Racial trauma is a term used to describe the physical and psychological symptoms that people of Color often experience after exposure to particularly stressful experiences of racism (Carter, 2007). Similar to survivors of other types of trauma (e.g., sexual assault survivors), people of Color often experience fear and hypervigilance, headaches, insomnia, body aches, memory difficulty, self-blame, confusion, shame, and guilt after experiencing racism (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005; Carter, 2007, Carlson, 1997; Helms, Nicolas, & Green, 2010). When the experiences of racism are more frequent, the consequences tend to be more acute (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005). And, these racism experiences never exist in isolation; racial trauma is a cumulative experience, where every personal or vicarious encounter with racism contributes to a more insidious, chronic stress (Carter, 2007). Experiencing racism brings up both previous experiences with racism, as well as a person's awareness of the longstanding history of racism directed toward similar others in the US (Helms et al., 2010; Utsey & Ponterotto, 1996).
Historical race-related events play a significant role in shaping how people of Color view racism. For many people of Color, early racial socialization experiences often include listening to their parents' and grandparents' stories of living through different periods of racial tension in the U.S., including the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow laws, and for some slavery (Shenk, 2000). While the passing down of these stories is an essential part of educating and socializing the younger generation about race and racism, the transmission of racial trauma is often carried across multiple generations as a result. The cumulative emotional effects and psychological wounding that is transmitted across generations known as intergenerational trauma (Rakoff, Sigal, & Epstein, 1996) can result in higher rates of mental health and physical health issues within communities of Color.
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
In her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, Dr. Joy DeGruy traces the way that both overt and subtle forms of racism have damaged the collective African-American psyche-harm manifested through poor mental and physical health, family and relationship dysfunction, and self-destructive impulses. Dr. DeGruy adapts our understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to propose that African Americans today suffer from a particular kind of intergenerational trauma: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). The systematic dehumanization of African slaves was the initial trauma, explains Dr. DeGruy, and generations of their descendents have borne the scars. Since that time, Americans of all ethnic backgrounds have been inculcated and immersed in a fabricated (but effective) system of race "hierarchy," where light-skin privilege still dramatically affects the likelihood of succeeding in American society. Dr. DeGruy suggests that the real recovery from the ongoing trauma of slavery and racism has to start from within, she says, beginning with a true acknowledgment of the resilience of African-American culture. "The nature of this work," DeGruy writes in her prologue, "is such that each group first must see to their own healing, because no group can do another's work." .
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