John Choi, MA, LPC" />

Racial Trauma: Emergence into Social Consciousness

As we experience a seismic shift in our day to day due to the effects of a pandemic, we are becoming aware that what we are experiencing is a collective trauma. COVID-19 has created a mad dash for safety and resources. And like any response to trauma there is a pattern of initial shock and denial, panic and hypervigilance, and also depression and avoidance. Yet, what has eclipsed for some this global pandemic is society’s confrontation with generational and systemic racial trauma. For some, they have felt more deeply impacted and endangered by racial trauma than they have by the coronavirus.

At the tailend of my first year as a therapist, I noticed a shift in more and more Black and Brown clients coming through my virtual door – perhaps this is not surprising given that Black, indigenous, and people of color are both most negatively impacted by COVID and also racial trauma. In my study of trauma, I’ve learned that progress in this field is often determined by its social context. It seems that trauma only gains legitimacy or credibility when forced upon the collective consciousness of society by war or social conflict. Why is it that more than any mental health issue, when talking about trauma, the conversation becomes socio-political? And why must a crisis take place for recognition?

A classic text that might illuminate this problem is Dr. Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. She notes only through the discovery of shell shock in soldiers in WWI and the phenomenon of hysteria in women in the 19th century the door slowly opened to an understanding of the PTSD diagnosis. In the case of WWI, traumatic responses were unable to be completely dismissed after a wave of young soldiers came home still reacting and reeling from their violent experiences. Their symptoms of shell shock were jarring and eye-opening both on an individual and societal level. However, traumatic reactions do not just occur in wartime. In Sigmund Freud’s era, bizarre and dramatic symptoms of “hysteria” in women exhibiting “motor paralyses, sensory loss, convulsions and amnesia” perplexed the minds of physicians and psychologists. Through talk therapy, Freud discovered “that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience.” Despite learning a traumatic basis for hysteria, Freud recanted his findings due to the pressure of his peers. Herman elucidates this wishy-washy behavior in Freud: if his findings were true, then “hysteria, being so common among women, would mean that the perverted acts against children were endemic.” Society could not withstand this conclusion and so suppressed an unbearable truth.

A conclusion I’ve drawn from this is that there is a pattern of denial and suppression in the social and political sphere when trauma is exposed to the surface just like the fearfulness and avoidance a PTSD client might display when their traumatic memories become more conscious. If it is true that as a society we are prone to denial: What might be the cultural blind spots in our era in regards to trauma? Given that the historical development of trauma and its acceptance as a real phenomenon often is implicated and dependent in a political battle, we are not exempt.

There are clues that there exist symptoms of trauma not sufficiently explained by a classic PTSD diagnosis. To make up for this gap, another premier thinker in trauma research, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, submitted to the DSM-5 his finding of “Developmental Trauma Disorder” only to be rejected. In line with these new findings, an emerging field is race-based traumatic stress (RBTS) which refers to the “mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.” While RBTS is not a mental health disorder, it does acknowledge the harms and dangers of racial trauma to one’s mind and body.

Taking into account racial trauma and a very brief history of this field, could it be that just as in Freud’s day and age, we are struggling to admit widespread trauma in our midst? Would it not be surprising that in a new frontier of psychological research of trauma a similar reaction of denial and suppression is happening in the case of Black trauma?

Almost 30 years ago Herman writes that “Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of social order and for the healing of individual victims.” Perhaps, in our society’s reckoning with Black trauma, there is hope that through truth telling we will be able to form a social and political context to support and acknowledge it.

Awareness is often the first step in treatment and prevention; For more information on Racial Trauma visit Mental Health America- Racial Trauma.

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