Story at a glance
- Black Americans and other people of color are experiencing significant and pervasive effects of racial trauma.
- The effects of racial trauma are often compared to those of post traumatic stress disorder, but differs in key ways.
- Black adolescents average over five racial discrimination experiences per day, often through online microaggressions.
Over the past several weeks, news headlines and social media feeds have been flooded with triggering words, images and videos, from footage of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks to videos of peaceful protestors being tear gassed by police and shot with rubber bullets.
If you’ve felt overwhelmed by it all, you’re not alone, and for Black Americans, this is nothing new. Exposure to a never-ending stream of violent footage can lead to a particular kind of collective trauma that follows Black Americans, and other people of color, essentially from the womb to the grave: racial trauma.
What is racial trauma?
Racial trauma is a form of race-based stress, and refers to the reactions of those who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) to dangerous events and experiences of racial discrimination, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
The kind of experiences that trigger feelings of racial trauma can range from threats of harm and injury to humiliating and shaming events, or even witnessing racial discrimination toward other people of color (POC) — including the violent images we’ve recently been inundated with.
According to the APA, Black Americans are subject to more racial discrimination than any other ethnoracial group, though many Indigenous people, Latinx and Asian Americans significantly suffer from race-based stress as well. These feelings of trauma are only compounded if the person experiences events of intersectional oppression, stemming from their gender identity or sexual orientation, which all contributes to the cumulative effects of their racial trauma.
What is so unsettling about racial trauma is just how pervasive it is, yet how seemingly invisible. Black Americans and other POC experience triggering events often, yet might not even be able to distinguish them as such until they compound. Racial trauma also has historical roots.
A recent study found that this kind of trauma can affect kids as well — Black adolescents on average experience racial discrimination more than five times a day, often online in the form of microaggressions.
Healing in an era of constant exposure
“It feels like it’s just been an endless cascade of hashtags of Black people dying,” said Christine Ohenzuwa, 19, who recently protested outside the Minnesota state Capitol. “I feel like for me and a lot of other Black people, it reaches a point where it’s just very traumatic to constantly see Black people being killed.”
For those living with racial trauma, the effects can manifest both psychologically and physiologically — hypervigilance to threats, flashbacks, nightmares, suspiciousness, headaches and heart palpitations are all commonly experienced by those with racial trauma, similar to those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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Where it differs from PTSD is in the fact that its effects are ongoing, which makes seeking mental health resources even more important for those who suffer from racial trauma, experts say. Research has even shown racial trauma to have intergenerational effects, meaning Black Americans can feel cumulative psychological wounds resulting from historical traumatic experiences, such as colonization, genocide and slavery.
"Witnessing George Floyd screaming for his mother — that in itself can be extremely traumatic for many Black-identifying Americans, because many people are saying, that could be my son, that could be my father," says Jennifer Mullan, a psychologist in New Jersey.
"A lot of individuals I'm working with right now are feeling absolutely exhausted and burnt out, and consistently feeling like it is unsafe to leave the house," she added. "Breonna Taylor was murdered in her bed. That is bringing trauma. People don't feel safe in their homes. There is that constant feeling of, could I be next?"
Another issue faced by those that live with racial trauma comes in the form of being misunderstood when seeking treatment, as many trauma and PTSD treatments tend to lack cultural relevance for most BIPOC. A recent study found that clinicians working with PTSD clients needed to increase their cultural sensitivity and competence in order to deliver effective treatment, and the use of culturally responsive and racially informed interventions were necessary for healing.
“As an African American therapist, I often get calls from fellow African Americans specifically looking to work with a Black therapist/counselor,” writes psychologist Dara Winley. “Most want to openly discuss their experiences with racism. They share narratives of being followed in stores to being undermined or ignored in their workplaces. I listen first, validate, and deeply empathize.”
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Prioritizing your mental health
More now than ever, people have felt a call to action — to protest, to volunteer, to be active on social media. The feeling of contributing to something important, something bigger than yourself, can simultaneously be wholly empowering and draining. Indeed, while contributing to causes you find important can be fulfilling, activist fatigue, the product of feeling the constant weight of the world on your shoulders, can lead to pretty serious burn out.
But while taking a step away from social media can provide a necessary breather, for many this is not enough. The problem is that seeking licensed therapists of color isn’t necessarily easy, and for many Black Americans the $100-$200 per session is financially out of reach. Therapist Sheila Robinson-Kiss suggests that those who cannot afford therapy can try turning to an unlikely platform, YouTube, where millions of therapists create “high quality, transformational content...known as Tube Therapy, that you can access for free.”
Besides seeking more formal methods of healing, such as therapy, there is a lot of power and comfort that can be found in seeking community and allies. Studies show that nearly half of all Black Americans feel isolated on a regular basis.
“The mental stress that’s on our community has really come to a boiling point,” said DeAngelo Mack, who advocates for better health in communities of color.
“The stigma around mental health in the Black community is we take care of it in our own house,” he said. “And that does need to change, because being healthy mentally is not a white thing, it’s a people thing.”
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