Claire N. Agard, PhD, CCTP
Racism hits you like a punch in the gut. It doesn’t knock you out; instead, it leaves behind a lingering pain that waxes and wanes and increases in intensity. Each additional personal or observed experience builds on the previous one leaving behind long-lasting traumatic stress. This type of stress gradually weakens the body placing it at risk for developing a variety of mental and/or physical illnesses.
The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology (2020) defines trauma as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, disassociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning”. In this context, the experience of racism is the trauma that causes stress responses. The damage caused by racial discrimination, unfair treatment, violence and race-based prejudice is called racial trauma. The term includes the creation of situations that cause people of color to feel unsafe. Racial trauma is what people of color experienced as they opposed the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. It’s the experience of watching the video of George Floyd’s murder over and over again. It’s the police brutality and racial tension depicted in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Racial trauma results fromthe type of maltreatment and murder depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It’s portrayed in the documentary, Dawnland. Its results are the flashbacks experienced by characters in Cold Case: Family 8108.
When the body senses physical or mental danger, its natural ‘fight-or-flight’ system goes to work. This causes increased heart rate, adrenalin rush, sweaty palms, trembling, etc. These changes prepare us to escape from the danger or cope with a stressful situation. When the danger is over, the body returns to its resting state. Unfortunately, this is not the case with racial trauma. Instead, the victim feels powerless and the repeated exposure to the stressor causes the body to remain alert. It never completely returns to a calm state. Each time that person experiences racism they recall similar, past experiences and the history of racist treatment of people like them. The state of constant alertness causes some people to develop symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. They include jumpiness, depression, anger, flashbacks, headaches, and difficulty sleeping and concentrating. Luckily, each person responds to stress differently. One person may respond poorly no matter if a traumatizing event occurred once, several times, or was continuing. Others show no response at all.
Science has linked racial trauma to several illnesses. They include hypertension, heart and kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, stomach ulcer, gastritis, and arthritis. Many of these frequently occur in adult African Americans. Racist experiences appear to increase inflammation in the body, increasing the chance of becoming ill. Unhealthy habits such as drug and alcohol use can lead to illness; however, the high number of long-term illnesses among African Americans is likely due to more than just unhealthy habits. Poor economic circumstances, poor/lack of health care, high rates of incarceration, less opportunity for advancement, and poverty contribute to poor health. These factors are among the consequences of racism.
In a 2019 the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote, “racial discrimination and racism have profound impact on the health of children, adolescents and emerging adults”. They stated that, while progress has been made, proof of racism’s negative effect on health still exists. The Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently described racism as a “serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans” (CDC, 2021). So, you see, when people of color speak of the heavy toll racism has on them, they’re not making excuses for their circumstances. It’s real!
We know that experiencing trauma at an early age increases the chance of developing mental and/or physical illness during adulthood. Sometimes it also causes genetic changes. The term intergenerational trauma (Rakoff et al., 1966) refers to the passing on of the psychological damage caused by race-based trauma from one generation to the other. This suggests that adults who repeatedly experience racial trauma and its biproducts as young children may pass on the side effects via their genes. Lack of improvement in life circumstance from one generation to the other and stories passed on through generations are other ways of handing down the effects of racial trauma. The cycle continues…
American Psychological Association. (2020). APA Dictionary of psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/trauma 2020
American Academy of Pediatrics. Section on Adolescent Health, Council on Community Pediatrics, Committee on Adolescence. (2019).The Impact of r child and adolescent health. Policy Statement. pp. 1-16. Retrieved from https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/144/2/e20191765.full.pdf
Rakoff, V., Sigal, J.J., & Epstein N.B. (1966). Children and families of concentration camp survivors. Canada’s Mental Health, 14, 24-26.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Racism and Health. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthequity/racism-disparities/index.html