Talking about race and trauma combines cultural, historical, political, subjective, and objective aspects that make it difficult for individuals to understand and, by extension, cope with.
For example, the real, lived experience of people from one race (whether positive or negative) may be incomprehensible for a person from another race who has never had similar experiences. Two people from Chicago with different racial backgrounds may struggle to identify with aspects of the other’s upbringing. Identification is made more difficult when considering Chicago is one the most segregated cities in America, according to Brown University research.
The same challenge to identify may be true also for people of the same race who have grown up in different cultures or economic environments – aspects of the other person’s experiences may be entirely foreign to their own. An African-American high school student in Highland Park may experience a radically different journey than another African-American student in the South West side of Chicago.
Then again, the negative experiences that two minority races have to deal with can be entirely separate, but no less damaging for that. The historic treatment of Jewish people and Native Americans was distinct and has affected each group, as a whole, in different ways.
There are many shades of trauma
Why does it matter if every race has different experiences? Well, it matters because when race-related issues affect an individual’s mental health, it can be challenging for that person to identify the root cause.
The contributing factors of culture, community, background, subjective experiences, or more mean that individual trauma can manifest in different ways.
How do I know if race plays a part?
It’s ridiculous to suggest that you may feel a certain way and not know the cause, right? If you’re feeling down, you know exactly why.
Often, however, it's not that simple. Imagine a person who experiences an overt racist incident. At that time, they will know very well why they feel bad. But these experiences can have lingering effects that emerge in different ways, particularly if we’re talking about a child.
The same is true even if a particular individual has never been specifically targeted in a racist attack, whether verbal or physical. The sum of their community’s experiences can still put them at risk of race-related stress incidents.
A good example of this was the murder of George Floyd. On the surface, it made people feel angry because it was an egregious overstepping of police power that unlawfully claimed an innocent man’s life.
While this is true, it doesn’t fully explain why videos of this type are more likely to cause traumatic stress reactions in Black people than those of other races. There is something else at play here.
Focusing on the objective facts
Let’s try to remove the subjective aspects as much as possible to answer one simple question: is race-based trauma real? To be clear, we aren’t talking about individual experiences, but looking at general trends within certain communities of a particular race.
Unfortunately, no matter where you look, trauma rooted in racial issues is evident in our society.
Not only are Black Americans more susceptible to traumatic videos, but suicide ranked as the second leading cause of death among people from this group aged 15-24 in 2019.
According to recent reports, two thirds of Latino youth who moved to the US will experience at least one traumatic event. Native American communities experience high rates of societal homicide, suicide, and unintentional injury, which can have lasting harmful effects.
In general, individuals from minority communities are more likely to experience depression, anger, recurring thoughts of a traumatic event, physical reactions like headaches, chest pains, or insomnia, hypervigilance, low self-esteem, or mental distancing from something that happened to them.
Most shockingly of all, there is developing evidence that collective group trauma can be passed down through generations. According to research on Civil War POW veterans, there were higher rates of mortality not just on the survivors but also their children and grandchildren.
Subjective experiences do matter
The objective facts above are important because they highlight general trends, which people who are suffering but don’t know why can use as a basis of understanding. For every individual who knows that their mental health is in decline due to racially charged incidents, there are others who may feel depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem and not know why.
On the other hand, there could be other people who read this from a minority group who say some variation of “I’m from [X race] and I’ve never experienced [Y problem].” This is great – you should by no means be defined by your racial background or expected to experience certain emotions because of it. For every two Latino teen immigrants who suffer from a traumatic event, one will not and will hopefully have a positive experience in this country.
That said, be careful not to minimize the experience of others because you personally haven’t gone through it. Empathy for all individuals, regardless of race, is essential if we are to move forward together.
You are not defined by your race
For others who do suffer from race-based trauma, whether from firsthand experiences, vicarious incidents, or passed down through generations, the same applies – you are not defined by your racial background.
By all means, have pride in your culture, community, and history, but don’t let negative experiences rooted in race affect your perception of your self worth.
Remember, these are bad events that have happened to you or left their mark on you, but they do not determine who you are as a person. You have control over your own life and can take active steps to move past your trauma and live free.
Do you feel like something isn’t quite right?
If you feel something isn’t right and it may be due to race-based trauma, take the necessary steps to regain control of your mental health. You can do this either through self-care, whether developing positive routines, spiritual support, or meditation activities.
Alternatively, you can get in touch with a specialized race-trauma professional or support service as listed below.
Whatever you do, remember that knowledge is power. Don’t continue walking in the dark, unsure why you are feeling the way you do.
Act now and regain control.