Home Mental Health Racism – It’s Traumatic for Everyone

Racism – It’s Traumatic for Everyone


Many aspects of how a person’s life will turn out are determined before he or she is born. Socioeconomic status of the parents, where the family lives, family dynamics, the ability to go to school and the academic rigor of the available schools all contribute to the experiences that a child will have growing up as well as experiences later as an adult. These are all factors that are possible to change whether for oneself or for future children, though it may take extraordinary effort and require overcoming great odds.

There is one factor, though, that greatly shapes a person’s life experiences that can’t be changed: race. For many, the color of one’s skin determines how others will treat him or her, the resources available to them and ultimately how the person views him or herself. Though the color of one’s skin is determined by biology, race is a construct of society (Thayer, 2015). It is society’s pernicious habit to put value on one’s race rather than on actions.

Discrimination can come in two different forms: overt or subtle. Overt discrimination has been highlighted over the last few years with high profile cases such as the Trayvon Martin case and the George Zimmerman case in Florida or the Michael Brown and Darren Wilson case in Missouri (Clarke et al 2014; Pearson et al, 2013). These cases are certainly nothing new.

The other form of discrimination is subtler, but it is equally, if not more, detrimental than overt discrimination. Subtle discrimination or bias may actually be more harmful than overt bias because of its ability to “get under the skin” and influence physical health (Thayer, 2015). Subtle discrimination is seen when someone of color is ignored, asked to follow different standards, offered subpar services compared with services offered to others and so much more.

Racism has negative effects on those who experience it. Studies have shown that African-Americans and Hispanics who experience racism have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, throughout the day (Thayer, 2015). Higher levels of cortisol, though helpful during a stressful situation, are not good for prolonged periods of time. They have been associated with changes in the body’s stress response system, which affect the body’s ability to function normally in a range of things from fighting an infection to getting pregnant (Thayer, 2015).

Racism can “lacerate the spirit, scar the soul, and puncture the psyche” (Hardy, 2013). Those who experience racism may suffer from negative cognition, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, lowered sense of self-worth, hyper arousal, difficulty maintaining relationships, agitation and detachment (Ellis, 2018).

People who experience discrimination often begin to devalue themselves, internalizing the messages they hear. This is termed internalized devaluation (Hardy, 2013). They hear the subtle message “that they are not as good as…” and begin to believe it. This makes developing a powerful sense of self very difficult (Hardy, 2013). Many people may also develop “internalized voicelessness” (Hardy, 2013). This is not a condition of silence, but of the inability to speak up for oneself. After a barrage of negative messages, one loses the ability or will to stand up and defend themselves from the negative assumptions. Others experience rage, which is defined not only as anger, but also sadness, depression and explosiveness (Hardy, 2013). None of these things are good in any society if members are to function well.

Discrimination doesn’t just affect those who are discriminated against. It also negatively affects the perpetrators as well. When someone discriminates against another person he or she must live in a state of denial and self-deception (Wing Su, 2011). “Many scholars and humanists have argued that being an oppressor requires a dimming of perceptual awareness and accuracy that is associated with self-deception” (Wing Su, 2011). The offender’s sense of awareness of the plight of the marginalized group may be corrupted because of the sense of power and higher status inappropriately associated with their own race (Wing Su, 2011).

He or she also loses sensitivity to those who are marginalized. The perpetrator becomes hardened, cold or unfeeling towards those who are of a different race (Wing Su, 2011). This affects the oppressor in many ways. He or she may have difficulty with interpersonal relationships, a callous approach to others, a narrow worldview or be inauthentic in dealing with racial, gender or sexual orientation issues (Wing Su, 2011). Oppression also takes away the interconnectedness that is so important in human experiences (Wing Su, 2011).

Dr. Kenneth Hardy, a professor at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, offers some steps to heal the “hidden wounds” of discrimination (Hardy, 2013). He suggests creating a space for race by encouraging conversations about race, validating people’s feelings and experiences and externalizing and countering the devaluation among other things as part of the antidote to the poison of racial discrimination (Hardy, 2013).

Discrimination creates negative consequences for the discriminated as well as the oppressor, creating a world of distrust and hate. When people feel safe and valued, they can be productive members of society. It takes effort on everyone’s part to create a society where people are valued for who they are rather than what they look like.



Clarke, R., & Lett, C. (2014). What happened when Michael Brown met officer Darren Wilson. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2014/08/us/ferguson-brown-timeline/

Ellis, L. (2018). Racial trauma and mental health. Louisville: WFPL.

Hardy, K. V. (2013). Healing the hidden wounds of racial trauma. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 22(1), 24-28. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.byui.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=88303853&site=ehost-live

Pearson, M., & Botelho, G. (2013). 5 things to know about the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin saga. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2013/02/25/justice/florida-zimmerman-5-things/index.html

Thayer, Z. (2015). Discrimination is bad for your health – and your kids too. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/discrimination-is-bad-for-your-health-and-your-kids-too-36054

Wing Sue, D. (2011). How does oppression (microaggressions) affect perpetrators? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201102/how-does-oppression-microaggressions-affect

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