Understanding Racial Trauma: A Conversation

In this conversation, we discuss racial trauma - what it is, how it manifests, and how we can move to a place of healing. 

By Momentous Institute | Apr 09, 2021
Racial Trauma Conversation

The term “racial trauma” has been more focused upon in recent months  – first in the wake of a summer of racial protests and again recently in the aftermath of racism and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Island communities. While we understand that racism is a force so great that it can significantly harm Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, racial trauma is a term that we thought may need to be unpacked a little. Maureen Fernandez, our content director, sat down (virtually) with Dr. Méroudjie Denis, a psychologist on our Therapeutic Services team to discuss the term “racial trauma.” For the purpose of this topic, we found it important to share our racial identities. Maureen is a White woman and Méroudjie identifies as Black.

Maureen:

We’ve talked a fair amount about trauma on our blog. We define trauma as physiological (body) and psychological (brain) distress in response to an event that exceeds an individual’s ability to cope. In other words, trauma is when an event occurs that is larger than one’s coping capabilities. It’s not so much the actual incident, but its how the person responds to the incident that matters. How you respond to trauma – and whether or not something exceeds your ability to cope – depends on all sorts of things, such as whether you have protective factors in place such as an adult who cares for you, or whether or not the event is the first traumatic event or the tenth. So I’m saying all this (of course you know this) because I’m curious if you can define for us what racial trauma is.

Méroudjie:

Racial trauma, or raced-based traumatic stress, occurs as a result of the ongoing, collective impact of racism, racial discrimination, or racial bias on the mental and physical health of People of Color (POC). Mental health symptoms can include depression, anxiety, fear, anger, hypervigilance, and even internalized negative stereotype of one’s racial group. Physical health symptoms have been tied to an increased risk of hypertension and heart disease. Symptoms can develop as a result of personal, vicarious, collective, or historical trauma.

Each community of color in the United States has its own unique and distinct history that has impacted their overall experiences in this country therefore making their racial trauma different from other communities. At the same time, there is also a shared experience within the entire BIPOC community when it comes to racism, in that while the form and level of racism may vary across communities of color, there seems to be a universal experience of feeling “othered” or viewed by some as “less than”. Whether interpersonal, systemic or historical in nature, racism has significant negative impacts on all communities. The social, cultural, and political systems that undermine the value of BIPOC individuals creates an environment in which racism and discrimination thrives, directly causing harm, which can result in racial trauma. The experience of racial trauma may be different across communities of color; however, the source is rooted in America’s greatest sin: racism and White Supremacy.

Maureen:

So would you say that every person who has experienced racism experiences racial trauma?

Méroudjie:

Just like you mentioned above with any traumatic experience, racial trauma also depends on the way the individual responds to the trauma. Again, the distinct difference between the experience of trauma and the experience of racial trauma is that racial trauma is trauma that occurs as a result of racism and discrimination. The way in which this impacts individuals depends on the intensity and frequency of how often one experiences racism and the severity of the event(s), as well as how the individual interprets the racism. There’s no general formula that says after a certain number of racist experiences, you will experience racial trauma. It varies from individual to individual.

However, there’s a big difference between racial trauma and the general experience of trauma that I want to point out. Let’s say you were in a car accident on a rainy day. While your trauma from this event may be triggered in the future if it starts raining while driving, or even if a car whizzes past you on the freeway, you might not be triggered every time you start your car or take a ride in someone else’s car.

On the other hand, a person of color may experience an increased amount of stress when driving through an unknown neighborhood as a result of real or perceived threats.

The difference between these two is one is a trauma triggered by circumstances independent of who the person is, while the other is entirely dependent upon one’s racial or cultural identity. Racial trauma likely impacts someone across contexts in a way many traumatic experiences do not. In the same way one might be triggered driving in the rain following their car accident, one may be triggered by the direct or indirect experience of racial trauma across numerous contexts such as completing routine tasks. An individual might be triggered every time they walk into a room with people they don’t know, when they get pulled over by the police, or after a difficult conversation with an employer. It can become the lens through which they view the world. Just like the car-accident trauma may inform their future decisions about, say driving in the rain, racial trauma can impact decisions and how one navigates through the world. For example, it can impact how POC talk to their children about the world as well as their sense of felt safety.

One important thing to note is that as humans our brains are wired for connection and to be in relationship with one another. Therefore, trauma that occurs within the context of relationships (relational trauma) typically requires a longer lasting and more complex treatment. Treatment is focused on reconnecting with others and requires the individual to re-build trust and safety. Racial trauma is a form of relational trauma, whether it is a relationship with your neighbor, coworker, or those who have dedicated themselves to protecting and serving our community. When treatment is focused on building trust and safety, but BIPOC individuals remain immersed in a socio-political context that continues to discriminate against them and therefore not creating that sense of safety, it can be very difficult to heal from this trauma. Healing from racial trauma will remain complex and difficult until the systems created to intentionally perpetuate these traumas are dismantled and made more equitable for all.

Maureen:

Can you say a little more about what that looks like? How does racial trauma manifest?

Méroudjie:

For example, if someone gets pulled over by a police officer, their amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight and freeze response) may jump into gear. Instead of thinking: he will want to see my license and registration, I was probably speeding, one might think more in terms of an emergency response: are my hands in the right place? Should I start recording this interaction? Am I under a light so we can see each other clearly? Should I call someone and have them on the other end of the line? The difference between these two responses of being pulled over is about race and rooted in the experience of actual or perceived racial trauma with endless examples such as Rodney King, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and so on.

Another example is the time I was at your house – do you want to tell that story?  

Maureen:

Sure. One time about a year or two ago, the two of us were working together on a project and we needed a quiet space to focus outside of the office so we decided to work at my house. It was lunch time and you were in the groove on what you were doing, so I offered to run out and grab food. I asked if you wanted to stay and keep working while I just ran out to grab it and come right back.

Méroudjie:

It didn’t take me a full second to say no. This occurred around the time that Atatiana Jefferson was killed in her home in Fort Worth, after neighbors noticed her door had been left open and called the non-emergency police for a simple welfare check. To me, her death echoed that of Sandra Bland and India Kager, killed while holding her infant son. Since then we have mourned the death of Breonna Taylor and many others. My first thought was, I am worth more than a wrongful death suit. There wasn’t a chance that I, a Black woman, would stay alone in your house while you weren’t there. I knew that there would likely not be an assumption that I was your coworker, that you had invited me to your home, that you knew I was there while you were not, etc. I knew that my social standing, my master’s degree and Ph.D, nor my spotless record would distract them from what is often seen as the greatest threat, my skin. I just knew that it was not safe for me to be in your home without you. That’s what vicarious trauma looks like. And, this was just one event, one day of my life. I have many, many more. How long do we have?

Maureen:

Thank you for sharing that story. Truthfully, I think about it often. That no matter how much I try to be mindful of other people’s experiences, I offered something so casually that to you was completely frightening.

Méroudjie:

But that is exactly how racial trauma works, right? Two people can view the same situation in entirely different ways because one person has experienced racial trauma and one person has not. 

In fact, one way racial trauma has manifested in my life is related to the way in which my experiences have been invalidated by others. For example, gaslighting statements such as, “not everything is about race,” and “I am tired of people playing the race card,” have caused me to feel uncertain about whether or not what I am experiencing as racism is in fact racism. Often, I don’t feel validated in my thinking until someone confirms for me that yes, they too saw it as racism. I find myself having to go to others, both inside and outside of my racial group, and say, “This thing happened. It felt like it happened because of who I am.” Or, “I am interpreting this comment this way. Help me understand. Is this because I am Black?” This questioning of everything all the time is exhausting. It starts to make you wonder if you can even judge your own experiences. I sometimes feel I need to consult a White friend to evaluate whether what I’m feeling is even valid. This undermining of my own judgement, my lived experienced and my truth is traumatic on its own. 

Maureen:

I read an article years ago written by a Black woman talking about her experiences with race, and one line in it has stayed with me ever since. She was describing grabbing her luggage from the baggage claim area at an airport and she said something like, “And then a person cut in front of me, because I’m Black. Or maybe not because I’m Black.” It was this idea that maybe things are racism and maybe they’re not, and your brain is just constantly trying to make sense of all of it. Your comments remind me of that.

Méroudjie:

Yes – exactly. It’s exhausting.

Maureen:

You mentioned earlier that while each culture is unique, there are shared experiences of racism across cultural groups. In the news today there are countless stories from people in the Asian-American and Pacific Island (AAPI) communities that are sharing their experiences with racism. Last summer we saw protests around police brutality among Black people and the increase in support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In what ways are these experiences of racism similar, despite the fact that each cultural group experiences different things?

Méroudjie:

I think it’s important to note that there are narratives around each community of color’s experiences of racism. For example, there’s this narrative that those in the AAPI community are “model minorities.” This is rooted in racism – of course – and is a very damaging narrative for that community. But ultimately, it’s damaging for everyone. It pits communities of color against each other. And the outcome of this is a sort-of “Oppression Olympics”, like a fight to claim who is suffering the most, rather than a sense of solidarity and togetherness and an acknowledgement of the pain that comes from the experiences of racism that we’ve all felt. After the recent AAPI violence, I witnessed cross racial solidarity. I saw Black communities come together in support to say, we see you, we understand your pain, we are here with you. I also saw it when hurtful and damaging rhetoric was forming around the Latinx community and they experienced increased acts violence. I think that we have to continue to support each other rather than allow us to be divided because we know we are stronger together. When any member of the BIPOC community suffers, I suffer, because I know it will only be a matter of time when I need a shoulder to lean on.

Maureen:

So what else would you like us to know about racial trauma? Certainly we have many avenues towards which we need to create an anti-racist, more equitable society. But in what ways can we also work towards healing for racial trauma?

Méroudjie:

I think the way to healing involves a few steps. On an individual level, meditation, mindfulness and prayer can all be helpful in managing the stress and symptoms associated with racial trauma. Having a good support system is the most powerful protection against trauma, as we recover from trauma within the context of relationships. In addition, reaching out to a mental health professional who is trained in the treatment of trauma can be highly beneficial.

On a communal level, we must realize the responsibility of healing from racial trauma cannot be solely left to communities of color. It must be a collective effort, a healing journey we all embark on; one in which we all feel equally invested. I really love the model of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation organization which focuses on three steps towards racial healing: first we must acknowledge the truth of racism, then we can work towards healing, and ultimately reach transformation.

For me, the truth piece means that those of us who experience racism have to be vulnerable enough to share our stories. And those who are listening have to believe us when we tell them. When we say, this is my reality, this is the way I see the world, this is what happened to me, this is how I am interpreting that, this is my Truth – BELIEVE us.

Maureen:

That day at my house, I believed you when you told me that you were afraid to stay. I am not saying this to toot my own horn – clearly I messed up by offering in the first place – but once I did, I had the opportunity to then say, “Oh, wow. Yes. I did not think of that, and now I understand. Let’s go together.”

Méroudjie:

Right, because you could have said, “Don’t be silly! My neighborhood is safe. We have lots of non-White neighbors. No one will even know you’re here. You have nothing to be afraid of!” Any of those types of responses would be triggering, and have me second-guess my judgement or get defensive or have to justify my experiences. But when you hear me say that I don’t feel safe and you believe me – then we can move towards healing.

The other thing I would say on the path to healing is that we need a shared understanding of the true history of America. We need to know the strength and resilience of different communities, and we need to know the painful side, too. We need to create a narrative where BIPOC communities are equally represented and celebrated.

And finally, we need to start building authentic relationships across the divides. Once we really form connections with people who are different from us, we can learn from their experiences. Just like we had that moment together at your house that day, you now have a deeper understanding of the way I walk through the world and you can be more compassionate toward other people’s realities moving forward. We need that same understanding on a large scale.

Maureen:

Thank you so much for sharing both your professional expertise as well as your personal experiences to help us understand this important topic, Méroudjie. I know it is not easy to have to talk about the trauma that you experience as a result of racism and I am grateful to have the opportunity to highlight your experiences so that we can all learn from them and move towards a place of healing.

Méroudjie:

Thank you.