Racial Trauma

By: Previous HoneyB pre-licensed clinician

Racial stress is the psychological response that a person has to the experience of racism caused by hate or fear of a person as a result of their race, ethnicity, or skin color. When these racial stressors are compounded, they can develop into a pathology known as racial trauma. Common racial stressors can include people of color being subject to traumatic police searches and assaults, incarceration, hate crimes, workplace discrimination and harassment, chronic exposure to micro/macro aggressions, vicarious trauma from watching graphic media coverage of police brutality, and refugees and immigrants who may have been victimized by ethnic cleansing, persecution or torture, to name a few. Community trauma, historical trauma, and cultural trauma can compound racial stress, and the cumulative and chronic experiences of racism throughout a person’s life can develop into the psychological injury of racial trauma. If left untreated racial stress can lead to the development of comorbid disorders such as major depressive disorder, substance use disorders, social anxiety disorder, psychosis, and symptoms of PTSD. To screen for racial stress and racial trauma, therapists can use assessments like the Race-Based Traumatic Stress Symptom Scale (RBTSSS) and informal assessment to understand a client’s history of racial stress and trauma. The Healing Racial Trauma Protocol for People of Color is an evidence-based approach grounded in cognitive-behavioral therapy, that can support clinicians in helping clients find restorative healing from racial trauma. There are three phases of the Healing Racial Trauma Protocol which include stabilization, healing, and empowerment. It should be noted that validating the client’s disclosures of racism is a critical part of healing and permeates the therapeutic process. The first phase includes providing psychoeducation about racism and its resulting harm to support clients in reducing shame and helping them understand that racism is a systemic issue and not their fault. The clinician further supports the client in increasing functional coping strategies and reducing maladaptive ones, while also assisting the client in cultivating a support network. The second phase supports clients in processing their experiences of racism and providing them with tools and strategies to respond to racism in various situations, while increasing their sense of agency. The final phase supports the client in responding to racism in their daily life, skill building, meaning making, and social action (Williams et al., 2022). Therapists can also support their clients in developing a racial self-care plan and discussing self-care as a social justice tool for people of color (Wyatt & Ampadu, 2022) and collaborating with the client to develop a racial wellness toolkit (Stewart, 2022).


Stewart, D. (2022). Implementing a Safe Space for African American Employees to Develop Individualized Racism Recovery Plans (Doctoral dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

Williams, M. T., Holmes, S., Zare, M., Haeny, A., & Faber, S. (2022). An evidence-based approach for treating stress and trauma due to racism. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2022.07.001

Wyatt, J. P., & Ampadu, G. G. (2022). Reclaiming Self-care: Self-care as a Social Justice Tool for Black Wellness. Community mental health journal, 58(2), 213–221. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-021-00884-9


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