Frequent exposure to racism impacts long-term mental health, often influencing ‘racial trauma’, leading to self-hatred and a low sense of self-worth

Across many African American communities in the US, depression and anxiety have been on the rise. Evidence has proven that racism has been a contributing factor to this, creating a ripple effect on mental health, which researchers now understand as racial trauma.

Researchers Janeé M. Steele Ph.D. and Charmeka S. Newton, Ph.D., licensed mental health professionals looking at this mental health impact, explain that racial trauma is caused in several ways, including repeated experiences of racism and microaggressions and transgenerational trauma due to historical oppression.

While many people report trauma stemming from racist abuse, people can develop racial trauma even when they are not the target personally.

Trauma causes chronic stress, forcing the brain to stay hypervigilant and unable to relax

This is because trauma causes chronic stress, which lives in the body and can be felt like a rush of energy to the chest or stomach; these physical symptoms can be prompted by a range of external triggers – such as race-based violence reported in the news or social media.

Repeated exposure to these stressors can impact the brain, where more ‘stress’ chemicals that affect memory and fight or flight responses are generated, forcing the brain to stay hypervigilant and unable to relax.

What are some signs you could be suffering from racial trauma?

Some experiences likely to trigger racial trauma include:

  • Exposure to racial or ethnic stereotypes
  • Fears about personal safety
  • Witnessing members of a person’s group receiving abuse
  • Racist abuse of loved ones
  • Direct exposure to racist abuse or discrimination
  • Others not taking experiences of racism seriously

Additionally, some symptoms of racial trauma may include:

  • Distress relating to the trauma, repeating the trauma in your head
  • Avoiding things that remind the person of the trauma
  • Intense anxiety or depression relating to the trauma
  • Feeling distracted by memories or thoughts of the trauma
  • Negative thoughts about self, other people, or the world
  • Increased sensitivity and reactivity
  • Symptoms of PTSD

The impact of white cultural standards

The impact of internalised racism on Black people is a huge factor in racial trauma, and internalised racism commonly leads to self-hatred and a low sense of self-worth.

However, these messages of anti-Black rhetoric are not uncommon – as the experts explain that messages of inferiority include television shows that depict Black people as unintelligent, criminal, prone to violence, and sexually promiscuous; the underrepresentation of Black people in positions of leadership and power; and the lack of justice received by Black people in our judicial systems.

Drs. Steele and Newton explain: “In Western culture, white cultural standards are still upheld as the gold standard – and the beauty and cultural norms of other racial groups are portrayed as inferior.

“Internalized racism sounds like it might be easy to identify in yourself, but it could look like simply choosing a different pair of shoes to fit in with others – it is about altering your appearance or behavior to fit into white cultural norms.”

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A ‘toolkit’ to identify racial trauma, and also to heal from it

The authors – a licensed professional counsellor and a psychologist – collated a trauma checklist to help identify racial trauma, including feeling guarded around white people, having witnessed Black people being mistreated, and feelings of helplessness when hearing about racism in the news.

Helping Black people to identify racial trauma, Black Lives Are Beautiful offers tools for healing, helping to acknowledge the trauma, the experts provide a list of tools for coping, including mindfulness, physical relaxation techniques, and mental exercises including compassion meditations, positive affirmations, a self-esteem plan, and visualization tools.

Recognizing how social media can be triggering, they also offer tips to navigate the online world with wellbeing in mind – such as following uplifting content creators and taking regular breaks.

“We want to give people the tools to identify their trauma, and move forward with their healing.”

Janeé M. Steele Ph.D. and Charmeka S. Newton, Ph.D. are licensed mental health professionals and scholars who specialise in culturally responsive therapy, they said: “Because of racism, many people of color lead lives full of worry, with a constant sense of being on guard. We might suppress or deny feelings about racism, or feel conflicted about talking about it.

“Dealing with these thoughts and feelings repeatedly and over a prolonged period of time can eventually result in damage to mental and physical health. We want to give people the tools to identify their trauma and move forward with their healing.

“In the Black community, there can be a real resistance to our own trauma – for example, if I wasn’t exposed to physical abuse, is it really that bad? But this kind of systemic, permeating racism that exists all around us has a real and physical impact on our minds and bodies. This is trauma.

“This could present itself as hypervigilance around threats to safety, anxiety about the way one is perceived – choosing certain clothes and avoiding certain places.

“Because racialized trauma is a result of accumulated effects over time, you may not even be aware that your reactions are in response to your encounters with race.”

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