Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress is the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. Many people have experienced racism on various levels. In this conversation we will touch on sources of racial trauma, coping with racial trauma and brain and body memory. Racialized trauma can come directly from other people or can be experienced within a wider system. It can come as the result of a direct experience where racism is enacted on you, vicariously - such as where you see videos of other people facing racism - and/or transmitted intergenerationally
There are four main sources of racial trauma internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural. Internalized racism in the acceptance of racism by marginalized populations. This is where a population begins to believe and exert some of those behaviors within their community. This is where colorism may begin to impact a population as well as the belief in the stereotypes attached to the population. Interpersonal racism is an individual level of racism that can be defined as directly discriminatory or microaggressive. Institutional racism involves policies and discriminative practices within an institution such as schools, workspaces and government agencies. Lastly, structural racism is unjust racist patterns and practices that play out across institutions in our society.
So, you may ask how might we experience racism? Many will express that you may be being sensitive in your reaction to something they coin as innocent. Racism is not always easy to identify or write on paper. Racism can be the way something is communicated, shared or expressed in an interaction. Many acts of racism come from not only individual instances but on a larger scale. This larger scale includes laws, interaction with mass systems and being forced to continue in an operation meant to confine a population. Racism isn’t just physical or verbal.
Before we explore how we experience it in our brain and body, I would like to reflect on the following quote that I frequently use with people. “You can’t normalize your trauma and tell yourself it is okay.” In this we see time and time again in which the trauma of Black & Brown bodies is being plastered all over the news and are told to be okay with the view of it. I am here to say trauma becomes a part of us. This not only includes perinatal trauma, but it also includes cross generational trauma. There are so many studies on the outcomes of expectant mothers who experience trauma. To highlight how we come into this world says a lot if our mothers are experiencing racial trauma within the healthcare setting on top of experiencing it from a secondary lens.
Our bodies store that trauma. It may manifest in ways that may all seem so familiar including anxiety, anger, aggression, fear, avoidance and other negative expression. We find ourselves re-experiencing trauma in our body and not realize it. Much of how our brain stores information can also play a role in how we experience it. Our brain may keep us at a fight or flight mode when triggered by racist moments. My most second favorite saying is that says it’s not what you experience it’s how you experience it.
There is no one stop shop for dealing with racial trauma but we do encourage therapy to process your toughest memories, feelings and experiences with trauma. We also encourage you to not normalize your trauma, remove yourself from a situation, give yourself a break, vocalize when something is too much and do not feel like you have to be the spokesperson for your population. Normalizing your trauma is not okay. Remember you do not need anyone to validate if you were experiencing racism in the moment.