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Trauma happens when people are subjected to racism, discrimination, microaggressions, or other forms of mistreatment or violence because of their racial background.

Defining Racial Trauma

And that leads to the definition of racial trauma, also known as race-based traumatic stress, which is the set of consequences that occur when a person of color deals with racism and discrimination.

It encapsulates the varied psychological, mental, and emotional harm that is caused by witnessing racism and discrimination and by experiencing it firsthand. 

History of Racial Trauma

In 2007 Robert T. Carter was the first to use the term “race-based traumatic stress” in a paper he published titled “Racism and Psychological and Emotional Injury.”

Recognizing and Assessing Race-Based Traumatic Stress, which was published on behalf of the Division of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association.

Carter’s paper stipulated that when Black, Indigenous, and people of color encounter racism and discrimination, it has a strong negative emotional impact and may be similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After the term race-based traumatic stress became more widely known, it became interchangeable with “racial trauma.” The two have the exact definition, and Carter is credited with the concept in full, no matter which is used.

Seventeen years after publishing his paper, the movement of immigrants and refugees has reached its highest level due to increased wars, armed conflicts, malnutrition, and natural disasters. 

Leading to massive movements of population migration, which generates complex feelings for the original population towards the “New Comers” to their immigrants and refugee-host countries.

Pulling to the surface – worse than ever – the vicious cycle of xenophobia, racism, discrimination, and the increase of hate crimes. 

Symptoms of Racial Trauma

Throughout history, racism has had a severe negative impact on the lives of millions of people, putting them under unbearable pressure to even start pursuing a healthy living, like following up with education, employment opportunity, maintaining decent nutrition, and seeking healthcare services.

In short, racial trauma has prevented traumatic people from living – as life is supposed to be lived – unfortunately, there are no bounds to the areas of life that racism can impact. 

Because racism is so widespread, it is little wonder that the symptoms of racial trauma can manifest in different ways.

However, the most common symptoms of race-based traumatic stress include the following:

  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Avoidance behaviors.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Feelings of humiliation.
  • Hypervigilance.
  • Increased reactivity.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Problems in sleeping.
  • Nightmares.
  • Trouble concentrating.

Therefore, it’s worth noticing that the effects of racial trauma are cumulative and can ultimately contribute to decreased quality of life and reduced life span.

Impact of Racial Trauma

Racial trauma refers to the traumatic effects of systemic racism, prejudice, and discrimination on people of color. The impact of racial trauma can be long-lasting and can include:

  • Psychological distress: anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Physical health problems: headaches, heart disease, and sleep disturbance.
  • Increased risk for substance abuse and addiction.
  • Decreased trust in the healthcare system and law enforcement.
  • Difficulty in personal and professional relationships.
What to Know About Racial Trauma
What to Know About Racial Trauma 2

Effects of Race Trauma on Mental and Physical Health

The effects of race trauma on mental and physical health are profoundly complex and can lead to severe damage to someone’s life.

Being a victim of racism can consistently put you mentally and emotionally on guard, which creates a physiological stress response – producing cortisol – causing all sorts of damage to the body, and contributing to 

  • Physical symptoms like; headaches, heart palpitations, and other heart diseases.
  • Psychological or cognitive impairment. 
  • Hypervigilance.
  • Avoidance.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Suspiciousness.
  • Chronic stress.

A review of – 121 Studies Published in the Journal of Social Science & Medicine – has revealed the fact that racial discrimination can lead – as well – to adverse emotional, psychological, and behavioral outcomes, like extreme paranoia, which occur in young people starting as early as age 12. 


What Type of Trauma is Racial Trauma?

Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress, is the cumulative effects of racism on an individual’s mental and physical health. 

How Does Racial Trauma Affect Children?

Racial trauma affects all of the vital organs in a child’s body, leading to various diseases, from the nervous system and the digestive system to the different types of heart diseases, in addition to higher rates of mental health issues like; depression, anxiety, and behavior problems. 

How Do You Address Racial Trauma?

We can address racial trauma as a community by limiting those spreading it and helping its victims speak out and ask for help.

How Do You Deal with Racial Trauma and Racial Battle Fatigue?

Attend social support sessions, talk to others reaching out to help, establish a daily practice for self-empowerment, and take care of your general health – physical, mental, and emotional health.