6 Ways to Cope With Race-Based Trauma

14 Minute Read

Our nation is in the throes of a powerful social movement—one that’s been determined, in fact, to be one of the largest in U.S. history.

With the recent and tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other black Americans killed while going about their daily lives, the Black Lives Matter movement has been at the forefront of personal, corporate, and legislative conversations.

While the world grapples with issues of systemic injustice, it’s important to keep in mind how this unique form of trauma impacts the health of individuals who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).

Conversations around health disparities related to racism are entering the mainstream, in part because of the wildly disproportionate effects of COVID-19 that have been seen in racial and ethnic minority groups. It’s crucial that mental health is included in those conversations and, specifically, that people are taught to understand how race-based trauma impacts our immediate mental health, while also having greater, lasting health implications.

race-based trauma
With the recent and tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other black Americans killed while going about their daily lives, the Black Lives Matter movement has been at the forefront of personal, corporate, and legislative conversations.

 

For example, we know that racism can profoundly impact our health. The stress of discrimination can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and even premature mortality. 

We also know that black Americans and other minorities receive inferior healthcare compared to their white counterparts. Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die due to complications in childbirth than white mothers. Even tennis champion Serena Williams, who attempted to alert her doctors of pre-existing issues after giving birth, wasn’t immune from this life-threatening bias.

What Is Race-Based Trauma? 

When people hear the word “trauma,” they often think of one single, dramatic, life-changing event or moment in time. Race-based trauma occurs much more insidiously, on a systemic level, and is experienced through both micro and macroaggressions. 

Race-based trauma refers to people of color’s reactions to dangerous events and experiences of racial discrimination. These events can have such a pervasive impact on an individual because of the subtle and nefarious nature of insidious trauma. 

The impact of race-based trauma can alter an individual’s perception of the world, their sense of self, and the nature of their relationships.

What Are Microaggressions? 

A microaggression is a subtle stab, often with language, that stems from a long history of oppression. It sends a hostile or negative message, and although these messages may appear harmless to outsiders (in fact, perpetrators may themselves be unaware of the biases reflected in such statements), they’re considered covert forms of discrimination. 

Microaggressions are sometimes so insidious that it’s possible that an individual experiencing them may not fully realize how internalizing them is negatively affecting their wellbeing.

One example of a microaggression would be a black woman being told in a surprised tone, “You’re so articulate.” On the surface, it seems the speaker is being complimentary, but the covert assumption is that as a black woman, you’re not supposed to be as intelligent or well-spoken as a white person. The speaker is inferring that they believed you to be one way and is surprised their assumption is untrue, simply based on the color of your skin. 

Worse yet, if the person perpetrating the microaggression is well-intentioned, as in the case of a friend or colleague, they may be shocked or confused if confronted on why these types of comments are damaging. Such conversations sometimes lead to the perpetrator unintentionally gaslighting the person of color: The burden of the interaction is redirected to the person of color, who further internalized that stress and trauma.

protect your space
If the person perpetrating the microaggression is well-intentioned, as in the case of a friend or colleague, they may be shocked or confused if confronted on why these types of comments are damaging.
The world of dating provides another example of how insidious and subtle systemic racism can be.

Some of my BIPOC female clients tend to struggle with issues surrounding appearance and desirability, which is only amplified when dating. They begin to question their attractiveness compared to what are considered conventional white-European or otherwise Westernized standards of beauty. In our sessions, I help my clients explore their early experiences and where these feelings originated. 

From a young age, most people of color see that people in positions of power as well as ideal images of beauty look differently than they do. It’s no surprise, then, that feelings of inadequacy or self-esteem may arise as a result. Essentially, people of color have to grow up in a society that values things they don’t have.

What Are Macroaggressions?

Unlike microaggressions, which are more subtle or ambiguous, macroaggressions refer to overt forms of racial discimination such as verbal abuse, racials slurs, or hate crimes. In today’s world, macroaggressions are typically considered less socially acceptable, and for this reason may occur less frequently than microaggressions.

What Does Race-Based Trauma Look Like?

Race-based trauma can exhibit itself in many different forms. Here are some of the psychological symptoms commonly seen in individuals experiencing race-based trauma: 

Hypervigilance: Feeling on edge, distrustful, or the need to protect yourself when interacting with the world around you because there’s always a potential threat, whether it’s more subtle discrimination or outright violence.

Depression and Helplessness: Loss of hope in our elected officials, leaders, or community to effectively help and protect us. Trying to understand what this means for our own children or future generations and fearing that we may not be able to protect them.

Anger: Feelings of anger, rage, or sadness at the unchallenged system, community, and elected leaders who allow people of color to continue to be mistreated and killed. Also, anger that it’s taken so long for these issues to be brought to the forefront of conversations in the daily lives of others, when it’s been affecting people of color for generations.

Monitoring Your Authentic Self: We may begin to take great measures to change our behavior and stifle our emotions, or even valid reactions, in order to avoid being perceived as a negative stereotype.

Questioning Your Reality: Self-doubt and questioning one’s lived experience. It’s not uncommon to wonder, “Are the microaggressions or injustices I experience really that bad if they’re allowed to continue without anyone batting an eyelash? Am I just overreacting?”

race-based trauma
It’s not uncommon to wonder, “Are the microaggressions or injustices I experience really that bad if they’re allowed to continue without anyone batting an eyelash? Am I just overreacting?”

6 Ways to Cope with Race-Based Trauma

It’s painstaking to learn how to thrive in a world that you’re told and shown is not made for you. The psychic energy required to maintain this level of hypervigilance merely to exist in this world as a person of color is physically exhausting. 

  1. Gain Critical Consciousness
  2. Flip the Narrative to Highlight Resilience
  3. Develop Mindfulness and Objectivity
  4. Take Social Action for Empowerment
  5. Release Emotional Energy With Compassion
  6. Radical Self-Care as a Method of Resistance

1. Start by Gaining Critical Consciousness.

Critical consciousness—the ability to identify and question systems of inequality—is one of the guiding principles of social justice teaching. By gaining an in-depth understanding of our social and historical experiences, we can begin to take action against oppression.

Put it into practice: In order to begin increasing our awareness to the power structures in our society, we can deconstruct racism by asking ourselves several questions:

    1. Why does racism/inequality exist? 
    2. Who is benefitting from this oppressive system?
    3. How does it favor this group?
    4. What allows this type of system to continue to thrive? 
Resilient
Many of us are feeling anger, rage, and sadness at the unchallenged system, community, and elected leaders who allow people of color to continue to be mistreated and killed.

2. Flip the Narrative to Highlight Resilience.

So often, the victors get to claim the narrative (Christopher Columbus, anyone?). This time, let’s flip the switch. Focus your attention not on your deficits but instead on your intrinsic value and strengths. Reject the negative story that’s being told to you that you’re somehow not adequate, and instead choose to highlight your resilience. You can do this by identifying the achievements and character strengths you’ve developed in spite of a system that is not built to help you thrive. 

Put it into practice: Ask yourself:

  1. What have you accomplished despite all odds? 
  2. What are your values that you’ve managed to uphold in the face of adversity?
  3. What do you bring to the table, and with your unique position, can you help other people navigate these obstacles?

For every one person who does outwardly praise you on your strengths or accomplishments, there’s another five people who likely took note but never spoke up.

click to tweet  Click to tweet

 

The truth is that you may not feel 100% sure about yourself all of the time, and that’s okay, that’s also part of being human. What’s important to remember, however, as a person of color is that for every one person who does outwardly praise you on your strengths or accomplishments, there’s another five people who likely took note but never spoke up. 

Consider the uncomfortable task of standing up for yourself during an awkward or difficult interaction with a colleague during a work meeting. This may not seem to affect anyone but you on the surface, but this action can have a powerful ripple effect on observers. You never know who’s learning from your behavior and who you will positively impact. 

3. Develop Mindfulness and Objectivity.

Resist internalizing the micro- and macroaggressions you face. This, understandably, is incredibly difficult, and it’s usually more effective if done after working through the initial steps outlined above. A technique I like to use with my clients is imagining that you’re sitting on a riverbank watching your thoughts pass by as fish swimming downstream. 

This doesn’t mean giving the people or institutions who’ve wronged you a free pass; it means gaining distance from the situation by resisting internalizing the negativity. Being able to gain a bit of distance and objectivity when viewing our experiences helps decrease our emotional reactivity, which in and of itself is freeing. 

Put it into practice: Let’s take a negative interaction with a coworker or colleague as an example. By acknowledging that my coworker (who may or may not be knowingly racist) is a product of our flawed system, and that her insensitive comments aren’t a reflection of me or my worth—but, rather, her own limitations, upbringing, and blind spots—I can prevent myself from internalizing her hurtful comments and, therefore, feeling negatively about myself. 

I want to be clear that I’m not saying she doesn’t need to be held accountable for racist behavior, whether ignorant or malicious in intent. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The point of this exercise is to help you understand her behavior in a way that helps you distance yourself from it emotionally, which allows you to be freer with your energy. In this scenario, the perpetrator still has the option to learn, but the burden of that education is no longer placed on the person of color.

4. Take Social Action for Empowerment.

Find and join a local social justice group, either online or in person. It may initially feel like the first day of school, and it could take a couple of meetings or interactions to get to know others, and that’s okay. There’s strength and power in numbers. Get and stay connected to others who are just as passionate about social justice and putting their words to power. 

Put it into practice: Explore various racial equity groups in your area. Find ways to engage in advocacy, share testimony, or provide education on a topic you feel strongly about. Remember to stay safe if protesting in public, and use protective measures such as wearing a mask, maintaining distance when possible, and using hand sanitizer frequently.

 

Race-based trauma
There’s strength and power in numbers. Get and stay connected to others who are putting their words to power.

 

“We inadvertently burden ourselves with unnecessary emotional labor when we assume malicious intent in others.”

click to tweet  Click to tweet

5. Extend Compassion to Yourself and Others by Releasing Emotional Energy.

Be gentle and patient with yourself. We didn’t choose our socialization or conditioning, yet we were all born into a society that sets us up with systems of privilege and oppression. Because of this, we’re all collectively grappling with our individual racial identities, some for the very first time. 

Extending compassion to others isn’t the same as excusing or condoning terrible behavior. By extending compassion to others, we in turn extend compassion to ourselves. We inadvertently burden ourselves with unnecessary emotional labor when we assume malicious intent in others.

This can be an especially challenging exercise, though, and one that puts undue emotional labor on people of color. It may not be the right exercise for everyone. But for those who are able and willing to put in the work, the benefits can make it deeply worthwhile.

A good way to think about this exercise is with a “both–and” approach. For instance, you can acknowledge that you and the other person—as a non-BIPOC individual—are socialized in a way that one or both of you may not completely understand the things that upset, anger, and harm you. While extending compassion to the other person and realizing that they’re working on their progress, you can still safeguard yourself. 

You can step back in ways that protect your mental and physical health while also believing in their growth.

 Put it into practice: Acknowledge that nobody is perfect, including ourselves. This permission to be human, flawed, and at whatever stage of awakening in our racial identity, can help us stay sane by reducing stress levels and decreasing negative emotional energy. I often tell my clients that they can think of self-compassion by imagining they’re running a marathon.

You can run the entire marathon thinking self-defeating thoughts such as, “I’m slow, I’m in pain, I hate this, when will this be over?” Or you can be your own cheerleader when things feel tough, highlight the reasons to be grateful (“I get to run—my body is healthy and able” vs. “I have to run—this is hard and painful”), and find joy in the journey. Either way, you’re going to finish the marathon, but the attitude you choose to endure during the race is entirely up to you. 

6. Radical Self-Care as a Method of Resistance.

When we think of self-care, we often think of taking a day off from work to do something fun or pamper ourselves. But self-care can be much simpler and more straightforward. Find what brings you joy and what nurtures you, and reach for it in times of need. Do you love listening to music from the early ’90s? Getting some fresh air in nature after being in a cramped apartment all day? Being creative? Talking to friends, or talking to no one, if that’s what you need? 

Put it into practice: Make note of what nurtures your soul and consciously pull out these tools any time you need a mental break or require an emotional shift. Remember, you don’t have to have to shell out for a full-service spa day just to take care of yourself. For some of us, when we’re feeling particularly out of sorts, it can be as simple as making sure we’re sticking to a regular sleep and meal schedule that helps us get back to feeling a bit more human.

Practicing self-care is a way to de-stress, which combats some of the worst consequences of racism. After all, living as a minority within a system that wasn’t created for your survival is in itself an act of resistance. We need to nurture and care for ourselves as we do it.

Extending compassion to others isn’t the same as excusing or condoning terrible behavior. By extending compassion to others, we in turn extend compassion to ourselves.

By extending compassion to others, we in turn extend compassion to ourselves.

click to tweet  Click to tweet

Feeling Outrage Over the Lack of Outrage

Many of us may have for the first time experienced an outpouring of support as Black Lives Matter gained traction around the world this summer. For some of us, this may have been a frustrating or even angering experience. Suddenly, white colleagues, friends, and community are reaching out to check in on me and are apparently going through their own “journey” of uncovering their white privilege. Why now? Where was this outrage when this happened to Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, or Treyvon Martin? What about Ferguson?

It’s normal to feel frustrated that the world has been asleep at the wheel while we’ve been suffering. And it’s infuriating to know that I will always have to work more than other people at this. However, something that helps me is finding this balance between acceptance and extending compassion. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel frustrated that it took so long for people’s eyes to finally be opened. My negative emotions are still real, and they deserve their own space. Working consciously to approach my own journey and that of others with compassion just helps to make this difficult process a little bit easier. 

At the end of the day, I want to make sure I welcome those who join us in this long fight with open arms, even if they are a bit late to the party. 

Your Turn: How have you been combatting the effects of race-based trauma and stress? I’d love to know what’s been helpful and healing for you, so feel free to share in the comments below.

Many of the tips outlined in this article require patience, as well as continuous practice and growth. Working with an affirming therapist can be helpful in this journey, along with tapping into any other loving support systems you may have.

Jneé Hill

Jneé Hill is a Licensed Psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy. Jneé equips clients with the necessary tools to empower themselves while navigating issues of systemic injustice so that they can live more authentic and fulfilling lives.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

There’s More To See

Keep Exploring

3 Essential Tips on How to Heal Emotional Wounds and Trauma

hen we think of the term “healing”, we tend to first think of a physical injury— a broken bone, a strained muscle, an open wound. We can acknowledge that each requires time, rest, a tender touch, and medical attention in order for healing to take...

How to Set Healthy Boundaries

The majority of people struggle with healthy boundaries. Learn how you can develop the skills to create healthy boundaries in your own life.

Did this article resonate with you?

If so, our therapists may be a good fit. We invite you to share your preferences on our therapist matching questionnaire so that we can provide you with a personalized recommendation.

STAY IN TOUCH

Get our best tips and advice on how to live with clarity, joy, and purpose when you join our newsletter.

GET UPDATES

In-Person Therapy Made Easy

Online Therapy Made Easy

Fees + Insurance

ADDRESS

276 5th Avenue, Suite 605,
New York, NY 10001

GET IN TOUCH
OFFICE HOURS

Monday–Thursday
7am–9pm

Friday
7am–8pm

Saturday-Sunday
8am–4pm

CONTACT US

Have a question? Ask away!
We look forward to connecting with you.

    ESSENTIAL READS