We firmly believe that all Black women require some sort of therapy or coping mechanism for the constant racial trauma inflicted on them day after day — that includes even those who offer therapy to others for a living.
Racist incidents played out on TV and social media — like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the media-frenzied protests and trials — made our inequalities ubiquitous and unavoidable. It raised awareness of how these incidents impact not just the victim, but entire communities that feel kinship with these victims and their families.
Researchers and psychologists — especially women of color — have known of this phenomenon, ‛generational racial trauma,’ for decades, but only in 2020 have interest on this increased in the scientific community.
The unique effects of racial trauma on modern Black women raise the need for treatment for a significant portion of the population. Black female psychologists at the forefront of understanding this field know personally that racism and sexism compound, often bleeding into everyday life, and they contour their treatment for other Black women accordingly. Left to neglect, racial trauma can spill over into physical health, as the burden of being Black wears down the body. This demands urgent, race-conscious treatment.
Racial trauma is a specialized study
Racially sensitive incidents impart PTSD-like symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and anger — all of which spiked among Black Americans after George Floyd’s killing, according to a study presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A 2021 study published in JAMA Psychiatry put some science behind the concept of racial trauma. Black women who had self-reported racial discrimination showed a “disproportionately greater response in brain regions associated with emotion regulation and fear inhibition and visual attention.” Put another way, Black women who have personally experienced racism may show hypervigilance to sensitive situations, especially those with a racial component. This increased threat vigilance can be tied to high anxiety, depression, or other PTSD-like symptoms.
The study also confirmed what Negar Fani, lead author on the study and professor at Emory University, has been observing in her career: trauma does not necessarily lead, as researchers have long accepted, to less ability to pay attention. Instead, the study demonstrates that victims of racial trauma expend more resources to maintain a state of concentration when they are faced with racially triggering stimuli.
“working twice as hard to get just as far.”
Negar Fani, lead author on the study and professor at Emory University
The JAMA study reflects a shift in the scientific community on the concept of racial trauma. As recently as 2020, studies like this were largely dismissed or ignored. “This work was really unpopular,” Fani said. As racially motivated events were repeatedly shared across social media and other channels, it became harder to leave this area of psychology ignored.
Thema Bryant-Davis, a Black woman and president-elect of the American Psychological Association (APA), noted how these early studies are important to spark further research, in terms of both funding opportunities and credibility.
“It was important to document the neurological impact of racism,” she said, “to understand that stress and trauma include impacting the body [and] the brain.”
Bryant-Davis published an early explanatory study on racial trauma in 2005, just three years after Hugh F. Butts, a Black man, published the seminal piece on the topic, “The Black Mask of Humanity.” Butts and Bryant-Davis’ articles, along with subsequent studies in 2006 and 2007, informed the early understanding of racial trauma. Butts presented numerous cases from his years of practice, and Bryant-Davis made parallels to other types of trauma, like domestic violence.
Mass broadcasting the murder of George Floyd was not only traumatic because Black people watched a man who looked like them be brutally murdered. It was traumatic because Black people had to hear that murder be justified as acceptable, even after the conviction of the police officer.
The recent acknowledgment of racial trauma as a scientific reality means, Black people have been coping with this incessantly racist society on their own. And its effects are not just mental, but also physical.
Psychologists have been positing that the “Strong Black Woman schema” contributes to a multitude of health disparities, especially through the mechanism of stress. Black women who internalize the need to do everything and take care of the community feel heightened stress, and they may neglect their physical or mental health.
The 2021 JAMA study concluded something similar, stating that frequent racism may “lead to heightened modulation of regulatory resources” and potentially representing an “important neurobiological pathway for race-related health disparities.”
Gaslighting on a national scale
What these studies indicate is that a person has limited mental resources. When inflicted with racism daily, those resources may be directed away from other important activities like maintaining one’s health. This can be true whether a person is actively railing against racial stress, or if they are shielding themselves from it.
Doubt is part of what makes racial trauma so insidious. Black people in America have been both constantly subjected to the racism, while also being told that there is no racism. It is gaslighting at its finest, and it means that Black people who experience trauma must be validated before they can be properly treated.
With few Black therapists in the United States, Black women often find it difficult to find therapists who look like them, and end up settling for non-Black therapists who do not understand their experience. Or worse, they could land with a therapist who is unaware of their own biases, inflicting more harm than they can mitigate.
The APA’s 2019 Race and Ethnicity Guidelines say that, in order to provide services without bias, psychologists need to consider “race, ethnicity and culture” in treatment and assessment. In 2021, the APA adopted a resolution to apologize for its legacy of promoting racism. “APA acknowledges that recognition and apology only ring true when accompanied by action; by not only bringing awareness of the past into the present but in acting to ensure reconciliation, repair, and renewal,” it states.
Therapy still could not work for everyone, nor will everyone have access to it, especially given economic disparities among people of color. And many Black people must overcome the stigma perpetuated by both their communities toward therapy.
IT IS NOT SURPRISING that Black women and other women of color have led the research on racial trauma. They have worked relentlessly in what has been a thankless field for years, and only now are they starting to see Black women actually benefit from their work.
And there is still more work to do. The basic acknowledgment of the reality of their trauma is only the beginning. Most Black women cannot wait for scientific and medical communities to validate their experiences, as racism is ongoing, and racial trauma accumulative. That is why the BIPOC researchers and practitioners continue to dedicate energy to untangling this concept, while they advocate for their own health.