It is a Friday at 8:20 am, and I have just started my morning jog on the Hudson River Greenway, beginning in Upper Manhattan of New York City. I began jogging because, as a mental health clinician, I know both the physical and psychological health benefits. Most of all, I am carving time for my well-being. On this trail there are few Black individuals riding bikes, jogging, or walking, but I see a fellow Black male jogger. This Black man and I locked eyes, mask to mask, both literally and figuratively. We gave the nod. In that moment, I felt like he knew the same information I knew, we could be in danger. The nod was not a “regular nod,” or a way of saying hello, in that split second, it meant something different. It said, “I see you,” and communicated, “let’s do our best to keep safe.” It was my way of acknowledging and validating another Black man’s existence. It was my Racial Trauma responding.
Racial trauma is a form of race-based stress. It refers to people of color and indigenous individuals’ (POCI) reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination. These racial traumatic experiences may include threats of harm and injury, humiliating and shaming events, and witnessing racial discrimination toward other POCI. Racial trauma can be related to other issues such as Post Traumatic Stress. However, racial trauma is unique because it involves ongoing individual and collective injuries, due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based stress.
Physical & Mental Impact
Racial trauma affects communities of color both physically and psychologically, including: hypervigilance, nightmares, symptoms of anxiety, irritability, sleep disturbance, avoidance, suspiciousness, and somatic expressions like headaches and heart palpitations.
When I gave my nod, I was experiencing worries that I, or that Black man, could be harmed. I was also thinking that I may be seen as a threat by someone simply by existing. Like so many people, racial trauma manifests in these hidden moments. To the world we are fine. We smile. We wear masks that make others feel safe. Internally, we are seeking directions to make sense of countless terrors.
Healing racial trauma is challenging because we receive our wounds in unrelenting sociopolitical contexts across the world. Several mental health scholars and practitioners have developed approaches to help with healing POCI communities. These include, individual and group therapy, as well as various forms of community engagement such as panels and healing circles. Other active coping strategies to promote self-healing are:
- Talking to others about your experiences and feelings, rather than keeping them inside.
- Racial socialization. This creates more positive regard for an individual’s racial group. It refers to the messages individuals receive about their racial group membership from their family, friends, and love ones.
- Acknowledgment. Develop awareness and acceptance related to what you are feeling and thinking by creating space to talk about race, journaling or writing down your thoughts, and gaining perspective from the people you love such as an elder or family member.
- Self-Care. Try monitoring and limiting your exposure to social media and news coverage.
- Boundaries. Creating healthy boundaries, like refraining from engaging in conversations that feel triggering and contribute to the physical and psychological symptoms described above.
- Culturally Responsive Psychotherapy. Find a therapist who is responsive to your racial and ethnic identities, which is also reflected in their beliefs, values and language.
The first part of the title of the article, “I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired,” is a famous quote from Fannie Lou Hammer. She was an American voting women’s rights activist, community organizer, and a leader in the civil rights movement. She was a healer. Her work was personal and political, as she recognized that racism is deeply rooted in our society and is pervasive throughout our country’s institutions. Her quote describes the feeling of many people who are emotionally and physically tired from traumatic racial assaults on their lives.
Racial trauma reactions are an understandable response. The healing is ongoing, and it is a collective journey.