.

Initially, becoming aware of how racial trauma is showing up in your life can be overwhelming.  It’s so important to seek help and to have a safe space to unpack the heavy load of racism’s impact on your life.  Healing from racial trauma is a complex and ongoing process that requires both individual and collective action.  Here are some strategies for promoting healing and justice:

1. Acknowledge and validate experiences: It is essential to acknowledge and validate our experiences of racial trauma, creating space for individuals to share their stories and express their emotions without judgment or dismissal.

2. Educate and raise awareness: Education plays a crucial role in addressing racial trauma, helping individuals and communities understand the historical and systemic roots of racism and oppression. By becoming more aware of racial trauma we can help to challenge stereotypes and racial tropes we may have internalized; begin to become oriented to the truth of who we are while promoting empathy and understanding.

3. Foster supportive communities: Building supportive communities where individuals can find solidarity, validation, and belonging is essential for healing from racial trauma. Create safe spaces with your identified sources of support for dialogue, support groups, and advocacy, fostering an empowered sense of self to heal and resist systemic oppression.

5. Prioritize radical self-care: Radical Self-care is the assertion that you have the responsibility to take care of yourself first before attempting to take care of others.  This type of self-care that goes beyond a bubble bath, although that can definitely be a part of it.  Radical self-care looks like engaging in activities such as therapy, meditation, exercise, and creative expression can help you cope with the effects of trauma and build resilience.  AND also setting healthy boundaries in your relationships, saying no, resting, deciding if, when and how to use your voice for advocacy, etc.  Radical self-care can be a revolutionary act of resistance because as BIPOC we are constantly challenging internalized messages and dispelling myths that say we don’t deserve to rest, to take care of ourselves.

Racial trauma has deep psychological roots that impact the mental health and well-being of BIPOC individuals. Acknowledging these issues is a crucial step towards fostering understanding and promoting healing within communities. By addressing the psychological impact of racial trauma, we can work towards creating a more inclusive and supportive environment that prioritizes the mental health of everyone, regardless of their racial or ethnic background.

Hardy, Kenneth V. (2023). Racial Trauma: Clinical Strategies and Techniques for Healing Invisible Wounds. New York: WW Norton and Company.

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