Addressing Racial Trauma in Therapy with Ethnic-Minority Clients
Given the current race-relations in the United States, with racially motivated hate crimes, divisive rhetoric, and political fearmongering occurring almost daily, ethnic-minority families are at an increased risk for the development of negative mental health outcomes. One such outcome that clinicians should be mindful of and assess for is the development of trauma symptoms, such as fear, anxiety, avoidance, and helplessness, as a result of directly experiencing or witnessing racist incidents or discrimination. This is also referred to as racial trauma.
Racial trauma has been defined as “an emotional injury motivated by hate or fear of a person or group based on their race or ethnicity; a racially motivated stressor that overwhelms the capacity to cope; a racially motivated, interpersonal stressor that causes harm or threatens one’s life; or a severe interpersonal or institutional stressor motivated by racism that causes fear, hopelessness, or horror” (e.g., Bryant-Davis 2007, pp. 135–136).
Research on racial trauma suggests that exposure to racist incidents are widespread and can influence the physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive wellbeing of ethnic-minority children and adults (Carter 2007; Bryant-Davis and Ocampo 2006; Utsey et al. 2002). For example, racism and discrimination experiences have been related to lower self-esteem and perceptions of academic success, and greater depression and anxiety (Contrada et al. 2001; Fisher et al. 2000; Utsey and Payne 2000). Similar to other more accepted forms of trauma, such as rape, domestic violence, terrorism, or death of a family member, racial trauma results in posttraumatic stress like symptoms. However, what makes racial trauma unique is that racist incidents tend to be an ongoing source of stress for ethnic-minority individuals (Bryant-Davis 2007). In addition, several scholars have noted that race-based traumatic stress can occur in conjunction with other forms of trauma and provide a multiplicative effect on the trauma survivor (Bryant-Davis 2007; Carter 2007), further emphasizing the importance of identifying racial trauma as its own category of stressor. However, even though there is significant research suggesting that experiences of racism and discrimination are related to negative health outcomes, there has been resistance from professionals to adopt racial trauma as a unique and significant stressor. Studies have suggested that this is potentially due to the inconsistent and inconclusive research, the fact that racial trauma is a relatively new phenomenon in the physical and mental health literature, or that the effects of racist experiences are simply ignored by the public, and some professionals (e.g., Carter 2007). Although there are limitations within the literature, racist incidents can produce stress-like responses that should be addressed by mental health professionals.
Special Consideration for Couple and Family Therapy
Even though ethnic-minorities are at risk for both experiencing and witnessing race-based traumatic events daily, very few clinical resources exist to help address the symptoms related to racial trauma. This is primarily due to either clinicians failing to conceptualize the experience of racism, discrimination, and microaggressions, as a traumatic experience, or clients not having the language to describe the intensity of the pain related to racial trauma. Further, because many ethnic-minorities are used to their experiences being dismissed or invalidated, it is possible that ethnic-minority clients may avoid addressing their racial trauma entirely. However, as our field strives to become culturally sensitive, it is imperative that clinicians are aware of, sensitive to, and willing to unmask racial trauma in the therapy room. The ability to conceptualize racist incidents as traumatic will further enhance the mental health treatment of ethnic-minority children and their families. In addition, Lee (2005) suggests that to be effective, power and privilege must be examined within the therapeutic context, and that denying the existence and impact would be irresponsible practice. As such, marriage and family therapists should work to create a safe environment for ethnic-minority clients to process their personal experiences of racial trauma. Further, it is important that MFT’s be attune to brief moments of vulnerability by the client, where healing conversations can take place (Lee 2005). Several scholars such as Bryant-Davis and Ocampo (2006), Carter (2007), and Hardy (2013) have provided guidelines for clinicians to address racial trauma and incorporate the assessment of racial trauma within already established treatment models. Clinicians are encouraged to seek further training so that they are prepared to address all forms of trauma that ethnic-minority clients may experience.
- Contrada, R. J., Ashmore, R. D., Gary, M. L., Coups, E., Egeth, J. D., Sewell, A., et al. (2001). Measures of ethnicity-related stress: Psychometric properties, ethnic group differences, and associations of well-being. Journal of Applied Psychology, 31, 1775–1820.Google Scholar
- Hardy, K. V. (2013). Healing the hidden wounds of racial trauma. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 22(1), 24–28.Google Scholar