A series of traumatic and racially charged events this past year had profound and lasting effects on individuals and communities of color.

The murder of George Floyd in June 2020 and numerous other acts of violence left deep wounds, compounding a history of racism and discrimination impacting Americans of African and Asian descent and the communities where they live.

Dr. Carla Desi-Ann Hunter, psychologist and co-author of a multidisciplinary paper, “Community Healing and Resistance Through Storytelling: A Framework to Address Racial Trauma in Africana Communities,” published in the Journal of Black Psychology in June 2020,”* proposes a framework to foster community healing from racial trauma.


Please describe racial trauma, rooted in historical trauma, and how it undermines the well-being of African American communities.

Historical trauma is the consistent, persistent systemic injustice, against bodies, against emotions, inflicted by a majority group against a minority group over time.  The idea is that historical trauma is rooted in the past and continues in the present. These injustices are current, but they are not new. They have been going on for a very long time without any healing.

Racial trauma is an idea that the race-related stress that black people experience – whether it be from consistent exposure to discrimination or racial micro-aggressions – are so threatening that they rise to the level of trauma. We need to recognize that these threats to individuals and families are very real, even if not experienced first-hand but seen and observed.

What are the effects on the health of individuals and communities of color, in the context of George Floyd’s death a year ago, the trial in April, and the other recent incidents and acts of racial violence?

Racial trauma systematically undermines health in many ways, contributing to high blood pressure, release of stress hormones such as cortisol, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and depression and anxiety. Other emotional and psychological aspects are devaluation of the self and erosion of family ties and community relationships. Symptoms of racial trauma have increased, and heightened media coverage may be one contributing factor. For example, if my own history includes family members being sent to jail, seeing images of a black man being arrested and subdued triggers strong emotions around threat, because those images – and the history of how black men have been treated in this country – are very real to me.

Your research highlights both resistance and storytelling as part of community healing. Can you give examples of how these strategies promote healing in communities affected by racial trauma?

C-HeARTS, our framework for community healing, is informed by published research addressing racial trauma. We started with concepts of connectedness, collective memory, and critical consciousness as the things in the psychological dimension that need to be worked on in the context of community healing. Storytelling and resistance is the idea of telling your story in a public place with people who can understand and validate that story as something that’s true. That act is a form of resistance against any shame and embarrassment that we may have internalized. It’s the idea that by telling those stories, you are resisting the dominant expectations of staying silent.

How can community groups apply this framework to help promote the process of healing in light of ongoing racial trauma?

What goes on inside the community healing process will depend on the group and the group’s shared experience of oppression. A facilitator, who does not have to be a psychologist, can help guide the process to identify the problem or the shared concern of that community.  The facilitator gives opportunities for members to document their experiences. This storytelling in a community context is meant to unearth all the threats to self and to other individuals within their close relationships, as well as the shame that has taken place, and to give that a voice through connecting with other people who had that same experience. The next step is thinking it through as the critical consciousness of, ‘How do I achieve justice for this community, and what would right the wrongs of the past to help us move forward?’ Justice in this context is about seeking rights, seeking fair treatment, seeking to have a voice in your community, and seeking to build centers of healing in your community.

 Is there a long-term solution?

As time goes by, it becomes very easy for racial majority members to forget about racial incidents and the impact on people’s lives, and to assume that all is well. But as long as we have social problems in our society, it will continue to disproportionately affect Brown, Black, Asian, indigenous people, lesbian, gay, bisexual people… all minority groups. It’s not just a 2020 or 2021 problem. It’s a long-term challenge that needs long-term investment. With it comes the opportunity to address injustices and make some different choices.

Listen in as Dr. Hunter discusses how future healers can prepare to help those affected by racial trauma.

 

Carla Desi-Ann Hunter is an associate professor of psychology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

*Carle Illinois College of Medicine Assistant Dean for Diversity and Democratization of Health Innovation Dr. Ruby Mendenhall was co-author of the C-HeARTS paper, along with these other UIUC faculty members: Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Community Health Robyn Gobin; Assistant Professor of African American Studies Shardé McNeil Smith; and Professor of Educational Psychology and African American Studies Helen Neville. Nkechinyelum Chioneso, Assistant Professor of Community Psychology at Florida A&M University, Tallahassee also co-authored the paper.

This interview is part of Carle Illinois’ “Racism as a Health Crisis” series. We recognize the negative effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has on communities of color and other marginalized groups. We also recognize the negative impact of racial trauma and microaggressions on health. We stand against racism in all its forms and are committed to deploy the tremendous power of innovative thinking in our college to address it. More information on Carle Illinois’ commitment to diversity and inclusion can be found here.

Additional resources on issues of anti-racism and community healing:

The Emotional Emancipation Circle program is sponsored by the Community Healing Network and the Association of Black Psychologists. The Community Healing Network’s Healing Toolkit is available here.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center resources on Racial Issues and Racial Self-Care are available here.

Race, trauma, and healing (Season 18, Episode 7) [Webisode]. In PBS Newmakers. Avila, M. (Host). (2018, May 30)

Vincent who? The murder of a Chinese-American man [Film] by Chin, C., & Lam, T. (Filmmakers) website