Racial Trauma, Weathering, Internalized Racism and Historical Trauma

Racial trauma” is how racism and discrimination negatively impact the physical and mental health of people of color.  “Weathering” is how these negative impacts wear down people of color’s bodies over time making them greater at risk for health problems.  Internalized racism is when people experiencing racism internalize negative feelings towards themselves and their culture.”Historical Trauma” is the collective and cumulative racial trauma experienced across generations.


Emotional Labor

Coping and Healing Trauma

Triggering Trauma


Racial Trauma

“In an attempt to capture how racism and discrimination negatively impacts the physical and mental health of people of color, many scholars have coined the term “racial trauma” or race-based traumatic stress.” Erlanger A. Turner, PhD,

“Racial trauma may result from racial harassment, witnessing racial violence, or experiencing institutional racism. The trauma may result in experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, feelings of humiliation, poor concentration, or irritability.”

The Root: Racism Can Kill You

“In a study published in the American Journal of Public Health (Geller, Fagan, Tyler, & Link, 2014), the authors reported that 85% of the participants reported being stopped at least once in their lifetime and 78% had no history of criminal activity. What is more concerning is that the study also found that those who reported more intrusive police contact experienced increased trauma and anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, those who reported fair treatment during encounters with law enforcement had fewer symptoms of PTSD and anxiety.

What is Racial Trauma?

In addition to the mental health symptoms of individuals who have encounters with law enforcement, those who witness these events directly or indirectly may also be impacted negatively. In an attempt to capture how racism and discrimination negatively impacts the physical and mental health of people of color, many scholars have coined the term “racial trauma” or race-based traumatic stress. Racial trauma may result from racial harassment, witnessing racial violence, or experiencing institutional racism (Bryant-Davis, & Ocampo, 2006; Comas-Díaz, 2016). The trauma may result in experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, feelings of humiliation, poor concentration, or irritability.

Effects of Racial Trauma on Communities of Color

Decades of research have noted the impact of discrimination and racism on the psychological health of communities of color (e.g., Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2006; Carter & Forsyth, 2009; Comas-Díaz, 2016). Although not everyone who experiences racism and discrimination will develop symptoms of race-based trauma, repeated exposure may lead to the following. According to a report on The Impact of Racial Trauma on African Americans, Dr. Walter Smith notes the following effects of racial trauma:

Increased vigilance and suspicion – Suspicion of social institutions (schools, agencies, government), avoiding eye contact, only trusting persons within our social and family relationship networks

Increased sensitivity to threat – Defensive postures, avoiding new situations, heightened sensitivity to being disrespected and shamed, and avoid taking risks

Increased psychological and physiological symptoms – Unresolved traumas increase chronic stress and decrease immune system functioning, shift brains to limbic system dominance, increase risks for depression and anxiety disorders, and disrupt child development and quality of emotional attachment in family and social relationships

Increased alcohol and drug usage – Drugs and alcohol are initially useful (real and perceived) in managing the pain and danger of unresolved traumas but become their own disease processes when dependency occurs

Increased aggression – Street gangs, domestic violence, defiant behavior, and appearing tough and impenetrable are ways of coping with danger by attempting to control our physical and social environment

Narrowing sense of time – Persons living in a chronic state of danger do not develop a sense of future; do not have long-term goals, and frequently view dying as an expected outcome

Coping with Racial Trauma

Racial trauma or race-based trauma often goes unnoticed. These hidden wounds that adults and youth of color experience are worn like invisible weights. Hardy (2013) provides the following eight steps to heal after experiencing racial injustices in our community.

  1. Affirmation and Acknowledgement: This involves professionals helping the individual to develop a sense of understanding acceptance of racial issues. This step is important because it opens the door for us to dialogue about issues related to race.
  2. Create Space for Race: Creating space allows an open dialogue with our communities about race. Hardy notes that we must take a proactive role to identify race as a significant variable and talk openly about experiences related to race.
  3. Racial Storytelling: Gives individuals an outlet to share personal experiences and think critically about events in their lives. This provides an opportunity to hear others voice how they have been treated differently due to their race and it helps expose hidden wounds through storytelling.
  4. Validation: Can be seen as a personalized tool used to counter devaluation. This provides confirmation of the individuals’ worth and their redeemable qualities.
  5. The Process of Naming: With the scarcity of research on the effects of racial trauma on mental health, there is of course no name as of yet making it a nameless condition. This in turn increases the doubt and uncertainty. By naming these experiences we give individuals a voice to speak on them and also recognize how they impact them. If we apply a mental health condition, individuals may experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  6. Externalize Devaluation: The aim for this step is to have people focus on increasing respect and recognizing that racial events do not lower their self-worth.
  7. Counteract Devaluation: This step uses a combination of psychological, emotional, and behavioral resources to build self-esteem and counter racial attacks. This helps prevent future loss of dignity and sense of self.
  8. Rechanneling Rage: By rechanneling rage, individuals can learn to gain control of their emotions and not let emotions consume them. This is an important step because it empowers people to keep pushing forward after adversity. This may include taking steps to engage in activism or self-care strategies such as spending time with family.”

The Cut: The Little Understood Mental-Health Effects of Racial Trauma

“On Sunday, police officers in Seattle shot and killed Charleena Lyles in her home. She died in front of “several children,” according to reports, and her family members say she was pregnant. Just days before, Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop, was acquitted of all charges. Earlier this spring, an unarmed teenager named Jordan Edwards was shot and killed by police as he was driving away from a party. By now, it’s become a sickeningly familiar sequence of events.

While the trigger (both literally and metaphorically) is the same, there is an aspect of these events that is frequently overlooked: the effects of the frequent police killings on black Americans’ mental health in the form of racial trauma, a psychological phenomenon that some experts say is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. “Racial trauma is experiencing psychological symptoms such as anxiety, hypervigilance to threat, or lack of hopefulness for your future as a result of repeated exposure to racism or discrimination,” said Erlanger Turner, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown, who is one of only a handful of researchers studying racial trauma.

Symptoms can include depression and angry outbursts, much like what is typically seen in those suffering from PTSD. But Turner has observed additional behaviors that are specific to racial trauma, including a reluctance to interact with or general mistrust of white people. Racial trauma can be triggered by many events, but among the most common triggers are continued racial harassment, being a victim of police violence, or witnessing said violence. Even witnessing violence on the news can be damaging. “Research has consistently shown that visual exposure to events can be traumatic,” Turner said. “I particularly believe that the recent news coverage of police shootings of black and brown men will cause some short-time trauma for individuals, especially children. I strongly encourage parents to limit exposure to this type of news coverage.” And yet few researchers are studying the lasting impact of racial trauma.

Due to cultural stigma and barriers to care like insurance and jobs that provide time off work, black Americans are substantially less likely to receive mental-health treatment that other ethnic groups. This is particularly problematic because black Americans are 20 percent more likely to suffer from mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. For those who suffer from mental illness, the recycling of brutality and violence on the news may worsen symptoms.

Although all negative racial events do not result in trauma, it is important that we are increasingly aware of this topic, and that researchers do more to study its causes and effects. Recently, Science of Us spoke with Turner about his work, and his determination to improve scientific understanding of black mental health.

How would you define racial trauma? How new is this concept?
Racial trauma or race-related stress is not a new concept. Decades of research have examined the role of racism and discrimination on mental-health functioning. Racial trauma may result from racial harassment, witnessing racial violence, or experiencing institutional racism.

The trauma may result in experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, feelings of humiliation, poor concentration, or irritability.

How is racial trauma similar to PTSD, and are there any key differences?
Similar to PTSD, racial trauma may result in experiencing symptoms of anxiety, hypervigilance, poor concentration, or irritability. The symptoms for both include direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event. However, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) notes that PTSD is specific to events such as sexual abuse, serious injury, or exposure to actual or threatened death. As you notice, it does not capture events related to cultural background that may result from racism.

What are the signs you should consider speaking to a professional about trauma as a person of color?
There are some behaviors you should consider when deciding to seek help. I think the most important is answering the question, “Do you have problems getting through your day or functioning at school or work?” If the answer is “yes,” it will be useful to talk to a professional. Other signs to consider if you should seek help include: mood changes (being more irritable, sad, or angry), feeling withdrawn and not wanting to be around those who you previously enjoyed spending time with, or when you begin to engage in more risky health behaviors (such as drinking or smoking).

What environmental factors do you believe contribute most to racial trauma? How prevalent do you believe racial trauma is?
That’s a hard question. I don’t recall many studies that have examined rates of racial trauma. Additionally, there is so much continued racism either directly or indirectly it’s hard to recover from one incident before another occurs. Furthermore, not everyone who encounters racial discrimination will experience racial trauma. For example, with the increased media coverage of police brutality in the past few years it has potentially led to increases in trauma or stress. This research is still emerging. However, a recent study was published in April that found police and law-enforcement stress is associated with racial discrimination and depression symptoms among black men.

What has your research informed you is most important to keep in mind with racial trauma?
Again, not every incident of racism will result in racial trauma. The research shows that those who directly witness police violence or are continually exposed to violent images are at a higher risk of trauma than those who witness others. It’s important for providers and psychologists to assess how the experience has affected the individual.

What do you hope to discover next?
Currently my research lab is working on a study to look at factors that hinder and promote the use of mental-health services among black Americans. My hope is that the research can help us to better understand stigma, identify ways in which providers can improve their client-therapist relationship, and improve providers ability to engage in cultural competency.

I see your current research projects study cultural factors that either promote seeking help or attitudes that limit seeking care. Can you tell us a little about those projects?
My current research focuses on mental health among Latino and black Americans. I recently published a paper with a colleague at Santa Clara University on the impact of therapy fears, ethnicity identity, and spirituality on the use of mental-health service among Latino college students. This project will also be exploring these variables among black Americans. Preliminary findings show that religion and spirituality are important to black Americans. These strong spiritual beliefs may also decrease decisions to seek treatment.

What do you believe is the most groundbreaking finding you have come across in your time as a researcher?
Over the past ten years, my research has focused on access to mental-health treatment. The research consistently shows that a positive attitude is associated with seeking treatment. However, some of my early work found that positive attitudes predicted help-seeking for whites, but not for black Americans. In a recent study that I published with four of my former undergraduate students, we found that fears about therapy was a more important barrier to treatment for ethnic minorities such as black Americans. Specifically, the more people have concerns about being respected by the therapist, working with a competent provider, or having values different than the therapist it increased the likelihood that they will avoid treatment. It really highlights the importance that other things beside stigma impact the use of treatment. We really need to make sure that therapists are engaging in cultural humility.

Do you have advice for people of color, in terms of seeking mental-health help?
My advice is that if you feel stressed or have difficulty getting through life you should consider meeting with a psychologist or behavioral-health provider. If religion or spirituality are an important aspect of your life it is appropriate and perfectly okay to ask the provider if they can incorporate your values into treatment. This will help you make the decision of whether that is the person you want to work with to address your concerns. Going to therapy should be a mutual relationship and it is my view that providers should collaborate with their clients.”

NY Times: Racism’s Psychological Toll

“Our screens and feeds are filled with news and images of black Americans dying or being brutalized. A brief and yet still-too-long list: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride. The image of a white police officer straddling a black teenager on a lawn in McKinney, Tex., had barely faded before we were forced to grapple with the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C.

I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues who are stressed out by the recent string of events; our anxiety and fear is palpable. A few days ago, a friend sent a text message that read, “I’m honestly terrified this will happen to us or someone we know.” Twitter and Facebook are teeming with anguish, and within my own social network (which admittedly consists largely of writers, academics and activists), I’ve seen several ad hoc databases of clinics and counselors crop up to help those struggling to cope. Instagram and Twitter have become a means to circulate information about yoga, meditation and holistic treatment services for African-Americans worn down by the barrage of reports about black deaths and police brutality, and I’ve been invited to several small gatherings dedicated to discussing these events. A handful of friends recently took off for Morocco for a few months with the explicit goal of escaping the psychic weight of life in America.

It was against this backdrop that I first encountered the research of Monnica Williams, a psychologist, professor and the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities. Several years ago, Williams treated a “high-functioning patient, with two master’s degrees and a job at a company that anyone would recognize.” The woman, who was African-American, had been devastated by racial harassment by a director within her company. Williams recalls being stunned by how drastically her patient’s condition deteriorated as a result of the treatment. “She completely withdrew and was suffering from extreme emotional anxiety,” she told me. “And that’s what made me say, ‘Wow, we have to focus on this.’ ”

In a 2013 Psychology Today article, Williams wrote that “much research has been conducted on the social, economic and political effects of racism, but little research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color.” Williams now studies the link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder, which is known as race-based traumatic stress injury, or the emotional distress a person may feel after encountering racial harassment or hostility. Although much of Williams’s work focuses on individuals who have been directly targeted by racial discrimination or aggression, she says race-based stress reactions can be triggered by events that are experienced vicariously, or externally, through a third party — like social media or national news events. She argues that racism should be included as a cause of PTSD in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.).

Williams is in the process of opening a clinical program that will exclusively treat race-based stress and trauma, in a predominantly black neighborhood in Louisville. Shortly after the Charleston shooting, I called Williams to discuss her work; what follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

What is race-based stress and trauma?

It’s a natural byproduct of the types of experiences that minorities have to deal with on a regular basis. I would argue that it is pathological, which means it is a disorder that we can assess and treat. To me, that means these are symptoms that are a diagnosable disorder that require a clinical intervention. It goes largely unrecognized in most people, and that’s based on my experience as a clinician.

What are the symptoms?

Depression, intrusion (the inability to get the thoughts about what happened out of one’s mind), vigilance (an inability to sleep, out of fear of danger), anger, loss of appetite, apathy and avoidance symptoms and emotional numbing. My training and study has been on post-traumatic stress disorder for a long time, and the two look very much alike.

Over the weekend, I received several distressing emails and texts from friends who were suffering from feelings of anxiety and depression. Do you think we should all be in treatment?

I think everyone could benefit from psychotherapy, but I think just talking to someone and processing the feelings can be very effective. It doesn’t have to be with a therapist; it could be with a pastor, family, friends and people who understand it and aren’t going to make it worse by telling you to stop complaining.

What do you think about the #selfcare hashtags on social media and the role of “Black Twitter” as resources for people who may not have the resources they need to help process this? Are online interactions like that more meaningful than they initially might seem?

Online communities can be a great source of support, of course — with the caveat that even just one hater can be stressful for everyone, and that’s the danger of it. But if you don’t have a friend or a family member, just find someone who is sensitive and understanding and can deal with racial issues.

In our initial email about the ripple effects of the murders in Charleston, you used the phrase “vicarious trauma.” What does that mean?

Because the African-American community has such a long history of pervasive discrimination, something that impacts someone many miles away can sometimes impact all of us. That’s what I mean by vicarious traumatization.

Is racial trauma widely recognized as a legitimate disorder?

The trauma of events like this is not formally recognized in the D.S.M. It talks about different types of trauma and stress-related ailments, but it doesn’t say that race trauma can be a factor or a trigger for these problems. Psychiatrists, unless they’ve had some training or personal experience with this, are not going to know to look for it and aren’t going to understand it when they see it. In order for it to be recognized, we have to get a good body of scientific research, a lot of publications in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Right now, there’s only been a few. And we need to produce more.

On your blog, you chronicled the experience of a woman who encounters a therapist who dismisses her fears about racism. Is one barrier to treatment getting the medical community to acknowledge that racism exists?

Yes. A lot of people in the medical community live very privileged lives, so racism isn’t a reality to them. When someone comes in and talks to them, it might sound like a fairy tale, rather than a real daily struggle that people are dealing with. Research shows that African-Americans, for example, are optimistic when they start therapy, but within a few sessions feel less optimistic and have high early dropout rates. It could be that clinicians don’t know how to address their problems, or they may even be saying things that are subtly racist that may drive their clients away. If the patient feels misunderstood or even insulted by the therapist and they don’t go back and get help, they end up suffering for years or even the rest of their lives for something that is very treatable.

Is there a recommended model for treatment?

We have great treatments that are empirically supported for trauma, but the racial piece hasn’t really been studied very well. That’s no easy task, because when we write these articles, they go to journals, where an editor looks at it and decides if it’s worthy and applicable to go in the journal. And then it goes to reviewers who decide if it’s a worthy and applicable topic.

Why has it taken so long to get momentum?

If you think about it, they weren’t even letting black people get Ph.D.s 30 years ago in a lot of places. Ethnic minority researchers are the ones who are carrying the torch, by and large. We’re only to the place now where we have enough researchers to do the work. And there’s so much work that needs to be done.”

The Conversation: Slow death: Is the trauma of police violence killing black women?

“We know from the stories of black mothers who have lost their children to state violence that the lingering anguish of living in the aftermath of police violence kills black women gradually. Depression, suicide, PTSD, heart attacks, strokes and other debilitating mental and physical illnesses are just some of the diseases black women develop as they try to put their lives back together after they lose a child”

Back to Top


Weathering

“(Weathering) the stress on black women’s bodies from a lifetime of racism and abuse” Rebecca Schoenkopf

“Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, coined the term “weathering” for stress-induced wear and tear on the body. Weathering “causes a lot of different health vulnerabilities and increases susceptibility to infection,” she said, “but also early onset of chronic diseases, in particular, hypertension and diabetes” — conditions that disproportionately affect blacks at much younger ages than whites.” Nina Martin

Wonkette: We Broke Erica Garner’s Heart

“Researchers call the stress on black women’s bodies from a lifetime of racism and abuse “weathering.” It affects poor women, middle-class women, the educated, the successful, the lieutenant colonels in the US Public Health Service. The same risks in pregnancy a white woman might have in her 40s start in a black woman’s 30s, according to ProPublica, compounded by biases health-care providers may not even realize they have. Black women don’t get proper pain medication; they aren’t believed when they say something’s “not right.” When they die, they leave babies behind to be raised by bereft fathers and grandmothers. Shalon Irving’s grieving mother will raise her daughter beautifully, but she will still, presumably, live in the United States of America.”

NPR: Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why

Black expectant and new mothers frequently said that doctors and nurses didn’t take their pain seriously — a phenomenon borne out by numerous studies that show pain is often undertreated in black patients for conditions from appendicitis to cancer. When Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement who has become an activist to improve black maternal care, had an emergency C-section in Los Angeles in March 2016, the surgeon “never explained what he was doing to me,” she said. The pain medication didn’t work: “My mother basically had to scream at the doctors to give me the proper pain meds.”

But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.

“It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything,” said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher who focuses on birth outcomes for middle-class black women.

It’s a type of stress for which education and class provide no protection. “When you interview these doctors and lawyers and business executives, when you interview African-American college graduates, it’s not like their lives have been a walk in the park,” said Michael Lu, a longtime disparities researcher and former head of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, the main federal agency funding programs for mothers and infants. “It’s the experience of having to work harder than anybody else just to get equal pay and equal respect. It’s being followed around when you’re shopping at a nice store, or being stopped by the police when you’re driving in a nice neighborhood.”

An expanding field of research shows that the stress of being a black woman in American society can take a physical toll during pregnancy and childbirth.
Chronic stress “puts the body into overdrive,” Lu said. “It’s the same idea as if you keep gunning the engine, that sooner or later you’re going to wear out the engine.”

Racial Health Disparities

  • A 2012 study found that Black Americans report “experiencing discrimination at significantly higher rates” than other racial or ethnic groups, leading to PTSD-like symptoms – not from war, but from living in the United States.
  • According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 10.36.14 AM

    • A black woman is:
      • 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman
      • 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer
      • 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.
    • In a national study of five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition.
    • In New York City, for example, black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers, according to the most recent data; in 2001-2005, their risk of death was seven times higher. Researchers say that widening gap reflects a dramatic improvement for white women but not for blacks.
    • The disproportionate toll on African-Americans is the main reason the U.S. maternal mortality rate is so much higher than that of other affluent countries. Black expectant and new mothers in the U.S. die at about the same rate as women in countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan, the World Health Organization estimates.
    • A 2016 analysis of five years of data found that black, college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school.
    • For much of American history, these types of disparities were largely blamed on blacks’ supposed susceptibility to illness — their “mass of imperfections,” as one doctor wrote in 1903 — and their own behavior. But now many social scientists and medical researchers agree, the problem isn’t race but racism.
      • There was the new mother in Nebraska with a history of hypertension who couldn’t get her doctors to believe she was having a heart attack until she had another one. The young Florida mother-to-be whose breathing problems were blamed on obesity when in fact her lungs were filling with fluid and her heart was failing. The Arizona mother whose anesthesiologist assumed she smoked marijuana because of the way she did her hair. The Chicago-area businesswoman with a high-risk pregnancy who was so upset at her doctor’s attitude that she changed OB/GYNs in her seventh month, only to suffer a fatal postpartum stroke.
      • The systemic problems start with types of social inequities that include differing access to healthy food and safe drinking water, safe neighborhoods and good schools, decent jobs and reliable transportation.
      • Black women are more likely to be uninsured outside of pregnancy, when Medicaid kicks in, and thus more likely to start prenatal care later and to lose coverage in the postpartum period. They are more likely to have chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension that make having a baby more dangerous. The hospitals where they give birth are often the products of historical segregation, lower in quality than those where white mothers deliver, with significantly higher rates of life-threatening complications.
      • Those problems are amplified by unconscious biases that are embedded in the medical system, affecting quality of care in stark and subtle ways. In the more than 200 stories of African-American mothers that ProPublica and NPR have collected over the past year, the feeling of being devalued and disrespected by medical providers was a constant theme.
      • In a survey conducted this year by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 33 percent of black women said that they personally had been discriminated against because of their race when going to a doctor or health clinic, and 21 percent said they have avoided going to a doctor or seeking health care out of concern they would be racially discriminated against.
    • An expanding field of research shows that the stress of being a black woman in American society can take a physical toll during pregnancy and childbirth.

Sources: 

NPR: Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why
ProPublica: Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth
Everyday Feminism: Here’s Your Proof That White Americans Don’t Face Systemic Racism

Back to Top


Internalized Racism

Dismantling Racism: Internalizations

“Racism not only impacts us personally, culturally, and institutionally. Racism also operates on us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When racism targets us, we internalize that targeting; when racism benefits us, we internalize that privileging.

INTERNALIZED INFERIORITY or RACIST OPPRESSION
(affecting People of Color) 

  • carry internalized negative messages about ourselves and other people of color
  • believe there is something wrong with being a person of color
  • have lowered self-esteem, sense of inferiority, wrongness
  • have lowered expectations, limited sense of potential for self
  • have very limited choices: either ‘act in’ (white) or ‘act out’ (disrupt)
  • have a sense of limited possibility (limited by oppression and prejudice)
  • cycles through generations

Picture

Internalized Racist Oppression

Internalized Racist Oppression (IRO) is the internalization by People of Color (POC) of the images, stereotypes, prejudices, and myths promoted by the racist system about POC in this country. Our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, people of our own racial group, or other POC are based on the racist messages we receive from the broader system. For many People of Color in our communities, internalized racist oppression manifests itself as:

  • Self-Doubt
  • Sense of Inferiority
  • Self-Hate
  • Low Self Esteem
  • Powerlessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Apathy
  • Addictive Behavior
  • Abusive and Violent Relationships
  • Conflict Between Racial Groups
  • Mediocrity
  • Violence and the Threat of Violence
  • Change in Behavior
  • Destruction of Culture
  • Division, Separation, Isolation

The  Self  System

The Self System model illustrates the impact of racism on personal identity. This multi-generational process of dehumanization is known as Internalized Racial Oppression and Internalized Racial Superiority.

The four aspects of self include Mental (Self Concept), Spiritual (Self Esteem), Physical (Self Image), and Emotional (Self Love).

Picture

All aspects must be in balance for an individual to be balanced. An imbalance in one aspect results in an imbalance of the entire self. Additionally, there are two dimensions of well-being: personal well-being is the individual dimension and community well-being is the collective dimension. Communities consist of multiple individuals with varied states of well-being.

The Self System & Internalized  Racial  Oppression

Picture

NEGATIVE  MESSAGES

In a racist system, the dominant culture regularly sends People and Communities of Color negative messages about who we are both individually and as a community. The Self System of People and Communities of Color is inevitably shaped by the images, values, norms, standards beliefs, attitudes and feelings that presume dominant group members and their culture are the standard by which all people are to be measured.

The arrows represent the messages, communicated by all institutions, that People of Color hear about ourselves and our communities. There is no insulation or escape from the messages. The messages affect our individual and collective psyche despite the affirmations we may receive at home and/or in our communities.

Some of the messages about who we are include (but are not limited to): Loud, Ignorant, Violent, Underachieving, High Risk, Minority, Extinct, Tokens, Mascots, Unworthy, Broken, Bad mothers, Promiscuous, Lazy, Dead beat dads, Inadequate, Poor, Criminal,

Inferior.

The  Impact  of  Negative  Messages

This graphic represents what happens to the Self System as a result of the internalization of racism. Some manifestations of the internalizations of consistent negative messages are: confusion, tolerance, a sense of owerlessness, anger, apathy, denial, colorism, shame, assimilation, rage, protectionism, invisibility, emotional numbness.

The process of internalization is like a coil that spirals inward into the psyche. The attack is ongoing and repetitive. As a result …

  • Self concept is limited
  • Self-esteem is lowered and corrupted
  • Self-image is negated
  • Self-love is absent

Actions we take individually or collectively because of IRO include:

  • Failing to seek support from other POC because we feel isolated in our experience;
  • Intra-racial challenges, for example Black-Brown conflict;
  • Holding positions of power is tenuous because these positions exist in a white supremacy system and are often challenged;
  • Fear and/or avoidance of risk-taking because our taking of risks is interpreted negatively;
  • Continued exploitation. For example if we share something about our experience of racism in a racially mixed group, white people benefit by learning about their privilege at the expense of our reliving of our experience of racism.

​The greatest loss is the damage done to the psyche, resulting in an inability to do that which is in our own best interest.

Racial Equity Tools: What Is Internalized Racism?

Malcolm X Speech: Self Hate-Like The Roots Of A Tree


Double Consciousness

  • Double Consciousness

    • Coined by W. E. B. Du Bois to describe an individual who is having difficulty unifying black identity with American identity

      • the feeling of being part of the American society yet not fully of it.
      • The struggle among black Americans to find room in a civic and political system that was built to deny them full citizenship.
      • critical patriotism
  • Star Spangle Banner Example
    • Written by Francis Scott Key, a slave-owning lawyer, during 1812, a failed expansionistwar started by US
    • Appropriated by US military for flag ceremonies
    • Long suppressed third stanza
      • “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”
      • reflects the composer’s embrace of slavery and the anger felt toward British officers who used the promise of emancipation to recruit enslaved African-Americans.
      • Became ubiquitous as Americans rallied to the flag during World War II

“The black papers also pointed out the hypocrisy of extolling American freedom in song at a time when black servicemen and servicewomen were confined to military installations that featured segregated housing, movie theaters and buses. With black soldiers subjected to segregation even as they offered their lives for freedom, cultural icons of all kinds — including the national anthem — were subject to deconstruction and criticism.” Brent Staples – NY Times

NY Times: African-Americans and the Strains of the National Anthem

“Many of us who were born black in the 1950s abandoned reverence toward the national anthem once we were old enough to grasp what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said that the country had defaulted on the promises embodied in the Declaration of Independence — and had written people of color a bad check that came back stamped “insufficient funds.’’

That metaphor hit home with considerable force during my high school years in a Pennsylvania factory town during the 1960s. Dr. King was assassinated for preaching nonviolent resistance in the South. Muhammad Ali was stripped of the heavyweight boxing title for refusing induction into the Army. And the Vietnam War was unmasked as a morally repugnant enterprise built on a foundation of racism and lies.

By the time I started college in 1969, dissent from the national anthem was endemic. It was an almost everyday occurrence to see groups of African-Americans (and whites as well) — occasionally even athletes and cheerleaders — remaining defiantly seated at sporting events as the audience rose dutifully to its feet for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Threats and insults were not uncommon. The most consistent and perplexing response came from veterans of World War II, who dominated public life at the time and saw nothing contradictory in the argument that the freedoms they had fought to preserve did not include the liberty to do anything when the anthem was played except stand at attention.

African-American anthem dissidents are heirs to a venerable tradition of critical patriotism that dates to what W.E.B. Du Bois termed “double consciousness” — the feeling of being part of the American polity yet not fully of it. This insider-outsider status has driven a longstanding struggle among black Americans to find room in a civic and political system that was built to deny them full citizenship.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” itself has been a subject of that struggle since shortly after Francis Scott Key, a slave-owning Washington lawyer, wrote it to commemorate an American victory over the British during the War of 1812. The song would no doubt have been lost to obscurity had the United States military not appropriated it for flag ceremonies beginning in the late 19th century.

This history seems innocuous enough until one considers that the song tightened its grip on the country during the height of the lynching era in the South and became popular at baseball games at a time when African-Americans were barred from white baseball.

This connection was not lost on the great newspapers of the Negro press, in whose pages the song was referred to as “the Caucasian national anthem.” Black columnists discredited the song by unearthing a long suppressed third stanza (“No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”) that can be read as reflecting the composer’s embrace of slavery and the anger felt toward British officers who used the promise of emancipation to recruit enslaved African-Americans.

By the early 20th century, African-Americans were already turning their backs on the “Star-Spangled Banner” in favor of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — known as the Negro national anthem — written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. Passages like “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered” acknowledge the place of lynching and slavery in the national history.

The bellicose and jingoistic “Star-Spangled Banner” became ubiquitous as Americans rallied to the flag during World War II, giving the idea of patriotism an increasingly narrow — and militaristic — resonance.

The Negro press applied Du Bois’s double consciousness forcefully during this period: It characterized the war as a battle to defeat two foes — Nazism abroad and Jim Crow segregation at home.

The black papers also pointed out the hypocrisy of extolling American freedom in song at a time when black servicemen and servicewomen were confined to military installations that featured segregated housing, movie theaters and buses. With black soldiers subjected to segregation even as they offered their lives for freedom, cultural icons of all kinds — including the national anthem — were subject to deconstruction and criticism.

This attitude is still widely held among African-Americans. A recent poll shows that two-thirds of them believe that the national anthem protests — begun by Colin Kaepernick to protest injustice — are acceptable. Most whites, of course, disagree. And as in the past, the narrow view that people can be counted as patriotic only if they grant the anthem sacrosanct status still holds sway.

The National Football League’s decision to curtail the protests through a threat of fines sets the stage for a potentially combustible football season that will coincide with the midterm elections — and will provide the president with yet another opportunity to exploit racial divisions.

The league’s decision is likely to radicalize players who have come to believe they have a role to play in the debate about police brutality and the resurgence of white supremacy in the age of Trump. Kneeling on the field may have been just the beginning.

Trevor Responds to Criticism from the French Ambassador – Between The Scenes | The Daily Show

Back to Top


Historical Trauma

“Often distorted, denied, or concealed.  Historical trauma has to do with collective, cumulative emotional wounding across generations resulting from cataclysmic events.” Perran Wetzel

“Essentially, the devastating trauma of genocide, loss of culture, and forcible removal from family and communities are all unresolved and become a sort of ‘psychological baggage… continuously being acted out and recreated in contemporary Aboriginal culture’.”
Social Justice Report, 2008, Australian Human Rights Commission

“Trauma leads to fragmented and fractured identities that in turn contribute to the escalation of violence between people. The future feels meaningless, and people articulate their felt sense of powerlessness and lack of life purpose in violent acts on themselves and others. Relationships are destroyed and communities fragment. These problems cascade down the generations, growing more complex over time.” Judy Atkinson

Historical Trauma: Context and Effects

Sharing Culture: What is Historical Trauma?

“Essentially, the devastating trauma of genocide, loss of culture, and forcible removal from family and communities are all unresolved and become a sort of ‘psychological baggage… continuously being acted out and recreated in contemporary Aboriginal culture’.”
Social Justice Report, 2008Australian Human Rights Commission

Psychological trauma represents an emotional state of discomfort and stress resulting from memories of an extraordinary, catastrophic experience which shattered the survivor’s sense of invulnerability to harm.

“People subjected to prolonged, repeated trauma develop an insidious progressive form of post-traumatic stress disorder that invades and erodes the personality. While the victim of a single acute trauma may feel after the event that she is ‘not herself’, the victim of chronic trauma may feel herself changed irrevocably, or she may lose the sense that she has any self at all.” Judith Herman

“Trauma is qualitatively different from other negative life stressors as it fundamentally shifts perceptions of reality. Negative stressors:

leave an individual feeling ‘put out’, inconvenienced and stressed. These experiences are eventually relieved with the resolution of the stressor. In contrast, trauma represents destruction of the basic organising principles by which we come to know self, others and the environment; traumas wound deeply in a way that challenges the meaning of life. Healing from the wounds of such an experience requires a restitution of order and meaning in one’s life.[27]

Gregory Phillips talks about three areas of trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples:

  • Situational trauma – trauma that occurs as a result of a specific or discrete event, for example from a car accident, murder or being taken away.
  • Cumulative trauma – it is subtle and the feelings build over time, for example racism.
  • Inter-generational trauma – if trauma is not dealt with adequately in one generation, it often gets passed down unwittingly in our behaviours and in our thought systems… For example, if you want to heal children and youth, you have to heal yourself as well to break the cycle.[28]

Importantly he notes that for Indigenous peoples who have experienced trauma as a result of colonisation, dispossession and dislocation, as well as the trauma of on-going racism, family violence and other events, often all three forms of trauma are applicable.[29]

Research has shown that the impacts of trauma are even more pronounced when the trauma has been deliberately inflicted rather than a result of natural circumstances… deliberately inflicted trauma creates victimisation as well as all the associated emotional, psychological, cultural and spiritual harm. Deliberately inflicted trauma is much harder to recover from as it undermines the cohesion and strengths of individuals and communities.” Social Justice Report, 2008

Dr. Joe Solanto, from Canada, discusses different types of trauma, as well as the nature of inter-generational, or historical, trauma. Part 3 can be found here.

Historical or intergenerational trauma

“Individual trauma reverberates across communities but also across the generations. The concept of historic trauma was initially developed in the 1980s by First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in Canada to explain the seeming unending cycle of trauma and despair in their communities. Essentially, the devastating trauma of genocide, loss of culture, and forcible removal from family and communities are all unresolved and become a sort of ‘psychological baggage… continuously being acted out and recreated in contemporary Aboriginal culture’.[31]

In Australia, Indigenous researchers have also demonstrated the connections between the historical experiences of colonisation and the forcible removal of children to the disadvantage of today’s Indigenous peoples and communities. Professor Judy Atkinson has worked on the intergenerational and transgenerational transmission of trauma arguing that many of the problems in Indigenous communities, be it alcohol abuse, mental health problems, family violence or criminal behaviour, are symptomatic of the effects of this unresolved trauma reaching into the present day.[32]

Gregory Phillips also speaks of trauma that is handed down spiritually. Using Canadian elder, Vera Martin’s, reference to it as ‘blood memory’, he explains: ‘It is a collective memory of what has happened and what has not happened’.[33]

This unresolved trauma is not limited to the forcible removal of children from their families. Trauma can occur in response to exposure to family violence, sexual assault, child abuse and neglect, substance misuse and other forms of experience that can harm an individual’s sense of self and wellbeing. These traumas also find their way to influence subsequent generations to come.

Professor Helen Milroy, an Indigenous psychiatrist specialising in child psychiatry, describes how trauma flows through to Indigenous children:

The transgenerational effects of trauma occur via a variety of mechanisms including the impact of attachment relationship with care givers; the impact on parenting and family functioning; the association with parental physical and mental illness; disconnection and alienation from the extended family, culture and society. 

These effects are exacerbated by exposure to continuing high levels of stress and trauma including multiple bereavements and other losses, the process of vicarious traumatisation where children witness the on-going effects of the original trauma which a parent or care giver has experienced. 

Even where children are protected from the traumatic stories of their ancestors, the effects of past traumas still impact on children in the form of ill health, family dysfunction, community violence, psychological morbidity and early mortality.[34]

… the transgenerational impacts of trauma also challenges us to shift our thinking on the distinctions drawn between perpetrators and victims as we understand how offenders are often victims of trauma or transgenerational trauma themselves…

… Professor Judy Atkinson argues that trauma becomes expressed as anger, violence and criminal behaviour, where ‘rage turns inwards, but cascades down the generations, growing more complex over time’.[39]  Anger, hopelessness, worthlessness and lack of genuine opportunities and disconnection run like a common thread through the experiences of both victims and perpetrators of violence.” Social Justice Report, 2008″”

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart: Historical Trauma in Native American Populations

Audiopedia: What is Historial Trauma?

Back to Top


Emotional Labor

HuffPost: ‘Mudbound’ Has More To Say About Whiteness In America Than Any Other Trump-Era Movie

“You could be reading a letter from your son who is away at war, or having dinner with your family,” she said. “But at any moment you have to stop doing what you’re doing. Your family connections are displaced or your emotion is displaced, and suddenly you have to perform someone else’s convenience.”

She is speaking of emotional labor, a concept wound up tightly with the story of white and black America. Emotional labor is the folding and contorting of one’s own emotions for the benefit of others, in order to put them at ease, making space for their feelings by burying your own. In the context of race, this means ignoring offhand racist comments and microaggressions for the sake of keeping the peace, absolving white people of their guilt and swallowing righteous anger.

Emotional labor is not an inherently negative thing. But it becomes so when it’s compelled, without any promise of reciprocation. Black people, especially black women, have perfected the art of emotional labor for the sake of survival.”

—-

The Columbia Spectator: Black emotional labor is core to my Columbia experience

“Entering Columbia University, I knew that I would have to partake in the Core Curriculum. I did not realize that in addition to mandatory coursework and rigorous academics, I would frequently be required to offer my existence and knowledge as learning tools, let others challenge the fabric of my humanity, and allow my peers to use my emotional vulnerabilities for the greater sake of education and awareness. I am never thanked for my emotional expenditures, but I am always left feeling as if I’ve made a slight impact on my counterparts’ thinking and worldview, and by extension made the world a slightly better place. Thus, I am left with a conflict: Do I self-sacrifice for the greater good of our community, or prioritize my own well-being? Society chooses for me, and I am left as the instructor of an additional course titled “Free Black Emotional Labor.”

I came into this realization after a barrage of emotionally draining, shocking, and racist interactions with those around me. I’ve heard the slur “n*gger” flee my white peer’s mouth not once, not twice, but three times. I consistently have had to defend my Black existence to my white counterparts. I have even had teachers attempt to invalidate my experiences as a Black woman, citing Oprah and Michelle Obama as examples to refute the subordination of Black women. On a daily basis, I deal with passive-aggressive and outright aggressive racism, while constantly being tokenized by my peers.

I have come to understand that on top of my current 18-credit course load, I may be forced to teach an extra class in my daily life. One in which I am constantly instructing my peers on my existence and recovering from racial trauma while avoiding a personal descent into complete Black rage—a form of anger, frustration, and disillusionment that stems from the historic racism derived from the Black experience. Not only is my course very popular, as it seems that almost every white person I interact with has taken interest in testing my Blackness and the limits of my personal strength, but I also spend more time explaining my existence, lecturing on Black identity and history, physically and mentally recovering from racist conversations and interactions, and trying to maintain a level-headed sense of sanity than I do on my course load.

Despite the constant hypervisibility and emotional demands, I am simultaneously forced into a dichotomy of forced visibility and invisibility; I am too often required to either explain my identity, or to pretend like my Black rage does not exist for the comfort of others, for the sake of white feelings and white “safety.”

On the one hand, I am thrust into spaces where my existence is constantly questioned, and I am immediately forced to put on my defensive, hyperintellectual hat and fight on behalf of all Black women, to teach the Black experience on behalf of all Black people. I am put in positions where my Blackness is apparently the only identifiable trait about my personhood and character, and thus I am constructed as the go-to token for racial conversations.

On the other hand, my Blackness and pride is not favored. In these same spaces, I am condemned for being too loud or too vocal. I am not taken seriously or ignored when I speak up. I am seen as just another angry Black woman, or my feelings are dismissed as “Amari just having her daily social justice breakdown.”

After experiencing invalidation, anger, frustration, anxiety, and sadness, I am always left feeling emotionally and physically drained. And at the end of it all, I retreat back to my room at night, blast Solange, and force myself to lull my exploding Black rage down to a dormant stage of repression, preparing myself to enter the white world and the whiteness of this institution tomorrow. And the next day. And for the rest of my life as I continue to navigate a white world as a Black woman.

When I address this hidden emotional labor with my peers, I am often confronted with statements such as: “Why don’t you just opt out? Can’t you stop taking on the emotional labor and save yourself?”

However, opting out will not resolve this problem. If someone is spewing racist ignorance, I can not leave such ignorance unchallenged. If someone questions whether or not Black lives matter, I can not just stand there and let Black people be invalidated. I can not comply in the perpetuation of oppression by allowing others’ harmful speech or ideas to thrive. The world forces me into the endless role of educator and giver of emotional labor for as long as ignorance surrounds me.

Therefore, as the forced instructor of Free Black Emotional Labor, I would like to finally teach all my “students” a few key concepts. Note that this will be on the final exam (and yes, non-Black people of color should take note, too):

Try to understand that Black women do not exist at Columbia, in all of our glory and magic, solely for the purpose of your education. We are not tools for your learning, but instead individuals with feelings and emotions. Recognize the emotional labor you ask from us, and attempt to take some of the burden for yourself. Take extra time to read informative texts and narratives from various perspectives, and think about the impact your words can have on those in our community before you speak. In addition, do not play the “devil’s advocate” regarding matters of my existence; there is no opposition to the truth of Black history and Black lives, only the legitimization of oppressive perspectives. Use your privilege to the best of your ability to challenge and deconstruct oppressive structures within Columbia and the world.

Stop forcing the oppressed to explain and fight for their existences. It is emotionally and physically draining, unfair, and oppressive. Black women do not exist to provide you with Free Black Emotional Labor.”

Back to Top


Coping and Healing Trauma

Coping with Racial Trauma

Racial trauma or race-based trauma often goes unnoticed. These hidden wounds that adults and youth of color experience are worn like invisible weights. Hardy (2013) provides the following eight steps to heal after experiencing racial injustices in our community.

  1. Affirmation and Acknowledgement: This involves professionals helping the individual to develop a sense of understanding acceptance of racial issues. This step is important because it opens the door for us to dialogue about issues related to race.
  2. Create Space for Race: Creating space allows an open dialogue with our communities about race. Hardy notes that we must take a proactive role to identify race as a significant variable and talk openly about experiences related to race.
  3. Racial Storytelling: Gives individuals an outlet to share personal experiences and think critically about events in their lives. This provides an opportunity to hear others voice how they have been treated differently due to their race and it helps expose hidden wounds through storytelling.
  4. Validation: Can be seen as a personalized tool used to counter devaluation. This provides confirmation of the individuals’ worth and their redeemable qualities.
  5. The Process of Naming: With the scarcity of research on the effects of racial trauma on mental health, there is of course no name as of yet making it a nameless condition. This in turn increases the doubt and uncertainty. By naming these experiences we give individuals a voice to speak on them and also recognize how they impact them. If we apply a mental health condition, individuals may experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  6. Externalize Devaluation: The aim for this step is to have people focus on increasing respect and recognizing that racial events do not lower their self-worth.
  7. Counteract Devaluation: This step uses a combination of psychological, emotional, and behavioral resources to build self-esteem and counter racial attacks. This helps prevent future loss of dignity and sense of self.
  8. Rechanneling Rage: By rechanneling rage, individuals can learn to gain control of their emotions and not let emotions consume them. This is an important step because it empowers people to keep pushing forward after adversity. This may include taking steps to engage in activism or self-care strategies such as spending time with family.”

Rethinking Schools: Making Black Lives Matter in Our Schools

“How do you kill Mr. Phil and nothing happens?” According to parent Zuki Ellis, this is the question students at J. J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul were asking just a few days into summer. On June 16, the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile, or Mr. Phil as students knew him, was acquitted on all charges. Castile worked as a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill. He served as a role model for hundreds of kids, memorized the names and allergies of all 500 students, and greeted them with high-fives while they waited in line for breakfast.

As news of the verdict spread, Ellis and other parents spoke to the Huffington Post about the trauma their students were experiencing. One parent who also teaches at the school, John Horton, said, “Castile’s death would often come up in class. The children drew connections to Castile when learning about civil rights issues. They tried to make sense of Castile’s death in relation to a larger context of injustice. But for many . . . it still seemed senseless.” Horton went on to say that the kids’ struggle to make sense of the world reflected that of adults in the school who are also “still trying to work through” and process what happened.

Many teachers, parents, and students across the country may be feeling similarly as they re-enter schools this fall. As the school year ended and the summer began, story after story made it clear that in this society, Black lives don’t matter. In late May, a white supremacist stabbed University of Maryland student Richard Collins III at a campus bus stop just days before he was set to graduate. A few weeks later in Portland, two Black high school girls were targeted after school on a train by a white supremacist who took a knife to three intervening adults, killing two. In Seattle, Charleena Lyles, a public school parent and pregnant mother of four, was gunned down by police after she called them for help. And at the end of the summer, torch-bearing white supremacists descended on the University of Virginia campus ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The following day, met by large numbers of counter-protesters, these far-right racists responded with violence. Several viciously beat counter-protestor Deandre Harris — who worked as an instructional assistant in a special education classroom — while another drove a car into anti-racist demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring about two dozen others.

The racist rhetoric of the Trump administration has provided license for police and white supremacists to escalate their attacks on Black people and in other communities of color. As a result, many students across the country will likely be returning to the classroom this fall carrying the pain and confusion borne of the racist events of summer.

Unfortunately, from curriculum to discipline policies, too many schools reinforce racist messages and our systemic disregard for Black lives. From the Connecticut textbook that claimed slave owners treated enslaved people like “members of the family,” to the young Black girl in South Carolina who was thrown across the room by a school police officer for refusing to put away her cell phone, to the two young women in Boston who were kicked off their sports teams, banished from prom, and given detention for wearing their hair in braids, students are too often further traumatized by an education system that reproduces society’s inequities.

Meanwhile, the millionaires and billionaires who drive the corporate school reform movement claim that “no excuses” discipline and endless test prep will close the achievement gap between Black and white students. Yet these reforms have not led to any significant progress for Black students. In fact, this test-and-punish regime has forced the closure and further privatization of public schools in Black and Brown communities.

Instead, we need to demand investment in schools and the communities they serve, coupled with an anti-racist, pro-justice pedagogy and curriculum.

And if the assault on our public schools by corporate reformers wasn’t enough, the state assembly in New Jersey passed a bill over the summer that would require schools to teach children how to interact with police “in a manner marked by mutual cooperation and respect.” In a similar way to how high-stakes testing blames students and teachers for the problems facing public schools, this new law sets a dangerous precedent for who will be held responsible for deadly confrontations with police. Rather than make any effort to hold police accountable for their regular murder of Black and Brown people across the country, New Jersey legislators have chosen to blame children and their teachers for not properly “interacting” with the police.

In light of all this, how do we make our classrooms and schools places where our students of color feel safe, valued, and empowered? What can we do differently or increasingly to make Black lives matter in our curriculum, workspaces, and relationships? What can we do as teachers to fight and organize for a more just society? How do we challenge our unions and our districts to stand up for racial justice? And how do we help support students to be leaders in the fight against racism?

For one, we need to ensure that our curriculum teaches and values Black lives and anti-racist struggles. Educator Kara Hinderlie does this by teaching her kindergartners and 1st graders the simple concept that “Black is beautiful” [p. 20]. At the high school level, biology teacher Gretchen Kraig-Turner uses the story of Henrietta Lacks to discuss bioethics with students and explore the discrimination Black people faced and continue to face within the healthcare system [p. 34]. In social studies, Adam Sanchez and Jesse Hagopian critique current textbooks’ portrayal of the Black Panther Party and engage students in a mixer to learn how the party organized against police brutality and much more [p. 26]. From abolitionism to civil rights, the Black freedom struggle has been a catalyst for movements that have transformed this country for the better. Therefore, bringing anti-racist curriculum into our classrooms is both about helping Black students feel valued and connected to their learning, as well as about all of us learning from the central struggles for justice when injustice is regularly front-page news. As the current movement phrases it, “all lives will matter, when Black lives matter.”

We also need to make sure our schools support, encourage, and listen to Black and Brown staff members. We should also develop multi-school or districtwide networks where teachers of color can congregate to discuss issues that they face in schools. The pages of Rethinking Schools are another place where those topics can be discussed. In “Who Do I Belong To?” [p. 40] Natalie Labossiere explores some of the specific difficulties teachers of color face when working in predominantly white schools. Historic inequities and past racist policies have created a school system where the teaching staff of a school is typically whiter and wealthier than the students they teach. In a profession where most teachers leave within five years, it’s especially important we push school districts to recruit, hire, and support more teachers of color.

And most importantly, we need to transform our schools into sites of resistance to a system that devalues Black lives. Helping students start Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist clubs, putting on student and community forums, discussing with other teachers how to join the movement and taking collective action together, are necessary ingredients for resistance and transformation. Jesse Hagopian and Wayne Au, in “How One Elementary School Sparked a Citywide Movement to Make Black Students’ Lives Matter” [p. 11], show how teachers were able to pull off a districtwide Black Lives Matter action, challenging their union and district to take a stand that reverberated throughout the country. These are the kind of bold actions that we desperately need.

Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and Charleena Lyles were all victims of police violence — but they were also public school students, workers, and parents. If schools are ever to be truly “safe spaces,” we will need to build our capacity to defend each other. Whether from police, white supremacists, ICE agents, or climate disaster, this will require social justice work inside and outside the classroom. As we return to our schools this fall, we need to rededicate ourselves to building an education system and a society that values Black lives.”

Medium: The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement

“From time to time, researchers, policy makers, philanthropy and practitioners all join together in a coordinated response to the most pressing issues facing America’s youth. I’ve been involved with this process for long enough to have participated in each of these roles. I recall during the early 1990s experts promoted the term “resiliency” which is the capacity to adapt, navigate and bounce back from adverse and challenging life experiences. Researchers and practitioners alike clamored over strategies to build more resilient youth.

The early 2000’s the term “youth development” gained currency and had a significant influence on youth development programming, and probably more importantly how we viewed young people. Youth development offered an important shift in focus from viewing youth as problems to be solved to community assets who simply required supports and opportunities for healthy development. Since that time, a range of approaches have influenced how we think about young people, and consequently our programmatic strategies. I have, for the most part, attempted to nudge and cajole each of these approaches to consider the unique ways in which race, identity and social marginalization influence the development of youth of color.

More recently, practitioners and policy stakeholders have recognized the impact of trauma on learning, and healthy development. In efforts to support young people who experience trauma, the term “trauma informed care” has gained traction among schools, juvenile justice departments, mental health programs and youth development agencies around the country. Trauma informed care broadly refers to a set of principles that guide and direct how we view the impact of severe harm on young people’s mental, physical and emotional health. Trauma informed care encourages support and treatment to the whole person, rather than focus on only treating individual symptoms or specific behaviors.

Trauma-informed care has become an important approach in schools and agencies that serve young people who have been exposed to trauma, and here’s why. Some school leaders believe that the best way to address disruptive classroom behavior is through harsh discipline. These schools believe that discipline alone is sufficient to modify undesired classroom behavior. But research shows that school suspensions may further harm students who have been exposed to a traumatic event or experience (Bottiani et al. 2017). Rather than using discipline, a school that uses a trauma informed approach might offer therapy, or counseling to support the restoration of that student’s well-being. The assumption is that the disruptive behavior is the symptom of a deeper harm, rather than willful defiance, or disrespect.

While trauma informed care offers an important lens to support young people who have been harmed and emotionally injured, it also has its limitations. I first became aware of the limitations of the term “trauma informed care” during a healing circle I was leading with a group of African American young men. All of them had experienced some form of trauma ranging from sexual abuse, violence, homelessness, abandonment or all of the above. During one of our sessions, I explained the impact of stress and trauma on brain development and how trauma can influence emotional health. As I was explaining, one of the young men in the group named Marcus abruptly stopped me and said, “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma”. I was puzzled at first, but it didn’t take me long to really contemplate what he was saying.

The term “trauma informed care” didn’t encompass the totality of his experience and focused only on his harm, injury and trauma. For Marcus, the term “trauma informed care” was akin to saying, you are the worst thing that ever happened to you. For me, I realized the term slipped into the murky water of deficit based, rather than asset driven strategies to support young people who have been harmed. Without careful consideration of the terms we use, we can create blind spots in our efforts to support young people.

While the term trauma informed care is important, it is incomplete. First, trauma informed care correctly highlights the specific needs for individual young people who have exposure to trauma. However, current formulations of trauma informed care presumes that the trauma is an individual experience, rather than a collective one. To illustrate this point, researchers have shown that children in high violence neighborhoods all display behavioral and psychological elements of trauma (Sinha & Rosenberg 2013). Similarly, populations that disproportionately suffer from disasters like Hurricane Katrina share a common experience that if viewed individually simply fails to capture how collective harm requires a different approach than an individual one.

Second, trauma informed care requires that we treat trauma in people but provides very little insight into how we might address the root causes of trauma in neighborhoods, families, and schools. If trauma is collectively experienced, this means that we also have to consider the environmental context that caused the harm in the first place. By only treating the individual we only address half of the equation leaving the toxic systems, policies and practices neatly intact.

Third, the term trauma informed care runs the risk of focusing on the treatment of pathology (trauma), rather than fostering the possibility (well-being). This is not an indictment on well-meaning therapists and social workers many of whom may have been trained in theories and techniques designed to simply reduce negative emotions and behavior (Seligman 2011). However, just like the absence of disease doesn’t constitute health, nor the absence of violence constitute peace, the reduction pathology (anxiety, anger, fear, sadness, distrust, triggers) doesn’t constitute well-being (hope, happiness, imagination, aspirations, trust). Everyone wants to be happy, not just have less misery. The emerging field of positive psychology offers insight into the limits of only “treating” symptoms and focuses on enhancing the conditions that contribute to well-being. Without more careful consideration, trauma informed approaches sometimes slip into rigid medical models of care that are steeped in treating the symptoms, rather than strengthening the roots of well-being.

What is needed is an approach that allows practitioners to approach trauma with a fresh lens which promotes a holistic view of healing from traumatic experiences and environments. One approach is called healing centered, as opposed to trauma informed. A healing centered approach is holistic involving culture, spirituality, civic action and collective healing. A healing centered approach views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but rather highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively. The term healing centered engagement expands how we think about responses to trauma and offers more holistic approach to fostering well-being.

The Promise of Healing Centered Engagement

A shift from trauma informed care to healing centered engagement (HCE) is more than a semantic play with words, but rather a tectonic shift in how we view trauma, its causes and its intervention. HCE is strength based, advances a collective view of healing, and re-centers culture as a central feature in well-being. Researchers have pointed out the ways in which patients have redefined the terms used to describe their illnesses in ways that affirmed, humanized and dignified their condition. For example, in the early 1990s AIDS activists challenged the term “gay-related immune deficiency” because the term stigmatized gay men and failed to adequately capture the medical accuracy of the condition. In a similar way, the young men I worked with offered me a way to reframe trauma with language that humanized them, and holistically captured their life experiences.

A healing centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond “what happened to you” to “what’s right with you” and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events. Healing centered engagement is akin to the South African term “Ubuntu” meaning that humanness is found through our interdependence, collective engagement and service to others. Additionally, healing centered engagement offers an asset driven approach aimed at the holistic restoration of young peoples’ well-being. The healing centered approach comes from the idea that people are not harmed in a vacuum, and well-being comes from participating in transforming the root causes of the harm within institutions. Healing centered engagement also advances the move to “strengths-based’ care and away from the deficit based mental health models that drives therapeutic interventions. There are four key elements of healing centered engagement that may at times overlap with current trauma informed practices but offers several key distinctions.

Healing centered engagement is explicitly political, rather than clinical.

Communities, and individuals who experience trauma are agents in restoring their own well-being. This subtle shift suggests that healing from trauma is found in an awareness and actions that address the conditions that created the trauma in the first place. Researchers have found that well-being is a function of control and power young people have in their schools and communities (Morsillo & Prilleltensky 2007; Prilleltensky & Prilleltensky 2006). These studies focus on concepts such as such as liberation, emancipation, oppression, and social justice among activist groups and suggests that building an awareness of justice and inequality, combined with social action such as protests, community organizing, and/or school walk-outs contribute to overall wellbeing, hopefulness, and optimism (Potts 2003; Prilleltensky 2003, 2008). This means that healing centered engagement views trauma and well-being as function of the environments where people live, work and play. When people advocate for policies and opportunities that address causes of trauma, such as lack of access to mental health, these activities contribute to a sense of purpose, power and control over life situations. All of these are ingredients necessary to restore well-being and healing.

Healing centered engagement is culturally grounded and views healing as the restoration of identity.

The pathway to restoring well-being among young people who experience trauma can be found in culture and identity. Healing centered engagement uses culture as a way to ground young people in a solid sense of meaning, self-perception, and purpose. This process highlights the intersectional nature of identity and highlights the ways in which culture offers a shared experience, community and sense of belonging. Healing is experienced collectively, and is shaped by shared identity such as race, gender, sexual orientation. Healing centered engagement is the result of building a healthy identity, and a sense of belonging. For youth of color, these forms of healing can be rooted in culture and serves as an anchor to connect young people to a shared racial and ethnic identity that is both historical grounded and contemporarily relevant. Healing centered engagement embraces a holistic view of well-being that includes spiritual domains of health. This goes beyond viewing healing only from the lens of mental health, and incorporates culturally grounded rituals, and activities to restore well-being (Martinez 2001). Some examples of healing centered engagement can be found in healing circles rooted in indigenous culture where young people share their stories about healing and learn about their connection to their ancestors and traditions, or drumming circles rooted in African cultural principles.

Healing centered engagement is asset driven and focuses well-being we want, rather than symptoms we want to suppress.

Healing centered engagement offers an important departure from solely viewing young people through the lens of harm and focuses on asset driven strategies that highlight possibilities for well-being. An asset driven strategy acknowledges that young people are much more than the worst thing that happened to them, and builds upon their experiences, knowledge, skills and curiosity as positive traits to be enhanced. While it is important to acknowledge trauma and its influence on young people’s mental health, healing centered strategies move one step beyond by focusing on what we want to achieve, rather than merely treating emotional and behavioral symptoms of trauma. This is a salutogenic approach focusing on how to foster and sustain well-being. Based in positive psychology, healing centered engagement is based in collective strengths and possibility which offers a departure from conventional psychopathology which focuses on clinical treatment of illness.

Healing centered engagement supports adult providers with their own healing.

Adult providers need healing too! Healing centered engagement requires that we consider how to support adult providers with sustaining their own healing and well-being. We cannot presume that adulthood is a final “trauma free” destination. Much of our training and practice is directed at young peoples’ healing but rarely focused on the healing that is required of adults to be an effective youth practitioner. Healing is ongoing process that we all need, not just young people who experience trauma. The well-being of the adult youth worker, also is a critical factor in supporting young peoples’ well-being. While we are learning more about the causes and effects of secondary on adults, we know very little about the systems of support required to restore and sustain well-being for adults. Healing centered engagement has an explicit focus on restoring, and sustaining the adults who attempt to heal youth- a healing the healers approach. Policy stakeholders should consider how to build a systems that support adult youth worker’s well-being. I have supported organizations in creating structures like sabbaticals for employees, or creating incentives like continuing education units for deeper learning about well-being and healing.

A Note for Practice and Policy

Marcus’s comments during our healing circle “I am more than what happened to me” left with me with more questions than answers. What blind spots do we have in our approaches to supporting young people who experience trauma? How might the concepts which are enshrined in our language limit rather than create opportunities for healing? What approaches might offer “disruptive” techniques that saturate young people with opportunities for healing and well-being? The fields of positive psychology and community psychology offers important insight into how policy makers, and youth development stakeholders can consider a range of healing centered options for young people. Shifting from trauma informed care or treatment to healing centered engagement requires youth development stakeholders to expand from a treatment based model which views trauma and harm as an isolated experience, to an engagement model which supports collective well-being. Here are a few notes to consider in building healing centered engagement.

· Start by building empathy

Healing centered engagement begins by building empathy with young people who experience trauma. This process takes time, is an ongoing process and sometimes may feel like taking two steps forward, and three steps back. However, building empathy is critical to healing centered engagement. To create this empathy, I encourage adult staff to share their story first, and take an emotional risk by being more vulnerable, honest and open to young people. This process creates an empathy exchange between the adult, and the young people which is the foundation for healing centered engagement (Payne 2013). This process also strengthens emotional literacy which allows youth to discuss the complexity of their feelings. Fostering empathy allows for young people to feel safe sharing their experiences and emotions. The process ultimately restores their sense of well-being because they have the power name and respond to their emotional states.

· Encourage young people to dream and imagine!

An important ingredient in healing centered engagement is the ability to acknowledge the harm and injury, but not be defined by it. Perhaps one of the greatest tools available to us is the ability to see beyond the condition, event or situation that caused the trauma in the first place. Research shows that the ability to dream and imagine is an important factor to foster hopefulness, and optimism which both of which contributes to overall well-being (Snyder et al. 2003). Daily survival and ongoing crisis management in young people’s lives make it difficult to see beyond the present. The greatest casualty of trauma is not only depression and emotional scares, but also the loss of the ability to dream and imagine another way of living. Howard Thurman pointed this out in his eloquent persistence that dreams matter. He commented, “As long as a man [woman] has a dream, he [she] cannot lose the significance of living” (p. 304). By creating activities and opportunities for young people to play, reimagine, design and envision their lives this process strengthens their future goal orientation (Snyder et al. 2003). These are practices of possibility that encourage young people to envision what they want to become, and who they want to be.

· Build critical reflection and take loving action.

Healing and well-being are fundamentally political not clinical. This means that we have to consider the ways in which the policies and practice and political decisions harm young people. Healing in this context also means that young people develop an analysis of these practices and policies that facilitated the trauma in the first place. Without an analysis of these issues, young people often internalize, and blame themselves for lack of confidence. Critical reflection provides a lens by which to filter, examine, and consider analytical and spiritual responses to trauma. By spiritual, I mean the ability to draw upon the power of culture, rituals and faith in order to consistently act from a place of humility, and love. These are not cognitive processes, but rather ethical, moral and emotional aspects of healing centered engagement.

The other key component, is taking loving action, by collectively responding to political decisions and practices that can exacerbate trauma. By taking action, (e.g. school walkouts, organizing peace march, or promoting access to healthy foods) it builds a sense of power and control over their lives. Research has demonstrated that building this sense of power and control among traumatized groups is perhaps one of the most significant features in restoring holistic well-being.

Concluding Remarks: The Future of Healing

I ran into Marcus at a street fair in Oakland not long ago. He was excited to see me and wanted to share with me that he was in a new relationship so he introduced me to his girlfriend. “This is my friend Michelle”! He introduced her with a sense of pride, and accomplishment. He also shared with me that he had enrolled in a program that was training him to become a medic. As we chatted for a while in the warm sun, dodging children, and fast walking parents, he leaned toward me and whispered, “yeah Dr. G, I’m not entirely healed, but I’m hopeful”. I smiled, gave him “brotha hug” and we departed ways.

I suppose, that if we had more time to chat he would have explained that healing is a process that we navigate for a lifetime. He might have shared with me that the future of his healing journey had just begun. Seeing him again, holding hands, sipping a soda with his new girlfriend was a powerful reminder, that he was so much more than the trauma he had experienced. As practitioners, researchers and policy stakeholders we need to listen and learn from young people who have insights that can advance how we think about trauma and healing. Shifting to healing centered engagement offered new questions, and strategies about how to support young people who experience trauma. Healing centered engagement is just a step toward a more holistic, and humanistic framework to support young people who have been harmed. Such an approach encourages us to think and act more boldly about how to restore young people and create places where they can truly flourish.”

Back to Top


Triggering Trauma

PBS: White people don’t understand the trauma of viral police-killing videos

“In Baton Rouge, cops straddle a guy pinned on the ground, put a gun to his back and pump bullets into him. His life ends. That one still haunts me. In Charlotte, a man lies bleeding as his wife screams for help. She asks if anyone has called an ambulance. The police wander around with indifference as his life drains away. This is hard to see.

People ask me if the problem is getting worse. No, this has been going on all along but now we’re capturing more of it on video. How is this affecting the black community? “How do you think,” I want to say. We are sad, angry, and traumatized. We’re living in terror. This racial trauma can cause symptoms like anxiety, depression, phobias, acting-out and feelings of hopelessness (e.g., Carter, 2007).

The trauma of exposure to these videos sits on top of layers of trauma that go all the way back to slavery. It is all one and the same. It starts with the kidnapping of my ancestors from Africa and “slave patrols” – bands of white men hired to police communities for slaves who tried to escape, and a forerunner to modern American law enforcement (Turner et al., 2006).

Our country’s history goes on to include the Civil War and subsequent 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery (except for those convicted of crimes,) followed by the systematic criminalization of black men. We then had Jim Crow laws, segregated communities, police brutality during the fight for civil rights – historical trauma. There is also the experience of ongoing discrimination at the individual level that leads to daily stress and contributes to early death from ailments like cardiovascular disease. On top of this we have community trauma that includes racial profiling and, now, police murders caught on tape and broadcast on social media — where often nothing happens to the killers. The trauma is real, and it is cumulative.

I close my eyes and sometimes have flashbacks of these killings. When I see a police car I feel terrified. They are supposed to protect and serve everyone, but because of my race I don’t really believe that includes me or people like me.

According to Dr. Jonathan Kanter, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, white people underestimate the severity and impact of these videos on people of color:

“We see the videos and we are authentically horrified and saddened by what we see. But many of us have the ultimate privilege of changing the channel, clicking on another Facebook post. We can make it go away if we choose and the horror of the scene is quickly forgotten. We can leave it behind and go about our day. And most white people don’t attune to just how different an experience it is for black people.”
— Dr. Jonathan Kanter, University of Washington

Kanter notes that white people are so coded not to associate themselves with being black that it is easy to distance from it. “That person getting shot doesn’t look like me, sound like me or act like me.” It can be like watching a horror movie. “It’s not about me.” Most white people in the United States have no black friends to even talk to about any of this so there is no easy way to get their perspective (Ingram, 2014).

If you are a white person, try this simple empathy experiment: Imagine every one of those police killings you’ve seen in the last several years, but change the images. Make the man getting shot look like you, your brother or your son. Make the girlfriend or wife look like your wife, your sister, your daughter. Imagine that these videos unpredictably show up in your Facebook stream, or assault you on the evening news, without warning, week after week. There seems to be no end to them, and there seems to be no way to predict when it will happen. Imagine that you can’t hide them from your son or daughter if you have one, because you’re scared to not tell them about it. Imagine that you feel you have to expose your child to the videos, because they may not be safe if they don’t know what the world is really like.

Now imagine driving down the street with a broken taillight and getting pulled over by a police officer.

The empathy experiment could go on, and it should, because the differences don’t stop there. Add in the layers upon layers of trauma that are a part of the black experience in America but not a part of the white experience. Try to imagine all of it, to really shift perspectives, and understand what it is like to live the experience of these videos as a black person in United States.

So should these videos be released? They have to be in order to show the public what’s going on and hold law enforcement accountable. I remind myself that there are good police officers, but these videos can help us see which ones aren’t doing their jobs. Despite the pain of viewing, many people of color want the videos to be shown for the same reason Emmett Till’s mother chose to have an open casket funeral – so the world could see what horrible torture had been done to her little boy for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

We need the world to see what is being done to our people to help bring it to an end. And it’s not just black people – these things are happening to Hispanic people, Native Americans and the mentally ill. The stigmatized and disenfranchised among us. I feel solidarity with all of them.

Try to shift from your experience of sadness and horror that you can switch off, to a chronic experience of terror, hopelessness and injustice that has no off switch. You can’t hide from it, or make it go away.

That is just a small portion of the trauma experienced being by black in America.”


Learn More

The Cut: The Little Understood Mental-Health Effects of Racial Trauma

The Conversation: Slow death: Is the trauma of police violence killing black women?

HuffPost: ‘Mudbound’ Has More To Say About Whiteness In America Than Any Other Trump-Era Movie

Wonkette: We Broke Erica Garner’s Heart

NPR: Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why

ProPublica:
Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth

Everyday Feminism:
Here’s Your Proof That White Americans Don’t Face Systemic Racism

Sharing Culture: What is Historical Trauma?


Follow Campaigns

Sharing Culture

Black Mamas Matter Toolkit:  Talking Points for Advocates

Back to Top