An Investigation on the Trauma of Racism
The impact of institutionalized, systemic, intergenerational racism on the individual and collective experience is indelibly traumatic. Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) live in a society that actively discriminates against them, and the weight of this stress inflicts wounds different from any other form of trauma. In the “Racial Trauma: Theory, Research, and Healing” issue of American Psychologist, researchers dedicated to exploring this tyrannous system of oppression note that, “Although similar to PTSD, racial trauma is unique in that it involves ongoing individual and collective injuries due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based stress.” In examining racial trauma, we at PCH Treatment Center follow the direction of those who have experienced this stress firsthand.
Acclaimed author and educator, Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, SEP, explores the somatic impact of racial trauma in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Path to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. “For my Black body to be born into a society by which the White body is the standard is, in and of itself, traumatizing,” Menakem explains. “If my mom is born, as a Black woman, into a society that predicates her body as deviant, the amount of cortisol that is in her nervous system when I’m being born is teaching my nervous system something.” In the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett, Menakem explains how multigenerational trauma paired with continued societal oppression is, “Literally in our blood and our nervous system. … We walk around with a braceness because we’re infected with this idea that the White body is the supreme standard.”
In her article, Toward a Radical Understanding of Trauma and Trauma Work, psychotherapist Bonnie Burstow, Ph.D., explains how racial trauma stretches from “the daily assaults that occur in interpersonal interactions with those in positions of privilege” to “the daily obstacles and hardships imposed by the systems and institutional structures of a racist society.” Burstow further expounds that wounds are transgenerational, as “individuals from marginalized or oppressed groups carry lasting psychological effects from their experiences.”
Jungian analyst and rehabilitation counselor, Fanny Brewster, Ph.D., MFA, LP, introduces a psychological complex related to ethnicity in her book The Racial Complex: A Jungian Perspective on Culture and Race. Brewster writes, “‘We’re all together’ is a lie, because the behaviors have, over generations, said something different: that we are not all together, that we are different, that we are an ’Other.’ And as an ‘Other,’ we deserve or have merited a particular way of being treated, which, in American society, for centuries, was being treated horrifically and poorly.” Brewster elucidates that just like institutional racism, the racial complex operates both individually and collectively, so we must look at personal and cultural experience to move in the direction of collective healing. In further discussing the racial complex on the podcast This Jungian Life, Brewster expands, “Whites are surprised by the experience that African Americans have just in daily life—it’s like shopping while Black … the people who are supposed to be helping us with whatever we’re doing are really treating us like criminals. So we become criminalized in the moment, and the White person might not even be aware that they’re doing it. It’s an unconscious racism that gets projected onto a group of us in the collective.”
In their book, The Many Costs of Racism, social theorists Joe Feagin, Ph.D., and Karyn D. McKinney, Ph.D., evaluate the mental, physical health, and economic effects of everyday racism for Black Americans. In answering the central question, “What is it like to be a Black person in White America today?” one participant shares, “We can never be ourselves all around. I think that may be a given for all people, but us particularly; it’s really a mental health problem.”
Clinical psychologist, Joy DeGruy, Ph.D., explores the epigenetic impact of racism through generations in her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery,” explains DeGruy. “It’s a form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to Whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.” DeGruy further explains, “The stress of being Black is habitualized. It’s socialized. It becomes part of your being.” With a nod to narrative therapy, DeGruy recommends listening to those impacted directly by the trauma of racism. “One of the ways to begin to address multi-generational trauma is to work with the people it directly impacts and to hear from them.” In taking these steps toward healing, Dr. DeGruy echoes the need for working as a collective and reminds us that this trauma stems from generations of oppression. In an interview on Al Jazeera’s news, DeGruy illustrates, “This is not purely a clinical thing. We have to work with some of those clinical things—some of those issues of panic and anxiety—and we also have to deal with the fact that you have a system that is set up to oppress you and continue to injure you.” DeGruy instructs, “This requires social justice and change. That’s where part of the healing is. It’s in fairness and justice and safety and equity.”
In looking at the equity of treatment within the mental health field, psychologist Robert T. Carter, Ph.D., offers his article, Racism and Psychological and Emotional Injury: Recognizing and Assessing Race-Based Traumatic Stress. “Reliance on the universal, color-blind, or multicultural principles and standards typically used to account for differences in the experiences, perceptions, behaviors, and attitudes of members of various racial–cultural groups will not help mental health professionals understand or assess race-based stress or trauma,” says Carter. “To ignore race and racism in counseling and mental health practice means that mental health professionals fail to capture all of the complex and dynamic aspects of racism and its effects in the form of race-based stress.”
At PCH, we realize it is important to recognize and acknowledge racial trauma. We choose to look at race-based stress through the lens of trauma because we treat trauma not as something that is “wrong” with someone but as something that has happened to someone. We recognize that everyone has their own individual experience, and we continue to focus our time and care into understanding the needs of every one of our clients including those that have experienced trauma from systemic hate and oppression.