According to the American Psychological Association (2019), racial discrimination is the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people based on physical characteristics such as skin color and hair texture. Discrimination can occur due to one’s ethnicity, culture or religion. It is an everyday reality that Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) live with. People of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent also experience discrimination in ways that are similar to BIPOC people.
Racial discrimination has occurred in the United States of America since its beginning. Fear and misunderstanding are two common underlying causes of discrimination. Racism occurs at many levels. Interpersonal racism occurs in face-to-face interactions between people such as the use of racial slurs, bias or hate based on race. Institutional racism occurs when policies within institutions put one racial group at a disadvantage such as the higher rates of school disciplinary measures taken against African American males. Structural racism occurs when public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and norms work in ways that lead to historic unequal treatment such that “whiteness” has privilege and “color” has disadvantage. Structural racism occurs in education, housing, employment, health, wealth, income, justice, and voting. Racism, intentional and unintentional, is pervasive and deeply embedded in every level of American society.
Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child (2022) reports that there is a growing body of evidence connecting the stress of racism to long-term wear and tear starting in childhood. Children who experience chronic racism can have highly activated stress responses affecting their developing brains and biological systems. In children, the first indicators of the impact of chronic racism are anxiety and depression. These mental health problems can impose additional stress on parents/caregivers and the family system as a whole. Systemic racism also imparts damaging messages that are evident in studies showing that African American and White preschool children alike show a preference for white dolls. Their choices indicate a perception among children that Whiteness is better which can have a negative impact on the self-esteem of non-white children.
BIPOC and MENA people experience discrimination on a daily basis. Day-to-day examples of discrimination include being treated with less respect and courtesy, being treated as less intelligent or less capable, and receiving microaggressions. Microaggressions are short, frequently occurring verbal, behavioral, or environmental insults, intentional or unintentional, that communicate negative, derogatory, or hostile racial slights. Racial and ethnic minorities report that they often maintain a state of vigilance to be on the lookout for incoming discriminatory acts. Being on the lookout on an ongoing basis can lead to chronic stress responses that can affect physical health and mental well-being. The stress of discrimination has been associated with anxiety, depression, obesity, high blood pressure, and substance use. BIPOC people in the US have more chronic health problems and shorter life spans at all income levels in comparison to Whites.
Racial trauma refers to the real or perceived dangerous events as the result of racial discrimination. These experiences include threats of harm and injury, humiliating and shaming events, and witnessing harm to others due to real or perceived racism. African Americans are exposed to more racism than any other racial group. However, Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islanders, and MENA people experience significant racism as well. Racial trauma can have intergenerational effects – it can be passed down from parents to children affecting not only family systems but whole communities of color. Intergenerational trauma refers to the build-up of emotional wounds resulting from colonization, slavery, genocide, and dislocation. In this way, many BIPOC experiences the ongoing effects of trauma for a lifetime.
Repeated exposure to racism, racial bias, discrimination, violence against BIPOC, and racist abuse presented in the media can produce pervasive feelings of being unsafe because of the color of one’s skin and/or inclusion in an ethnic group. This profound unsafe feeling is an essential component of racial trauma. There are many triggers for racial trauma:
*Direct or indirect exposure to racist abuse or discrimination
*Media exposure to racism (e.g., police violence against unarmed African Americans)
*Exposure to racial/ethnic stereotypes
*Exposure to others not taking racism seriously
Racial trauma is similar to but different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The hallmark difference between PTSD and racial trauma is that racial trauma is ongoing. There is not one event (e.g., a hurricane) or one period of time (e.g., a war). For BIPOC people particularly, the stressors that cause racial trauma occur every day and have been in existence for decades, if not centuries. Racism is built in the fabric of American society occurring at every level from individual face-to-face interactions to the implementation and execution of policies and laws.
Racial Trauma is associated with both psychological and physical symptoms.
Some Psychological Symptoms of Racial Trauma:
*Distress relating to trauma
*Avoiding things that remind of the trauma
*Intense anxiety/panic or depression relating to the trauma
*Hypervigilance and/or suspiciousness
*Distraction by memories/flashbacks or thoughts of the trauma
*Dissociation – feeling numb or disconnected from oneself or others
*Detachment – from feelings of others or oneself
Some Physical Symptoms of Racial Trauma, Long and Short Term:
*Physical pain (e.g., headaches)
*Increased heart rate
*Higher allostatic load – the wear and tear of the body as a result of chronic stress
*Hypertension (high blood pressure)
How to Cope
Beginning a healing process is an important first step in the face of racial discrimination or racial trauma.
*Acknowledging you have been exposed to or are a victim of racial discrimination/trauma.
*Discuss your experience with those you trust.
*Self-Care – engage in activities that promote pleasure.
*Reduce cumulative stress by engaging in a healthy lifestyle (e.g., food choices and exercise).
*Empower yourself by taking part in activism against racial injustice.
*Seek professional support.
Each person is different and reacts differently to events of racial discrimination/trauma. When reactions to racial discrimination/trauma interfere with everyday life or are hard to manage, professional help can be beneficial. Consulting with a trauma-informed therapist at the Anxiety & Stress Center, P.C. can facilitate racial healing. We understand the impact that racial discrimination and racial trauma can have. Our goals are to assist in managing the current racist event(s) and work to prevent re-traumatization. Knowledge of the forms of racial discrimination and sensitivity to the impact of racial trauma are the focal points of trauma-informed interventions.