Racial Trauma: The Marks We Bear


This month on our blog and podcast, we are addressing the impact of racism and racial trauma. We cannot ignore the traumatic effects of racism in our country, our communities, and in our own lives. We invite you to join and open your hearts and minds to these courageous words from Wendell Moss, a member of The Allender Center’s teaching staff.

In my previous blog, I introduced the concept of collective trauma. In that, I invited each reader to consider trauma from a bigger construct (familial, church, neighborhood, city, societal, etc.). I emphasized the idea that collective trauma tends to be long-lasting as well as expansive. In this blog, I want to give more particular context to this by discussing racial trauma as a form of collective trauma because we are experiencing this phenomenon more than ever as a country. I’m aware that I’m only scratching the surface here, but in brief, I’m attempting to draw our eyes to notice how each of us holds racial trauma within our minds and bodies (in different places and ways). As I type, I’m aware of my body. I feel tension in my stomach and hands, as well a developing sweat in my armpits. These are common for me when I feel a great sense of risk.

When I speak of racial trauma, I’m referring to how one or many have experienced trauma that bears the mark of racism, whether individually or collectively. I’m aware that this is a rather simplistic definition, but this is what I will use as a stepping stone into my brief discussion. You will also notice my use of “we” and “us” because this is very much about all of us.

Racial trauma is a collective phenomena in that racism has left a mark on each of us that continues to bear itself intergenerationally, which reflects both the longevity and the collective-ness of the trauma to us as a country.

More specifically, we still bear the impact of hundreds of years of racism (slavery) that has left no one unscathed. This traumatizing system housed various forms of oppression that presented trauma on top of trauma. In his book My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem says, “This arrangement was systematically maintained through murder, rape, mutilation, and other forms of trauma, as well as through institutions, laws, regulations, norms, and beliefs.” I believe Resmaa captures well both the concentration and depth of how we have been traumatized by racism. Racial trauma has shown to impact our systems, identity, beliefs, and most definitely our bodies.

When I reflect on the decades of conversations (with folks from various ethnic backgrounds) around race or racism, many of these conversations have involved having to manage some level of shame, anxiety, anger, dissociation, or hyper-vigilance. Quite often, the topic of race is one many will avoid. Avoidance is very much a flight (fight, flight, or freeze) response. I suggest that avoidance is a fear of having to engage how racism has left in us a scar that may feel far too much to bear.

The truth of the matter is that racism is a reality. Racial trauma is a reality. We must honor the fact that we can’t experience this kind of collective trauma for centuries and it not reside and linger in all of our bodies. If it’s in our bodies, then how can it not show up in our belief systems, identities, and how we see our world? This is the nature of trauma. Trauma has the ability to not only travel through our families, but throughout generations. Trauma has been shown to affect us on a cellular level (our DNA). Epigenetics is a term that helps us to understand the heritable effects of trauma due to its effect on our cells. Simply put, we see trauma’s ability to be passed down from generation to generation, even without intention. This is the nature of collective trauma.

I recall a particular day at the age of 12. My father had come home from work. His face bore a look of frustration and anger. I was always curious when I saw that look on my father’s face. It was made known to me that while my father was stopped at a stop sign, a man yelled out of his car “you spook.” There was rage in my father’s face. As a little boy, of course, I would take both my father’s face and story into my body.

I didn’t have to be present to feel the impact of what happened to my father that day. Through this story and many others, I’ve learned that stories, faces, body language, and many other means have the ability to impact all of us, whether it be conscious or unconscious. Collectively, our history holds an infinite amount of narrative and experience. Just as that little boy couldn’t escape the impact of his story, we can’t escape the impact of our collective trauma story around race. Denial or dismissal are often strategies used to try to escape the impact of our racialized trauma, but the result has only led to reenactment and the exposure of much untold heartache.

When I think of the recent trauma in El Paso, Texas, I see an act that still holds the impact and stories of our past. That event had an impact on brown bodies in a profound way. Anger, fear, and mourning swept across our country. I believe we experienced a reenactment of the trauma that we collectively have yet to properly deal with. The perpetrator of that shooting clearly made a horrific decision and needs to be deeply held responsible. However, I believe his actions reveal what’s been passed down from generation to generation. Our past resides in his body. Collectively, this would be true for us as well.

My hope is that each person reading this will reconsider how the collective trauma of racism has impacted them. My heart is that we understand racial trauma to be an “us” problem and not a “them” problem. I believe it’s true that racial trauma has indeed impacted different ethnic groups differently (that’s a blog I long to write on very soon). However, it feels crucial for us to be willing to finally face our history with integrity and courage. I believe we first must face that we all suffer from our past to this day. If we can own that, I believe we will possibly be able to authentically move towards collective lament and therefore collective healing rather than continue to reenact.