What Is Racial Healing Therapy?

Serena William’s scary childbirth story shed light on the disparity in death rates that impacts black women

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Serena William’s scary childbirth story shed light on the disparity in death rates that impacts black women. Her experience not only confirmed some of the serious health risks that can come with labor but also touched on the maternal mortality many black women in America face that we don’t often discuss. The Vogue cover story on the athlete was later followed by a story in the New York Times titled Why America’s Black Mother and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis. It was around this time that I started hearing the term racial trauma and how racism and discrimination can lead to long-term effects in both mental and physical health for people of color.

Racial trauma is a psychological phenomenon which is often compared to post-traumatic stress disorder. Like PTSD, the symptoms can result in everything from depression, anxiety, angry outbursts and even manifest itself physically.

“Racial trauma could be tied to this idea of displacement or the environmental changes that have come from this. These changes over the years have created statuses of inequality,” says Edmund Francis III, LMSW, a black male psychotherapist at a Brooklyn mental health clinic. “It also looks like the unequal treatment that is created. In today’s society it can be as subtle as a comment of micro aggression, a name, or a non-acknowledgement that triggers hurtful feelings that makes someone feel less [than]. This can be tied to the larger racial judgement of that person which forces them to assimilate to larger societal stereotypes. It can also look like bigger actions, where a population is attacked, persecuted, and oppressed due to their racial differences.”

With racial trauma now being a term used among psychological experts, it was only a matter of time before racial healing would become something offered to patients in traditional therapy. But the practice itself has technically existed for as long as people of color have been marginalized and oppressed. 

“Racial healing speaks to the people and circles of people that identify within historically underrepresented groups that seek the support, affirmation and love from an acute/chronic experience of racial injustice whether physical, emotional, or spiritual,” says Kalina Black, a psychotherapist and counsel in NYC who provides racial healing as a form of therapy to patients of color. “The moment we as a people have experienced the turmoil of stolen lands, stolen families, stolen languages, identity, whether in the form of village healer, spiritual mother or fellow sisterhood/brotherhood circles, the resiliency, determination and perseverance of healing spaces for historically marginalized, oppressed and underrepresented racial groups have long been a signature form of survival, a.k.a therapy.”

In order for there to be healing, there needs to first be an understanding and acknowledgement of systemic conditions that have been placed on communities of color for centuries—since the beginning of colonization. The historic and also contemporary effects of racism needs to be understood in order for sustainable change and true healing and transformation to occur. That means everything from recognizing how the impacts of colonization have impacted communities of color all over the world from colonization in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to slavery in the states.

“Racial healing helps clients to understand the nuances of this force of adaptation it has gone through but also brings it to some level of its natural state,” Francis says. “Helping one understand their difference either physically, mentally, spiritually, or any combination. With that learning of self-acceptance and creating ways to thrive and develop based on the person’s own parameters of choice.”

Our history as well as the continued structural inequities and bias that impact people of color can lead to racial trauma. Many Latinos and Black Americans have especially felt that since Donald Trump became the country’s 45th president. Stories surrounding the deportation and separation of undocumented Latino families has stirred a lot of fear among immigrant families—Latinos in particular. Though it’s always existed, numerous cases of Latinos—even Latinos who are American born citizens—being harassed by ICE or Border Patrol officers have increased. Quite a few incidents of Latinos being harassed just for speaking Spanish have occurred. While police violence against blacks has only continued. Incidents like these don’t just lead to fear but also mistrust of white people from communities of color. Racism  can be a lot more damaging than we realize.

“All too often I speak with individuals, family members, colleagues, parents, teachers and community members of color alike who express a chronic sense of fear, aggravation, and emotional fatigue resulting from racial injustices in work, school, business, and transportation settings,” says Black. “In sessions, healing circles, and community meetings, parents of color further express concern for their own child’s safety as they simply walk down the street, take public transportation, or plan to travel internationally. As people of color, a pervasive sense of fear hinders the growth of a community and sense of trust towards its own armed professionals meant to support and protect us.”

Black goes on to explain how racism can even come in the way of POC traveling. “Traveling for vacation has taken a downward turn for people of color as armed professionals ‘randomly’ select entire families for further investigation and questioning,” she says. 

A few weeks ago a story went viral about a muslim woman named Zainab Merchant, who was forced to show TSA officers her bloody pad during a very invasive body search at a Boston airport.

“More so, this pervasive fear is not only limiting to experience and personal growth, long term fear and a sense of vigilance is depilating to the body. A constant state of alertness is exhausting for the brain, heart, body and spirit,” adds Black. “The survival mechanism of fight, flight, freeze as allowed through the connections of four adrenal glands and brain chemistry is meant to protect us from perceived and actual danger. As a person of color, if a daily train ride or casual drive past state lines is enough to trigger a stress response/sense angst due to the ever presence of unfair use of power by arm professionals, it is no wonder that anxiety and depression within communities of color has reached unprecedented highs.”

According to a study published this May in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, black children in the states are taking their lives at twice the rate of their white counterparts. Reports have also shown racism’s effects on people of color’s physical health as well, which is believed to be due to the cultural stigma and barriers communities of color, especially blacks and Latinos face.

“In my experience with clients, I have seen a correlation with [health] related to trauma that has been tied to racial issues,” Francis says. ‘For example those who might live in disenfranchised areas, where certain people of color have been systematically placed their due to inequalities, in opportunities and education; also lack of self-worth, crime, and drugs (which is tried to health), that has infiltrated these communities. Living in these areas cause a lot of stress, which can cause issues in heart functioning, anxiety, and even depression. Acts of violence that can be prone to these areas (disenfranchised communities) can cause stress, trauma, and even levels of psychosis.”

Serena William’s dangerous childbirth exposed the world to how racial trauma even has a direct impact on women of color’s reproductive health, labor, and maternity morality. It can be caused by anything from the lack of resources given to women of color to negligence from doctors who don’t pay enough attention to their symptoms.

“Throughout history, certain racial groups have been used in breeding practices for physical appeal, athletic ability or in keeping that racial group exclusive in the future population. These types of structures are very present with youth,” adds Francis. “Sometimes this causes certain groups to become hyper sexualized at an early age, where they might not have the best resources for healthy reproduction or unsafe sex practices. Also certain groups might be seen as undesirable, based off of racial features of what societal beauty is supposed to be as it relates to history. This lack of self-worth might cause them to engage in unhealthy sexual practices, no sexual practices, or do things that can be harmful to them.”

One of the breed practices Francis refers to are the Puerto Rico Pill trials. The history of the birth control testing that took place on the island back in the 1950s is dark to say the least. Puerto Rican women were essentially used as guinea pigs for oral contraceptives, They were not only exploited but many experienced a number of side effects, including sterilization. In fact, in Nelson A. Denis’ book War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, the author points out how many Puerto Rican women were forced into having their tubes tied by the American government, in efforts to control the Puerto Rican population. The women were not told that that the procedure would be irreversible and would leave them sterile.

Now what does racial healing in a therapy session actually look like you ask? Black adds that a lot of it centers around strength based dialogues that contain many principles that derive from Kwanzaa/Afro-centric POC healing ceremonies and circles.

“Our work is based in aiding the individual, group, family or community towards a path where their individual communal sense of self-determination, perseverance, alongside group togetherness, support and spaces of creativity can lead to long term healing and life sustaining strength,” she says. “Freedom and life fulfillment are the goals. Racial equity and fairness are certainly tools and tactics to get there. Inner peace, spaces for all children to grow and learn, avenues for parents and communities to work together to fulfill financial business goals and ultimately live the lives we all collectively seek, free from harm, trauma, and transgressions. One day at a time and ideally in our lifetime.”

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