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An Introduction to the Racial Trauma Guide
Racial stressorsare verbal, behavioral, or environmental stressors that individuals experience because of their race. Racial stressors may include being ignored or insulted by White coworkers, not being considered for jobs or positions, being told that they are overreacting to racial issues, behaviors or features being deemed as (e.g., hair, lifestyle) unprofessional, or being unwillingly exposed to racist material. Racial stressors have been amplified during the COronaVIrus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, when BlackAmericans were shown to be dying at a disproportionately higher rate than their White counterparts. Across most states, the number of COVID-19 deaths for Black people for every 100,000 deaths was 54.9, compared with Latinx (24.9), Asian (24.3), and White (22.7) people. As the country was forced into a life of social distancing and searched the internet daily for breaking news relating to the virus, the effects of COVID-19 on Black Americanswere further compounded by social media and news sources calling attention to the longstanding problem of anti-Black racism and injustice in the United States.
These guides were developed by the UGA Racial Trauma Task Force (Violeta Rodriguez, Dominique La Barrie, Miriam Zegarac, Lisa Bartolomeo, Tosin Adesogan, Kharine Jean, Kelly Rea, and Dr. Karen Smith), with substantial support from Dr. Isha Metzger, Latisha Swygert, Briana Spivey and the EMPOWER Lab.
The negative effects of racial discrimination and the unfair or prejudicial treatment of individuals on the basis of race on Black Americans are well documented. Experiences with racial discrimination are associated with negative mental (e.g., depression, anxiety, hopelessness, violent behavior) and physical (e.g., hypertension, thickening and calcification of the arteries, and heart rate variability) health outcomes. These detrimental effects on health are found independent of socioeconomic status, age, and gender. Moreover, over 60% of Black Americans endorse at least one experience of racial discrimination in their lifetime, and findings suggest that the links between experiences of racial discrimination and negative health outcomes are stronger for Black Americansthan for anyother group. Carter (2007)posits that some Black Americans who experience racial discrimination can develop racial trauma, a psychological trauma with symptoms comparable to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 criteria for PTSD(Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), which include negative alterations to cognition and mood, intrusive symptoms, avoidance, and physical reactions.
THE INTERSECTIONALITY OF RACISM AND GENDER
While individuals of all racial-ethnic minority groups (i.e. Latinx, Indigenous peoples, etc.) are at risk of experiencing racial discrimination and racial trauma, Black Americans are especially at risk, as anti-Black racism is individual, systemic, and historical. Additionally, it is important to consider the compounding impact of belonging to multiple marginalized and oppressed groups, including (but not limited to) race, gender, and sexuality, and how these intersections interact and increase susceptibility to experiences of racial trauma. The concept ofintersectionalitydescribes the ways in which various identities interact and shape the experiences of individuals from marginalized groups. More specifically, examining the effects of racial trauma through the lens of intersectionality allows for a more thorough account of the multiple identities occupied by Black Americans (e.g., Black trans women, Black differently-abled Americans, etc.) and how those who occupy multiple identities are impacted by racial trauma. For example, Black women exist at the intersection of double marginalization: being Black, faced with the adversities previously stated, and a woman, places them in a position beneath Black men in social hierarchies. As such, it is important to consider intersectionality when discussing the impact of racial trauma and how Black Americans who occupy multiple identities are often forgotten and erased from the narrative of protests and movements. Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was murdered while she was asleep in her home, has received much less media attention (and consequently, slower moving progress on her family’s fight for justice) amidst the current protests. Intersectionality is important in considering why the American public were spurred into outrage and protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, but less noticeably so for Breonna Taylor.
SYMPTOMS OF RACIAL TRAUMA
Psychologically,racial trauma can cause symptoms that mirror those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
Re-experiencing of distressing events: reporting of discrimination in higher numbers
Arousal: higher reports of somatization when distressed (e.g., stomach aches, headaches, rapid heartbeat), greater perception of behavioral problems
Negative emotion: depression, anxiety, Black/Latinx middle school students have higher rates of depression in context of discrimination
Avoidance: less willingness to take academic risks, higher school drop-out rates after racial discrimination is perceived
Higher Allostatic Load(the wear and tear of the body caused by chronic stress) When the body is in a state of distress, it activates the stress response system, which helps us fight or get out of the stressful situations (a.k.a. fight, flight, or freeze). However, when experiences of stress are consistent and chronic, the stress response system becomes taxed and hormones can be unbalanced, leading to some of the physical illnesses and conditions listed above.
In a sampleof African American college students at predominantly White institutions, experiences of racial discrimination were associated with subsequent increases in sleep difficulties. Furthermore, greater levels of internalized racism (i.e., believing racist messages like Black Americans are “lazy” or “criminals”) are associated with a stronger relation to sleep difficulties.
Racial discrimination experiences are associated with poorer mental health(i.e., more symptoms of depression and anxiety) as well as lower individual and collective self-esteem.
A study by Devylder et al. (2018) demonstrates that police violence exposure is more common for people of color, and this exposure is related to poor mental health symptoms, including suicidal ideation and psychotic episodes.
COPING WITH RACIAL TRAUMA
Being seen and heard is essential to healing. Connect with friends who are able to engage in racially conscious conversations and willing to help you process your thoughts and emotions.
The benefits of disclosing experiences of racism are demonstrated in science. In a study of African American women, those who experienced frequent everyday racism and reported that they kept it to themselves were shown to have shorter telomeres. Shorter telomere length is an indicator of chronic stress exposure, aging, and morbidity.
Engage in prayer, mindfulness, spiritual practices, and use of mantras.
Practice self-care by engaging in activities that you enjoy and make you happy.
Learn to be aware and recognize the symptoms of racial trauma (e.g., fatigue, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping). Identify similar ways to cope with these symptoms.
Make a list of situations, people, or places that trigger your symptoms of trauma, and make a similar list of ways to cope for each of these situations, people, or places.
Recognize when you are not able to perform optimally because of the above symptoms and rest if you are able.
Roleplay how to respond to negative racial encounters with trusted people in your network.
Engage in activism. Feeling empowered involves participating in actions to solve difficulties.Agency and self-advocacyare associated with leadership, school engagement, self-esteem, and prosocial behaviors. Do a self-check and ask yourself if you need help or someone to talk to.
The American Psychological Association urges those who are experiencing trauma in the aftermath of these tragedies to practice self-care. Connect with family, friends and other communities to support people. Talk about your feelings and limit you and your children’s exposure to news media and viral videos. Seek professional help if you need it (some resources as noted below).
Infants and toddlers will not fully understand racism and experiences of discrimination, but if parents are experiencing racial stressors, this could influence family routines, parent mood, and social interactions.
As a caregiver, take care of yourself
Look for changes in your child’s behavior such as increases in irritability, crying, or withdrawn behavior so you can support and help soothe them.
Children, 3–10 years old may notice changes in caregivers’ mood and stress levels. Additionally, children may experience racial discrimination in the form of teasing, bullying, and other children avoiding playing with them, for example.
Encourage them to express their emotions and listen in a way that makes it clear that it is okay for them to talk about racial stress with caregivers.
Make it clear that racism is wrong.
Model emotional expression and label your emotions when you are also experiencing racial stress.
Do activities with your children that highlight positive aspects of their racial identity and that are enjoyable to facilitate mood change
Helping Teens Cope With Racial Stressors
Youth and Adolescents, 11–19 years old, may struggle to cope with fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness stemming from racism. Teens may start arguments or be withdrawn, and even feel physically ill (i.e., headaches, insomnia, and nausea).
Look for emotional and behavioral cues that your child may show such as hyper-vigilance (i.e., being jumpy or “on edge”), confusion, or difficulty concentrating.
Exposure to racial stressors through social media, although essential for being informed, may be overwhelming and difficult for children to process on their own.
Limit social media time if necessary and have conversations with your child about racial violence and experiences of racism.
Validate their feelings (e.g., “It’s okay to feel this way when people say things like that”).
Encourage your child to engage in other activities they enjoy as a family or individually.
Model and encourage coping behaviors like using enjoyable distractions (i.e., going for a walk, cooking, watching a TV show). Point out positives of situations, express both comfortable and uncomfortable emotions, do relaxation techniques (i.e., deep breaths, yoga, stretching).
Keep up with self-care routines (i.e., journaling, eating meals regularly, showering).
At this age, teens may want to engage in activism or to express their emotions through activities (i.e., art, photography, talking to friends, social media posts). Support them in these efforts so they can feel empowered and confident!
Tips For Communicating With Children About Racism
Remember there is no right or wrong way to do this. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge the emotions you and your child may be feeling.
Address your own anxiety and stress in a healthy way.
Use verbal and nonverbal language to communicate your care and concern.
Stay focused on your child and the conversation. Let them know you are listening by not multitasking or talking over them.
Speak to them calmly using language they know.
Be honest and explain what racism is and how it is wrong.
Try to make them feel safe. Explain that you will be there to take care of them and love them.
Ask your child(ren) how they are feeling, what worries them, and what they think could help them feel better. Children may feel ashamed, sad, and angry.
Allow them to openly express emotions and tell them it is okay to feel these ways.
Offer comfort with gentle words or just be present with them.
Spend more time with the children than usual, even for a short while.
If your child is very distressed, allow them time to “cool down,” communicate that you love and support them, and be easier on them.
Mental Health Resources
National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network (NQTTCN)
Mission: increase access to healing justice resources for queer and trans People of Color (POC)
Highlights: directory that helps locate QTPOC therapists across the country
Mission: provide scholarships to Black students seeking careers in the mental health field, provide wellness resources for young POC, eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the African-American community
Highlights: directory that helps locate mental health providers and programs serving POC, opportunities for virtual therapy
Mission: remove the barriers that Black people experience getting access to or staying connected with emotional health care and healing through education, training, advocacy and the creative arts
Highlights: mental health toolkits and worksheets, journal prompts for wellness, Black Virtual Therapist Network directory that helps locate licensed Black therapist offering telemental health services
Mission: address the strong lack of engagement between minorities and the mental health care industry which arises as a result of cost, stigma, and lack of cultural competency by matching users with licensed professionals that share their unique traits, values, and sensibilities
Highlights: directory to help members of marginalized and intersectional communities connect with affordable therapists, match clients with therapist using an algorithm that matches them based on their unique traits, values, and experiences
Mission: keeps people safe from potentially harmful drugs, medical devices and procedures by informing them of medical conditions, severe side effects and ways to take action
Highlights: guide covers common mental illnesses and disorders including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD, warning signs, risks and causes, and available evidence-based treatments
Below are multiple suggestions on what non-Black individuals can do to show solidarity:
We pay educators because educating others is a time-intensive job! People who are experiencing racial injustice are often looked to as the experts or educators; step up and do some independent study while focusing on work from minority groups (Kaur, 2020).
Become involved in social action:
Look for opportunities to speak and act. Speak up when you witness acts of injustice and intolerance.
Challenging others is a way of using your privilege for the benefit of others. You can ask questions, raise issues, and add perspectives that are not naturally coming up in discussions. You can also introduce data, invite people into conversations, and create buzz around ideas. With your privilege amplify the views of people not being heard and bring back conversations when someone is interrupted. Consider other experiences besides your own and think about how you would like to be treated during those times. You can give credit for people’s work and spread the word about their talent. You can notice when bias is playing out around us, and name it when it happens. When someone brings up your bias, do not be defensive or quick to challenge it. Instead, try to see from their perspective.
Be thoughtful about moments when you may inadvertently speak over the group you mean to support. It is not unusual to inadvertently put ourselves first instead of the people to whom we are trying to be an ally, but it is costly. When it happens, step aside or step back, create space, and learn from those whose lives are directly affected by the issue, rather than presenting yourself as the expert. Take their lead while using your privilege. However, do not use lack of knowledge to remain silent. The voices of those with privilege are heard more than those who are being affected. It is important to speak up.
Have difficult conversations:
Conversations about race can and will likely always be difficult to have, however this does not mean they should not happen. If you have an identity that carries privilege, use it to have difficult conversations. You will likely be listened to and can help others in understanding different perspectives (Connley, 2020) .
When conversations about race happen in the classroom, educators should take the lead. If the conversation is part of class discussion, set up guidelines so students can stay respectful throughout the discussion. Having students reflect from an opposing perspective as an exercise can help them understand a classmate’s opinion they may have not understood beforehand.
Don’t be afraid to initiate conversations with friends and family who may not be as knowledgeable on topics such as racial trauma and White privilege. Often people are discriminatory and are not aware. Be brave and have these tough conversations with loved ones.
If you yourself have offended someone and someone speaks up:
Don’t be defensive -- take the opportunity to consider how what you said may have come off. How would you feel if someone said something similar to you, based on racial stereotypes or assumptions?
Acknowledge that you hurt the person, apologize, and reflect.
Learn about other cultures
Ignorance is often the base of judgment and discrimination towards minority groups. Take the time to learn about different cultures, you will often find more commonalities than not.
Ask about different cultural customs and traditions. This can take place by asking friends or classmates of different ethnic backgrounds. But be respectful and receptive during these conversations and don’t judge or assume someone else’s customs are “weird” or “strange”.
Watching films, listening to new music, trying new foods, are just a few ways to learn about different groups, and you will likely expose yourself to something you might really like and hadn’t tried before.
Discussing Race in White Families
The “Talk” is a parenting task that Black parents engage in with their children that includes how to act when approached by the police and how to survive in a racist society. The ‘Talk’ is a form of racial socialization, a necessary practice that Black families engage in to prepare their children for likely experiences with racial discrimination.
It is well documented that White parents do not have these conversations with their children or inform their children of the negative outcomes of racial discrimination. A commonly cited reason for the lack of engagement is that children are too young to understand, yet, racial bias has been shown to peak at elementary school ages. White families endorse a need to discuss race only whenthe child initiates the conversation or when there is heavy media coverage of racist events (i.e., the protests following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd). White parents alsoheavily practice “color blindness”, the ideology that racial identity does not matter. However, the practice of color blindness is harmful, as itdisregardsboth the strengths and the discriminatory experiences of people of color.
It is imperative to have conversations with children as early as pre-school ageand consistently discuss the topic of racial discrimination as children mature and more frequently witness social injustices.
To effectively talk with your child, you will need to educate yourself on racism. Don’t ask your Black friend(s) to talk to your children for you. Show your child that it is okay to discuss race and White privilege.
If you live in a predominantly White area, conversations about race might not come up naturally. You need to start conversations by highlighting this fact.
For example, “Most of your [classmates, neighbors, friends] are White. Why do you think that is?” or “The character in this [tv show, book, movie] has a different skin color than us. What do you think about that?”
MIDDLE SCHOOL AND BEYOND:
If you notice your child having biased opinions, discuss these opinions and how they can be harmful for others. Dissect their meanings.
Have deeper conversations on how your child can be an ally and advocate for social rights. This is as easy as questioning why a classmate of color may be treated differently.
Encourage your child to be curious but respectful. Explain that they may say things that offend others, but those awkward moments are chances for us to learn and become better people, not to be defensive and fight.
Discuss how as a White individual, you have privileges that people of color may not, and how to use your voice to speak up for others.
Creating a safe space without judgment for your child to feel open to discuss racial problems with a parent is key to having open conversations. The most important thing a parent can do is to stay consistent with their practices of informing their children about racial discrimination.
Ask your children how much they know about racial discrimination. You may be surprised at what they have learned from their peer groups.
Have open and free conversations about injustices. Discuss stereotypes, what they mean, and how they can hurt others.
There are many books, videos, television programs that discuss racial discrimination and injustices. Use these to initiate conversations.
Point out instances of racism when you see them. Doing so demonstrates that it is not taboo to discuss and call-out racism.
Normalize these differences and take the time to discuss other cultures.
Use language children will understand, but do not tiptoe around the idea of racism.
If discussing racial injustices, explain how it is not fair for people who are darker to be treated differently.
When children notice the differences in skin tone between themselves and their playmates explain that people come in all beautiful shades, making each individual unique and special.
Resources on how to initiate conversations about race, racism, and using your privilege to undo racism and White privilege