What is Racial Trauma?

by | Jan 19, 2024 | Intersectionality, Trauma, Mental Health

What is Racial Trauma?

In 2020, our world was broken open to the reality that racism is alive and well after we publicly witnessed the murder of George Floyd on national television. Many of us questioned “How could this happen? It’s 2020?!” yet so many of us who have lived and breathed the experiences of racial injustice for centuries were far too familiar with the consequences of having Black skin when confronted by the police.

I recall the moment I realized that being a Black clinician was significantly different than being a white one. A group of us were sitting in the room, trying to explore how to respond and support Black clinicians, yet I recall being one of the only ones who knew how to respond or articulate the nuance of racial injustice and its impact on mental health. I was stunned.

To me, we were witnessing something we have all been trained in: trauma. The criteria of what our Black community was experiencing felt clear as day to me as a clinician: exposure to actual or perceived threat, intrusive images of the event, avoidance of reminders of the event, negative perception of the world and mistrust, and a variety of changes in emotional and physical reactivity.

The only difference is that the symptoms were precipitated by incidents of racial injustice and race-based stress. I was infuriated for months because I felt let down by our profession and clinicians whom I believed were trauma-informed. However, the worst part was the experience of feeling responsible for taking care of all our Black clients through educating white clinicians, while trying to cope with my own symptoms of racial trauma.

 

So, I’ve referenced racial trauma, but what exactly is it?

Racial trauma is the mental and emotional injury that is caused by racial injustice, discrimination, and race-based stressors. Examples of race-based stressors are the subtle invalidating comments related to one’s identity or ethnicity masked in-jokes or “I didn’t mean to” and laws and policies created to minimize natural hair expression or equal access to participate in the purchase of homes (i.e. redlining).

Racial trauma can also be experienced vicariously, in which a person does not experience the direct stressors of racism, but rather indirectly through media, storytelling, and witnessing the injury occur to someone else. Many racially marginalized communities were very aware of these experiences during 2020, especially as rates of Asian hate crimes and discrimination toward Latinx communities increased.

 

Well, what does racial trauma have to do with LGBTQ communities?

The most obvious answer is that Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) also exist within LGBTQ communities. However, the more critical answer is that the experience of racial trauma is also compounded by discrimination and prejudice based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In addition, it’s unfortunate that LGBTQ communities can also expose QTBIPOC  (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color) to race-based stresses, and many BIPOC traditional beliefs exclude the acceptance of LGBTQ identities, resulting in further isolation and shame. Where do you go when the communities that are supposed to support you, reject, or harm you?

 

So, how do we, as BIPOC, cope with racial trauma?

 

  • Continue to engage in advocacy. From boundaries for yourself to using your voice for those experiencing racial injustice
  • Remain connected to your breath. Try breathing in for 4 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds.
  • Access imagery by reflecting on safe and peaceful places that help you feel grounded and empowered.
  • Create a list of strengths and gifts that you have inherited from your ancestors.
  • Engage in rhythm, dance, music, or ways to move your body to release trauma stored in your body.

 

Your worth is not defined by what the world tells you about yourself, but what you hold tightly inside about yourself.

 

 

If you are interested in learning more, I invite you to follow my Tik Tok: @QuestionKayla

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