By Erica D. Marshall Lee, Ph.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates
I waited until Inauguration Eve to watch One Night in Miami, the new movie directed by Regina King. That turned out to be a mistake that I now regret because I cannot sleep. I started listening to Sam Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come” on repeat. Tears began to flow and true raw pain seemed to seep from every one of my pores. On the eve that so many Americans anticipate change, I am terrified, I am hopeful, I am skeptical. I reflect on the labor of Civil Rights leaders, the Civil Rights Movement, and the arduous struggle that was faced. They gave their lives for the movement, for what? We recently saw how easily the flame of hatred can be lit on a national scale with the world watching. The lies we tell ourselves to remain comfortable and blameless! How easy it is to turn a blind eye. How can we right this wrong? Do I even dare to be optimistic?
Sadly, some deny that the continued transgressions resulting in repeated racial trauma for Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) exist. Many of us have some understanding of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or have at least heard of it. It is usually associated with the devastating effects of combat. PTSD is a mental health concern that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like sexual assault, a natural disaster, or accidents. People impacted by PTSD can have instances in which they relive the traumatic event through nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks. They may avoid places, people, situations, and emotions that remind them of their trauma. Lastly, individuals suffering from PTSD may deal with hypervigilance and be easily startled in a continual state of preparation for the possibility of another trauma.
Imagine what it might be like to experience something akin to this for generations. Racial trauma is like PTSD – it is the reaction of BIPOC to threatening events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination and threatening events. It is not considered a mental health disorder but can be nonetheless debilitating as it can cause impairment in social, educational, and occupational domains. This can take the form of witnessing racial discrimination toward other BIPOC, and encountering humiliating and shaming events and/or threats of harm and injury.
Racial trauma is distinctive as it is comprised of both individual and collective damage due to exposure and re-exposure to racial incidents. Individuals who watch the news, read print media, or view social media are likely unable to escape racial affronts narrated daily. The symptoms of racial trauma may be similar to that of PTSD (e.g., hypervigilance, avoidance, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts) with anger, depression, low self-esteem, and physical indicators. Racial trauma is chronic and requires greater adjustment for BIPOC to engage in normal daily activity. Its manifestation may vary from one cultural group to another and may be characterized by all or some symptoms. This type of trauma results from living within a racist system. Think about it: In our country, BIPOC live in a racist society every day from birth. We cannot escape it. I am sure this is why I am so emotional. People have literally slaved, fought, and died to move the needle forward. Taking this into consideration, it might not be so hard to understand why some people appear to have an “attitude” or “chip on their shoulder." Americans, and the world, thought we were further than we fooled ourselves to believe.
The mental and physical health impact of recent — indeed 400 years of — racist events, has been deleterious in ways we do not want to acknowledge (or admit responsibility). We cannot afford to continue to whitewash or rewrite this narrative. We must address it and not shy away from it in society at large, or the therapy room. COVID-19 has afforded us a front-row seat to the racial disparities in physical heath in our country that have gone unaddressed. Racial mental health disparities are no different.
Some psychologists find it uncomfortable discussing culture, race, and individual intersectionalities in the therapy room. The act of omitting these conversations can, in essence, be micro-invalidations, which are the exclusion, nullification, or negation of a person of color’s thoughts, experiential reality, or feelings. Psychologists, charged to “respect and protect human and civil rights," can unwittingly cause harm by failing to give credence to these very salient aspects of their consumer’s lives. By addressing the reality of racism and being open to uncomfortable conversations, psychologists can work to validate the struggle that their consumers may have encountered. This means communicating about topics of discrimination, racism, and oppression regularly and not merely when there has been a murder, protest, or riot. Remember, this is our daily experience not restricted to highly publicized occurrences. There is no one “right” way to have these conversations and missteps are inevitable. Most consumers will be appreciative of having the opportunity to engage in dialogue should they desire to do so. Not everyone will want to talk about or even realize the impact that racism has on their lives and that is okay too. Psychologists can educate themselves through books, movies, music, and immersing themselves in cultures different from their own to begin the process of becoming more culturally competent.
One Night in Miami evoked pain, fear, and anger in me indeed. Listening to Cooke’s song on repeat definitely did not help. The fact that the fight against racial injustice is just as real now as it was then is discouraging. I smiled bitterly at the scenes in which African Americans’ activities were restricted. Not so long ago, African Americans were prevented from using bathrooms, riding buses, drinking from water fountains, eating in restaurants, staying at hotels, etc. How ironic is it that people are upset about being “asked” to shelter in place, wear a mask, and/or wash their hands? Kind of pales in comparison. That fight, however, has resulted in change. We have had our first BIPOC president and now the first woman and the first BIPOC Vice President. That is encouraging. It is a reason to be hopeful and a reason, for me as an African descended female, to be proud. I am encouraged by the continued efforts of BIPOC communities and their allies. In the words of Sam Cooke, “It’s been a long time coming but I know change gone come, oh yes it will.”
American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. https://www.apa.org/ethics/code/ethics-code-2017.pdf
Mental Health America. (2021). Racial Trauma. Mental Health America. https://mhanational.org/racial-trauma
National Center for PTSD. (2019). Understanding PTSD and PTSD Treatment. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/publications/print/understandingptsd_booklet.pdf
Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128–142. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000296