Redeemer Counseling Newsletter

Identifying and Addressing Racial Trauma in Counseling

Racism, like all sin, has a deep and abiding impact on the lives of its victims, perpetrators as well as the nations and systems we build. This month’s toolkit explores how counselors and caregivers can identify, explore, and help clients who have experienced racial trauma. This process works best when counselors engage in a parallel process of self-reflection and are open to learning and talking about race and racism.

Over the past few months our toolkits have focused on helping people in our care manage crisis and deal with trauma. When we experience a threat, our bodies, particularly our nervous system is designed to shift into high alert to help us address the threat. One’s entire being is prepared to take immediate action. However, if the threat isn’t removed, our brains and bodies don’t fully shift out of that state. This can be extremely problematic particularly when this is a chronic experience. This month’s tool will explore the impact of racial trauma and some practical guidelines for caregivers.

 

 

Sharon Richards, LCSW
Counselor

 


Toolkit

According to psychologist, Dr. Monnica T. Williams, many White people are socialized to demonstrate non-racist values by not talking about race. However, this approach leaves many White counselors “ill-equipped to have conversations about race with their clients of color.”[1] 

There is also a belief among many Christians that colorblindness is a Gospel approach, that one’s race doesn’t matter and should somehow be neutralized when one accepts Christ. In our American context this often looks like Christians of color being taught or expected to neuter their racial, ethnic, and cultural expressions and replace them with European-centered ones. While it is true that people’s cultural, racial, gender, and social position doesn’t impact their value in Christ - it does provide context, shape, and richness to their lives and thus matters to God.[2][3] We need to start by avoiding a colorblind approach.

Being discriminated against and attacked due to your race is an inherently stressful experience, which can lead to racial or race‐based trauma. Race‐based trauma is defined as emotional, psychological, and physical reactions to personal or vicarious experiences with violence, harassment and discrimination that cause pain.[4] Racial trauma impacts one's ability to cope and shapes one's view of self, of others, and of God.

Impact of Racial Trauma

In the book, Healing Racial Trauma, the author Sheila Wise Rowe describes various forms of racial trauma and provides contextualized examples of personal, transgenerational, and vicarious trauma as well as microaggressions experienced by Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian people in America.[5]

A good example of vicarious racial trauma is when Black people witness the dehumanization and violence meted out against other Black people by the police, it can feel like they’re actually experiencing the event or that their loved ones are in danger of doing so. Living with this type of trauma can lead to a myriad of physical and psychological symptoms. 

In counseling, you might find that clients not only carry the weight of their own traumatic experiences, but keenly feel the weight of historical and transgenerational racial trauma. This often spans multiple generations who carry trauma-related symptoms without having been present for the traumatizing event(s). This phenomenon has been studied in many groups including descendants of the survivors of American chattel slavery, the Holocaust, Native American genocide, and the internment of Japanese Americans.

Psychological symptoms of racial trauma include:

  • Fear, depression, anxiety, low self-image, shame, hypervigilance, pessimism, aggression, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, substance abuse, flashbacks, and relational dysfunction. 

The physical symptoms include:

  • Hyperactivity, heart disease, headaches, and poor concentration.[6]

To talk to clients about their family history, read toolkit: Cultivating Compassionate Curiosity for People's Stories, which walks through the steps of creating a family genogram with clients.

Be Aware, Open and Self-Reflective

Researchers have found that race and racism are often not explored in counseling. This can be due to lack of awareness and training, counselors’ discomfort and concern about saying the wrong thing, as well as counselors’ disbelief that racism actually plays a significant role in people’s lives.[7] 

  • Learn more about racial trauma by attending workshops, and reading books and articles about race, racism, and racial trauma. Knowledge and understanding of the sin of racism and its integral role in American history and culture is an important part of this process.

  • Remember that discussing race can often be uncomfortable, and our own life experiences and training might lead us to overlook or discount racial issues or to change the topic when it comes up. Is this something that you’ve ever done? 

  • Acknowledge with intra-racial clients that shared racial identity doesn’t equal identical experience. Or name the racial difference (if there is one) and ask about your client’s thoughts and feelings about having a counselor of a different race.

  • Name the inherent power differential within the therapeutic relationship and explore feelings that may arise from this dynamic.

  • Reflect on your own embodied experiences of race, racism, and discomfort with these matters. 

  • Take a moment to check in with yourself. How do you feel right now? What does it feel like in your body?

For further exercises on growing in cultural sensitivity, read toolkit: Becoming Aware of Cultural Biases in Counseling

Practical Steps Counselors Can Take

Here are a few practical steps counselors can take to explicitly address race and racial trauma:

  • Ask questions about your client’s race, ethnicity and cultural history in your assessments. Ask about how your clients and their families identify racially. Explore whether their race or cultural background has been a source of pride, pain, humiliation, or if they feel disconnected from this concept.

  • Contextualize your client’s concerns about race and racism as well as your interventions. Explore the possible connection between clients’ experience with racism with their presenting problems or concerns.

  • Help clients understand the way their emotions interact. Wise Rowe describes the rage and grief that many people of color experience due to racial trauma as two sides of the same coin. When a person seems stuck in rage while denying grief, you might need to help them identify sorrow and grieve. Or when stuck in grief, anger might need to be identified, allowed and addressed.

  • Use examples from scripture to help clients connect their natural emotional experiences with God’s compassionate care. Point to stories where people experienced sorrow, anger, fear, and grief. Resist the urge to move quickly to the moral of the story or lesson. Go slowly, pull out the emotions, and help clients process their own through the lens of scripture.

As we do the sacred work of helping our clients heal, let us educate ourselves, be mindful of our own experiences, resist the urge to bypass the uncomfortable topic of race and racism, and partner with our clients to facilitate grieving of racial trauma.

For ways to help clients grieve, read toolkit: Helping Clients Wrestle with God in Their Pain

To walk people through forgiveness, read toolkit: The Hard Work of Forgiveness

 


References

[1] Williams, M. T. (2019, January 19). Uncovering the trauma of racism: New tools for clinicians. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201901/uncovering-the-trauma-racism-new-tools-clinicians

[2] Williams, J. (2016, June 2). Galatians 3:28 does not encourage color-blind Christianity. The Witness. https://thewitnessbcc.com/galatians-328-not-encourage-color-blind-christianity/

[3] Cho, A. (2016). Why race matters to God and what that means for us [Video]. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/155530918

[4] Carter, R. T. (2007). Racism and psychological and emotional injury: Recognizing and assessing race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist, 35(1), 13-105. doi:10.1177/0011000006292033

[5] Row, S. W. (2019). Healing racial trauma: The road to resilience. InterVarsity Press.

[6] Smith, W. H. (2010). The impact of racial trauma on African Americans. www.heinz.org/userfiles/impactofracialtraumaonafricanamericans.pdf

[7] Hemmings, C., & Evans, A. M. (2018). Identifying and treating race-based trauma in counseling. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 46(1), 20-39. doi:10.1002/jmcd.12090