Healing the Wounds of Racial Trauma

Thema Bryant-Davis & Egypt Leithman

Pepperdine University

Thema Bryant-Davis
Thema Bryant-Davis
Egypt Leithman
Egypt Leithman

In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.  ~Angela Davis

Historical and contemporary racial trauma, including ancestral wounds and the current-day range of microaggressions and large scale terroristic hate crimes, require healing intervention psychologically, spiritually, and socio-politically (Brave Heart et al., 2020).  While trauma psychologists recognize single incident events of violence against an individual as potentially traumatizing, the resistance to acknowledgement of the trauma of violence, invalidation, and dehumanization of racially marginalized peoples for hundreds of years is rooted in the false ideology of White Supremacy (Helms et al., 2012).  To heal the wounds of racism requires a readiness from psychologists to see racial trauma and to acknowledge it beyond individual bias but also structural, systemic, and institutional oppression that is both direct and vicarious (Anderson & Stevenson, 2019). 

 Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) have been bombarded with individual and institutional racism, which includes pervasive racially motivated state sanctioned violence (Bryant-Davis, Adams, Alejandre, & Gray, 2017).  The lack of protection from racially motivated violence and the lack of justice in the face of documented racially motivated brutality intentionally maintain a system that devalues the lives of BIPOC. BIPOC have seen the continuation of hate and hostility and the simultaneous escalation of racial trauma amid a global pandemic. To attempt fighting a medical trauma that disproportionately affects your community while concurrently trying to keep yourself and your community safe in a political climate of overt racism has left many depleted physically, emotionally, and spiritually (Watson et al., 2020).  The potential effects of historical and contemporary racial trauma includes depression, anxiety, anger, distrust, somatic complaints, hopelessness, substance dependence, dissociation, sexual problems, and sleep disturbance (Carter et al.,2020). 

Decolonizing psychology requires that psychologists cease ahistorical, decontextualized approaches to healing interventions (Goodman, 2015). Psychologists need to move beyond awareness of the existence of oppression, to include racism, and also a commitment to anti-racism and liberation in our professional and personal lives. There are multiple pathways to healing the wounds of racism. Bryant-Davis and Ocampo (2006) provide one model that is a process oriented individual or group psychotherapy model based on the themes:

  • Acknowledging the racism that one has experienced
  • Sharing one’s narrative
  • Rebuilding trust in one’s self as one builds connection with trustworthy others
  • Healing internalized racism often manifesting as shame and self-blame or community blame
  • Mourning the losses of racism
  • Expressions of constructive versus destructive anger
  • Adopting healthy coping strategies
  • Exploration and activation of resistance strategies

Healthy coping strategies in the midst of ongoing racism can take the form of talking with supportive community members, journaling, the expressive arts, exercise, eating nourishing food, reducing time watching the news, embodied healing practices (such as praise dance and yoga for racial trauma), reducing time on social media, aromatherapy, and engaging in spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. BIPOC need to go beyond the Western model of trauma recovery which ends with coping and adjusting one’s self to the realities of trauma and recognize the need for active resistance to oppression, both internalized oppression and systemic oppression that is encountered at various levels. The Bryant-Davis and Ocampo model does not re-enact the colonial psychology perspective that healing merely requires individuals to change their thinking. It acknowledges that the internal healing process needs to be coupled with resistance and activism to dismantle racism. Liberation psychologists, womanist and mujerista psychologists, Black psychologists, and social justice oriented psychologists, among other indigenous psychologies, have recognized and called for a psychology that attends to the inner and outer world recognizing that our worlds are inextricably linked (Burton & Guzzo, 2020; Comas-Díaz & Bryant-Davis, 2016). 

Resistance is by necessity interdisciplinary as racism occurs across disciplines and domains. 

Resistance is by necessity interdisciplinary as racism occurs across disciplines and domains.  Resistance as activism may take the form of many activities including: protests, boycotts, policy advocacy, policy monitoring, petitions, cultivating anti-racism within organizations, creating independent anti-racism organizations, providing anti-racism, liberation oriented psychotherapy, creating courses that center anti-racism, anti-oppression, and liberation, raising anti-racist children, running for political office, and creative arts which have also been called artivism.  

Activists and social justice oriented mental health professionals have argued for the recognition that living fully and authentically in a society that seeks your destruction is also resistance.  To that end, in the face of anti-Black racism, Black joy is resistance, Black rest is resistance, Black mental health is resistance, and even Black love is resistance.  While it is healthy to be outraged about the outrageous realities of racism, our rage alone will not sustain us.  Healing racism requires resisting dehumanization and creating space for our humanity to be revealed, expressed, welcomed, and acknowledged (King, 2013).  BIPOC do not have to be one dimensional, super heroes, goddesses, unaffected, wise, and or spiritual gurus.  Healing requires space for our pain, grief, fear, uncertainty as well as our strengths, resilience, and cultural resources.  While liberation psychology, which emerged from Latin America, and Black psychology which emerged from African psychology integrate spirituality, they do not promote spiritual bypassing (Burton & Guzzo, 2020; Comas-Diaz, 2006; Nobles, 2013).  In other words, BIPOC do not have to engage in erasure of the difficulties resulting from oppression to solely express gratitude, optimism, or faith.  Instead spirituality and religiosity can fuel a radical hope that empowers BIPOC to sustain the marathon toward racial justice.  Practitioners must create space for the full expression of our humanity as we attend to the psychological wounds of racism and colonization in the larger world and within the field of psychology. 

Healing racial trauma requires practitioners to acknowledge the many intersectional identities that contribute to the ongoing and evolving trauma faced by BIPOC. BIPOC belong to every gender identity group, sexual minority group, disability group, and socioeconomic class.  Racial trauma cannot be separated from these identities and to do so further complicates trauma healing work. Monolithic approaches to trauma therapy are damaging to those experiencing complex oppression. 

Practitioners need to routinely assess history of racial stress and trauma, while integrating an anti-oppression, anti-racism stance in their approach to formulation, treatment planning, and evaluation of intervention effectiveness (Helms et al., 2012).  Psychologists also need to be very clear about not only what they oppose but what they support, envision, and value. A life or practice spent reacting to the actions of others reduces voice, agency, and possibility.  Psychologists need to not only stand against racism but also be intentional about cultivating justice, liberation, and empowerment. Additional pathways for the healing of racial wounds include Emotional Emancipation Circles, RECAST, Critical Consciousness Raising, Optimal Conceptual Theory, and Radical Healing (Anderson & Stevenson, 2020; Community Healing Network, 2016; French et al., 2020; Mosley et al., 2020; Myers et al., 2018). 

BIPOC who are practitioners are currently functioning as both trauma survivors and care providers of trauma survivors.  Those who are educators are having to tend to their own  wounds while being attuned to the wounds of their students. BIPOC who are researchers are being affected both personally and professionally as attacks are being made against the scientific study of Critical Race Theory and White Privilege.  As psychologists, we need to be aware of our mental health and the ancestral and contemporary wounds that have for many been deepened.  Psychologists need space to acknowledge, grieve, have outrage, and share our wounds.  We need to actively cope and resist the false ideology of White Supremacy while we work for liberation and justice in our areas of study and practice, but also within the corridors of our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits. 

Focus Fall 2020

©2020 Division 45 - A Division of the American Psychological Association (APA)

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