John Choi, MA, LCPC" />

Racial Trauma, Part II

Trauma presents in a variety of ways. Traumatic symptoms can show up after a single incident
like a car accident or by way of a repeated, pervasive experience, like physical abuse. And when long exposure to traumatic stress is at play, it is called complex trauma. We can think of trauma as anything too much, too soon, too fast for our body and minds to process. To this definition I would add, “for too long.” Though recognized among professional counselors, complex post-traumatic stress disorder has yet to be recognized by the DSM, the standard clinicians use to diagnose mental health issues. It seems that we are growing in our understanding of the effect that persistent and extended durations of toxic stress and trauma has on our minds and body. This emphasis is applicable when thinking about race-based trauma and stress.  See my earlier blog post on this topic.

A client’s expertise on their experience can teach us if we listen well. I recall one client’s remark that the type of racism they had the most difficulty coping with was the daily struggle with harassment and inappropriate comments. This on-going battle, of existing in an unsupportive and unfair environment while shouldering the burden of restraint and professionalism in response, is what is most distressing for this client. This stress is only exacerbated by headlines of tragic, race-based incidents of trauma.

In the recent news, there has been a lot of attention on recent hate crimes towards Asians in America. As a Korean American, I’ve been troubled by the flurry of reports of anti-Asian sentiment and the blaming of the pandemic on those of Asian descent. These hate crimes have, at times, been violent and fatal. The national spotlight on these hate crimes brings attention, for the first time for some, to the pre-existing strain for Asians in America, who are often viewed as foreigners who don’t belong here. In my experience, I have seen how damaging this day-to-day struggle can be. This message is often internalized, that we must prove our worth. Our existence is conditional. In response, it is not uncommon to be taught at a young age that the only chance of acceptance is by being overqualified, being quiet, and under-the-radar.

It is important to recognize the psychological effects and risks of this survival mentality. This mentality may look like hypervigilance, physical ailments, low self-esteem, workaholicism, and loss of personal identity. To add to this, there is the layer where many of the hate crimes have been targeted against elders. This aggravates a nerve, deep within children of immigrant parents, who have forged a special bond with their parents by their being mediators and translators in an unfamiliar world. These children may have translated their parent’s doctor visits or helped file tax or legal documents. Often, children of immigrants develop a sensitive awareness to the thoughts and feelings of their parents and have watched their parents withstand being belittled or harassed without much expression. Many have also been raised by their grandparents while their parents worked long hours. This unacknowledged grief and loss resurfaces and horrifies us in the face of elders being hurt by hate crimes.

Restraint of response and implicit silencing can become so common that it passes our awareness. It can be easy to overlook chronic stress and the effects of racism. Sometimes, in the case of unhealthy families, dysfunction can become like the air we breathe, and so we don’t realize how stressful an environment can be. If we draw a parallel and see our American society as a family, then, we might ask, what dynamics and patterns have caused this unhealthy relating? Are there members that need immediate attention? How are we maintaining cycles of pain and tension? And how long has this been going on?

The recent influx of Asian hate crimes may bring to light the burdens we have been carrying all along. Given that AAPI adults are the racial group least likely to seek mental health services, it may be time to recognize both the reality of trauma, and benefits of therapy.

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