February 11, 2021
Webinar: Understanding Racism-Based Trauma and Steps Towards Healing
Written by Rachel Eddins
Despite increased media coverage and efforts to address racial injustice, general discussions about racism often overlook its traumatic and long-term effects on the mental health of Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities.
This webinar will provide an overview of racism-based trauma and discuss coping strategies for healing.
Facilitated by Jehanzeb Dar, LPC
Learn more about therapy for racial trauma and multicultural concerns.
Here is a transcription of the webinar:
My name is Jehanzeb Dar, I’m a licensed professional counselor, working for Eddins Counseling Group based in Houston, Texas. My presentation is going to be on “Understanding racism-based trauma and the steps towards healing”.
We’re talking about race, so I think it’s relevant to share that I identify as Pakistani and Muslim. And that’s just to give it some context. I’ll be sharing some of my experiences as I’m drawing from the literature as well. So, just a brief introduction of basic concepts. Sometimes it helps just to review these terms we use a lot: race and ethnicity, so I just kind of wanted to give some clarification about it.
Race is defined as a social construct that categorizes people based on visual differences.
Its significance of arises from these meanings and the definitions that we attribute to it. And the way that we, as a society, assign meaning to this idea of race.
There’s a YouTube, who goes by the name of Jay Smooth. He made a really good comment about how “race is a concept that wasn’t meant to make sense. Yet our society structures race in ways where it’s perceived to be biological, cultural, and political”. And this is really relevant when we talk even about religious communities, like, for example, I had mentioned that I’m Muslim. So, being Muslim is a religious identity. But as it has, it has become racialized. So when we talk about being Muslim, we tend to associate that term with particular ethnic groups, even though it’s not a race.
The term ethnicity just refers to a shared history, culture, values, and language.
It could also include nationality and religion. And I’m going to be using the terms racial and ethnic interchangeably.
What is Racism?
Something I want to talk about is a definition of racism, because a lot of the discussions about racism, as you know, we’re hearing more and more about it in the media. A lot of it has been sort of generalized, but it’s really important to emphasize that racism is “historically constructed and systemic” (Shin). And I’ll get into a little more detail about what I mean by systemic. And it’s a process of domination against people of color. It’s sought to legitimate the inequality of people of color and proclaim superior superiority of the racial group that represents the dominant group.
It’s really important to recognize that racism is very multidimensional and that it exists on a systemic level in many different spheres and institutions in society.
Systemic and Structural Racism
This is a little graphic here to help illustrate what we’re talking about when we when people say systemic racism because we hear that a lot from politicians, on TV, and in the media. So basically, when we talk about systemic, we’re looking at the circle on the right-hand side and we talk about racism that exists on an institutional level. That’s like within an organization and then structural racism, which means it exists across institutions. So, health care, education, law enforcement, and the prison system, are the various forms of institutions. And structural racism is how they all are interconnected and interlocked.
Then there are the interpersonal forms of racism, and that’s the interactions between people and then on the individual level, these are the individual beliefs that people have, whether they’re conscious or unconscious, externalized and internalized. We’ll get into more detail about that as we go on.
When we hear racism in the media and in movies, it’s very easy to point out which is the racist character or who’s a racist. Oftentimes when we think of somebody who’s racist, we tend to think of that person to look a particular way, like, you know, like a KKK member or like a neo-Nazi.
But, in modern-day society, racism has become more subtle and covert. And that’s not to say that we don’t see we still don’t see overt forms. We still do. But there are things called racial microaggressions.
Microaggressions refer to these daily insults or put-downs, and they convey unconscious, demeaning messages to people of color (Sue, Smith). They reinforce these stereotypes and subconscious ways.
Sometimes people don’t even realize that they’re saying something harmful or negative. They sometimes can say it like a compliment or in their mind they think it’s a compliment. So it’s like saying to somebody, in the graphic here, it could be said to like a person of color, “Oh, you speak English so well”, especially if it’s somebody who, you know, is, you know, South Asian, Asian or Arab, the implication is like, “Oh, well, you’re not supposed to speak English really well”.
Or it’s like you’re telling a black person, “You’re so articulate”. The expectation is that you’re not supposed to be well-spoken so that person thinks the person who’s making the comment is thinking that they are complimenting you, but they’re actually not.
Some different examples of microaggressions include:
- “What are you?”
- “Why do you sound so white?”
- “Your name is too hard to pronounce”
- “You’re not like other Muslim people”
- ”Where are you really from?”
- “You’re really pretty for someone so dark”
All of these things are hurtful and they can amount to even more stress the more people hear them over and over again.
Effects of Racism
When we define racist incidents, we’re talking about “verbal attacks, physical assaults, or threats that target a person’s ethnic self-identification and sense of self” (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo)
Everybody responds to racism in very different ways. Typically what we see is there’s emotional, physical, and psychological discomfort and pain that results from recent racist incidents.
One of the more insidious effects of racism is the idea of internalized racism, and that’s when a marginalized racial population accepts the “negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves” (Speight).
Racial Trauma or Race-Based Traumatic Stress (RBTS)
When we talk about racism in the context of trauma, that’s something I really want to emphasize, because I feel like even though there’s been a lot of awareness about racism and there’s a lot of discussions going on, I do feel that it’s important not to sugarcoat things.
The reality is that a lot of people, a lot of organizations, and a lot of big companies have been using the language of anti-racism or diversity and inclusion as a kind of lip service and not really grasping the full effects of it. Racial trauma or race-based traumatic stress are two terms used interchangeably. The reality is that there are short-term and long-term effects of racism and that racism needs to be seen as causing trauma.
When we talk about race-based traumatic stress by referring to all types of encounters with racial bias and discrimination and even hate crimes and Dr. Kenneth V. Hardy describes racist oppression as a traumatic form of violence that can “lacerate the spirit, scar the soul, and puncture the psyche”.
Symptoms of Racial Trauma
In several studies, they’ve found that people who have been victimized or who have experienced racism, many have responses that are typically associated with psychological trauma. So, they’ll have dissociative symptoms, hypervigilance, intense anxiety, and avoidance.
Some other effects that people may experience are headaches, vomiting, nightmares, feelings of humiliation, low self-esteem, ulcers, back pains, and lack of motivation. We’re seeing signs of depression, increased heart rate, recounting racist incidents days, weeks, months, or even years after the encounter (Truong & Museus).
A lot of people will replay those moments over and over again in their minds, or they might even imagine scenarios where they don’t imagine the past encounter. And then they will wish that they could go back to that and ask themselves, ”What else could I have done?. I should have said this, I should have done that. “
Racism-Based Trauma Situations
S.P. Harrel talks about six types of situations that can lead to racism-based trauma:
Racism-related life events
A direct experience with racism like on an interpersonal level. This could be workplace discrimination or somebody using a racial slur against them. It could even just be those micro-aggressions that we talked about.
Vicarious racism experiences
More indirect experiences, like through a friend or maybe you’ve witnessed something in a classroom or in a workplace. It could also be a family member that is dealing with a lot of racism.
Racism micro stressors
This is just another word for racial microaggression.
Constantly recognizing all of these systemic barriers that you’re experiencing, like lack of access to health care, and difficulty finding a job because of a bias against you. Chronic-contextual stress is something that happens on a routine basis in various institutions.
Collective experiences of racism
Feeling assaulted as a community, or as a group, is relevant to a lot of communities of color.
Transgenerational transmission of group traumas
We’ll get into that a little bit more when we talk about historical trauma. It that’s particularly relevant for a lot of black, indigenous, and other communities of color where there’s been a long history of racism.
I thought it would be helpful to share this quote from a doctor, Dr. David David Tchi, who talks about how he describes what it’s what racism can feel physiologically: “Think about what happens to your heartbeat and your blood pressure when someone treats you harshly or unfairly”.
For example, if someone’s cutting you off on the freeway, you notice that you have a physiological reaction to it. Now, if we’re talking about it with racism, imagine all these things that we were just talking about with the chronic and the routine everyday bias that you’re having to deal with. Eventually is going to take a toll on you physically and mentally. He talks about how this leads to accelerated physiological wear and tear.
Effects of Racism Across Communities
When we talk about racism, we need to emphasize that every community deals with it in distinct ways. The important thing is to remember that all the experiences are interconnected. It’s also important to recognize that:
Every community feels is dealing with different levels of racism in very distinct ways.
Studies have found that “Black adults are about five times as likely to report being unfairly stopped by police because of their race than white adults (Pew Research Center).
Media images or videos of police violence against black people may contribute to PTSD-like symptoms. It might heighten this perception of systemic racism, heightened awareness of systemic racism, increased fear of victimization, diminished trust that could be a trigger for previous traumas, and the community bereavement that comes with it. (Bor, Venkataramani, Williams & Tsai.
The media news cycle, for example, used the George Floyd video and just kept repeating and replaying it over and over again. And for a lot of people, particularly black people, when they’re watching that, there have been reports of a feeling traumatized by that, like having to see images of somebody who looks like, people who look like you being constantly devalued, dehumanized and brutalized. So that can get internalized and lead to these PTSD like symptoms. This takes a toll.
The last statistic is that there are “higher levels of psychological distress, distress about families to the among Latino, Latino or Latina parents due to US immigration policies” (Roche, Vaquera, White & Rivera).
Various different groups are impacted by systemic racism and distinct yet interconnected ways.
The historical traumas are legacies of racism, enslavement, and genocide, and these historic events amount to traumas that undermine group identity, values, meaning, and purpose.
When we talk about slavery, colonialism, and genocide, these are particularly relevant to black and indigenous peoples. In addition to undermining the group identities, shared meaning, and values, it can also manifest symptoms of hopelessness, despair, and anxiety (Halloran).
Intersectionality and Experiencing Multiple Oppressions
Since we are talking about racism-based trauma. it’s critical to mention intersectionality and the fact that we are all not one particular social identity. This term was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, and she just uses the term to emphasize women of color in particular, and how in an anti-racist discourse, women of color were left out of the conversation. Their focus was mostly on black men and men of color.
In feminist discourse, the focus was particularly on white women. So Kimberle Crenshaw just talked about this idea of intersections, how race and gender intersect and how all of these aspects of our identity can “interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels that contribute to systemic injustice and social inequality” (Kimberly Crenshaw).
There’s a diversity of experiences that you may have based on all of your social identities. So like women of color, LGBTQ, and people of color, traumatic stress doesn’t just come from race-based oppression, but also from gender-based oppression. Like with Muslim Americans that’s religious-based oppression and, with transgender people, that’s transphobia.
So it’s really important to keep that in mind when we talk about racism, we see it through the lens of one structural force when really it’s about accounting for all these other factors as well.
Ideas of Healing and Coping
How do we heal and how do we cope?
This is something that a lot of people are curious about and they ask me “What do I do with everything? When everything is so established structurally and on an institutional level.” I want to present these as ideas rather than go in chronological order. This is because everybody’s experiences are different. Just like every person varies from person to person. There are going to be variations between communities and even within communities.
These are some ideas of ways to cope:
Acknowledge what you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing. Be aware of it, being mindful of what’s in your thoughts and where you are emotionally. Sometimes it helps just to journal your thoughts and feelings. Validating the experience for yourself, because a lot of times, a lot of the externals will tell you that: “You’re blowing things out of proportion” or “You’re misreading things”. It’s going to be really important to validate that for yourself.
Number two is to discuss it, and connect with empathic people that you trust. This could be these could be friends, family, activists, organizers, or spiritual leaders. The emphasis needs to be placed on people that you trust, because if you’re venting to people or you’re talking to people about racism, whether it’s racism that you’re witnessing or seeing in society or something you’ve experienced yourself, it’s really important to connect with people who are going to show you that support and that solidarity instead of people who are just going to reject it or deny it and then tell you that just you’re just reading into things too much.
Community and Self-Care
The third idea is community and self-care. Engaging in your community or on an individual level, just engaging in activities that promote physical and mental rest. And like I was saying earlier about the media and social media, in particular, it’s really important to know when to disconnect. On one hand, we’re on social media because we want to be informed about what’s happening in the world. But at the same time, some of this can be really overwhelming. Especially when there are videos of brutality and racism, self-care can look like just disconnecting from all of that and doing something else like, you know, taking a break or connecting with friends or, just engaging in activities that we enjoy doing.
Empowerment Through Resistance
The fourth idea is empowerment through resistance and a lot of times maybe we feel powerless with everything that’s happening and we don’t know how can we do something that’s constructive or what can we do about it. It’s important to remember that change is not going to just happen.
Change can definitely happen on an individual or an interpersonal level, but beyond that, if you were looking at change on a systemic level, that’s going to happen collectively. That’s going to happen when we’re connected with other people. That could be people in our community, people in other communities, or people that we see and we trust as allies. So joining an anti-racist collective is important, as well as grassroots organizations and initiatives that advocate change. That’s really just connecting to a sense of purpose and cause and knowing that you feel so powerless with everything that’s happening and recognizing that you want to do something about it.
One of the things that we can do is get involved with organizations that are local or even on a national level, especially with social media. We can find out about what’s going on in different states and all over the country or even on an international level.
All of these things can really help with the healing process and recognizing we can take control of our thoughts and feelings.
Self – Awareness
Let’s expand on self-awareness a little bit.
Ken Hardy talks about this idea of internalized devaluation, that sense of internalized racism. When we’re able to write things down, if we write down our thoughts, we can have a better idea if we have any internalized racism. “Do I have any internalized negative thoughts?” This is a part of the CBT technique, which is writing down what you’re thinking in your mind so they can internalize that.
An internalized racist thought could be: “I don’t think anybody in my ethnic group has ever done anything successfully, has never contributed anything positive to society. My people are always violent”. Whatever those thoughts are, write them down and then dispute that thought and look at what the counter-evidence is. “Give me proof that this is true and then give me proof that is not true”. Then you come to a verdict.
This idea of putting your thought on trial and looking at the evidence and then being able to develop a different, healthier perception of your community.
Then there’s this idea of rechanneling rage. The goal here is not to eliminate rage, but rather to gain control of it and redirect it into something positive. This is something that Hardy says. Bell Hooks also says a variation of this in her book, “Killing Rage”. She’s talking about how in society there’s this tendency to see anger as a bad thing, a destructive force that’s destructive to yourself and to others.
But in reality, if you were to reframe anger and recognize that anger can also point to injustices, it can also lead to something constructive. It can actually be something that stirs you in a healthier direction. If we think about a lot of the civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, a lot of them were angry about unjust conditions.
So it’s not that anger is a bad thing, is that we can learn how to gain control of it and redirect it into something that’s going to be constructive and work towards change.
I like what Hardy says about engaging with the anger because that’s a very valid thing to feel when we see a lot of the racism that’s happening in the country or whether it’s or it’s racism that we’re directly experiencing.
Another thing that’s going to be really helpful in dealing with racial trauma, racism-based trauma is strengthening the sense of racial and ethnic identity development. It’s going to be different for for for everybody. But if you consider somebody who is maybe the only person of color in their classroom or in their workplace or in their neighborhood. They may be really disconnected from the rest of their community, including the history of their people.
So, learning about your community’s history is definitely part of developing a healthier sense of racial or ethnic identity.
- Reflect on what you’re proud of.
- What do you like?
- What are the things that make you proud of being part of that community?
Have gratitude for the resilience and survival of communities
When we talk a lot about racism and even in movies about racism, they’re often about slavery or discrimination. And it’s easy to kind of just go into that and kind of view that in a very sympathetic way.
But it’s really important to also recognize the resilience of those communities and that those communities have survived especially indigenous communities. When we use the word “genocide”, there’s this connotation there that these people have vanished and no longer exist. But that’s obviously not true. These communities have survived and they have gone on and they are still with us and they’re still confronting racism and genocide, particularly cultural genocide.
So, having gratitude for your history, how much your community has gone through, and where they are now, can be a very uplifting force and motivation for you.
The researchers have backed this up as well. Research has shown that racial and ethnic identity strengths like being proud and having pride in one’s racial background and ethnicity can serve as a buffer between racist experiences and traumatic symptoms (Watson, DeBlaere, Langrehr, Zelaya & Flores).
Additional Ideas for Coping
- Establish boundaries whenever possible
- “Stop trying to change your abuser”
- “Invest in your own healing:” Know what you can control and what your power is
- “Use your relationships to learn and grow”
- “Nurture your community and build relationships with other communities as a form of resistance.”
- “Tell your story” (Amadahy, 2017)
This is from Zainab Amadahy. In one of her articles, she talks about establishing boundaries whenever possible, stopping trying to change your abuser, and recognizing what your limitations are. If we are dealing with somebody who has said things that are verbally abusive or verbally racist, there is only so much we can do to change that person.
Focus on What’s Within Your Control
It kind of goes back into this idea of what can we control versus what we cannot control. We can’t control others. We can influence others, but that only goes so far. And it’s not about turning, like just saying, look, let’s just ignore everything. Instead, it’s learning how to pick your battles. Who’s receptive to this message and who’s receptive to hearing me out when I need to confront them or call them out on something that they said or did that was racist. That’s going to lead to investing in your own feeling, like knowing what you can control and knowing what your power is.
It’s understood that a lot of times people of color are socialized and conditioned to take care of other people’s feelings, to be a spokesperson for their entire group of people, or that they feel this responsibility. “I need to educate everybody about my culture or my community.”
Investing in your own healing is just a reminder to tell yourself that you don’t have to do all those things. It’s not your responsibility to do all those things. It’s time for you. As Ken Hardy says, it’s time to thrive instead. That’s when we connect to others, we use our relationships to learn and grow, and when we nurture our community, we also build relationships with other communities as a form of resistance, because with systemic racism, a lot of the forces out there pit communities against each other. That only strengthens systemic racism.
When communities are building alliances and relationships and solidarity with each other, that’s a form of resistance. The last point she makes is to tell your story. Your story is powerful. Everything you’ve experienced has value. And in her terms, she says you’re honoring your ancestors.
So in a very spiritual way, it’s recognizing how far you’ve come and knowing that you’re connected to a legacy that has much more value than that society has attributed to your community.
Seek Support from a Counselor
Another thing when we’re talking about coping and healing, which seems very obvious to say, and as a counselor, this probably sounds biased, but seeking support from a counselor. There’s a lot of distrust from black, indigenous, and other people of color communities about the mental health profession as well as the medical profession.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that there haven’t been a lot of people who look like them in those fields. So, one of the steps is to increase the visibility and have more people of color in those communities, and in those professions. But at the same time, the professions have that responsibility to remove those barriers and also to stop perpetuating the overdiagnosis and pathology, and pathologies of people of color.
A lot of times people of color will go into therapy and they’ll talk about systemic racism or experiences with racial discrimination. And the focus becomes very individualized like that they have to do something on their own. This is very individualistic. These are external forces and it’s going to require systemic changes and institutional changes. That’s an area that mental health professionals need to work on.
As you can see from this list here, there are a lot of directories for various therapists of various backgrounds. Research has shown that when the client is matched with a therapist who shares a similar or even the same ethnic background, it leads to healthier outcomes or at least some more positive outcomes. So sometimes it really helps to look for somebody who has a shared race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and even age, or disability background. That’s recognizing the whole intersectionality piece of it.
One caveat here that’s really important is that just because somebody shares the same racial background as you doesn’t mean that that therapist is going to connect with you. They could have different political views. So I encourage you to be very open with your counselor or your therapist and ask questions about what are their thoughts about racism. Do they know what systemic racism is? All the issues that are very important to you. Don’t hesitate to ask them about that, because that could be really important for your healing.
Points to Remember
- Healing from racism-based trauma can be demanding emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically.
- Coping strategies vary across BIPOC communities.
- Important to be mindful that coping strategies may involve reliving painful experiences and lead to additional psychological, emotional, and physiological consequences (e.g. seeking support)
- “Struggle is really rarely pleasurable or safe” (Hooks, 1984)
- Connect with a community online if you cannot find a community near you.
Some points to remember are that healing from racism-based trauma can be a demanding process, very demanding on an emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical level, and that these coping strategies will vary across black, indigenous, and people of color communities. It’s important to be mindful that these coping strategies may involve reliving painful experiences and that could lead to additional psychological, emotional, and physiological consequences.
So, for example, seeking support from somebody and whether that’s a therapist or that’s a friend. Having to process that, it’s going to come with it, like reliving some of those painful experiences. But like I tell a lot of my clients, I don’t want that to discourage you, because a lot of times things get worse before they get better.
As Bell Hooks said, a struggle is rarely, rarely a pleasurable or safe thing.
Get Support from the Community
Just recognize that a lot of times we feel like our way of coping is that we need to confront the oppressor right away, whether that’s a teacher, your employer, or somebody in a store. Wherever you were experiencing this, it can be really tricky. A lot of people will just say: “Why don’t you just say something? Why don’t you just say no to them? Why don’t you just tell them that they’re being racist and that you feel like you’re being discriminated against?
The thing is that there are real consequences. People have lost their jobs. People have lost their livelihoods. People get expelled from school for speaking out. And that’s just something to be aware of. Don’t rush yourself to feel like you need to respond to everything or that you need to go through this whole legal process.
And the thing is some people do take it to that level where they want to file a lawsuit against somebody. But that can be very emotionally and physically exhausting. That’s just something to be prepared for. In that context, I encourage you to find support from the community, because really we need community support, and community care as much as we need self-care.
Community care in this context would look like if you experienced racism in the workplace, you want to contact a lawyer or you want to get a civil rights organization involved. There’s tons of paperwork that you need to fill out. And my hope is that you have a good support network that could come together and help you with that and someone who takes you there to those appointments, who can help you with the documentation because they’ll tell you to document everything that happened.
Being mentally prepared for that whole process is going to be really important. Also connecting with the community online, don’t be afraid to do that if you can find a community near you. There are a lot of people of color out there who are isolated. They don’t have other people who look like them in their community, who are people who don’t share the same cultural background as them and one of the great things about social media is that we’re able to find those communities online. That can be very empowering for people, knowing that you’re not alone, that there are other people who are also experiencing this. So, don’t hesitate to do that.
There are Many Ways to Respond to Racism
The other point I just wanted to emphasize is that when it comes to healing, we’re often told that there is a right way to respond to racism, but really it’s important to remember that, a lot of times, it doesn’t matter how you respond to it. There are always people who are going to vilify you or see you as you’re being they’ll see you as a threat.
The thing to look out for is you don’t want those beliefs or those thoughts or those experiences to get internalized. Because when they do get internalized, you’re going to think you’re going to start second-guessing yourself. You’re going to start blaming yourself. So, challenge those negative thoughts, challenge those internalized and externalize thoughts and this is not coming from me. This is coming from outside of me.
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