I Don’t Want to Become Numb to Racial Trauma…But it Hurts

In the past few months, I have been wrestling with how to maintain my personal equanimity in the face of what feels like overwhelming and insurmountable oppressive forces. I find that in an effort to maintain my sanity, I sometimes refuse to let myself read about racial trauma or fully feel unpleasant emotions related to it. I shut down. The blatant, unapologetic disregard for Black lives and flaunting of white, heterosexual, and class privilege has created a mixture of sadness, anger, and cynicism. Beneath that rages a fire of hope that presses me forward to fight back oppressive forces that seek to literally destroy me because of the color of my skin, gender, sexual orientation, and class. But the trauma is still there.

There has recently been more talk about racial trauma with the proliferation of video footage of police killing of Black people on news channels and the internet. Racial trauma can be broadly defined as the detrimental physical and mental effects of acute or prolonged racial injustice that is experienced personally or vicariously. Such physical effects include: heart palpitations, head and body aches, and problems sleeping. Mental effects can include but are not limited to: anxiety, constantly being on the look out, difficulty concentrating, anger, and feelings of helplessness. A lot of these symptoms are the same ones veterans experience after combat. For veterans, these symptoms may be called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But for many Black people, our stress/trauma is not post. It is persistent, ongoing. Racial stress can be caused by police terror and also marginalization on one’s job or in the classroom, being followed in stores, or being told “you talk white.”

How do we address racial trauma so that we may fight another day? One popular technique in treating PTSD is exposure therapy. Basically, exposure therapy requires people to repeatedly confront the thing that traumatized them. The rationale is that once a person has been exposed enough times to the traumatic thing that her body will stop overreacting to it and she will no longer have PTSD symptoms. In overly simplistic terms, she will become numb to it.

But what if you don’t want to become numb to the traumatic thing? We cannot afford to become numb to racial stress and trauma. We must remain maladjusted to injustice so that we can continue to strive to end racially oppressive systems at the intersections of gender, sexual orientation, and class. So how do we reduce the negative effects of racial trauma but do not become indifferent to it?

Psychologists at the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture recommend:

1.     Acknowledging the experience of racial stress/trauma when it happens.

2.     Discussing the racially stressful/traumatic experience with someone who will understand and who you trust.

3.     Seeking professional support, maybe from a therapist or spiritual advisor.

4.     Engaging in an enjoyable, healthy activity. For example: pray/meditate, exercise, cook a healthy meal, read a fun book.

5.     Channeling your racial stress/trauma into something productive. For example, mentor a young person; volunteer at a prison; help educate family and community members about racial justice at the intersections of gender, sexual orientation, and class.

6.     Developing and using a Racism Recovery Plan.

Racial trauma is real. It intersects with other types of trauma (e.g., patriarchy, classism) and must be addressed. We cannot become numb to our pain. We must acknowledge and allow it to move us toward resistance and revolution.