Racism as Trauma

ChildSavers guides our community’s children through life’s critical moments with trauma-informed mental health and child development services. As an agency, we define trauma as a painful emotional experience caused by an event or events that challenge a person’s sense of safety. Today I am starting a conversation about what culture, race, and ethnicity have to do with a child’s trauma.

Janet E. Helms, Guerda Nicolas, and Carlton E. Green wrote an article called “Racism and Ethnoviolence as Trauma: Enhancing Professional Training” for the journal Traumatology. The writers speak about experiences of racism as a type of trauma. They talk about how racism can impact a person’s view of the world and self. Helms, Nicolas, and Green also mention how racism can take the form of physical or verbal abuse and can make people feel helpless and scared. I’d like to share with you what this has to do with ChildSavers’ mission.

Marginalization Creates Barriers to Services

In other ChildSavers’ cultural competency blogs I talked about oppression using the word “marginalization.” Marginalization is the experience of being pushed out to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group. Sometimes when people experience this, they believe they deserve it. This internalized belief can greatly impact our work with children in marginalized communities.

Maybe a child has been told throughout their life that there is something wrong with them because they have dark brown skin. Every act of discrimination against this child is outside of their control and causes them emotional pain. Helms, Nicolas, and Green say those experiences of marginalization may lead to trauma.

Imagine a young girl who has experienced marginalization and racism her entire life. She comes to ChildSavers for mental health services. Her view of her own worthiness has been filtered through her trauma and has been framed by racism. She thinks kids with her skin color will always be “bad” kids. She sees therapy as a waste of time because she believes that kids who look like her aren’t worth the time. We need to understand her perspective to help her heal from this trauma.

Children like her often put up boundaries to defend themselves, making it difficult to reach them in the early stages of therapy. It is our job at ChildSavers, to help children feel safe so they can see how truly worthy, strong, and smart they are.

Internalized Racism Perpetuates Trauma

When you think about trauma, you may think of one person going through one difficult event. Here at ChildSavers, we know that traumatic events may pile up, one on top of another. We also understand that an individual may experience trauma because their parent did.

We also need to recognize that for some, racism is a trauma experienced every day. With racism, there isn’t necessarily any one event or moment to point towards. These daily experiences may include being denied resources because of race.  The experience of being stereotyped as a criminal because of one’s ethnicity is another example.

These ongoing experiences may make someone doubt whether they deserve to be taken seriously. They may also make someone doubt whether other people of their own race deserves to be taken seriously. Further, they can make someone think other people of their own ethnicity are more likely to cause harm. This is called internalized racism. It can create community wide judgment and distrust. When the trauma is experienced because of racial or ethnic background, the healing also needs to happen within that context.

Community Trauma Needs Community Healing

Another impact of marginalization as trauma may be the way a community responds. One of the ways myself and other Black people respond to oppression is to take care of each other. I believe looking out for each other has become a part of Black culture in response to racism in the world.

There are other responses to oppression which may not be healthy and which becomes accepted as part of culture. For example, Black culture contains a stigma about therapy and its usefulness as well as a therapist’s trustworthiness. This belief is rooted in centuries of historical racism. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health’s report on Mental Health and African Americans said that 9.4% of non-Hispanic adults over 18 reported receiving mental health support or counseling in 2014. Yet, we know because of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study that one in four children have experienced trauma. According to Sacks and Murphey (2018),

Children of different races and ethnicities do not experience ACEs equally. Nationally, 61 percent of black non-Hispanic children and 51 percent of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE, compared with 40 percent of white non-Hispanic children and only 23 percent of Asian non-Hispanic children. In every region, the prevalence of ACEs is lowest among Asian non-Hispanic children and, in most regions, is highest among black non-Hispanic children.

Because of historical racism and broken trust, many people of color may not seek out therapy even if it would be helpful. This is a community’s response to racism as trauma.

We should consider these larger scale impacts of trauma that come from racism, oppression, or marginalization in order to guide our community’s children through life’s critical moments. If I want a client to know they are worthy, my message must include the worthiness of others like them. In other cases it is important for me to be aware that a client’s defense mechanism may also be a part of their cultural identity.

Not every person of color has experienced racism as trauma. Helms, Nicolas, and Green advise us to hear a child’s story, see their challenges, and consider the role racism may have had. We should not see a person of color and assume trauma. We should see trauma in a racially or ethnically marginalized child and support that child’s whole healing.

That means not making the same assumptions based on race that others have made about that child. That means showing that child other children who are healing who look like them. Either way, children do not exist in a vacuum. As children who have experienced marginalization work with us here at ChildSavers, we are most effective when we consider that child, their trauma, and their healing in its fullness and in its many parts.

Helms, J. E., Nicolas, G., & Green, C. E. (2010). Racism and Ethnoviolence as trauma: Enhancing professional training. Traumatology, 16(4), 53-62.

Sacks, Vanessa, & Murphey, David. “The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences,             Nationally, by State, and by Race or Ethnicity.” Child Trends, Child Trends, 20 Feb.         2018, www.childtrends.org/publications/prevalence-adverse-childhood-experiences-    nationally-state-race-ethnicity.

CasSandra Calin is a Mental Health Clinician who serves on the Immediate Response/Crisis Intervention Team at ChildSavers. Before coming to ChildSavers, CasSandra worked as an Intensive In Home and Mental Health Skill Building service provider.

CasSandra received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology from University of Richmond and her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University.

CasSandra is passionate about the empowerment of marginalized communities through mental health support and psycho-education.


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