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The Link between Racism and Trauma

We have heard the term Racism swirling quite frequently in the media, political, corporate and the sports arena. But what is Racism? Racism is the routine, institutionalized mistreatment of a person based on his/her membership in a racial group that is on the downside of power.

Some examples of racism are: (a) Being followed in stores, (b) profiling by law enforcement, (c)racial slurs, (d)confederate monuments, (e) microaggressions.

You may wonder what are microaggression?

-Microaggressions are subtle, yet pervasive acts of racism; these can be brief remarks, vague insults, or even non-verbal exchanges, such as a scowl or refusal to sit next to a person of color on BART for example.

Why are microaggressions difficult to manage?

When experiencing microaggressions, the target loses vital mental resources trying figure out the intention of one committing the act. These events may happen frequently, making it difficult to mentally manage the sheer volume of racial stressors. The unpredictable and anxiety-provoking nature of the events, which may be dismissed by others, can lead to victims feeling as if they are “going crazy.” Chronic fear of these experiences may lead to constant vigilance or even paranoia, which over time may result in traumatization or contribute to PTSD.

An example of Microaggression in psychotherapy is when a therapist says, “I’m not sure we need to focus on race or culture to understand your depression.” I’m implying that racism is not harmful…

Can experiencing racism be traumatic? Research indicates, yes.

Research indicates that African Americans experience significantly more instances of discrimination than their Asian and Latino counterparts. Research also suggests that Latinos who experience racism were significantly more likely to experience symptoms of a Mood Disorder such as depression, whereas African Americans who experience racism were significantly more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD.

Research notes that the darker your skin, the more likely you are to experience racism.

Perceived discrimination has been linked to Stress, PTSD symptoms, Serious psychological distress, depression, binge drinking, binge eating, and even psychosis.

How does individual racist events result in trauma?

- (a)Act of violation of an individual’s personhood; (b)the victim feels disempowered/ powerless (c); the act is unpredictable and uncontrollable; (d)and the incident might get challenged or ridiculed by others.

- Racist incidents are traumatic and research findings indicate that they impact us in similar ways as being the victim of a sexual assault or domestic violence would.

Prior Experience to Trauma

When there is any previous exposure to traumatic events, there is an association with

greater risk of PTSD. Multiple previous events had a stronger effect than a single previous event. This is referred to as cumulative trauma.

In Race-based traumatic stress, encounters tend to be cumulative so what this means is that you experience one traumatic encounter after another, but it doesn’t reach the threshold for PTSD until that “last straw” or last “trigger” that be a major or a minor event.

Trauma can also be Inherited. Can be passed down generations a couple ways:

(a)Social Transmission

(b)Biological Inheritance

*For example, the Native American experience where we see high

rates of addiction, suicide, mental illness, sexual violence etc which might be

influenced by historical trauma.

Cultural Trauma can be inherited according to Joy De Gruy, an African American psychologist.She has done a lot of research in this area showing that in the African American traumatic cultural history it has been passed down genetically. Dr. De Gruy coins this as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

-The cultural trauma lays in the kidnapping from Africa, slavery, socially sanctioned

brutality against the African American community, Jim Crow& segregation,

marginalization, and discrimination from past to present.

Race Based Stress and Trauma include:

(a) Institutionalized Racism (b) Microaggressions: which produce on-going stress

(c) Invalidation (d) another traumatic experience (e) ongoing racism

(f) Cultural Trauma

PTSD in ethnoracial minorities:

-PTSD is a severe and chronic condition that may occur in response to any traumatic event.

What this may look like in Ethnoviolence is:

-Racist event leads to Traumatic Reaction resulting in Symptoms that are congruent with PTSD such as: Re-experiencing of the traumatic event, avoidance of the trauma,negative mood states such as angry, depressed, guilt, self blame, etc and Physiological Arousal such as hypervigilance, disturbed sleep, etc.

How might I help you heal experiences of oppression and discrimination that have resulted in trauma? I would

  1. Believe you

  2. Validate your feelings and experiences; Validate reported experiences of oppression

  3. Identify your strengths and the cultural strengths that exist in your community as a Resource

  4. Anticipate racism and develop a plan for how to adaptively cope

  5. Avoid harmful coping

  6. Let’s keep talking about it therapy.

Dr. Sandra Murcia, Psy.D., is a bilingual and bicultural Latina English and Spanish speaking licensed psychologist working with varying issues of Race, Trauma, Couples, and Family Support. Please give her a call if you can relate and have been experiencing these occurrences.

Happiness Starts with a healthy mind, body, and spirit.

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