The Complexity of Racial Trauma
"I'm shy. I'm kindhearted. I'd call myself a pacifist...but when people look at me, they seem to expect me to be dangerous. That is what really hurts."
- 19-year-old African American male
What is Racial Trauma?
Racial trauma involves the experience of danger related to both past and ongoing prejudicial treatment, including physical violence, threat of harm, shaming interactions, and ongoing vicarious trauma due to witnessing harm to other Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Complex trauma is an integrative term that encompasses both the exposure to multiple, chronic traumatic experiences AND the wide-ranging and long-term impact of these experiences. As such, racial trauma can be conceptualized as a specific form of complex trauma.
Beginning in childhood, BIPOC are often subject to a surrounding environment fraught with threats to physical and psychological safety and sense of self. Contemporary authors such as Resmaa Menakem and Ta-Nehisi Coates have detailed the embodied traumatic experience of BIPOC, who face bodily harm and relentless physical boundary violations at the hands of the majority culture. Congruent with psychological maltreatment, racial trauma also involves ongoing insidious affronts to the emotional experience, identity, and core value of BIPOC – from microaggressions to overtly discriminatory verbal abuse. In addition, vicarious exposure to chronic racial violence – witnessing the denigration, invalidation, threat toward other persons and communities of color - is a prolonged exposure.
Surviving in the Midst of Complex Trauma: Beyond PTSD
More often than not, BIPOC who have endured racial violence or chronic prejudicial treatment have not been conceptualized through the lens of trauma. Instead, the survival-based nature of their life trajectories was overlooked or discounted, and their victimization marginalized or denied. Increasingly, research is addressing the lived experience of BIPOC and making explicit connections between racial trauma and PTSD. Although racial trauma can lead to classic symptoms of PTSD, the long-term impact is more congruent with an understanding of complex trauma. For BIPOC, exposure to potential threat is unremitting. To conceptualize the impact of racial trauma through the lens of complex trauma also provides a strengths-based, survival-driven reframe of behaviors that are otherwise too often misunderstood and maligned.
When living with ongoing stressors of any kind, the human body and brain adapt in a manner to seek and maintain safety. We survive adversity in a variety of ways depending on our circumstances and what is deemed safe or unsafe in our historical and ongoing environment. Fight, flight, or collapse immobility occur in the face of paralyzing fear. Sometimes we blend in interpersonally to make ourselves as unassuming as possible to the threats around us. For BIPOC, examples of survival adaptations in day-to-day life might include:
- Fight: A Latinx young adult takes an aggressive stance when encountered by a white authority figure, after continual experiences of racially-targeted bullying by a supervisor on his job site.
- Flight: An African American parent requires her middle school son to avoid the community park where his friends hang out, after a recent event in which a preteen was erroneously arrested due to racial profiling,
- Collapse: a young woman of color becomes demoralized and withdrawn after several weeks of microaggressions in a new college course. She eventually stops attending classes.
Adapting to the ongoing stressors of racism requires BIPOC to maintain a constant awareness of their own bodies and others’ responses to their bodies, particularly when in predominantly white spaces and institutions. This often involves active efforts to suppress natural reflexive reactions to adverse experiences. Examples of this can be seen in BIPOC masking anger or hiding feelings of distress in situations that warrant such responses, such as when being falsely accused of a transgression due to racial profiling or during unbidden interactions with law enforcement.
For BIPOC, the cost of revealing authentic emotional responses to societal mistreatment can lead to increased risk of physical violence or verbal denigration. As a result, there is a survival-based imperative for BIPOC to behave calmly even in the midst of threat or unreasonable demands to prevent escalation of the situation. This kind of recurrent silencing of the normal human response to stressful life circumstances takes a toll on the psyche and bodies of BIPOC.
When Trauma is Chronic, Survival Mode is Chronic
For individuals developing in a racially oppressive context, the impact of living in survival mode can shape a variety of long-term painful patterns, such as:
- Living in a state of hypervigilance; being on-guard to react to potential threats
- Experiencing a high level of anxiety, which can look like hyperarousal or hypoarousal
- Hyperarousal can present as agitated, panicked, reactive, aggressive, or high-risk behavior
- Hypoarousal is characterized by low energy, withdrawal or disconnection from others, or behavior that seems numb or muted. Hypoarousal can also be misinterpreted and pejoratively labeled as laziness or lack of motivation
- Feeling unseen, misunderstood, mislabeled, and devalued in one’s common humanity
- Experiencing life as unprotected by those in power
- Making oneself invisible or blending in to minimize further trauma. Some authors have discussed the way in which BIPOC learn to present as “racially innocuous” in order to avoid further racial trauma. This parallels the way other child trauma survivors learn to deny their own needs to survive and placate the needs of their aggressor, and/or
- Experiencing chronic shame or internalized racism: implicitly or explicitly identifying with negative self-beliefs and stigma resulting from chronic societal devaluation.
Legacy of Historical Trauma
In addition to considering the reality of racial trauma in the day-to-day experience of BIPOC, it is also of utmost importance to understand the legacy of historical trauma. The intergenerational wounds of historical trauma and social inequality leave BIPOC with increased vulnerability to traumatic stress. Beginning in the late 90’s, findings from the ACEs studies improved our societal understanding of the lifelong impact of early childhood adversity on long term health and functioning. In recent years, scholars began contemplating this research and the larger field of trauma-informed care through the lens of historical trauma. Intergenerational transmission of trauma has been perpetuated through structural violence and institutional racism. Follow-up studies have found higher ACE scores in communities of color, contributing to compounded risk for negative physical and emotional health outcomes. Such findings provide enhanced understanding for the ways that historical trauma, social inequality, racism, and systemic trauma intersect with complex trauma.
To more fully comprehend the racially oppressive experiences of BIPOC, it is essential to understand intersectionality. There is a cumulative impact of identifying with more than one marginalized or oppressed group. The convergence of these identities often leads to unique and contemptuous stereotypes. For example, Black women holding identities from two marginalized groups are often faced with stereotypes such as the “angry Black woman”, the “vixen”, or the “mammy”. These labels attempt to oversexualize, desexualize, or neutralize a Black woman’s gender, all while invalidating her needs, desires, and overall well-being. The increased number of intersections creates an even greater element of vulnerability for BIPOC. For example, research has suggested that Black transwomen often encounter and are in danger of experiencing significantly more physical violence than other demographics.
Embodied Trauma Requires Embodied Healing and Change
Contemporary scholars have begun to connect systemic racism to the neuroscience of trauma, and the process through which racism and racial trauma are passed through generations at the level of instinctual bodily response. Author Resmaa Menakem introduced the term white body supremacy. He explains how colorism, or the prioritization of light skin, has been internalized over centuries in a manner that is toxic to all people – including the oppressors and the oppressed. Centuries of domination have led to white individuals and groups carrying bias and fear of darker skinned peoples at a visceral level that may or may not be conscious at any given moment. For BIPOC, physiological trauma reactivity resulting from racism and white body supremacy also resides deeply in the body. Such a framework can help us understand why changes in cognitive awareness and policy alone have not been sufficient to reduce racial violence and shift the culture of privileging whiteness.
Altering our culture in a manner that truly overcomes racial trauma requires a greater awareness of our deeply ingrained, automatic, “gut-level” responses. This can happen. It begins with personal self-reflection and cultivation of self-regulation skills. Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, exercise, and prayer help us learn to recondition our bodily reactions to relieve tension and respond to one another in less reactive, more compassionate ways. From that more centered place, increased recognition of, and safe, respectful, open dialogue about, our individual and communal histories around racial trauma, prejudice, and racism become possible. And with it, collective healing and genuine change.
About the Artist: Lucious Smith
The Foundation Trust is honored to feature the fine art photography of Lucious Smith throughout this page. Lucious Smith uses the camera as a means to convey narratives that are often cloaked. Born in Heidelberg, Germany to a military family, he began to recognize the cultural similarities, as well as differences, within the human experience. Smith possesses a distinctive, empathic lens to his storytelling. His work reveals the “connective tissues” between groups that often go unrecognized. Smith’s fine art photography is shot and printed exclusively with analog equipment, which he processes and archives in his Atlanta-based studio. The photographs displayed here were primarily selected from two collections: Street Oracles: Volume One, and American Griots. For a glimpse into his day-to-day, visit www.instagram.com/lusmith.photo