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Trauma

On the Healing of Racial Trauma

Five themes to be mindful of in the healing of racial trauma.

Key points

  • Racial trauma has long-lasting effects on the lives of persons of color.
  • Experts have outlined ways to begin the process of healing racial trauma.
  • The healing of racial trauma may best occur in a growth-fostering community with others who share one's racial identity.
Anna Shvets/Pexels
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

The recent mass killing of Black bodies in Buffalo, NY, and the shooting at a Taiwanese Church have been yet the most recent reminders that the bodies of persons who are racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. are not safe. The effects of such killings and other acts of violence on racially minoritized persons are far-reaching and often impact their mental and emotional well-being. Such events often leave a lasting mark on the lives of persons of color.

Monnica T. Williams, a psychologist and expert on race-based trauma and stress, defines racial trauma as the cumulative traumatizing impact of racism on a person who is an ethnic minority, which can include individual acts of racial discrimination combined with systemic racism, and typically includes historical, cultural, and community trauma as well. The experience of racial trauma can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, and trauma symptoms such as fear, hypervigilance, anger, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Although recent tragedies have heightened our awareness of racial trauma, the literature is still emerging on ways that counselors and other helping professionals can assist in the healing of wounds created by racial oppression. Most counselors and therapists have no training on how to address racial trauma in the lives of their minoritized clients. Fortunately, experts such as psychologist Dr. Thema Bryant have begun to suggest several themes that should be explored in the healing of racial trauma.

Validate Feelings

It is imperative that the feelings and experiences of racism and oppression of the client be validated. This will entail the willingness to broach the topic of racism repeatedly in the course of counseling.

Many persons who are racial minorities and live, work, or go to school in predominantly White environments have had their experiences of oppression questioned. This may have caused them to wonder if they are too sensitive, or they may begin to downplay or minimize racist experiences. Therefore, counselors and other helping professionals may need to give voice to their pain.

The validation of one’s experiences of racism may best come from others who share the client’s racial identity. Affinity groups, persons who share the same identities or interests, can be developmentally important, particularly for minoritized persons working or going to school in predominantly White environments.

Another way to validate one’s experience is through reading literature. For my Black clients, I often recommend reading Black authors such as Nora Zeal Hurston, Imani Perry, James Baldwin, and Eddie Glaude who adeptly describe the struggles of Black life in the midst of White supremacy. As someone once said, we read to know we are not alone.

Externalize the Oppression

The second step is to externalize the oppression, letting the person know that some of the most vexing aspects of their struggle are a result of repeated experiences of racism at both interpersonal and systemic levels. As psychologist Dr. Carlton Green has noted, the sickness lies within the racist systems in which they live, work, and go to school.

White supremacy is as insidious as any virus and can create mental health struggles that impinge upon the lives of persons of color. Therefore, counselors will need to help cultivate what has been called a critical consciousness, an awareness of ways in which power and privilege have shaped their lives and their everyday experiences. The counselor may need to provide psychoeducation around the effects of racism in all of its forms.

Body Care

Over the past 20 years, experts have stressed that trauma resides in the body, and not simply the mind. Therefore, racially traumatized persons will need to engage in activities to soothe and heal their nervous systems. Being in nature, meditation, prayer, singing, and many other activities that are important to many cultural groups may prove essential in the healing of one’s body.

It may be helpful for one to view their racial trauma as they would a cancer. They should treat themselves with the same level of consideration, compassion, and attention they would if they had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. It is true that one cannot "self-care" their way out of oppression, yet great attention will need to be given to one’s mental, relational, and spiritual development by engaging in life-giving practices.

Celebrating One’s Heritage

Third, it is important to identify cultural strengths and supports from which the person can draw in order to resist internalizing experiences of oppression. I have found it helpful to have clients talk about what they enjoy about their ethnic group, their community, and their family.

Again, it will be important for racially traumatized persons to be a part of communities of people from their racial background that celebrate their cultural heritage and the advancement of their people. These groups may be tied to professional interests, a religious community, or a common hobby.

Re-narrating One’s Story

Finally, it’s important for persons to understand their experiences as being embedded within the larger story of racism experienced by one’s ethnic group. We need to understand that our pain is a part of the collective pain of our people. We need to know we are not alone.

One significant aspect of this re-narration may derive from engaging in activism toward racial justice, such as voter recruitment, or bringing about greater public awareness of issues related to discrimination. This may help a person feel empowered and hopeful that they can contribute to a better tomorrow for future generations.

Counselors and therapists who work with racial trauma will need to be equipped with evidence-based trauma treatments. Along with these treatments, counselors will need to help clients connect to the components of their culture and heritage that foster resilience. Given the ongoing nature of racism, the healing of racial trauma can be a lifelong process. Fortunately, we have the resources to heal.

References

Liu, W. M., Liu, R. Z., Garrison, Y. L., Kim, J. Y. C., Chan, L., Ho, Y. C. S., & Yeung, C. W. (2019). Racial trauma, microaggressions, and becoming racially innocuous: The role of acculturation and White supremacist ideology. American Psychologist, 74(1), 143–155. doi:10.1037/amp0000368

Sibrava, N. J., Bjornsson, A. S., Pérez Benítez, A. C. I., Moitra, E., Weisberg, R. B., & Keller, M. B. (2019). Posttraumatic stress disorder in African American and Latinx adults: Clinical course and the role of racial and ethnic discrimination. American Psychologist, 74(1), 101–116. doi:10.1037/amp0000339

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