Black Americans' Psychological Pain and Resilience

Interpersonal racism's lasting impact.

Posted Jun 28, 2020

 Deon Mowatt
Deon Mowatt, M.A., William James College Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student
Source: Deon Mowatt

Contributing Author: Deon Mowatt, M.A.

Edited by Natalie Cort, Ph.D.

In Toni Morrison’s bestselling novel, Beloved, the book’s main character Sethe attempts to destroy her baby by smashing its body against a wall in order to save it from the most extreme manifestation of White supremacy and anti-Black racism in America, slavery. Although Sethe’s choice to sacrificially murder her baby is extreme, understanding slavery’s brutality and its resultant profound psychological trauma puts her devastating decision into context. Sethe’s experiences of physical and emotional abuse during her enslavement did not distort her sense of reality, it magnified it.

Today’s America is far removed from the grips of slavery. However, in its wake, we have been left with ubiquitous positive White bias and interpersonal racism. Interpersonal racism (which includes microaggressions) generally refers to discriminatory behaviors perpetrated by individuals from dominant groups and directed toward individuals from marginalized or devalued groups (Brondolo, Shola, & Thompson, 2008; Gomez, 2013; Tawa, Suyemoto & Roemer, 2012). Nonetheless, many White people have been stubbornly dismissive of and inattentive to interpersonal racism. In recent years, due to wide dissemination of videos, they have been forced to confront White people’s routine engagement in racist behaviors. Examples include Black people being asked by White citizens to show their identification and/or state their reasons for being in a particular place or building. Other examples include the reporting of Black people to the police for frivolous reasons. Furthermore, our country’s current social unrest resulting from the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, highlights the potential lethality of interpersonal racism.     

Research suggests that Black adolescents, in particular, experience, witness, or hear about racist behaviors five times per day, on average (English et al., 2020). Such common daily exposure results in responses including cognitive disruption and hypervigilance among youth of color (Bryant-Davis, 2005). Degrading discriminatory experiences may also undermine their self-confidence and sense of belongingness in the American family. Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association, sustained traumatic exposure increases risk for anxiety, depression, irritability, mood fluctuations, and anger (Brondolo et al., 2008).

In Beloved, Sethe’s clear-eyed view of White supremacy and racial trauma during her enslavement led to a catastrophic choice. Her dilemma powerfully underscores the incredible resilience that Black Americans have had to maintain in order to continue surviving generations of catastrophic burdens resulting from racism.

Deon Mowatt has a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and is the founder of Aywyn Ed., a blog on child education and mental health.


Bryant-Davis, T., & Ocampo, C. (2005). The trauma of racism. The Counseling Psychologist, 33(4), 574-578.

English, D., Lambert, S. F., Tynes, B. M., Bowleg, L., Zea, M. C., & Howard, L. C. (2020). Daily multidimensional racial discrimination among Black U.S. American adolescents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 66, 101.

Gómez, J. M. (2013). Microaggressions and the enduring mental health disparity. Journal of Black Psychology, 41(2), 121-143.

Ponds, K. (2012). The trauma of racism: America's original sin. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 22(2), 22-24.