Dr. Carmilla Solomon
“Your silence will not protect you.” — Audre Lorde
As a mental health therapist, an African-American woman, the wife of an African-American man, and the mother of two sons and a daughter, it’s difficult to remain silent today. It no longer protects me, and silence probably never did.I have lived through the Rodney King/LA riots in 1992; I was born after the Watts riots in 1965; my family taught me about Emmitt Till, who was lynched in 1955 at the age of 14. We talked about others who lost their lives and humanity because of the color of their skin. It gets more and more emotionally difficult with each death. Each unnecessary and avoidable death.
During my time at my HBCU (Historically Black College and University), I learned about Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Sonia Sanchez and countless others who wrote about social justice issues well before we started having the conversation about racial trauma.
Each year, the conversation about racism, trust, community policing, policing, and the voices of people of color (POC) gets more difficult. And it consistently gets gaslighted, because it’s uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable because it’s tiring and overwhelming . . . but it’s necessary!
But now that the lid is completely off of systemic racism — again — what should be our response as mental health therapists? How do we support not just our POC clients, but also those who are not part of a minority group?
Types of Racism
How do we become allies and not contributors to the cause of racial trauma? I think the first step is to understand the types of racism that exist. To me, these are easy to recognize but difficult to call out.
A few simple definitions of racism are:
Conscious/unconscious attitude and acts based on the belief of white superiority
Practices where POC cultural norms are deemed inferior and less valuable than white cultural norms. Think in terms of negative stereotypes.
Policies that restrict opportunities for POC. Think in terms of the justice / legal and educational systems.
Policies that deliberately target POC communities for toxic or hazardous waste. Think Flint, Michigan water crisis (unresolved).
Although these are simple definitions for a very difficult conversation, we now have to add the definition of trauma.
Definition of Trauma
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who is a trauma expert and author of The Body Keeps the Score (2015), states that trauma is about unpredictability and trust.
Imagine living in a community where your sense of safety and security was unpredictable, and there was no trust that you would be protected. A person living in trauma feels as if nothing will ever change. When it comes to racism, this might be a true statement.
So let’s create some common language around trauma. Trauma, according to the American Psychological Association, is damage to the mind that occurs as the result of a distressing event, i.e. rape, natural disasters, or war.
However, racial trauma refers to the stressful impact or emotional pain of one’s experience with racism and discrimination. In both forms of trauma, the stress response still resides in a person’s body. There is still a psychological and cognitive response to the perceived threats.
Comas-Diaz and Jacobson (2001) state that exposure to racism can result in psychological affliction, behavioral exhaustion, and physiological distress. Scurfield and Mackey (2001) state that race-related trauma may be the primary etiology factor in the development of an adjustment or stress disorder. But racial trauma does not occur in a vacuum. It’s made worse by the impact of multiple traumas, such as community violence, victimization, and combat.Trauma impacts a person’s physical, social, and psychological health. As a mental health therapist, I am responsible for understanding and becoming more aware of the impact of discrimination, recognizing the experiences of racism as a part of trauma, and inquiring about the experiences of racism (Williams, Metzger, Leins and Delapp, 2018). Racial trauma can meet Criterion A for a diagnosis of PTSD (Williams e al, 2018).
There are no easy answers to the racism that happens in America. We have a society that looks a little different, depending on how one identifies themselves. As a therapist, I am keenly aware of this when working with clients, especially my POC clients.
I understand the language they are speaking when talking about how pieces of them are broken off each time they experience racism or discrimination. I understand that we each carry our own biases in the spaces we occupy as human beings and as therapists. But for the benefit of those we serve, those whose pain we hold during each session, we must learn to confront our biases in a healthy way. Otherwise, we might be failing an entire population of people.
Racism can only be stopped when we understand our individual and collective biases and when we take the time to stand for and confront social justice issues within our therapeutic offices. If it’s uncomfortable for you, imagine the comfort level of other people.
God created one world in Genesis; He did not create a world separated by races. Genesis 1:11-28 describes every step He took to create this beautiful world we live in. If we believe in the Word of God, then we should know that racism negatively correlates to that Word.
We can’t use Scripture to justify hatred, discrimination, or the mistreatment of others. God implores us to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31). We have to start practicing what we preach and loving our neighbors, no matter what they look like. Pastor Rick Warren reminds us to be color blessed and not color blind. Our faith should show respect to everyone. Romans 12:21 states that we should not be overcome by evil. Racism is evil.
As a matter of increasing knowledge, I have included a shortlist of books that can be read. This is not a call to action as much as it is a call to learn how to support our community. We have a lot going on in the world right now. We have been facing down a global pandemic, which has led us into isolation, depression, and loneliness.
We have experienced grief and guilt because we cannot be with our loved ones who have died alone. We have grief that will not easily be resolved because we also have a lot of guilt. We are facing an economy that impacts those with means differently than those without means. We have a high level of unemployment and a level of uncertainty that we did not have in January 2020.
What We Can Do Now about Racial Trauma
We are not going to solve the problem overnight, but we can address how we feel right now.
We need to make sure to allow space for our emotions to appropriately come out. We need to give ourselves permission to say we are not okay and to be okay with that.
Creating a safe space to express ourselves with our friends and family is also necessary. This support network is where we can start the process of owning our own trauma, grief, and loss.
Take action that is therapeutic for you. Do something you feel will make a positive difference.
For those who want to ally with the POC community, you can:
Read, watch documentaries, and seek opportunities to learn our true history.
Practice racial empathy; take the time to listen authentically. Having racial empathy is powerful.
Speak up and show up. To stay silent is to remain indifferent and complicit.
“You’re worth it” means I have reason and rarity. I shall never depreciate my value and worth.” — Viola Davis
Comas-Díaz, L., & Jacobsen, F. M. (2001). Ethnocultural allodynia. The Journal of psychotherapy practice and research, 10(4), 246–252.
Scurfield, R. & Mackey, D. (2001). Racism, trauma and positive aspects of exposure to race-related experiences: Assessment and treatment implications. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 10:1, 23-47, DOI 10.1300/JO51v10n01_02
Williams, M. T., Metzger, I., Leins, C., & DeLapp, C. (2018). Assessing racial trauma within a DSM-5 framework: The UConn Racial/Ethnic Stress & Trauma Survey. Practice Innovations. doi: 10.1037/pri0000076
Rhonda V. Magee (2017) The Inner Work of Racial Justice
Resmaa Menakem (2017) My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies
Rheeda Walker (2020) The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health: Navigate an Unequal System, Learn Tools for Emotional Wellness, and Get the Help you Deserve
Terrie W. Williams (2009) Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting
Renee Watson (2017 ) Piecing Me Together
Bessel van der Kolk (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
“Tiger Lillies”, Courtesy of Tina Dawson, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Black Lives Matter”, Courtesy of Julian Wan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “No Man Is Free…”, Courtesy of Logan Weaver, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “9/11 Memorial”, Courtesy of Ben Lei, Unsplash.com, CC0 License