Defining Racial Trauma
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The negative effects of racial discrimination and the unfair or prejudicial treatment of individuals on the basis of race on Black Americans are well documented. Experiences with racial discrimination are associated with negative mental (e.g., depression, anxiety, hopelessness, violent behavior) and physical (e.g., hypertension, thickening and calcification of the arteries, and heart rate variability) health outcomes. These detrimental effects on health are found independent of socioeconomic status, age, and gender. Moreover, over 60% of Black Americans endorse at least one experience of racial discrimination in their lifetime, and findings suggest that the links between experiences of racial discrimination and negative health outcomes are stronger for Black Americans than for any other group. Carter (2007) posits that some Black Americans who experience racial discrimination can develop racial trauma, a psychological trauma with symptoms comparable to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 criteria for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), which include negative alterations to cognition and mood, intrusive symptoms, avoidance, and physical reactions.
The Intersectionality of Racism and Gender
While individuals of all racial-ethnic minority groups (i.e. Latinx, Indegeounous peoples, etc.) are at risk of experiencing racial discrimination and racial trauma, Black Americans are especially at risk, as anti-Black racism is individual,systemic, and historical. Additionally, it is important to consider the compounding impact of belonging to multiple marginalized and oppressed groups, including (but not limited to) race, gender, and sexuality, and how these intersections interact and increase susceptibility to experiences of racial trauma. The concept of intersectionality describes the ways in which various identities interact and shape the experiences of individuals from marginalized groups. More specifically, examining the effects of racial trauma through the lens of intersectionality allows for a more thorough account of the multiple identities occupied by Black Americans (e.g., Black trans women, Black differently-abled Americans, etc.) and how those who occupy multiple identities are impacted by racial trauma. For example, Black women exist at the intersection of double marginalization: being Black, faced with the adversities previously stated, and a woman, places them in a position beneath Black men in social hierarchies. As such, it is important to consider intersectionality when discussing the impact of racial trauma and how Black Americans who occupy multiple identities are often forgotten and erased from the narrative of protests and movements. Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was murdered while she was asleep in her home, has received much less media attention (and consequently, slower moving progress on her family’s fight for justice) amidst the current protests. Intersectionality is important in considering why the American public were spurred into outrage and protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, but less noticeably so for Breonna Taylor.
Symptoms of Racial Trauma
Psychologically, racial trauma can cause symptoms that mirror those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
- Re-experiencing of distressing events: reporting of discrimination in higher numbers
- Arousal: higher reports of somatization when distressed (e.g., stomach aches, headaches, rapid heartbeat), greater perception of behavioral problems
- Chronic Stress
- Negative emotion: depression, anxiety, Black/Latinx middle school students have higher rates of depression in context of discrimination
- Avoidance: less willingness to take academic risks, higher school drop-out rates after racial discrimination is perceived
These negative psychological outcomes are not only present in adults, but have been found to appear as in children of color as early as 12 years of age. However, the toll of racial trauma and stress is not limited to psychological outcomes. The negative effects of racial trauma also affects physical health outcomes. These symptoms are often exacerbated by the common lack of access to adequate medical services forpeople of color as a result of systematic racism. Physical symptoms can include:
- Physical pain
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Hypertension, with spikes in blood pressure following exposure to racist stimuli; blood pressure remains elevated thereafter
- Respiratory Complications
- Higher Allostatic Load (the wear and tear of the body caused by chronic stress) When the body is in a state of distress, it activates the stress response system, which helps us fight or get out of the stressful situations (a.k.a. fight, flight, or freeze). However, when experiences of stress are consistent and chronic, the stress response system becomes taxed and hormones can be unbalanced, leading to some of the physical illnesses and conditions listed above.
- Digestive issues
- APA (American Psychological Association) Guide on the Effects of Stress on the Body
Racism, Discrimination, and Prejudice- Some Examples In the Scientific Literature
- Racial discrimination is related to poor psychological health.
- There is a clear positive relationship between racial discrimination and poor psychological functioning. Racial discrimination is also associated with low infant birth weight. Additionally, racial discrimination is associated with lower “self esteem, self-worth, and adaptation”.
- In a sample of African American college students at predominantly White institutions, experiences of racial discrimination were associated with subsequent increases in sleep difficulties. Furthermore, greater levels of internalized racism (i.e., believing racist messages like Black Americans are “lazy” or “criminals”) are associated with a stronger relation to sleep difficulties.
- Racial discrimination experiences are associated with poorer mental health (i.e., more symptoms of depression and anxiety) as well as lower individual and collective self-esteem.
- Black and Hispanic individuals report greater fear of police compared to White people at similar socio-economic status levels. Negative vicarious experiences with police, which may include seeing or hearing about police interactions, are related to greater negative attitudes toward police.
- A study by Devylder et al. (2018) demonstrates that police violence exposure is more common for people of color, and this exposure is related to poor mental health symptoms, including suicidal ideation and psychotic episodes.
- Being seen and heard is essential to healing. Connect with friends who are able to engage in racially conscious conversations and willing to help you process your thoughts and emotions.
- The benefits of disclosing experiences of racism are demonstrated in science. In a study of African American women, those who experienced frequent everyday racism and reported that they kept it to themselves were shown to have shorter telomeres. Shorter telomere length is an indicator of chronic stress exposure, aging, and morbidity.
- Engage in prayer, mindfulness, spiritual practices, and use of mantras.
- Practice self-care by engaging in activities that you enjoy and make you happy.
- Learn to be aware and recognize the symptoms of racial trauma (e.g., fatigue, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping). Identify similar ways to cope with these symptoms.
- Make a list of situations, people, or places that trigger your symptoms of trauma, and make a similar list of ways to cope for each of these situations, people, or places.
- Recognize when you are not able to perform optimally because of the above symptoms and rest if you are able.
- Roleplay how to respond to negative racial encounters with trusted people in your network.
- Engage in activism. Feeling empowered involves participating in actions to solve difficulties. Agency and self-advocacy are associated with leadership, school engagement, self-esteem, and prosocial behaviors. Do a self-check and ask yourself if you need help or someone to talk to.
- The American Psychological Association urges those who are experiencing trauma in the aftermath of these tragedies to practice self-care. Connect with family, friends and other communities to support people. Talk about your feelings and limit you and your children’s exposure to news media and viral videos. Seek professional help if you need it (some resources as noted below).
- Racism is a huge problem that cannot be solved by a single person’s efforts alone. Coping by engaging in distractions or focusing on any positive aspects of the situation are associated with lower negative emotion. At the same time, it may feel like distracting yourself or focusing on positives is ignoring the problem. Acting with agency, problem solving, and doing something to change the problem are all associated with more positive emotions.