Racial trauma or race based traumatic stress (RBTS) is the result of experiencing or witnessing racial stressors including racism, discrimination and violence against Black, Indigenous and People of color (BIPOC); creating an environment where BIPOC feel unsafe and venerable in their community from simply existing in their own skin.
Racial trauma can be experienced by an individual from direct and indirect experience (verbal/physical attacks, media accounts of racism, police brutality, silence/erasure, etc.) or from experiencing it on a systemic level (wage gaps, predatory lending, housing discrimination, voter suppression, etc.).
Racial trauma is also unique in that it can occur intergenerationally. Maryam Jernigan-Noesi, a psychologist who studied at Boston College’s Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture says of integrational racial trauma: “…it’s not just me and my lifetime and what I’ve experienced— it’s the stories you heard from family members, it’s witnessing that of colleagues or peers, and now with social media and online mechanisms of folks sharing videos, it’s also witnessing things that you may not experience directly.” Living in a time where we have devices that can provide entertainment and keep us informed can also unwittingly also provide exposure to stressors and triggers for racial trauma. Children of parents who have been exposed to racial trauma can become more sensitive to it; even if a child may not have had direct exposure to racial trauma, the child may have increased sensitivity to stories of discrimination, witnessing racial trauma and systematic oppression (DeAngelis 2019).
Marginalized individuals and communities are so often used to dealing with and surviving, living with racism and systemic oppression and white supremacy, that we often fail to know that the stressors we are feeling and experiencing have actual mental and physical health related consequences. It is also not uncommon for BIPOC to deny, minimize or downplay experiencing racial trauma. However, the “stuff we deal with” (microaggressions, voter suppression, segregation, slurs, physical/verbal attacks, police brutality, pay inequity, racial gaslighting, etc.) has a name and we can take actionable steps to deal with addressing it.
Recognizing the symptoms
The connections to racial discrimination, unfair treatment, injustice and microaggressions to health disparities in BIPC communities is well documented. Therefore, it is important to understand the impact to your overall wellbeing.
And, while a formal diagnosis of RBTS requires an assessment by a qualified mental health professional knowledgeable of racial trauma and RBTS; someone who has experienced racism can do a self-check to see if they are experiencing symptoms of racial trauma from the following list:
- Physical pain and cardiovascular issues
- Sleep issues including nightmares, night terrors and insomnia
- Over or under consumption of food
- Increased anxiety or depression
- Increased sensitivity and/or the need for hypervigilance
- Feeling of anger and/or rage
- Flashbacks, distress, or distraction
- Feelings of guilt, shame or helplessness
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Coping with racial trauma
While we cannot completely eliminate exposure to racism and systemic oppression, we can learn to utilize self-care and coping mechanisms to help support us:
- Recognize when you are not able to perform optimally because of the symptoms listed above and rest if you are able.
- Connect with friends or family who are able to engage in racially conscious conversations and are willing to help you process your thoughts and emotions.
- Practice self-care by engaging in activities that you enjoy and make you happy.
- Engage in prayer, mindfulness, spiritual practices that give you peace and joy.
- Implement lifestyle changes, such as beginning exercise routines and meditation.
- Make a list of situations, people or places that trigger your symptoms of trauma; make a similar list of ways to cope for each of these triggers.
- Roleplay with trusted people in your network on how to respond to negative racial encounters/microaggressions.
- Engage in activism against racial injustice.
- Limit exposure to media to avoid images of racial abuse.
- Find a qualified mental health professional knowledgeable of racial trauma and has experience working with BIPOC communities to help process experiences and identify healthy coping tools.