A History of Injustice – Coping with Racial Trauma

In the wake of police violence against Black people, a Jefferson mental health expert shares her own experiences of dealing with the emotional impact of racial trauma, and offers tips for coping with the anger, grief, and pain.

Staying informed by watching national media coverage of the social unrest unfolding all around me, I was struck by one of the comments made by a white female media correspondent.  She expressed shock that Black parents would need to educate their children about how to interact with police officers.  For generations, the relationship between law enforcement and people of color has not only been unfair and unjust, it’s been deadly. The correspondent’s shock reminded me of the cultural disconnect that exists between non-oppressed and oppressed individuals. As non-oppressed individuals are able to maneuver through this world with a sense of safety, ease, and privilege, oppressed individuals are forced to adjust, act cautiously, and endure barriers.  Every day, communities of color are confronted with the challenge of navigating through the multiple overt, and covert systems of institutional racism.  Whether it involves interacting and fulfilling our duties at work, driving in our cars, shopping at retail stores or advocating for fair and just treatment of our children within the educational system, we are constantly affronted with subtle, but also shockingly aggressive forms of racism.

Shawn Blue, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at the Student Personal Counseling Center and assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University.

It is this cultural, racial, and experiential disconnect that contributes to communities of color experiencing invalidation, labeling, and isolation.  In addition to being forced to bear the burden of targeted racist experiences, we are often invalidated by being dismissed, silenced, or having our experiences negated. Even more hurtful, we are labeled as angry.  When faced with a racial insult, as a Black cis-gendered female, I find myself, at times, in an internal tug of war – validating a normal human emotion of anger against the worry of being identified as the “angry black woman.” As a doctoral level psychologist, I know all too well the dangers when people invalidate their own feelings and experiences in settings of abuse and mistreatment. The “angry black woman” labeling includes historical and racist underpinnings and continues to silence and undermine the realistic experience of Black women.

Being in numerous environments where I have been the “only one” of color, I have been asked to be a spokesperson for my race, and to offer education about my culture. I noticed that during the current social unrest, many of my colleagues would request to be educated about the “black experience.”  Although well intentioned, these requests reveal a power dynamic where I, a person of color, is expected to educate, instead of others finding ways to educate themselves. Such well-meaning requests often leave me vulnerable to further experiences of division and systemic racism.

My hope is that this is a movement, and not a moment – Dr. Shawn Blue.

What I and many others in the Black community are experiencing is comprised within a term called racial trauma. Racial trauma includes feelings of anger, rage, sadness, grief, loss, shock, fear, exhaustion, guilt, helplessness, powerlessness and numbing. Due to historical systems of slavery and institutional racism, this racial trauma is inter-generational and similar to other types of trauma; it includes not only current stressors but also a history of assaults and injustices. Therefore, our current experience is impacted and compounded by events and losses from before. People of color, especially Black people, have been living this trauma on a daily basis, often without resolution, respect or care.  Our trauma and loss are exacerbated by living in a society that does not abide by the creeds of equity and justice.

Due to the detrimental emotional and physical impacts of racial trauma, it is important to engage in interventions that will manage and relieve stress.  The following are meaningful recommendations of how to cope with racial trauma:

  • Obtain culturally affirming psychotherapy to address emotions resulting from race-based concerns. It might be appropriate to seek professional assistance to help you effectively manage symptoms of racial trauma. Spend time to find a mental health provider that approaches you, your culture and your experience in a respectful manner.
  • Engage in supportive interactions with your social support network. Interacting in healthy and nurturing connections with others can be effective in managing difficult feelings, gaining support, and grieving collectively. Be protective of your time and energy and set boundaries around traumatizing and labor-intensive conversations or interactions.
  • Engage in stress management and self-care interventions. Consider coping skills such as exercise, mindfulness, journaling, deep breathing and healing art exercises. If you have interventions that you have utilized in the past that have worked in helping you re-balance, think about re-introducing them now or increasing them during this difficult time. Try and reduce the use of maladaptive coping strategies that might exacerbate your symptoms, including overuse of distraction activities, and alcohol and drug use. Instead focus on engaging in healthy eating and sleeping routines.
  • Monitor how much you are exposed to media reports (i.e., tv, social media, podcasts). There is a difference between staying informed and being secondarily traumatized by continued exposure to triggering stimuli. Secondary trauma involves experiencing trauma symptoms as a result of witnessing or interacting with someone who has been traumatized, or seeing and hearing descriptions of events of trauma by others, or witnessing cruelty on others. Consider options that will provide a summary of the day’s news events or putting yourself on a timer which will establish external limitations that will help you reduce your overall intake.
  • If you are experiencing feelings of powerlessness and helplessness, consider getting involved with causes that have the goal of improving race relations (i.e., advocacy, protesting, writing or speaking out about race issues). Try to avoid judging yourself for engaging or not engaging in activities that others exert pressure or perceive to be right or wrong. Take some time to figure out what is the right action or platform for you. Remember that all things, big and small are important and needed for ultimate change.

Communities of color are hopeful and resilient and are ready to continue to address the injustices they’ve experienced. It is that hope and resiliency which have maintained the survival of communities of color despite attempts to degrade and dispirit. In order to heal our society, we first need to come from a place of “us.”  This is not just an issue that communities of color need to figure out how to fix, this is every human’s responsibility.  Every level of our society needs to be redefined from the individual, familial, and cultural level to larger systems and institutions of education, retail, housing, emotional and medical health services, and community resources. We also need open, vulnerable, and conscious conversations about power, privilege, racism and anti-racism. We need space that allows us to express an authentic desire to engage in a respectful and compassionate understanding of others. My hope is that this is a movement, and not a moment.  We cannot sweep this under the rug or have it forgotten tomorrow.  Let this truly be a movement toward peace, equity, and justice where we all do our small part to make it happen.

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