What is Racial Trauma?
Updated: May 15
You might have heard the term racial trauma being used to describe the experience of people who have experienced historical oppression and mistreatment in this and other countries. You might have wondered, what is racial trauma? This blog post gives a brief overview of what racial trauma is.
Racial trauma is unfortunately a politicized idea right now.
While there are some people and governments who try to erase the ugly history of racism in the United States, it is important to recognize that people have been affected by racism and other forms of bigotry. In fact, it is more common and insidious than you might imagine. It would be more comfortable for Caucasian Americans to sweep what happened under the rug, but I think it’s important to learn what racial trauma is and how we can avoid re-traumatizing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous American, and other people of color) with our current actions, speech, and policies.
While a thorough discussion of the political aspect of legislation that bans teaching critical race theory in school is beyond the scope of this post, I mention it as an example of systemic racism. Such erasure of history negatively impacts our ability to make everyone feel important and valued in our institutions and society. I will focus on the implications for mental health and therapy of racial trauma.
What is racial trauma and how do we define it?
According to Mental Health America, a person can develop racially-based traumatic stress (RBTS) from being exposed to “emotional and mental injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination.” RBTS is not a disorder, but it does cause psychological problems like PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder), such as anger, mental distancing from the traumas, depression, anxiety, and irritability. This type of emotional reaction can be caused by exposure to unexpected, uncontrollable racist encounters.
In addition, BIPOC people can be exposed to such events vicariously through televised and social media. For instance, there has been a recent surge of anti-Semitic posts on Twitter, which creates a feeling of helplessness and anger in the target audience. Seeing police brutality and murders of African-American people on TV and other media is also extremely disturbing. It can lead to feeling unsafe and hypervigilant, which is another PTSD symptom.
David Archer cites five faces of oppression based on Iris Marion Young’s research, which are cultural imperialism, exploitation, powerlessness, marginalization, and violence. We automatically think of whiteness as the norm, rather than one of many different cultural and ethnic identities. Research, models of therapeutic care, and psychopathology definitions have historically been based off Caucasian populations and racial identity. This skews the conceptualization and treatment of mental disorders in a direction that does not serve non-white individuals.
Examples of racial trauma.
Sometimes, systemic racism creates conditions that trap people in violent, unpredictable communities where gun violence, domestic violence, and other unsafe conditions are rampant and extremely difficult to escape. This is especially true for children and elderly people. Indigenous Americans living in extremely poor conditions on reservations and elsewhere are also exposed to high rates of suicide, homicide, and substance abuse.
Recent physical attacks on Asian and Pacific Islander citizens in the United States, also lead to a feeling of unpredictable danger. Unfortunately, the list of race-based violence goes on. While it seemed the US society was making progress with during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, some of the progress has eroded societally and politically.
In addition to being BIPOC, a person might also experience oppression because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, socioeconomic class or religion. There are many aspects of a person’s identity, and a person can receive negative treatment based on any of these facets of their identity. This is referred to as intersectionality, which is a phrase coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.
Racial trauma can take more subtle forms, as well.
Verbal attacks and microaggressions are another form of racism that negatively impacts BIPOC people. They can serve as a trigger for historical and personal racism that has been unresolved. If we increasingly create a society where we cannot talk about race openly and respectfully, there is less chance to dismantle the negative effects of racism on everyone.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, microaggressions are “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” It often involves assumptions based on over-generalizations about a group of people based on their ethnic identity or heritage.
However, it can also take the form of exclusion from social and career opportunities, as well as subtle putdowns from peers at work and school. The term was coined by Dr. Derald Wing Sue in 2007, but some scholars think that this term is inadequate to describe the impact and significance of systemic racism. While subtle, this type of racism is constant and pervasive. It creates an inescapable environment that can diminish psychological well-being in BIPOC people.
Racial trauma has been passed down through epigenetic transmission.
Historical traumatic events, such as slavery, the Holocaust, the decimation of indigenous people in the United States, etc. have a negative impact not only on survivors but their offspring. This is passed down through their genes to many generations after. As David Archer, a therapist of African descent practicing in Canada states, “these are actual large-scale, ‘capital letter T trauma’ events that seem to leave a genetic mark on individuals and their offspring” (p. 97, Anti-racist Psychotherapy). The physical reactions to the traumatic stress to the mothers affect the brain development of unborn children, as well as other children exposed to these events.