Racial trauma is the ongoing result of racism, racist bias, and exposure to racist abuse in the media. Racial trauma can affect many aspects of a person’s life, including their ability to have relationships, concentrate on school or work, and feel safe.
Racial trauma is widespread among marginalized groups. This is particularly true among Black people in the United States, the majority of whom say they have experienced racism.
Media depictions of racism, such as police violence against unarmed Black people, may also trigger feelings of racial trauma.
Many marginalized groups experience higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than white people. Much of this trauma stems from experiences with racism or racist systems.
According to a 2020 survey, Black people in the U.S. are about five times as likely as white people to report unfair or discriminatory experiences with police.
Keep reading to learn more about racial trauma, including the causes, symptoms, and some treatment and coping methods.
Exposure to discrimination, either directly or indirectly, can trigger racial trauma. Indirectly can include witnessing discrimination against a member of a particular group.
Chronic exposure to discrimination can be humiliating, frightening, and isolating.
When others deny that this trauma exists or blame the victim, it may intensify the trauma.
Racial discrimination is the primary risk factor for racial trauma.
While many people report trauma stemming from racist abuse, people can develop racial trauma even when they are not the target personally.
Any marginalized or stigmatized racial or ethnic group may experience racial trauma.
In the U.S., Black people, indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) face racial trauma. The intensity of racial trauma may vary from region to region or across a person’s lifespan.
As long as systemic racism persists, all BIPOC remain vulnerable to racial trauma.
Most research suggests that experiences of discrimination increase the risk of trauma symptoms. This means that people who report such experiences may be more likely to experience trauma.
Reports of racial discrimination vary greatly. For example, a Pew Research survey found that 81% of Black people with college experience say they have been subject to at least one instance of racial discrimination. This compares to 69% with a high school education or less.
Black males are also more likely than Black females to report unfair treatment by police.
Any type of stress or anxiety around racial factors or treatment can trigger racial trauma. Some examples include:
- Exposure to racial or ethnic stereotypes: An example of this is when academics or textbooks assert that some racial groups are better or worse at certain tasks.
- Fears about personal safety: An example of this scenario is when a Latinx person fears the label of an undocumented immigrant or a person of color fears abuse by police.
- Witnessing members of a person’s group receiving abuse: This can be in real life or via the media, such as when a Latinx person sees immigrant children in cages, or a Black person sees a video of an unarmed Black person being killed.
- Racist abuse of loved ones: This can include attacks on partners, parents, or children.
- Direct exposure to racist abuse or discrimination: This may be hearing racist stereotypes at work or being the recipient of a racial slur.
- Others not taking experiences of racism seriously: This may happen when people question if someone’s experience was real.
The list of racial trauma is unlimited. Other examples may include historical trauma, microaggressions, and experiences of living with inequalities, such as access to schools and medical treatments.
Racial trauma can affect virtually every aspect of a person’s well-being. Many people with racial trauma experience symptoms of PTSD, especially after direct experiences of discrimination or racist violence.
Some symptoms include:
- Distress relating to the trauma: This may cause a person to think about and relive an event continually. Some people have flashbacks or nightmares.
- Avoiding things that remind the person of the trauma: This can negatively affect a person’s life in many ways. For example, a person who experiences racism at college may leave school, while a person who experiences racism in a police interaction may fear the police, or run when they see them.
- Intense anxiety or depression relating to the trauma. This can affect someone at any time or continuously.
- Feeling distracted by memories or thoughts of the trauma. Again, this experience may occur from time-to-time or regularly.
- Negative thoughts about self, other people, or the world. For example, a person might lose trust in other people or worry that all authority figures want to harm them.
- Increased sensitivity and reactivity: A person may startle easily and become more hypervigilant to their surroundings. This may increase exposure to further trauma, such as when a person is afraid of the police and behaves anxiously when they are around.
In addition to symptoms of PTSD, racial trauma can have other symptoms and signs, including:
- Dissociation: This is the feeling of a person being numb or disconnected from themselves or others. In more extreme cases, they might have an out-of-body experience or not remember periods of dissociation.
- Weathering: This is the chronic health effects of exposure to racial discrimination and trauma. Marginalized populations typically have worse overall health and higher risks of cardiovascular disease and other ailments. This may be because of the lifetime of racial trauma they face.
- Prolonged trauma and poor mental health: Unlike some other traumas, racial discrimination continues to permeate much of everyday life. This means that marginalized communities may face chronic trauma and aggression, making it difficult to recover from racist abuse.
The American Psychological Association emphasize that, sometimes, mental health practitioners and others do not correctly diagnose symptoms of racial trauma.
This lacking is because they may not understand the serious effects of discrimination. Some may not know how to assess for race-related trauma symptoms.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) limits the traumatic events that qualify for a PTSD diagnosis to those that a person directly experiences or is exposed to.
This limitation includes learning that a traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend. In cases of actual or threatened death, the event must have been violent or accidental.
Similarly, for a PTSD diagnosis, a person must experience repeated or extreme exposure to details of the traumatic event.
These limitations of the DSM-5 may mean that doctors do not diagnose some people with PTSD that stems from racial trauma.
Some aspects of racial trauma may respond well to traditional PTSD treatment. Treatment options include:
- Having trauma-informed psychotherapy to help a person identify their emotions, process their experiences, and identify healthy coping tools.
- Receiving support from other people who have also experienced racial trauma.
- Receiving support from family members and their community.
- Taking medication, such as antidepressants, to ease depression or temporarily help a person sleep.
- Making lifestyle changes, such as beginning exercise routines and meditation.
Some people with a history of racial trauma may struggle to find clinicians of color or others who can identify and treat their symptoms properly. This may be the case, especially if they live in primarily white areas.
Furthermore, the causes of racial trauma are everywhere. People can encounter them on the news, on social media, at work, and at school.
While typical traumas are usually one-time events, racial trauma can be a lifelong experience. A person might never feel their trauma is “cured” and may have to adopt new strategies for managing trauma continuously.
Moreover, it can be challenging to find the support an individual needs to manage their trauma.
It is common for people to deny that racism exists or to minimize the effects of racial trauma.
Some coping skills that may help include:
- Taking part in activism against racial injustice.
- Finding a supportive community that understands racial trauma.
- Employing self-care, including healthful nutrition and exercise, and taking time away from traumatic experiences.
- Avoiding relationships, when possible, with people who dismiss the seriousness of racial trauma.
- Identifying racial trauma triggers and avoiding them during times of intense stress.
- Going on a limiting media “diet” to avoid images of racial abuse.
- Identifying racial microaggressions and roleplaying how or when to respond.
Racial trauma is a serious challenge that affects millions of people every day. It can erode mental health, make it difficult to concentrate at work or school, and chronically disrupt lives.
While individual action will not cure the systemic problem of racialized violence and trauma, the right support can make this ongoing trauma feel more manageable.