Healing Race Trauma

September 12, 2020

I attended my first Black funeral in January 2012. My beautiful grandmother had passed away a few days prior, and my mother, sister and I arrived to Port of Spain, Trinidad West Indies within a few hours. I loved my trips to Trinidad, but this one was bittersweet. Each day, before the funeral we sat in my grandmother’s home as visitors came to visit every day. The visitors brought food, told stories, prayed, played music, hugged, and connected with each other.

So after learning of Mr. Floyd’s passing, I think the world engaged in a similar experience of mourning. The world developed community, told stories, prayed, shouted hymns, and marched. People all around the world highlighted that anti-Black racism continues to exist, and that the lives of Black children, youth and adults remain in danger across the world, and #BlackLivesMatter. In the days after Mr. Floyd’s passing, the world became divided, but also unified. The work that was started centuries ago, is now entering another process. It is also stirring up the impact of race trauma.

I discovered that I was Black, well actually, referred to in the traditional slave master terminology in a kindergarten playground in junior kindergarten. I was 4. Race is a social construct. Someone decided to create the concept of “race”. When this occurred, someone decided to divide people based on colour, into categories of superiority and inferiority. Thus, whiteness became superior. Whiteness came with unearned privileges, that those considered inferior could not participate in. Whiteness defined the way of being for the world. Thus, at 4 years old, I was indoctrinated to know that I was inferior, I was “less than”, and “not good enough” than everyone else.

“Race trauma creates further post traumatic stress that can lead to symptoms such as chronic physical pain, depression, anger, anxiety, disease, unhelpful thinking patterns, substance use, lack of motivation, mood disorders, hyper vigilance, night terrors and flashbacks, repeated traumas, and more”.

As a four year old, this experience shaped the next 40 years of my life. And now, as I write this article, I reflect back on how the constant name calling, belittling, microaggression, avoidance, lack of mentorship, isolation, ignoring, silencing, exclusion, misunderstanding, disregarding, mocking, petting, gaslighting perpetuated on me. This truly impacted my sense of self worth, my disconnection from my identity and my culture, my opportunities for the “Canadian Dream”, my relationships with others and the ability to form trusting relationships, and so much more. Race trauma creates further post traumatic stress that can lead to symptoms such as chronic physical pain, depression, anger, anxiety, disease, unhelpful thinking patterns, substance use, lack of motivation, mood disorders, hyper vigilance, night terrors and flashbacks, repeated traumas, and more. And, I have not even started to discuss: intergenerational trauma, health inequities, gender inequality, disproportionate involvement with child welfare, educational penal systems and the criminal justice systems which are intertwined and intersected with race.

Today, the world is focusing on highlighting that anti-Black racism is not a political issue but an undeniable human right to not experience racism. Nevertheless, the impact of race trauma exists for Black people across the diaspora and our world. Our white counterparts watched in horror as Mr. Floyd was murdered by the systems, and Black people could only cry and turn their heads. There was no way I could watch the horror show. Instead I cried. I cried for my ancestors. My grandparents. My parents, aunties, uncles and elders of my community. I cried for my child. My child clients and the many youth in my life. I cried for my cousins. My cousins. I cried for my nephews and the unborn children. Our lives are forever shaped because of whiteness, white privilege, racism, hate, inferiority, and injustice.

During a session, I was asked, “can you tell me some tips on how to deal with racism at work?”. I said and I always say, “it is ridiculous, that I have to tell you how to deal with racism.”. This angers me. We should not have to tell the oppressed how they should accept their oppression, and stand in complacency to the injustices of racism. But we do. We need to heal. All I know is that, I can not cry for us any longer.

Take good care of yourself

If there was a step, this is STEP 1:

Put yourself first. Develop a self-care routine. Ensure your needs are met. Create space for your emotional needs. Attend counselling. Learn to say no. No. Be mindful of your body’s needs. Reduce your work when you can. Take time off. Take your vacations… travel or stay home or do nothing. Exercise. Invest in your friends and close connections. Embrace Joy. Show love to yourself and others. Be kind, compassionate, and find other values as rooted into your foundation. Practice mindfulness. Take good care of you.

Build a supportive community

Do you know the phrase, “it takes a village”. It really does. Your village is your people of friends, aunties and uncles, mentors and elders who guide you along your way. Invest in these key relationships to provide you the support you require. Choose wisely. Not all elders are made for you. Choose people in your life who shares your values, your belief systems, and can inspire you to be your best self. A key piece to healing trauma is social engagement, relationships, and positive life experiences.

Create Positive Life Experiences

I may not have had many positive memories at elementary school. But I had a wealth of positive life experiences at home, at my church, my aunties homes, and my travels to the United States with family. When I reflect upon my past, I remember these experiences as though they were experienced yesterday. Positive life experiences helps to re frame the messages of self and identity that Black people receive from their educators, their employers, in the community, in the media and on television, and the whiteness culture. Positive experiences reaffirm that you are, “good”. You are worthy. You are loved and appreciated. Life is pleasant and can be joyful. You are apart of something greater. Finally, creating positive life experiences builds your overall resiliency which further builds your health and mental wellness.

Incorporating a healthier way of being focusing on healing the impact of trauma, and protecting yourself from further harm.

  • Depersonalize microaggressions, implicit bias and explicit bias- recognize when you experience one or more of the aggression. Identify when this occurs and identify how you feel about the incident. Use your voice, and advocate for what you need in the moment. Respond to your need. Seek support.
  • Enhance compassion towards yourself- when you notice, hear, or experience race trauma towards yourself and to others, accept that this experience can bring pain and hurt. Show compassion and kindness towards yourself.
  • Mental wellness is similar to emotional health, physical wellness, and spirituality. Thus, treat each of these areas as part of your overall wellness. Seek counselling and support when you need to with a counsellor or psychotherapist who is experienced in race trauma. Adopt a wellness routine for your mental health that incorporates what you need to stay healthy.
  • Redefine your identity. Create a narrative that better fits with your definition of your self-worth, your inner value, and your limitless greatness. My Brother. My Sister. Create an identity that you embrace for yourself. And if you need help to do so, seek support. The world has leaders and mentors waiting to support you to be the best version of yourself.
  • Give back. Many people can not use their voice at work for fear of demotion or losing their jobs. However, this fear can impact our abilities to address the racism we experience in our lives. Thus, if you can’t use your voice at work find alternate ways to use your voice to empower yourself in safe, healthier spaces. This may include mentoring young people, joining political campaigns, volunteering in Black-led organizations or community Boards, and so much more.
  • You are not the spokesperson for the Black race. Employers are trying to “reach out” to Black staff and managers to engage in courageous conversations for their own guilt. If you are not well enough or even care to engage in those conversations, don’t. There are so much resources and equity subject matter experts that your employer can hire to support the company. You are not being paid to “counsel” the oppressor on how they feel about being oppressed. Just say no, politely.
  • Be mindful of chasing the “Canadian dream”… while the white picket fences, the household of four people, the heterosexual parents, and the yearly vacations at the cottage drinking Bud Light(R) and swatting Black flies may seem appealing to the mainstream culture, this may not be your dream, your journey, or what you need in your life. Chase your own dream and journey. Create your own perfect home filled with love, and the values you desire. Engage in activities that make you feel joy, without the tension of never having enough.
  • Embrace spirituality– spirituality is not religion. I stopped religion in 2000, after the Pastor refused to Christian my daughter because I was unmarried but still in a relationship with my daughter’s father. It was also the time after my parents lost their home, their careers, and the church never even bothered to “check” on their safety. In this way, religion created barriers for acceptance and inclusion, and religion failed to protect those it served. However, my spirituality was and will never tie into a religious center. My spirituality was tied into my soul, my belief systems, my inner being, my purpose for being on this planet, and my strength. I gather strength from my spirituality. Thus, whether you practice a religion, attend a religious place or gathering, or do not engage in any of those activities, embrace your spiritual being. If you need support, connect with a spiritual leader, an elder of your community, a psychotherapists skilled in spirituality, and books/podcasts/discussions that will support your spiritual growth.
  • Create safe places to share your experiences of race trauma. This may exist among your friends, a Facebook Group of 20, 000 people, or within counselling. It is important to feel safe to express your feelings without being silenced or re-traumatized.
  • Practice mindfulness. While taking care of yourself, practice being mindful and present with your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Be mindful of the pain you may hold within, as well as the emotional responses you tend to suppress.
  • Listen to music, podcasts, and use the arts as a way to express how you feel, and your experiences. Music is essential to healing trauma as it creates and instigates unconscious brain transformations and healing.
  • The use of drumming, dance, art expression, photography and other art forms is highly encouraged and supported.
  • Physical exercise has been shown to improve mood, circulation, weight management, and depression. Research shows that as little as 20 minutes per day is helpful for physical health. For race trauma, exercise can help to reduce the stress hormones, “cortisol” which can impact our abilities to make decisions, recall information, and analyze data.
  • Massages and physical touch can release body tension held by race trauma and associated emotions. Invest in massage therapy as a way to release body toxins and tension to help with relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness.

We are Kings and Queens and People

destined for greatness and to meet our human counterparts as people. People deserving to exercise the rights and privileges of humanity. I do have a dream. While we should not have to heal from racism, we do. Race trauma creates post traumatic stress which passes down from generations. We need to create space, and recognize that our healing is central to this process.