As child and family therapists, we spend much of our time thinking about two things: child development and childhood trauma. Specifically, we think about how traumatic events, environments and experiences can disrupt a child’s healthy development and negatively impact long-term health outcomes.
Exposure to abuse, neglect, poverty, or violence in the home or community are examples of trauma. But we cannot talk about trauma without talking about racism.
The brains of children respond to racism for what it is: a threat to safety. When a brain experiences a threat to safety, it activates responses needed for survival, like fight, flight, freeze or other safety-seeking behaviors.
When this happens, stress hormones like cortisol flood through the body. Too much cortisol can be toxic to a body’s long-term health outcomes. Moreover, repeatedly experiencing racism, in all its many forms, can result in a child’s brain becoming wired to predict threat, even when there is none, making it difficult to learn. Physical violence due to racism can cause injury. But racist behaviors, attitudes and systems also can cause injury, through the disruption of the brain’s development.
After experiencing racism, whether it be a single event or repeated exposures, people may find they cannot stop thinking about those events. When they are reminded of the events, they may experience sensations in their bodies as if it is still happening: racing heart, labored breathing, churning stomach, sweating skin or dry mouth, to name a few. Their sleep may be disrupted by nightmares; they may avoid reminders of the events; or they may experience flashbacks. They may feel anxious, angry, depressed or fatigued. These are the symptoms of post-trauma stress. The current news cycle may be especially triggering for these individuals, as repeated exposure to reminders of violence and racism can activate a stress response, even when a person is feeling safe.
While racism may harm an individual’s body and brain, the impact of racism runs much deeper. The science of epigenetics tells us that trauma may lead to changes in how a person’s DNA is expressed, and that these changes can be passed down through the generations. This science suggests bodies may carry the impact of the historical trauma of their ancestors. Here in Charlottesville, the generational trauma of racism experienced by our Black community, for hundreds of years, is well documented. To learn more, visit https://jeffschoolheritagecenter.org/.
Knowing that racism is trauma — and that it hurts not only one’s body and brain, but also may impact the bodies of the next generation — we must confront racism in our community.
Healing and growth after trauma is possible. When a person repeatedly experiences safety, free from violence or threat, the brain can begin to heal and predict safety instead of threat. The process of recovering from racial trauma may occur in a therapist’s office, within a church or school community, or with a friend or family member, but it is always done in the context of relationship. When a person feels safe and connected, he or she is able to learn new skills to manage stress in the present, process the past, and move optimistically into the future.
Yet, we cannot respond to racial trauma only after the bodies and brains of Black people have been harmed. As child and family therapists, we also think about a third thing: prevention. We know racism is trauma, so we must do more to prevent Black people from being exposed to this threat. Anti-racist work must be done to dismantle systemic racism, support adults in unlearning harmful biases, and teach the next generation about the harmful effects of racism. Just as we can rewire brains, we can rebuild our community on a foundation of social justice.