What is Racial Trauma?

Racial trauma is the tense feeling in the body when one senses a threat, or racing heart when watching an online video of a Black person being brutalized by law enforcement, or feelings of unworthiness related to racial injustice. Racial trauma is the most chronic and pervasive form of trauma. The race that the world perceives you to be is an inescapable experience that can contribute to debilitating feelings. Racial trauma is the emotional response related to race based stress and racism. Racial trauma is inclusive of one or more of the following categories of trauma; intergenerational, systemic racism, adverse childhood experiences, and vicarious experiences. Not every person who has been affected by one or more of these categories of trauma will experience symptoms of racial trauma and or develop PTSD. However a lot of people experience symptoms and do not know what to call it and or avoid the uncomfortable feelings as a survival mechanism. Common symptoms of racial trauma include;
  • Distorted thoughts: Negative and or irrational thoughts and beliefs about ones self, others and or the world.
    • Example: Nobody will help me because they’re all too busy.
  • Uncomfortable feelings: distressing emotions
    • Example: Feeling anxious after submitting a job application
  • Uncomfortable body sensations: Physiological reactions to trauma related feelings. Muscle tension, racing heart beat and tightness in the throat.
    • Example: Increased heart rate when being pulled over by the police
  • Hypervigilance: excessive awareness and sensitivity to ones environment.
    • Example:
  • Avoidance: resistance of trauma related matters.
    • Example: Using a fake name at Starbucks to avoid the mispronunciation of
  • Disassociation: When the mind disconnects from body as a protective mechanism.
    • Example:
Intergenerational: Wounds Inherited from our Ancestors and Elders: Many Black Americans have an Ancestor experienced the transatlantic slave trade.  It should be expected that survivors of the transatlantic slave trade developed symptoms that would meet the standard for PTSD and never received mental health care. [Dr. Deruy, 2005]. The feelings of sadness, fear, worry, desperation, and anger began to change the genetic expression in enslaved Africans. Epigenetics describes the phenomenon of how trauma is transmitted in DNA and through the wombs of those being traumatized. The American Psychological Association identifies 6 modes of intergenerational transmission as; physiological, genetic, environmental, psychological, social/economic/political systems, and legal/social discrimination. Systemic: Wounds of Racist Systems:  Systemic wounds are a result of cruel systems put in place to oppress, dehumanize and suppress Black liberation. Some examples of cruel systems are; the laws, government structures, policies, and procedures put in place to oppress Black people’s freedom, justice & liberty. The historical timeline of injustice Systemic trauma significantly impacts one’s mental health. The fight with an unjust system that does not have any accountability or transparency can influence one’s belief that the Black race is inferior to the White race. The more significant impact of systemic trauma is that it causes barriers to the services for help. The most common example of how systemic racism perpetuates racial trauma is the healthcare system. There are many barriers and challenges for low- and middle-class Black Americans to access affordable, and culturally responsive mental health treatment. Black Americans have the highest rate of untreated PTSD. Complex Trauma: Wounds of Child Abuse & Neglect: Complex trauma is typically a result of ongoing stress and traumatic experiences during childhood. A childhood trauma wounds manifests into dysfunction, difficulty with relationships and a negative self-belief system often centered in unworthiness. The Centers for Disease (CDC) conducted the largest study on child abuse, household challenges and later life health and well being known as the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs). According to the American Psychological Association, African Americans experience more adverse childhood experiences than Latin X and Europeans. An adverse childhood experience is defined as;
  • Experiencing violence or abuse
  • Witnessing violence in the home or community
  • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide
  • Growing up in a household with:
    • substance misuse
    • household member with mental health issues
    • parental separation
    • household member going to jail and or prison
 The negative impact of an adverse childhood experience is researched to have long term effects on neurological, endocrine, immune, and metabolic function (APA, 2021). Children in African American communities have been found to have elevated inflammation, autonomic function and impairments in fear functioning parts of the brain (APA, 2021). Vicarious Trauma: Wounds of our Community: Historically Black people have forced to witness the public punishment and torture of others. Slaves were whipped and people were lynched from trees publicly as forms of intimidation and humiliation.  We now have easier access to stories, of others experiencing racial injustice and brutalization. Watching the murder of George Floyd brought up feelings of; sadness, anger, hopelessness, and anxiety. For months the internet was flooded with pictures Vicarious trauma can be defined as feeling discomfort after hearing a traumatic story involving another person. My experience being a mental health counselor for Department of Correction for 6 years was witnessing correctional brutality against incarcerated people and being responsible to heal their wounds. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: The Collective Wound: Historically, Black people have been tortured and oppressed, resulting in a unique culmination of mental health issues. Dr. Joy Deruy defines Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is the culmination of slavery, and oppression for Black Americans. Identifying racial trauma must come first in the healing process. Racial trauma is often misdiagnosed with other mental health conditions with identical symptoms. There is an increase in the awareness of the impact of racial trauma in BIPOC communities. The Problem: Racial Trauma has a holistic impact on ones mind, body, and spirit. The mind and body are connected through nerves that control feelings of; sadness, fear, hope, and worry. The compounded layers of racial trauma are not reflected in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM5) criteria in PTSD. Racial trauma is often misdiagnosed for other conditions, substance use, and anger problems.  This problem influencing many Black people to suffer in silence with limited access to culturally sensitive and targeted care. Racial Trauma Therapy: A therapist specializing in racial trauma can give you the tools to courageously address your experiences with racism. One thing that connects many of our clients is their desire to work with someone from their cultural background so they can feel more comfortable opening up. While therapists at Quality Counseling work to build an authentic bond unique with each client, being Black therapists gives us an extensive understanding of the cultural values and perspectives often shared among Black communities. And a number of our clients of color have noted that this has helped them to express themselves more freely. Ours is a compassionate, honest, and self-reflective environment where you can work through difficult racial experiences, break unhealthy generational patterns, and ultimately thrive despite obstacles. Treatment starts with the intake process, during which, we will ask you to fill out forms on a secure online portal and complete a diagnostic screening for PTSD and racial discrimination. These screenings will help your therapist learn more about your personal experiences with racial discrimination and other forms of trauma. References:
  1. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy Deruy
  2. American Psychological Association, 2021. Conceptualizing Healing Through the African American Experience of Historical Trauma. Henderson, Stephens, Ortega- Williams, and Walton.
  3. My Grandmothers Hand’s Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies,201 Resma Menakem, LICSW.
  4. American Psychological Association, 2021. Adverse Childhood Experiences in African Americans: Framework, Practice, and Policy. Hampton- Anderson, Carter, Fani, Gillespie, Henry, Holmes, Lamis, LoParo, Maples-Keller, Powers, Sonu, Kaslow.
  5. The Complex PTSD Workbook a Mind- Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole, 2016. Airelle Schwartz, Ph.D.