What Not To Say To Someone Who Has Experienced Racial Trauma

What white people and other allies do in conversations about the mental health effects of racism matters.

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were inflection points. The pain of centuries of racial wounds has driven weeks of protests over police brutality. The Black community has been screaming “Black Lives Matter” for a long time now, and finally, their voices are being heard.

Race is, and should be, at the forefront of conversation all over the country. But this can be a challenging time for those who have experienced racial trauma. Here’s what not to say.

What is racial trauma?

You can think of racial trauma as the psychological and physical impacts of racism, both interpersonal and structural, according to Jennifer M. Gómez, assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University and a faculty member at the university’s Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development.

Acts that can trigger racial trauma range from slurs and open discrimination to health care disparities and police profiling, Gómez said. Racial trauma has “similar outcomes to domestic violence, like depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, PTSD, insomnia, physical health problems, the gamut,” she explained.

Because not every interaction or every system is labeled by the victim as racist, someone may also internalize that pain in a personal way. This can lead to self-doubt and a lack of trust in people and systems like health care and criminal justice, according to Georica Gholson, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C.

“They will think, for instance, ‘I’m not going to go to lunch with these people because I don’t trust them’ — and those people could be potential supporters or potential friends,” Gholson said.

Many who have experienced racial trauma could also be dealing with irritability or mood swings. “The root of it is oppression, just being tired of it,” she said.

Racial trauma is common and consistent, noted Ashley McGirt, a therapist specializing in racial trauma.

“It’s similar to PTSD, but it’s different in that it reoccurs,” she said. “Usually, PTSD [arises from] a singular event — although sometimes, it may reoccur in like domestic violence, for instance. Racial trauma is the ongoing reoccurrence of race-based traumatic experiences.”

It’s going to work and experiencing race-based microaggressions, for example, and then coming home to see a news story about police brutality against a Black man.

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Don’t dismiss or minimize someone’s experience.

It’s important to be mindful of what you say to someone who may have experienced racial trauma. First, don’t be dismissive of a person’s experiences, said Michael James Nuells, an actor and special events manager in Los Angeles.

“I’ve repeatedly felt in many cases unwanted, unheard and unsupported,” he said. He’s been told, “Things will get better,” “You’re going to be just fine,” and “I’m praying for you.” None of these dismissive phrases comforted him, he said.

Don’t say, “Oh, maybe that person didn’t mean it that way,” Gholson added. “Or, ‘Oh, she does the same thing to me.’ Minimizing what is happening is kind of like gaslighting. You are telling someone their experience isn’t what it is and ignoring certain actors that have been historically relevant since the beginning of this country.”

Veronique Ehamo, a Ph.D. candidate in politics and international relations, recalled experiencing “stares, racially motivated negative remarks and ill treatment” while working overseas in Vienna.

“In the event of vocalizing my discomfort and maltreatment, my significant other at the time simply dismissed my concerns as fictitious incidents created in my mind,” she said. Her partner said things like, “Oh, come on, that wasn’t directed towards you. She didn’t mean that in a bad way. It’s not what you think. Just ignore those comments. They’re just ignorant.”

Minimizing and dismissing is what saying “All Lives Matter” does as well. Gómez said to imagine that everyone is served dinner at a large gathering, except Jane. She is left out. You wouldn’t say, “Everyone deserves dinner.” You would advocate for equal treatment of Jane. This is why “Black Lives Matter” exists.

“We are saying that Black people are being abused, raped, beaten, killed, and to the extent that anyone survives that, there’s this huge mass incarceration problem, there’s all these different things,” Gómez said. “Saying ‘All Lives Matter’ removes all of that context and says it’s not about racism.”

Similarly, don’t brush off the ongoing reality of racism itself. “Don’t minimize the effects of racism,” said Brittany Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor from New Albany, Indiana.

“For instance, saying, ‘I don’t see color.’ ‘Slavery was abolished years ago.’ ‘We’re all equal,’” she said. “We call that microinvalidation.”

Don’t make it about you.

For white people in particular, don’t proclaim shock over acts of racism and don’t go on and on about not realizing how bad things have been for Black people or other people of color, Gómez said.

“It reminds people that white people exist in a different world than we do, and they have the luxury to not be aware,” she explained.

Visible shock also highlights the fact that Black and other marginalized people have been saying, “Hey, racism is a problem,” for years. “And white people have said, ‘Oh, not really,’ or ‘You’re overreacting’ or ‘being too sensitive,’” Gómez added.

“We as a collective have been saying this is a problem for decades and decades. Your shock can seem almost insulting,” she said.

The additional element is that it shifts the focus toward you. “If I’m the target of racial trauma, you telling me about your shock or white guilt then pulls focus and centralizes white people’s perspective and kind of by definition erases the Black perspective as one that should be discussed,” Gómez explained.

Another way of shifting focus is when you try to empathize with racism even though you don’t have a comparable experience.

“When people say that they understand, it can be a bit triggering — particularly if it’s coming from someone white or privileged in certain respects and there’s a power dynamic happening,” Gholson said. “It can feel like, OK, you’re saying that to appease me and not because you genuinely understand. Or you just don’t understand because of your position.”

Gholson said to try this instead: “I’ve never experienced that, and I don’t quite understand it because it hasn’t been an experience I’ve had, but I do understand the frustration. It makes sense why you feel dejected or dehumanized.”

She said to “validate the feeling versus joining in on it.”

Don’t ask a victim to educate you.

It can be retraumatizing for a victim of racial trauma to be asked to explain their worldview and experiences to you ― but, of course, there might be a time where asking questions about a person’s experience is important. How you approach this is key.

“I think always starting off conversations with ‘You don’t have to answer the question if you don’t want to’ is good,” Gholson said. “And for a lot of people, including myself, who’ve experienced racial trauma, going out there yourself and doing some of the work, reading certain books, going to community meetings where there’s predominantly Black people and hearing their concerns, doing that work on the front end and coming with a deeper understanding is important.”

That way, you are not asking for an education. You are seeking instead to engage, showing commitment and going deeper.

“For instance, [say] ‘I read this book, and it was really fascinating,’” Gholson said. “It shows that you’ve taken the time, and you’re not coming to the conversation with the perspective of ‘What can you teach me? You do the academic and emotional labor while I just sit back and receive it.’”

It’s impossible to know everything that might be triggering to someone who’s experienced racial trauma. Learning to be a compassionate listener can help.

“Regardless of what you say, it might land wrong, because things are so stressful,” Gómez said. “We have to have that sort of be OK.”

It’s better to try to be a good ally and stumble than to not try to be an ally at all.

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How white people, in particular, can be allies.

If you’re white and have never considered racism, now is the time.

“The R-word is something we want to avoid, but it starts with the self,” McGirt said. “Maybe that’s going to therapy or working with a culturally competent clinician who can help you process your feelings, reading books like ‘White Fragility’ or ‘So You Want to Talk About Race.’ Until you’ve done your own internal personal work, you can’t show up for others.”

Gholson also recommended doing some internet and in-person education.

“Get the broad strokes [of racism],” she said. “Follow certain journalists, authors, activists on social media. It’s really important for people to go to the town hall in poor Black communities; just sit there like a fly on the wall and just listen. You can talk to people, but it is not a venue for you to voice your concern, but rather listen to what their concerns are.”

And if you don’t have a lot of friends who are people of color, expand your network, Gholson said.

“I’ve always been a big advocate of making meaningful relationships with people — not just claiming someone is your friend because you talk at work and are cool at work, or you talk to your neighbor while you’re out in the garden,” she said. “Making a meaningful, substantial relationship where you invite them over for dinner, go out to the park with their family, involving this person in your life and making substantial long-term connections with people who don’t look like you.”

Then, really listen to what they say, to their experiences, “even when you might not be able to relate to what they’re saying,” Gholson said.

“You might say, ‘When I get pulled over by the police, I get a warning,’ and your friend who’s Black says, ‘I’ve never had a warning,’” she said. “Just listen. Take it in.”

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