Several months ago, my mind and body felt heavy. It seemed as if every day I heard a story about an unarmed person of color being shot and killed. At the same time, constant stories of racial profiling — in coffee shops, on sidewalks, while driving — came from all directions.
The more stories that I heard, the heavier my mind and body felt.
One day, as I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline, a new story about the killing of an unarmed person of color popped up. It was at that moment that I felt myself shut down. A wave of helplessness and hopelessness washed over me. I remember thinking, “I can’t read any more stories like this. I just can’t take it.”
Prior to this, I had been experiencing difficulty sleeping. I would lie awake at night worrying about something happening to my partner, father, or brother. Whenever I traveled to an area with little or no people of color I’d become more anxious. Although it might not have shown outwardly, I was fearful that I would be viewed as “suspicious” or “dangerous,” simply because I am a person of color. And how, I wondered, would someone’s suspicions or stereotypes about me cause them to treat me?
As a trauma therapist, I am familiar with the symptoms of trauma. However, I didn’t immediately recognize them in myself. The ah-ha moment came when I discovered the term, “racial trauma.” This spoke precisely to how I felt. It was validating to be able to name what I was feeling. It was also helpful to know that I was not the only one experiencing it.
What is Racial Trauma?
Racial trauma is characterized by symptoms such as anxiety, hyper-vigilance to threat (constant high alert to potential dangers in the environment), and feelings of hopelessness, as a result of repeated exposure to racism or discrimination.
It can result when people experience racism, such as discrimination or hate crimes. It is also caused by repeated exposure to often subtle acts of prejudice called “microaggressions.” Examples include being followed around in a store or an available taxi driving past you.
Additionally, “microinvalidations” (“you’re a credit to your race,” or “when I look at you I don’t see color”) contribute to racial trauma.
Often, we think about trauma as resulting from exposure to war, natural disasters, and physical assaults. However, people can experience symptoms of trauma from any event that overwhelms the nervous system’s ability to cope and sparks feelings of helplessness, extreme danger, and inability to escape. Given the reality of racism in the US, it’s understandable for people of color to feel helpless in response.
Symptoms of Racial Trauma
Dr. Walter Smith, a researcher on racial trauma and discrimination at the University of Pittsburgh, identifies several effects of racial trauma, including:
Increased vigilance and suspicion – Suspicion of social institutions (schools, agencies, government), avoiding eye contact, distrust of those outside one’s social and family networks.
Heightened sensitivity to threat – Defensiveness, avoiding new situations, heightened sensitivity to being disrespected and shamed, and avoiding taking risks.
Psychological and physiological symptoms – Chronic stress, decrease immune system functioning, difficulty feeling safe/persistently on guard, increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders.
Increased alcohol and drug usage – The use of drugs or alcohol to manage pain or stress. This can be initially useful but becomes unhelpful when dependency develops.
Other symptoms include fatigue, lack of motivation, low self-esteem and generalized anxiety.
Trauma and The Body
All of our interactions–the good, bad, and ugly–are processed through our bodies. In our culture, we place a heavy emphasis on analyzing and rationalizing and less on what’s happening from our neck down. This, unfortunately, leaves us in a position where we spend more time in our heads than in our bodies.
Our bodies express themselves through a wide landscape of feelings and sensations. Our nervous systems guide how we move through the world; approaching, avoiding, connecting, and isolating. An individual who has experienced racial trauma may feel tightness or constriction when in an environment with few people of color. They may or may not be aware of their body beginning to tighten and their breathing becoming more shallow. However, these are all bodily indications that they do not feel safe.
Combatting The Effects
- Engage in activism. Experiences of racism and discrimination can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. To combat such feelings, consider engaging in activities that make you feel empowered. Identify organizations or community groups whose missions resonate with you.
- Seek connection. Share your experiences with people you trust. Support and validation can reduce the likelihood that negative racial experiences will be internalized. Consider connecting with organizations or groups with whom you share experiences and identities. Affinity spaces can be helpful with this. An affinity space is a group with a common interest, to which individuals can belong either formally or informally.
- Offer kindness to yourself. Have compassion for the emotional and physical impact that racial trauma can have, and seek out ways to care for yourself. Exercise, relaxation techniques, journaling, spending time with favorite people, and engaging in pleasurable activities can be restorative. Consider prayer, spiritual practices, or meditation, if that resonates with you.
- Seek therapy as a safe place for support. A trauma-informed therapist who practices from a place of cultural humility can help you process your experiences and assist you with developing helpful coping strategies.