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Defining Racial Trauma

Racial trauma, also known as race-based traumatic stress, can be defined as:

A series of traumatic events that occur as a result of witnessing or experiencing racism, discrimination, or institutional racism that can have a profound impact on the mental health of individuals exposed to these events. Racial trauma refers to the stressful impact or emotional pain of one’s experience with racism and discrimination that can manifest in mental health and physical symptoms. It is important to note that racial trauma can also compound for folks of intersectional identity such as gender, (dis)ability, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This can lead to long-term and intensified experiences of racial trauma symptoms, impacting one’s day-to-day functioning. A “pathway” to understanding racial trauma is depicted in the image here: 

Further Information

To further understand, we also have a link to a video that provides further explanation of the proliferation of Racial trauma and its commonality in racial communities 

It is important to note that racial trauma can still exist without the presence of all or some of these symptoms. The unfortunate reality is that most racialized folks are “born into” racism and racial trauma. Some folks experience racism from childhood and as a result, begin to develop self-soothing or buffering tools that mediate the experience of symptoms. This often appears in ways such as dissociation, dismissing the event, refusal to speak on event pretending it did not occur, pushing through and disguising it as “okay”, or actively assimilating as a protective factor. Symptomatic or not, racial trauma can begin to “seep” into other aspects of your life, consciously or unconsciously. If you are questioning whether or not you may be experiencing racial trauma and how it can present in spheres of your life, we invite you to check out the self-assessment questions and accompanying resources on this page. 


Self-rating tool to use

Trauma Symptoms of Discrimination Scale

Williams, M., Printz, D., Delapp., R. (2018) assessed racial trauma in African American populations through the use of the Trauma Symtpoms of Discrimination Scale and found this to be a useful self-assessment tool to gauging the symptoms, contributing factors, and range of emotions associated with repeated racist and discriminatory experiences. This tool can be used for all folks who identify as racialized and/or Indigenous and First Nations. The effects of racial trauma can change day to day; some days you may feel it and other days you may not identify as being traumatized. Cyclically and consistently checking in with yourself can not only help understand where sources of racial trauma could be coming from but can also assist in you “tracking” its intensity and repetition. We invite you to use these 21 questions as a guide to understanding and identifying racial trauma and its potential effects in your life.

  1. Due to past and present experiences of discrimination, I often worry too much about different things 
  2. Due to past and present experiences of discrimination, I often try hard not to think about it or go out of my way to avoid 
  3. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often fear embarrassment 
  4. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often feel nervous, anxious, or on edge, especially around certain people 
  5. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often feel afraid that something awful might happen
  6. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often have nightmares about these experiences or think about it when I do not want to 
  7. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often have trouble relaxing 
  8. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often feel numb or detached from others, activities, or my surroundings 
  9. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often avoid certain activities in which I am the center of attention 
  10. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I can not stop or control my worrying
  11. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often find that being embarrassed or looking stupid is one of my worst fears
  12. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often become easily annoyed and irritable 
  13. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often feel constantly on guard, watchful, or easily startled, especially around certain people or places 
  14. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I often feel so restless that it is hard to sit still 
  15. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I feel the world is an unsafe place
  16. Due to the past/present experiences of discrimination, in social situations, I feel a rush of intense discomfort and may feel my heart pounding, muscles tense up, or sweat
  17. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I feel isolated and set apart from others 
  18. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I avoid certain situations or speaking to certain people 
  19. If I think about past/present experiences of discrimination, I can not control my emotions
  20. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, I am nervous in social situations and am afraid people will notice that I am sweating, blushing, or trembling 
  21. Due to past/present experiences of discrimination, fear of social situations causes me a lot of problems in my daily functioning

    These questions can be answered in a “scale-like fashion” (self-rating from 1-5) or in a yes/no format. The scale allows you to identify if you may be experiencing uncontrollable distress and hyperarousal, alienation from others, worries about safety and the future, and whether or not you may be on constant “guard”. 

    If you scale highly or answer yes to the majority of these questions, we further invite you to explore our, “How can you address it” tab for additional support. Please know that racial trauma does not have to be dealt with in isolation; a lot of your racialized peers are experiencing this too. This tool is not to further ostracize or isolate your experiences and feelings but rather to allow pathways to self-reflection and actualization so movements can be made towards self-healing and social justice.  


How it can present in spheres in your life and how to assess

The manifestation of racial trauma is quite complex;

the unfortunate reality is, racial trauma can happen at any time in your life and anywhere, due to the frequency and “normalcy” of discriminative and racist practices and rhetoric. Under the guise of free speech and autonomy, you can experience racism and discrmination in a repeated fashion from early childhood into adulthood, across multiple touchpoints in society. 

This can occur: 

  • In the workplace
  • In school 
  • In social interactions with white counterparts
  • When alone or in groups engaging in daily tasks and general social settings 
  • At home 
  • Amongst your racialized peers 
  • When traveling within and outside of the country of origin 
  • Online, over the phone, and other forms of electronic communication and interaction 
  • Systemically and institutionally; in policies and procedures you interact with or experiencing differential treatment 
  • Or within yourself (internalized discrimination and racism) 

However, these are only a few of many examples of “where” racial trauma may come from. These experiences, especially in repetition, can begin to  impact your daily functioning. Insights from racialized folks state that the most commonplace experiences of discrimination and racism that produce racial trauma is in the form of: 

  • microinsults and microaggressions, 
  • overt experiences of racism (such as witnessing or experiencing verbal and physical violence), 
  • invalidation of lived experiences (when your reality becomes questioned and gaslit),
  • and/or experiences of exclusion and marginalization. 

From these experiences, racial trauma may be presenting in spheres of your life like: 

  • Productivity, attendance, engagement, or completion of tasks at school and work 
    • ie. troubles showing up to work/school, feelings of brain fog and issues with attention or concentration to work/school, disinvestment or lack of enjoyment with work/school
  • Ability to sleep, eat, concentrate, and other psychosomatic experiences 
    • ie. over/under eating and sleeping, interrupted sleep and restlessness, anxiety before bed, insomnia and nightmares, frequent nausea, restless leg syndrome, and other forms of fidgeting 
  • The overall mood, mental health, and emotion 
    • ie. Depressive moods states, paranoia, flashbacks, constant feeling of distress, hopelessness, overthinking and rumination, anxiety, self esteem issues, self-blame, self-doubt, guilt, anger 
  • Ability to complete your usual tasks 
    • ie. self-care and hygiene, grocery shopping, cleaning, etc 
  • Ability to socialize and communicate with new or usual folks and make sense of surroundings 
    • ie. Social anxiety or agoraphobia, being easily startled, hypervigilance, pressured speech, tangentiality, inability to speak “frog in the throat”, emotionally charged language, “lashing out” inappropriately, avoiding particular people/places/institutions, frequent feelings of losing bearings/feeling lost
  • Ability to engage with social media and other web-based communities 
    • ie. anger/fatigue/distress when consuming social media, frequent social media “wars” with people, overly defending subject points in open forums, “manic” or sequential posts or tweets that feel uncontrollable, overconsumption of “trauma porn” and local/national news, complete disengagement or deletion of social media problems and web presence, social media burnout

Assessing how racial trauma can affect spheres of your life can be through the self-rating tool provided above or through checking if you are experiencing any of the emotions mentioned in our “Defining Racial Trauma Section”. Another useful assessment is checking in with peers or professionals, ideally of similar identity, that you feel comfortable speaking with. Having an open conversation around your experiences and feelings may allow for self-reflection and identification of where racial trauma and stress is coming from and how it is affecting spheres of your life. We invite you to explore the next tab for a more in-depth description of the places and ways racial trauma can proliferate.