Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. Any individual that has experienced an emotionally painful, sudden, and uncontrollable racist encounter is at risk of suffering from a race-based traumatic stress injury. In the U.S., Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) are most vulnerable due to living under a system of white supremacy.
Experiences of race-based discrimination can have detrimental psychological impacts on individuals and their wider communities. In some individuals, prolonged incidents of racism can lead to symptoms like those experienced with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can look like depression, anger, recurring thoughts of the event, physical reactions (e.g. headaches, chest pains, insomnia), hypervigilance, low-self-esteem, and mentally distancing from the traumatic events. Some or all of these symptoms may be present in someone with RBTS and symptoms can look different across different cultural groups. Race-related stressors may be especially detrimental because they could be perceived as a direct attack on an individual’s identity.
Racial trauma leads to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress. It has also been linked to posttraumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, and other serious psychological conditions. Experiences of racism against people of color build on each other and over time, can chip away at one’s emotional, physical, and spiritual resources. Here are some signs that may indicate a person is experiencing racial trauma:
Avoiding situations that are related to racism or reminders of past racist experiences.
Distrusting others due to multiple losses or letdowns.
Feeling triggered by reminders of a racist experience, which can lead to strong emotional or physical responses (e.g., crying or rapid heartbeat).
Experiencing difficulty controlling emotional responses.
Being hypervigilant, overly alert, or paranoid about potential dangers or negative experiences because of one’s race.
Dr. Danielle Spearman-Camblard is a racial trauma expert providing therapy and culturally-informed services for any minoritized ethnic or racial group. She screens for experiences of racial discrimination and assesses race-based stress and anxiety-related symptoms to monitor progress during the treatment process. Dr. Danielle has been interviewed by the popular press about racial trauma. Read more about her In the Media (scroll down the homepage).
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