Racial Trauma: Definition, Impact, and Culturally Grounded Intervention

Summer 2021 - Students Section

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John Samuels, MA

Section Editors:

Jack Lennon & Emily Rooney

RACIAL TRAUMA REFERS TO the stressful reactions of Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) individuals to dangerous experiences of racial discrimination (Comas-Díaz et al., 2019). Racial trauma can be defined in emotional, physical, interpersonal, and institutional terms, reflecting the multiple contexts wherein racism manifests, and the myriad harms it engenders (Bryant-Davis, 2007). A number of researchers have investigated the deleterious effects of racial trauma on mental and physical wellbeing, even developing specialized trauma screens (Geller et al., 2014; Williams et al., 2018). Clinical interventions targeting racial trauma have also been developed, but research on these interventions is limited (Comas-Díaz et al., 2019). This article will discuss several types of racial trauma and review literature on their psychological impact, concluding with a discussion of extant interventions for racial trauma that demonstrate the importance of cultural responsivity to efficacious service delivery.

Racial Trauma

Racial trauma is characterized by its capacity to:

  • cause emotional injury through fear or hate,
  • overwhelm a person’s coping resources,
  • cause bodily harm or threaten a person’s life, or
  • constitute an interpersonal or institutional source of fear, helplessness, or horror (Bryant-Davis, 2007).

It is important to note that although a substantial amount of research on racial trauma connects experiences of racial discrimination to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, racial trauma is different from traditional traumatic events as they are not solely defined by the threat of death or serious injury, as delineated by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Emotional injury, institutional fear or helplessness, and shared distress among ingroup members are defining aspects of racial trauma (Carter, 2007). Racial trauma can be caused by a variety of life and historical events, and by acute or chronic exposure. Three types of racial trauma will be defined and explored here:

  • acute discriminatory events,
  • chronic racism-related stress, and
  • historical trauma. [Continue…]