One helpful conceptualization of racial trauma comes from Dr Shelly Harrell (2000). She offers a six-level framework that examines the ways in which we are harmed by racism, through:
1. Racism-related life events - these are racial events such as assaults and other acts of race discrimination that target us directly and unequivocally. For example: When we are called a racist term or assaulted. I don’t wish to provide examples of this; I’ll offer some writing instead:
"Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx." (Rankine, 2014)
2. Vicarious racism - when the exposure to racism is indirect, for example when we hear stories of or witness racism occurring to those around us. This is painfully evident if you pay just a little attention to the news cycle, with the endless repetitions of deaths of racialized folks, and Black and Indigenous folks in particular, at the hands of the police. This is also the reason why you should never, ever share videos of such killings on social media.
3. Daily racist micro-stressors - these are subtle, normalised and ambiguous acts of racist denigration, the kinds of things we today call microaggressions, for example being asked: 'Where are you really from?'. The cumulative, pervasive nature of microaggressions is harmful to a person’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and social health. They can limit access to resources, contributing to employment barriers, unequal representation, and pay inequity. The resultant chronic stress can contribute to a range of physical health complications. They can also lead to feelings of isolation and an invalidation of experience. Microaggressions can sometimes result in greater overall harm than more overt forms of oppression.
“…one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.” (Baldwin, 1963)
4. Chronic contextual stressors - the mere awareness of structural race inequality and unequal distribution of resources. For example: simply being exposed to race inequality statistics via the media or popular culture. Or the chronic contextual stressor of the gaslighting involved in the reporting of police violence against racialized folks, where the passive voice tends to be used to subtly absolve the perpetrators of any responsibility.
“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” (Baldwin, 1963)
5. Collective experiences of racism - which involves witnessing the racism inflicted on one's racial group.
6. Transgenerational transmission of group trauma - when aspects of oppression related to historical events are passed on.
An example of this from my own family: India was colonized by the British in the 1800s and they remained there until 1947, meaning both sets of my grandparents were born under British rule and were colonized subjects. In 1947, in order to enable a self-serving withdrawal and leave behind two separate states, an arbitrary, last minute line was drawn from the Himalayas down to the sea by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, with the western side labelled Pakistan, and the eastern side labelled India. This led to the mass displacement of between 10 to 20 million people, as Muslims on the Indian side and Hindus and Sikhs on the Pakistani side abandoned their homes and tried to get to the other side of the border. There was mass bloodshed as those escaping were set upon as they tried to leave, with up to 2 million people believed to have been killed. This randomly assigned border split the native land of my people - the Punjab – in two, making it the scene for the worst of the violence. This theme - of division, of dislocation and of otherness - runs through my story. My experience was of splits and lines everywhere that harked back to the original Radcliffe line – the split between Indian and English culture, and the split between my maternal and paternal families, for example.
Dr. Harrell’s framework highlights the chronic nature of racial trauma, which sets it apart from most other forms of trauma. Secondly, the last three levels stress the collective impact of racism, something that tends to be missed in most conversations on racial trauma.
Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time. The Dial Press, New York.
Harrell, S (2000). A Multidimensional Conceptualization of Racism-Related Stress: Implications for the Well-Being of People of Color. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70 (1), pp. 42-57. doi:10.1037/h0087722
Rankine, C. (2014). Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, Minnesota.
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