What Is Racial Trauma?
When people are subjected to racism, discrimination, microaggressions, or other forms of mistreatment or violence because of their racial background, it can lead to trauma.
Racial trauma, which is also known as race-based traumatic stress, is the set of consequences that occur when a person of color deals with racism and discrimination. It encapsulates the varied psychological, mental, and emotional harm that is caused by witnessing racism and discrimination and by experiencing it firsthand.
Racial trauma may be individual to one person, or an entire community may experience it simultaneously.
The History of Racial Trauma
The term “race-based traumatic stress” was first used by Robert T. Carter in his 2007 paper titled,”Racism and Psychological and Emotional Injury: Recognizing and Assessing Race-Based Traumatic Stress,”1 which was published on behalf of the Division of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association.
Carter’s paper stipulated that when Black, Indigenous, and people of color encounter racism and discrimination, it has a strong negative emotional impact, and may be similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After the term race-based traumatic stress became more widely known, it eventually became interchangeably used with the term racial trauma. The two have the same definition, and Carter is credited with the concept in full, no matter which is used.
Symptoms of Racial Trauma
It isn’t a secret that racism has had a serious negative impact on the lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in our society historically and in the present. Whether it’s health problems for Indigenous People2 to the ways that discrimination impact college student admission rates,3 there are no bounds to the areas of life that racism can impact.
Because racism is so pervasive and widespread, it is little wonder that the symptoms of racial trauma can manifest in different ways. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) notes that common symptoms of race-based traumatic stress include:4
- Anxiety and depression
- Avoidance behaviors
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of humiliation
- Increased reactivity
- Loss of appetite
- Low self-esteem
- Problems sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
The effects of racial trauma are cumulative and can ultimately contribute to decreased quality of life and reduced life span.
The Impact of Racial Trauma
The effects of racial trauma are complex and are complicated by the far-reaching influence of racism and the ongoing nature of the problem. It is not an isolated incident that occurs once; it permeates the culture, affects nearly every area of a person’s life, and leads to re-traumatization again and again.
As you might suspect, based on how seriously and intensely racial trauma can manifest, racial trauma’s impacts are far-reaching.
- Racial trauma leads to lower self-esteem and self-worth.5
- The trauma of witnessing police brutality leads Black, Indigenous, and people of color, particularly Black people, to fear police,6 which can in turn be dangerous if they find themselves in situations where they need to rely on police assistance.
- Racial trauma can cause severe emotional problems, such as dissociative symptoms.3
- It can contribute to the avoidance of people, places, or situations that trigger memories of traumatic experiences.
The American Psychological Association suggests that many healthcare practitioners and mental health professionals fail to recognize the seriousness and impact of racial trauma. The DSM-5, the diagnostic manual that practitioners use to diagnose mental health conditions, does not recognize racial trauma as a mental health condition.7
Racial trauma also contributes to poorer well-being and mental health conditions, including:
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post traumatic stress disorder is a natural response to a traumatic event. In the case of racial trauma, PTSD can occur after an individual person faces harassment or discrimination, or it can occur by witnessing it.
Events such as the killing of George Floyd, for example, were traumatic for Black people. This trauma was heightened by the constant media exposure and explicit images of harm done to Black individuals. Such events also contribute to uncertainty about safety and add to existing distrust of law enforcement.
Then there was the added trauma that it could have been them or a loved one who was killed, on top of the added trauma of reminding many people of those they’d lost in similar ways.
PTSD manifests in many ways, and when someone is witness to or subjected to, racism frequently and unendingly, it becomes compounded. That is known as complex PTSD or C-PTSD.
Racial trauma leads to a more stressed, and subsequently less mentally healthy, life.8Chronic stress is unhealthy for all people, but when you combine it with populations that are historically underserved medically,9 the risk for long-term physical health problems increases. Not only is chronic stress terrible to live with emotionally, but it also is dangerous physically, as chronic stress increases illness.
Research has found that perceived discrimination plays a significant role in health disparities linked to chronic stress among BIPOC. This includes an increased risk for diabetes, hypertension, and adverse birth outcomes.10
Depression and Anxiety
Racial trauma may also contribute to an increased risk for depression.11 Additionally, childhood trauma can lead to more depression as an adult,12and racial discrimination has been proven to lead to poorer mental health.13
Anxiety has an effect on cognition, which affects how they think, perceive, and interpret information.14 It can lead to negative patterns of interpreting events, which can make it more difficult to cope with different aspects of life, including both negative and more pleasant events.
While depression and anxiety can be symptoms of PTSD, they can also exist on their own. Both have strong negative impacts on a person’s well-being and daily life.
Racial trauma can impact every facet of life, reducing one’s quality of living significantly. It’s effects are cumulative and are compounded by other aspects of life that are also affected by racism and discrimination, including healthcare, education, and financial disparities.
How to Cope With and Heal From Racial Trauma
Racism creates prolonged trauma that affects many areas of life and contributes to worse mental health. While some other types of trauma are time-limited, racial trauma is ongoing, which makes it more challenging to cope with. Racism can also make it more difficult to access treatment for mental health conditions that stem from racial trauma.
Despite the inability to put racial trauma entirely in your past, numerous community organizations have identified ways to reduce and manage symptoms of racial trauma. These tools and strategies can help people cope and reduce symptoms.
Connect With Others
Finding community and communing with others can help you heal from racial trauma. Storytelling is one example of how Black communities have found collective healing from racism,15with one study noting that “community is advanced as an agent of change while centering justice and the important role of cultural practices to facilitate community healing.”
In addition to finding community, connecting with others may be as simple as talking about the racial trauma you’ve experienced with a friend. There are very few BIPOC, if any, whose lives have been free of discrimination or racial harassment.
The act of talking about your experiences can be healing, and your friends may be able to offer you advice about how they themselves cope with the racial trauma they have.
Practicing self-care can dramatically improve a person’s sense of well-being. What comprises self-care is up to you: it can be anything you do that makes you feel loved by yourself.
Self-care acts can be simple and free or elaborate and complex. You could take a walk in nature, soak in a dimly lit bath, or get yourself a massage.
You could write in a journal, or practice meditating. Anything that makes you feel cared for is beneficial to your sense of wellness, and the act of soothing yourself can help you heal from trauma.
Set Boundaries for Media Consumption
As far as it’s important to stay informed of what’s going on in the world, it can be depressing and anxiety-inducing. Especially in times of societal crisis, having limits of how much media your consume can be important for your mental health.
If you find yourself reading and watching news stories about violence against BIPOC frequently, chances are you’re going to feel anxious about it.
Only you know the right balance for you, but if you find that your media consumption is leading to you feeling worse, you may wish to take a step back from it.
One easy way to create boundaries around media consumption is to place limits on your phone for how long you can spend on different platforms daily.
Seek Professional Assistance
Racial trauma isn’t something you have to heal from alone, and therapy may be the perfect tool to help you through it. Specifically, it may help you to find a trauma-informed therapist who can understand what you’ve gone through.
While your therapist doesn’t have to be of color, you might find you can relate better to someone with a similar racial background to yours, as that creates an innate understanding of surface-level life experiences. There is no shame in needing therapy, and for anyone who has encountered trauma, it can be beneficial.
Carter RT. Racism and Psychological and Emotional Injury: Recognizing and Assessing Race-Based Traumatic Stress. The Counseling Psychologist. 2007;35(1):13-105. doi:10.1177/0011000006292033
Skewes MC, Blume AW. Understanding the link between racial trauma and substance use among American Indians. Am Psychol. 2019;74(1):88-100. doi:10.1037/amp0000331
Polanco-Roman L, Danies A, Anglin DM. Racial discrimination as race-based trauma, coping strategies, and dissociative symptoms among emerging adults. Psychol Trauma. 2016;8(5):609-617. doi:10.1037/tra0000125
Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Race-based traumatic stress.
Priest N, Paradies Y, Trenerry B, Truong M, Karlsen F, Kelly Y. A systematic review of studies examining the relationship between reported racism and health and well-being for children and young people. Social Science & Medicine. 2013;95:115–27.
Schuck AM, Rosenbaum DP, Hawkins DF. The Influence of Race/Ethnicity, Social Class, and Neighborhood Context on Residents’ Attitudes Toward the Police. Police Quarterly. 2008;11(4):496-519. doi:10.1177/1098611108318115
American Psychological Association. Uncovering the trauma of racism.
Williams DR. Stress and the mental health of populations of color: Advancing our understanding of race-related stressors. J Health Soc Behav. 2018;59(4):466-485. doi:10.1177/0022146518814251
Taylor J. Racism, Inequity, and Health Care for African Americans. The Century Foundation. December 19, 2019.
American Psychological Association. Fact sheet: Health disparities and stress.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. Black/African American.
Williams LM, Debattista C, Duchemin AM, Schatzberg AF, Nemeroff CB. Childhood trauma predicts antidepressant response in adults with major depression: data from the randomized international study to predict optimized treatment for depression. Transl Psychiatry. 2016;6(5):e799. Published 2016 May 3. doi:10.1038/tp.2016.61
Vines AI, Ward JB, Cordoba E, Black KZ. Perceived Racial/Ethnic Discrimination and Mental Health: a Review and Future Directions for Social Epidemiology. Curr Epidemiol Rep. 2017;4(2):156-165. doi:10.1007/s40471-017-0106-z
Robinson OJ, Vytal K, Cornwell BR, Grillon C. The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013;7:203. Published 2013 May 17. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00203
Chioneso NA, Hunter CD, Gobin RL, McNeil Smith S, Mendenhall R, Neville HA. Community Healing and Resistance Through Storytelling: A Framework to Address Racial Trauma in Africana Communities. Journal of Black Psychology. 2020;46(2-3):95-121. doi:10.1177/0095798420929468