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7 Signs of Racism Trauma and Gaslighting

Key points

  • Trauma may occur as the result of physical, mental, verbal, or emotional abuse.
  • Racism trauma is the result of severe gaslighting.
  • People who experience racism trauma often suffer “triple wounds.”
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The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event… Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms.” Examples of trauma-inducing experiences include disasters, accidents, and loss. In social interactions and relationships, trauma may occur as the result of physical, mental, verbal, or emotional abuse. This article will focus on the characteristics and impact of racism trauma.

It is very important to emphasize that racism trauma typically occurs in the context of a dominant culture/society that often discriminates against and oppresses marginalized groups both overtly (i.e., hate crimes, hate speech, media and Hollywood negative racial stereotypes, racial profiling, police brutality, anti-immigrant sentiment, and xenophobia) and covertly (i.e., implicit social/societal/professional segregation; implicit hiring, housing, legal, health care, banking, and customer service discrimination; many micro-aggressions and indignities).

Racial trauma is also the result of severe gaslighting, where a perpetrator (in this case a dominant, discriminatory society) convinces the victim through systemic racism, media bias, negative stereotypes, and daily micro-aggressions that they are less important, valued, accepted, and safe than those with racial privileges. Racial trauma is the result of systemic marginalization and abuse.

Unlike many other types of trauma in which an individual deals with traumatic events from the past, racial trauma is unique in that those who experience it suffer the “triple wounds” of past historical trauma (i.e., legacies of slavery, colonization, forced resettlement and assimilation, internment camps, racist government policies and laws, racist killings, etc.), past personal trauma (i.e., childhood experiences of racism), as well as present, ongoing trauma (i.e., incidents at work or in personal life, news coverage of racism, social media racist rants). While some people with racism trauma are conscious of the cause of their difficulties, others may be unaware (or in denial) of the impact racism has on their physical health, mental health, identity, self-worth, and overall well-being.

What are some of the signs that a person is suffering from racism trauma? Here are seven characteristics, with references from my books How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions and Are You Highly Sensitive? How to Gain Immunity, Peace, and Self-Mastery!. Someone who struggles from racism trauma may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

1. Intense anger, anxiety, or fear about the impact of racism on individual and in society. Frequent negative triggers of indignation, hurt, or pain when seeing acts of racism reported or perpetrated in mass and social media.

2. Reoccurring stress and tension about being a possible target of overt racism (i.e., hate crime, hate speech), covert racism (i.e., implicit discrimination in hiring, housing, customer service), or microaggressions (i.e., insensitive racial or cultural remarks, social rejection and exclusion, social marginalization and belittlement).

3. Fight response: Hypervigilance guarding against racism in daily interactions and activities. May react strongly (internally and/or externally) to perceived signs of racism or dominant culture entitlement and privilege.

4. Flight response: Avoidance of certain social interactions for fear of being a target of racism and discrimination. Reluctance to live in, travel to, or visit certain places/environments that may be hostile. Insecure and fear for ones’ physical or emotional safety when being targeted as “different,” “stranger,” “outsider,” or “foreigner.”

5. Freeze response: Meek and compliant response to overt and covert acts of racism. Willingly allow oneself to be marginalized and discriminated against without protest, indignation, or efforts to seek recourse. Feeling “stuck,” helpless, and powerless in environments and relationships of prejudice, discrimination, and racism.

6. Denial response (a variation of freeze response): Deny racism exists or its harmful impact on individuals and society. Engage in internalized racism by attacking own or other marginalized groups. Criticize and attack social justice activism. Hide or disavowal one’s own cultural identity, values, and self-worth for the sake of “fitting-in” (i.e., “act mainstream” and avoid being too “ethnic”; change beliefs and behavior to assimilate; physical alterations such as hair bleaching, hair straightening, or skin whitening to imitate dominant ideals of beauty).

7. Reoccurring health and mental health issues such as hypertension, high blood pressure, anxiety disorder, sleep disorder, social anxiety disorder, depression, substance abuse, low self-esteem, and dysfunctional or abusive inter-racial relationships. Consistent feeling of “I’m different,” “I’m not good enough,” or “I don’t belong.”

For tips on how to heal and overcome trauma, see references below.

© 2021 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.


Ni, Preston. How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions. PNCC. (2014)

Ni, Preston. Are You Highly Sensitive? How to Gain Immunity, Peace, and Self-Mastery!. PNCC. (2017)

Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters and Stop Psychological Bullying. PNCC. (2017)

Ni, Preston. How to Reduce Anxiety & Increase Certainty in Difficult Situations – A Practical Guide. PNCC. (2016)

The American Psychological Association

Fisher, Janina. Transforming The Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists. PESI. (2021)

Levine, Peter. Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. Sounds True. (2008)

Perry, Bruce D. & Winfrey, Oprah, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron. (2021)

Workbook for What Happened to You? By Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD & Oprah Winfrey. Genius Reads. (2021)

Smith, Ilene. Moving Beyond Trauma. Lioncrest. (2019)

van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin. (2015)