Healing Racial Trauma

I remember a week of ongoing nightmares in fall 2018 after the November 2018 midterm elections – images of being within a large mansion yet being trapped in a maze, never being able to escape, and always alone. This series of nightmares continued on for days on end, leading to difficulty sleeping and confusion throughout the day. In that period of my life, I noticed feeling anxiety surrounding what would (or would not) be talked about from the pulpit on Sunday mornings and continually felt like I did not belong and that who I was – my thoughts, my views, my culture, my personhood – was not accepted. There was a familiarity to these anxieties that I noticed felt very much like how I did throughout 2016 within the congregation.

It wasn’t until I watched a video by Kyle Howard that I realized I was experiencing trauma reactions from ongoing microaggressions and macro-level institutional racial and spiritual trauma experiences within a congregation setting. A pastor later on asked me, “Do you feel like your dreams symbolize how you feel within your own church – a place that is meant to be a safe space like a home?”

I’m a trauma therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) by training. And at that point in time, I had been a trauma therapist for quite a few years. All my work and clinical experiences up that point in time had been within the field of trauma, working with areas ranging from domestic violence to spiritual trauma – yet despite all of this I was unable to identify trauma responses within myself until hearing it out loud – clearly labeled and called out for what it was.

…Yet despite all of this I was unable to identify trauma responses within myself until hearing it out loud – clearly labeled and called out for what it was.”

For years I had wondered if something was wrong with me; if I was to be blamed for not being able to find community within the congregation setting and to feel socially and culturally included. All these difficulties even led my husband and I to eventually channel that pain into creating a business and diverse community for people to feel valued and belong. Eventually, in my own trauma healing journey, I realized that it wasn’t who I was that was defective or wrong but more-so my racial, ethnic, and cultural background – all parts of my personhood – not being fully accepted within that organization and system that was the problem. This realization then gave me the freedom to move forward – rather than waiting for change to come – and to create a business and to be part of systems that ALREADY value diversity – not just in word but also consistent action.

Trauma responses often show up physically in our bodies. You may notice tension or tightness in your body after reading a news article or hearing about experiences of trauma that people around you are going through. Or perhaps even experiencing after a traumatic situation or trigger. Triggers – people, places, situations, or even organizations – often bring up these traumatic responses within our body and mind. Trauma can impact our sleep, leading to nightmares or vivid disturbing dreams, similar to what I had experienced for quite some time. In addition, you may notice feelings of shame, betrayal, anxiety, shakiness, racing and intrusive thoughts, overwhelm, low energy, brain fog, shock, feeling stuck in your body, dizziness, or even difficulty with knowing what to do or how to proceed.

Trauma can include a one time incident or ongoing experiences. Trauma can also include historical, inter-generational trauma, and/or systemic trauma –  meaning experiences that our family, our ancestors, or even a community experienced collectively. Many of which can also be within organization settings. Trauma can result in direct physical harm; however, trauma-related symptoms can also come from emotional and psychological means of harm – including spiritual bypassing, gaslighting, love-bombing, tokenism, social exclusion, rejection, or minimization and denial of hurtful words or behavior.

Trauma can also include historical, inter-generational trauma, and/or systemic trauma.”

Many people have identified experiences of trauma reactions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and in the midst of ongoing experiences of oppression, violence, and racial injustice that BIPOC experience day in and out. These are all collective traumas. Because these traumas are collective and impact us not only on a personal level, but also on a systemic and institutional level, to heal from trauma we need to address 1.) Our mind, body, spirit through holistic self-care AND 2.) the organizations, institutions, and systems that contributed to the trauma.

When it comes to healing from trauma, ongoing research in the field of trauma often points toward the importance of body-based and somatic therapies to address trauma. Tools and modalities including EFT, yoga, trauma-sensitive mindfulness, meditation, massage therapy, chiropractic care, Traditional Chinese Medicine (including acupuncture), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Somatic Experiencing, EMDR therapy, among other therapies can all be part of individuals’ toolboxes when it comes to processing through trauma.

Addressing trauma requires a self-care AND community care response.”

Addressing and healing racial trauma requires a self-care AND community care response. I often talk a lot about how we can care for ourselves after experiencing trauma yet the responsibility is also on organizations and communities to move toward change. We need this dual-attention approach toward change to experience change for the long haul. For far too long trauma survivors have had to shoulder and bear the burden of navigating how to heal from trauma alone. We are not to put blame on the individual for what has happened and instead may even need to ask what happened to you and your community/people when it comes to these experiences of trauma.

As leaders within organizations and businesses, we are called to create trauma-informed organizations that create cultures of care – true care for people of all backgrounds – with particular attention to the diversity, history, and cultural contexts of communities of color. This systemic view towards trauma helps us to build communities of care and to take ownership and accountability – as leaders – to ensuring this happens.

As leaders within organizations, we are called to create trauma-informed organizations that create cultures of care…”

Only then will we move to creating better communities that value not only self-care but also community care. 

Video Resources

Free 5 course racial trauma e-course by Resmaa Menakem, trauma specialist and racial justice educator

Kyle Howard on Healing Racial Trauma live Facebook video (from a Christian perspective)

AIT and IFS-informed body-based techniques by Asha Clinton, trauma researcher and educator

Books & Articles on Healing Trauma 

My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakemh

Healing from Race-Based Trauma Article by Sheila Wise Rowe (from a Christian perspective)

Erasure and Racial Trauma Article by Kyle J. Howard (from a Christian perspective)

Healing Racial Trauma by Sheila Wise Rowe

Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma by Gail Parker

Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness by David Treleavan

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine