What Is Racial Trauma?

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What Is Racial Trauma?

When people are subject to racism, discrimination, microaggressions, or other forms of mistreatment or violence because of their racial background, it can lead to trauma.

Racial Trauma

Racial trauma, which is also known as race-based traumatic stress, is the set of consequences that occur when a person of color deals with racism and discrimination. It encapsulates the varied psychological, mental, and emotional harm that is caused by witnessing racism and discrimination and by experiencing it firsthand.

Racial trauma may be individual to one person, or an entire community may experience it simultaneously.

The History of Racial Trauma

The term "race-based traumatic stress" was first used by Robert T. Carter in his 2007 paper titled,"Racism and Psychological and Emotional Injury: Recognizing and Assessing Race-Based Traumatic Stress," which was published on behalf of the Division of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association.

Carter's paper stipulated that when people of color encounter racism and discrimination, it has a strong negative emotional impact, and may be similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After the term race-based traumatic stress became more widely known, it eventually became interchangeably used with the term racial trauma. The two have the same definition, and Carter is credited with the concept in full, no matter which is used.

Symptoms of Racial Trauma

It's no secret that racism has had a hugely negative impact on the lives of people of color in our society, and that it continues to. Whether it's substance abuse resulting from racism against Native Americans, or the ways that discrimination impacts college students,there are no bounds to the areas of life that racism can impact. Therefore, it's no surprise that the symptoms of racial trauma are many.

Below are some of the most common symptoms of racial trauma.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post traumatic stress disorder is a natural response to a traumatic event. In the case of racial trauma, PTSD can occur after an individual person faces harassment or discrimination, or it can occur by witnessing it.

If you consider the collective societal outrage at the killing of George Floyd, for example, the impact of that event was very different for Black people than for White people. While White people may have been very upset by it, for Black people, there was the added trauma that it could have been them or a loved one who was killed, on top of the added trauma of reminding many people of those they'd lost in similar ways.

PTSD manifests in many ways, and when someone is witness to, or subjected to, racism frequently and unendingly, it becomes compounded. That is known as complex PTSD or C-PTSD.

Chronic Stress

Racial trauma leads to a more stressed, and subsequently less mentally healthy, life. Chronic stress is unhealthy for all people, but when you combine it with populations that are historically underserved medically, the risk for long term physical health problems rise. Not only is chronic stress terrible to live with emotionally, it also is dangerous physically, as chronic stress increases illness.

Depression and Anxiety

Black adults are more likely than White adults to exhibit symptoms of depression. Additionally, childhood trauma can lead to more depression as an adult,and racial discrimination has been proven to lead to poorer mental health.

Anxiety leads to poor cognition, which can make all of life more difficult to cope with, even the the more pleasant aspects.

While depression and anxiety can be symptoms of PTSD, they can also exist on their own. Both have strong negative impacts on a person's well-being and daily life.

The Impact of Racial Trauma

As you might suspect, based on how seriously and intensely racial trauma can manifest, racial trauma's impacts are far-reaching. Racial trauma leads to lower self-esteem and self-worth.

The trauma of witnessing police brutality leads people of color, particularly Black people, to fear police, which can in turn be dangerous if they find themselves in situations where they need to rely on police assistance. Racial trauma can cause severe emotional problems, such as dissociative symptoms.

Overall, racial trauma can impact every facet of life, reducing one's quality of living significantly.

How to Cope With and Heal From Racial Trauma

Because racism in our society has yet to be solved or banished, it isn't possible to simply heal from racial trauma and move on with your life.

When you may find yourself personally discriminated against at any time, or when you may when racial harassment at any time, there is always some level of stress that can't be abolished completely.

Despite the inability to put racial trauma entirely in your past, there are plenty of ways that you can work to heal yourself from what you've experienced, reduce your stress levels overall, and move forward in life in the happiest way possible.

Doing this might feel challenging, but the below steps can be taken to improve quality of life. Even if you can't fully get over racial trauma, it's possible to live a positive and fulfilling life in spite of it.

Connect With Others

Finding community and communing with others can help you heal from racial trauma. Storytelling is one example of how Black communities have found collective healing from racism,with one study noting that "community is advanced as an agent of change while centering justice and the important role of cultural practices to facilitate community healing."

In addition to finding community, connecting with others may be as simple as talking about the racial trauma you've experienced with a friend. There are very few people of color, if any, whose lives have been free of discrimination or racial harassment.

The act of talking about your experiences can be healing, and your friends may be able to offer you advice about how they themselves cope with the racial trauma they have.


Practicing self-care can dramatically improve a person's sense of well-being. What comprises self-care is up to you: it can be anything you do that makes you feel loved by yourself.

Self-care acts can be simple and free or elaborate and complex. You could take a walk in nature, soak in a dimly lit bath, or get yourself a massage.

You could write in a journal, or practice meditating. Anything that makes you feel cared for is beneficial to your sense of wellness, and the act of soothing yourself can help you heal from trauma.

Set Boundaries for Media Consumption

Inasmuch as it's important to stay informed of what's going on in the world, it can be depressing and anxiety-inducing. Especially in times of societal crisis, having limits of how much media your consume can be important for your mental health.

If you find yourself reading and watching news stories about violence against people of color frequently, chances are you're going to feel anxious about it.

Only you know the right balance for you, but if you find that your media consumption is leading to you feeling worse, you may wish to take a step back from it.

One easy way to create boundaries around media consumption is to place limits on your phone for how long you can spend on different platforms daily.

Seek Professional Assistance

Racial trauma isn't something you have to heal from alone, and therapy may be the perfect tool to help you through it. Specifically, it may help you to find a trauma-informed therapist who can understand what you've gone through.

While your therapist doesn't have to be of color, you might find you can relate better to someone with a similar racial background to yours, as that creates an innate understanding of surface-level life experiences. There is no shame in needing therapy, and for anyone who has encountered trauma, it can be hugely beneficial.

A Word From Verywell

If you are a person of color or someone who has been discriminated against because or your ethnic or racial background, it's possible that you have dealt with or are dealing with racial trauma. While these emotions can be difficult to process, there are healthy ways in which you can cope with them so that you can continue living life to the fullest.

If you find that you unable to cope on your own or with the help of friends and family and mental health professional can help equip you with the coping skills you'll to begin healing.

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