Racial Trauma: What It Is and How Can You Heal From It

Each July, the mental health community recognizes Minority Mental Health Month. During this month, we shine a spotlight on mental health issues and how they affect the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community. Perhaps one of the most pervasive of these issues is racial trauma, but it’s not discussed nearly enough.

Learning about what racial trauma is and healthy coping mechanisms for it can help you improve your mental and physical health.

What is Racial Trauma?

Racial trauma is the term used to describe the toll that systemic racism takes on the health of people from the BIPOC community. In some people, the effects are so profound that they develop symptoms similar to PTSD.  Though not a new concept, the idea of racial trauma has been in the national spotlight recently following the killing of George Floyd and resulting protests in every state and around the world.

Racial trauma most often has a cumulative effect. In her book How to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo likens racism to an abusive relationship. It’s not necessarily about one time the abuser called the survivor a name or made them feel bad. Instead, it becomes abuse as it is part of a larger pattern that keeps the survivor unsafe.

Oluo explains that systemic racism is like being in an abusive relationship with all of society, and there’s no leaving it without dismantling systemic racism. The abuse of racism often comes in the forms of microaggressions, violence, and systemic discrimination. This cycle of abuse results in racial trauma.

Microaggressions and Racial Trauma

Microaggressions are everyday ways in which white people reinforce systemic racism. In general, there are three types of microaggressions:

  • Microassaults: These are individualized acts of racism within the white supremacist system. Examples include when a cashier follows a Black person around a high-end store or when someone tells a racist “joke.”
  • Microinsults: Perpetrators will say that they mean these statements as compliments, but they are harmful. For example, someone may describe a Black person as “articulate” or an Indigenous person as “civilized.” These statements are damaging because they assume that most people of the same race do not possess that characteristic, i.e., articulate or civilized.
  • Microinvalidations: These microaggressions invalidate the lived experiences of a person of color. Perhaps the most prominent example is when white people say they “don’t see race.” Colorblindness erases the lived experiences of anyone with a different racial identity than your own. Another example is when a white person insists that some negative experience “isn’t about race,” even when a BIPOC says that it is.

When people from the BIPOC community call out these microaggressions, white people often respond that this one incident is not that big of a deal. Sound familiar? This is gaslighting and part of the abusive nature of systemic racism. Your feelings about these microaggressions are valid.

Violence and Racial Trauma

Please skip ahead to the next section if you are triggered by descriptions of violence, particularly against people from the BIPOC community.

While it’s important to acknowledge racial trauma in any given year, 2020 is not any other year. When an officer killed George Floyd on camera in such a horrific manner, people from the BIPOC community across the country felt the pain all over again. It was not the first or the last time that a white cop killed an unarmed Black person, and it wasn’t the last. Instead, it’s part of a broader pattern that keeps people from the BIPOC community on high alert and grieving, resulting in more trauma.

Also this year, police officers killed Breonna Taylor while she slept in her home. It’s yet another open wound for people from the BIPOC community. Adding to the trauma of these killings is the fact that the police in so many cases are not brought to justice. The law enforcement officers who are responsible for Taylor’s death have yet to be held accountable, and it took nationwide protests before Floyd’s killer was arrested.

Microaggressions compound the trauma of violence against people from the BIPOC community. For example, when Black people insist that Black Lives Matter and white people respond with, “All lives matter!” it’s invalidating and derailing. It takes away from the important conversation about racism and brutality in policing. Instead, the conversation becomes all about the white person’s feelings. This not only perpetuates violence but also worsens the effects of trauma.

Systemic Racism and Trauma

From healthcare to voting, and from housing to work, racism affects most systems in American society. These systems constantly remind people from the BIPOC community that the systems are not built for them. They are built for white people’s benefit. Each interaction with racists systems can reopen wounds. When you end up going up against these racist systems day-in and day-out, you’re bound to notice negative effects on your mental health.

Physical and Mental Effects of Racial Trauma

Because the BIPOC community is not a monolith, you may experience the effects of racial trauma differently than even your closest friends and relatives. Because racial trauma is chronic, cumulative, and ever-present, it can negatively impact almost any facet of a person’s life. Research shows that racial trauma seriously impacts the mental and physical well-being of people from the BIPOC community.

Mental Health Symptoms of Racial Trauma

If you are part of the BIPOC community, systemic racism can take a serious toll on your mental health. You may experience symptoms such as:

  • Diminished self-esteem
  • Hopelessness
  • Fatigue
  • Disengagement from activism and voting
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Dissociation from friends and family
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Increased vigilance and sensitivity

People who live with racial trauma may also develop mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders. Racial trauma also causes people from the BIPOC community to experience suicide rates that are 3.5 times higher than white communities.

If you experience suicidal ideation, please seek immediate medical attention. You can go to your nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Physical Danger of Racial Trauma

Racism not only takes a toll on a person’s mental health, but prolonged exposure to that kind of stress can harm your physical health as well.

Research has shown that racial trauma makes people from the BIPOC community more likely to develop:

  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease

The prolonged and constant exposure to stress and fear likely contributes to the higher rates of these diseases in the BIPOC community. Finding healthy ways to cope with systemic racism can be an important part of staying mentally and physically healthy.

How Can People in the BIPOC Community Recover?

It can be challenging to see a way past racial trauma since the cause — systemic racism — is ever-present. As the fight for equity continues, you can still find ways to cope and keep your mental health intact.

First and foremost, it’s important to internalize the following truths:

  • Your experiences are real
  • Your feelings about your experiences are valid
  • You deserve to heal

In a society that seeks to invalidate people from the BIPOC community at every turn, you have likely heard the opposite of these messages. You deserve to prioritize your mental health and safety.

Specific Activities That Can Help

Coping with racial trauma looks different for everyone, so it’s essential to find what works for you. For example, some people cope by protesting or speaking out online. On the other hand, coping may also mean taking a break from activism. Other healthy coping mechanisms may include:

  • Engage in self-care: This looks different for everyone, but it can include meditation, prayer, healthy eating, and physical exercise.
  • Limit news consumption: Of course, it’s important to keep up with current events. However, repetitive coverage of violence against people from the BIPOC community can be traumatizing. Be sure to take a break when you need one.
  • Cultivate an excellent support system: Surround yourself with people who will listen to and validate your experiences.
  • Create art: Expressing yourself through art can be cathartic.
  • Recognize and verbalize your feelings: Just getting your emotions off of your chest can make a big difference in how you feel. Whether you confide in a good friend of a therapist, be sure to get it all out.
  • Make a list of things to avoid: If certain people, places, or situations make you feel unsafe, put them on a list. Do whatever you can to avoid anything on the list.
  • Engage in activism: If and when you are able, engage in activism that you feel comfortable with. Doing so can help you connect with the community and work toward anti-racist goals.

In a study of African American women, researchers found that those who kept their everyday experiences of racism had shorter telomeres. Meanwhile, their counterparts who openly talked about their experiences with everyday racism had longer telomeres. Telomeres are the protective structures on each person’s DNA. Longer telomeres indicate a longer life expectancy, and chronic stress is known to shorten telomeres.

Consider seeking help from a licensed professional, particularly someone who is well-versed in racial trauma. Therapy can give you the space you need to process the emotions that racial trauma can bring. This can improve your mental and physical health.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults suffering from a variety of mental health issues in an outpatient care setting, both in-person and through its digital health telemedicine offering.