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Racial Trauma is Real, and We Have the Power to Heal 

August 27, 2020 | Jeffrey Good

Racial Trauma is Real, and We Have the Power to Heal image

By Jennifer Hyppolite

During these unprecedented times in the history of the United States, we are inundated with images and videos of Black bodies dying on the streets of our cities. This candid exposure to racial injustice is so prevalent and is quite frankly unavoidable. From scrolling through Instagram or skimming through Facebook, the death of Black people by the hands of police officers and civilians have become a part of our daily social media consumption.

It is no longer a question of if we will see the death of a Black person on our social media feeds, but more a question of when. It doesn’t help that every news outlet showcases the deaths of Black lives daily, hourly, and by the minute. Even when we don’t want to consume this content, we’re ultimately forced to.

How can we channel these emotions to become agents of change? We all have gifts within us that can impact the social justice movement happening today. It is up to us, as individuals, to tap into our gifts to be a source of hope for the future.

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more have been the most recent images of social injustice we’ve been candidly exposed to. The first-hand video footage of George Floyd lying on his stomach, with an officer’s knee on his neck, as he took his last breath, is an image that many will not be able to forget. The sound of his voice yelling “I can’t breathe…” and many other final words will be a sound most will find hard to etch out of their memory. These acts of racial discrimination didn’t begin haphazardly. When we reflect on the deaths of Sandra Bland, Botham Jean, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Freddy Gray, and Eric Garner, to just name a few, is it evidence that Black men and women have been a casualty of racism for years, with vivid imagery to prove it.

All of the continuous exposure to these deaths is causing racial trauma in the Black and Brown community. Racial trauma, as defined by researchers Comas-Díaz, Hall, and Neville, “refers to people of color’s reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination.” Researcher Robert Carter tells us that racial trauma is caused by threats of harm or injury, humiliating or shameful events, and witnessing racial discrimination toward other people of color (POC).

We are currently, and have been, experiencing discrimination towards people of color for decades now —way before we had camera phones. This trauma has affected our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The trauma is intergenerational. The trauma from the realities of slavery to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, has trickled down from generation to generation and has a cumulative effect on our lives.

Much of literature has provided evidence that racism and discrimination effects physical and mental health. The physiological and psychological effects of racial trauma include hypervigilance, insomnia, body aches, heart palpitations, memory difficulty, flashbacks, shame, self-blame, and avoidance. What makes racial trauma so unfortunately unique is that POC face exposure and re-exposure to events that cause these ongoing effects. The reality is that POC face racial trauma throughout their lives when dealing with events such as microagressions, threats of harm, perception of danger, and discrimination. What POC deal with every day can have lasting effects on their physical and mental health.

Protecting our mental health is crucial. The effects of racial trauma can have detrimental outcomes which can impede our ability to function successfully in society. Since we know how real racial trauma has and potentially will affect POC, it is imperative that we find ways to combat the negative effects. One way to do this is to process the thoughts we have in regards to racism and discrimination. Find people who are active listeners and engagers to help you process the feelings and emotions that you have around racial issues. Allow your mind to declutter by speaking about your feelings of frustration, hopelessness, hurt, and sadness towards racial injustice. Talk to your spiritual leader, mentor, or other person of wisdom you trust. A culturally sensitive therapist who possesses empathy is a great resource, as they can support you in your distress and help you find the best ways to heal.

You can also protect your mental health by practicing self care. Self care is talked about so much that we can find it in almost every article or self-help book we read. I would argue that while it is talked about quite often, it is not practiced nearly as much. Self care has to be intentional and many of us are not making it so. Not practicing self care is a choice to not take care of yourself. What does taking care of yourself look like to you? It can be running or engaging in some other form of exercise, activities shown to release endorphins (happy hormones), improve cardiovascular health and sleep. This directly combats the symptoms of heart palpitations and insomnia that occur from racial trauma. Journaling, reading, meditation, and prayer are also self care practices that allow your mind and body to be calm and overcome the symptoms of avoidance, hypervigilance, and shame. Find self care activities that are pleasurable and unique to you to counter the negative effects of racial trauma.

Lastly, you can use your feelings to create a catalyst for change. The truth is that we will face many unpleasant feelings when dealing with the realities of racism. How can we channel these emotions to become agents of change? We all have gifts within us that can impact the social justice movement happening today. It is up to us, as individuals, to tap into our gifts to be a source of hope for the future.

What gift are you sitting on right now? If you are a writer, you can begin writing about the plight and acts of resistance by POC during this time. Your words can be published in books, blogs, and other material for people to read in the moment and in the future. The words you use can be an inspiration for kids and adults alike. If you’re a photographer, you can be a digital historian capturing the images of people protesting and others marching towards city hall steps to demand a change.

Your images can be the visual bookmark of this generation’s social justice movement. If you’re a giver, your investment in a social justice organization can be the last dollar needed to build a plan that will impact your local community and the people in it. If you’re interested in politics, your run for office could be what your city, state, or other form of local government needs to impact the laws that will stop the continuation of an unjust society.

Don’t compare your gifts to others. What you have to offer the world is unique. While racial trauma has — and without change, will continue to — impact us, we can use what we have to change what we want. The gift in you could be just what our nation needs to propel this change. Harness that gift now, channel it to impact tomorrow’s future. Nurture it, use it, and be empowered by it. Our better future needs you.

Jennifer Hyppolite is the career and life coach at Bethel Acceleration Academy. 

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