Exploring Racial Trauma
Every week, a prospective client asks me if I am prepared to talk about race and racism with them in therapy. Too often, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) experience denial, minimisation and invalidation in psychotherapy and choose silence for fear of being gaslighted, pathologised or misunderstood.
Race and racism deserve our unwavering attention in therapy. The experience of racism is never just a single event but an accumulation of microaggressions, harassment and discrimination that can occur under any circumstances – regardless of BIPoC's conduct or preparedness for the situation. The psychological effects of racism range from immediate emotional and bodily responses to lasting mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it can go much further than that: Racism perpetrated against one person can wound an entire community, and deepen their collective and ancestral trauma.
Beyond interpersonal experiences of racism, a repeated exposure to racialization (marginalising a person based on skin colour and looks) can irrevocably alienate a person from their sense of self, body and community, with harmful consequences to their integrity, wellbeing, safety and agency. Embedded within a matrix of intersecting variables, racism helps to preserve capitalist white supremacy and its global structural and institutional oppression of BIPoC, women and girls, migrants and refugees, children and older people, Travellers and working class, disabled and LGBTQIA+ people.
Despite the ubiquity of oppression, many people deny and repress its very existence. Others localise racism only within certain groups, thereby conveniently cleansing themselves of any complicity. Other forms of such mental gymnastics include
Internalised racism is a survival strategy that comes at an immeasurable cost, as it perpetuates racism against oneself up to the point of complete annihilation. As a Woman of Colour (WoC), I spent numerous sessions in personal therapy working through the immense fragmentation that experiences of racism have left me with. Being modelled against a norm that didn't look, talk, eat, and live like me, I had to learn to protect myself from an early age by adopting a dissociated persona that was birthed through the alienation from my own embodied self.
While this seemed a viable survival strategy in many ways as it aligned me psychologically closer to the children in my predominantly white environment, it came at the price of normalising and internalising abusive beliefs that people like me were abnormal, ugly, laughable and, perhaps the most damaging of all, absolutely helpless at being anything else but that. Despite my best efforts, not a day would pass without someone or something reminding me that I did not belong. Yet, I tried very hard. Not trying would have meant to give up on life, a concept that I could not come up with as a child.
The grim reality of internalised racism It began with the pressure of having to perform my Otherness for the White community around me, as long as it was amusing and appeasing. This included my performances as 'race expert' when I was called on stage to affirm the goodness of the White race. This request, often made under the pretence of interest, disguises an underlying demand of BIPoC to absolve their White counterparts of any complicity or accountability, and is subtle racism in itself by phrasing the question in a way that locates race and racism outside of White experience and, thus, responsibility.
Simultaneously, I such questions further alienation by lumping all BIPoC together into a homogenous mass of 'Others' with no subjectivity of their own. BIPoC who refuse to perform this racialized Other or decline to promulgate personal experiences for White entertainment and voyeurism are accused of 'playing the race card'.
As a young person, I constantly felt I needed to perform my Otherness in order to secure my place in a predominantly White environment.