Trauma refers to an emotional response to an upsetting event, like a natural disaster or violent crime.
Racial trauma is a reaction to experiences of racism, including violence or humiliation. You might also hear it referred to as race-based trauma or race-based traumatic stress.
All types of trauma, including racial trauma, can contribute to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition marked by a range of mental and physical effects.
Given how rampant racism is, it’s nearly impossible for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to avoid some level of racial trauma.
Here’s a closer look at what racial trauma involves, and how to find culturally appropriate support.
Racial trauma affects anyone who experiences racism. These experiences don’t have to be direct.
If you’re Black, for example, repeated exposure to footage or written accounts of police brutality against other Black people is traumatic.
If you’re Asian, reading accounts of hate crimes against Asian people during the COVID-19 pandemic can be traumatic.
You may not have experienced these things yourself, but the impact of the information can cause significant distress, especially if it reminds you of previous experiences of racism.
Racial trauma can also be intergenerational, meaning it can affect multiple generations. You might experience racial trauma if an ancestor experienced ongoing racism, especially through things like genocide, slavery, or internment camps.
Traumatic experiences activate your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response. It triggers the release of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline). This release causes a range of physiological changes, including increased heart rate and heightened mental alertness.
This stress response is designed to help you survive threats of danger by either running away, fighting back, or pausing. Once the experience is over, the body gradually returns to its usual state.
But given how rampant racism is, BIPOC often repeatedly experience racial trauma, which can lead to the development of a range of symptoms.
Some of these symptoms include:
- Hypervigilance or greater apprehension. You may experience heightened fears of engaging with people in certain environments following experiences of racism. If you experience racist violence after an encounter with law enforcement, you might find yourself tensing up when you pass a police car on the street.
- Anxiety and depression. Over time, you might start to experience mental health symptoms typically associated with anxiety or depression.
- Nightmares or flashbacks. When something reminds you of a traumatic racist event (say, a podcast describing a race-based hate crime in detail), you might have nightmares of flashbacks of that event.
- Increased substance use. For some, increasingly using substances, including alcohol, can be a way to cope with the distress of racial trauma.
- More aggressive behavior. Consistent exposure to racism can leave you feeling concerned about your safety, which may result in increased aggression in an attempt to better protect yourself and your loved ones.
- Reduced hope for the future. Chronic concerns of being harmed by racist people and acts can make it hard to feel hopeful about the future for both yourself and those close to you.
All the symptoms discussed above can have a lasting impact on mental health. The ongoing stress of experiencing racism can increase your risk of chronic health issues.
A 2019 study suggests a connection between higher exposure to racial discrimination and increased inflammation, which can increase your risk of chronic illnesses.
African American women carried the highest allostatic load, which the study authors suggest may be due to the “double jeopardy” of enduring both racial and gender discrimination.
Racial trauma can take a toll on your quality of life, so finding professional support is a wise move (more on this in the next section).
In the meantime, there are ways you can support yourself right now.
First and foremost, practicing self-care is key. Racial trauma can affect both your mental and physical health, so it’s important to prioritize things like eating regularly and getting enough rest.
Same goes for hobbies or activities that help you feel refreshed, whether that’s reading a book, doing an art project, or going for a hike.
It might also be worth exploring some new boundaries around consuming social media and news, as both can be sources of distressing information.
Explore activism opportunities
For some, connecting with others in their community and engaging in different forms of activism can be a healing experience.
In addition to providing a sense of justice and closure, it also allowed them to connect with their community and find belonging by celebrating ancestral Japanese practices.
Attending local protests or community meetings can be a good way to start getting involved. Just be mindful of your energy. This type of work can be exhausting, so it’s important to still carve out time for self-care.
Not sure where to start? The W.K. Kellogg Foundation maintains a searchable database of organizations dedicated to racial equity.
Connect with others
If others have downplayed your experiences of racism and the resulting trauma, connecting with people in your community who’ve gone through similar things can be a source of healing.
The people you meet can offer not only validation of your experience but also coping strategies that have worked for them.
Professional support is usually recommended when you’re working through trauma, but finding the right provider or approach can be challenging.
You might prefer to seek treatment with someone who has a shared lived experience of racialization or intersections with other elements of your identity.
For example, if you’re a Muslim refugee from Syria, you might find it easier to work with a therapist who’s dealt with Islamophobia or xenophobia.
It may take a bit of extra time to find someone whom you feel you can trust to understand your experience, but these therapist directories can set you on the right track:
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Therapy for Black Men
- Therapy for Muslims
- Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian American (APISAA) Therapist Directory
- Therapy for Latinx
- Inclusive Therapists (featuring culturally responsive, social justice-oriented therapists)
If your first try at therapy ends up being less than ideal, it may help to think critically about what you need for your next therapeutic relationship.
Was there a particular element of their approach that you want to avoid in the future? Are there any traits in others (not necessarily therapists) who’ve helped you feel a sense of safety or belonging in the past?
Figuring out these elements and traits can help guide you toward the right therapist for you.
Despite the profound effects of racial trauma, it can be a process to understand or even recognize it.
But beginning that process puts you in a better position to begin exploring ways of coping effectively.
Krystal Kavita Jagoo, MSW, RSW, is a mental health professional with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and a master’s in social work. Her work has been featured in The Huffington Post, MedTruth, and Verywell. Her essay “Inclusive Reproductive Justice” was published in the second volume of “Reproductive Justice Briefing Book: A Primer on Reproductive Justice and Social Change.”