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The Effects of Racial Trauma with Steven Kniffley, Ph.D.

Feb 10, 2023


Trauma is what someone can experience when they go through a single or prolonged event(s) that surpasses their mental and psychological abilities to cope with what is happening. The body can go into fight, flight, or freeze and mental faculties can lose ability to function properly.


Trauma is subjective to each person’s unique brain and previously lived experiences. A form of trauma that has always been present but is talked about much more on a larger scale is racial trauma. This podcast episode with Dr. Kate Balestrieri and Dr. Steven Kniffley, dives into the realities of racial trauma, how it impacts people, and what we can do to support each other through racially traumatic situations.


What is Racial Trauma?


Racial trauma refers to psychologically distressing events that are overtly or covertly harmful to people of color; events can include hate crimes, racial discrimination, encounters where a racial bias is present, and any other race-based situations that have the ability to cause emotional injury. Since trauma is subjective, each person has the right to identify what feels traumatizing for them and that can look different from person to person and across different cultures.


Racial trauma can be experienced firsthand, or it can be vicariously experienced. Whether one experiences racial trauma firsthand or witnesses it happen to another person or group of people, the impacts to their mental health can be significant and debilitating.


Two common categories of racial trauma are isolated incidents and then there is systemic racism. It’s important to know both categories can cause emotional suffering. A single incident might be knowing you are being monitored at a store, more closely than others around you. It can be hearing/being called racial slurs, hearing prejudice language, or being told that “racism isn’t a problem anymore.”


Systemic racism is the larger system that enables racism to not only exist, but thrive on the discrimination and dehumanization of other races that are not white. Under systemic racism, white supremacy is bolstered and enabled by legislative policy that takes rights, freedoms, and resources away from people of color, only to increase those facets for white people.


This dangerous system at play is why people become angry when others say that racism doesn’t exist anymore, just because black people are no longer enslaved. There are still many racist policies that specifically impact marginalized communities; some are so baked into the system that many white people aren’t even aware how systemic racism exists (i.e., the prison industrial complex that disproportionally incarcerates people of color). It’s also why there is push back on people claiming they are not racist but vote for and support politicians who work to embolden the very system that discriminate against anyone who isn’t white, wealthy, and male.


What are the Effects of Racial Trauma?


The effects of racial trauma impacts people on an individual level, but also as a community and society as a whole. Experiencing racial trauma has shown to cause significant psychological distress, depression and anxiety, chronic stress, avoidance of certain places/people, develop hypervigilance of how they are acting or appearing to others, and more.


Additionally, one doesn’t have to experience racism directly to be psychologically impacted by it. For example, following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) increased in black people after witnessing a video of Floyd being murdered that began circulating on the internet and news. In another example, mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression increased in Asian populations during the COVID-19 lockdowns when hate crimes and xenophobia towards Asians was skyrocketing.


The ripples of racial trauma don’t stop at emotional impacts. In addition to psychological problems, physical conditions can increase as well. Trauma of any kind takes a toll on the body. When people live in traumatized states for periods of time, chronic pain, autoimmune conditions, and digestive problems can ensue.


Racial trauma can also impact people relationally. People of color might feel safe with the people within their respective communities, but it can be challenging to navigate relationships with white people who have not done the appropriate work to fully unpack their own racism and work towards being anti-racist.


For example, many people of color feel they often have to explain why situations are racist and harmful; this emotional labor can be incredibly taxing and it is not the job of people of color to educate non-people of color about the nuances and realities of racism and racial trauma, on top of everything else they may be emotionally grappling with.


What Can Be Done?


For People of Color Experiencing Racial Trauma


Your mental health matters. Do what you can, whatever it is that will make you feel safe, comforted, and supported. Lean on your community and support network and surround yourself with the people in your life who will validate the very real trauma you’re going through.


If you need professional mental health support, working with an inclusive therapist can better ensure a mental health professional conducts therapy from an anti-racist and anti-oppression framework.


For Non-People of Color


If you have loved ones in your life who are experiencing racial trauma, it’s important to be mindful of how you are showing up for them. You may not understand what your loved one is feeling, but you can unconditionally support them during a period of pain. Be sure to avoid asking questions about their experience that can easily be found via a quick Google search. You might, however, ask your loved one how you can support them as everyone can need different levels or types of care when they are experiencing mental health challenges.


If your loved one needs to be surrounded by a like-minded community, try to avoid taking offense that they are not leaning on you and allow them to be with people who can better support them within this specific context. If your loved one needs to talk, be an ear to listen without centering yourself in anyway during the conversation.


Fighting racial trauma and racism in general is work we all benefit from doing. People of color do not deserve to be traumatized by a system that discriminates against them and there are ways people can make their voice heard to politicians, city officials, people in their life who are racist, and anyone else who doesn’t understand the necessity of working towards a more safe and equal society for all.

Dr. Steven Kniffley jr. is a clinical psychologist, professor, author, speaker and advocate for marginalized populations.

His work empowers others through therapy, education, and advocacy with issues of Racial trauma and its negative effects, how to become aware of racial and intergenerational trauma and not compartmentalize it.

Dr. Kniffley is the Chief Diversity Officer for Spalding University and an Associate Professor at the Spalding University’s School of Professional Psychology. He is also the coordinator for the Collective Care Center which is one of the few racial trauma clinics in the country.

He received his doctorate and master’s degree in clinical psychology from Spalding University where I specialized in child, adolescent, and family therapy.

He completed his post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Kniffley’s area of expertise is research and clinical work with Black males. Specifically, his work focuses on understanding and developing culturally appropriate interventions for Black male psychopathology as well as barriers to academic success for this population.

Additionally, he conducts research and clinical work on the challenges related to the experience of racial trauma.

Specifically, he has developed a treatment protocol for the experience of racial trauma and trains clinicians in the implementation of the protocol.

As an educational consultant, he has worked internationally with students and school administrators in South Africa and India. He also serves as an organizational diversity consultant and works with law enforcement departments on addressing conflicts between communities of color and police officers.

Some of his books and works in progress include: “Knowledge of Self: Understanding the Mind of the Black male,” “Out of KOS (Knowledge of Self): Black male psychopathology and its treatment, ” and “Black males and the Criminal Justice System.”

Website: www.modernintimacy.com

Dr. Kate Balestrieri 

Modern Intimacy

This is the cover for the Modern Intimacy with Dr. Kate Balestrieri podcast.
Dr. Kate Balestrieri, host of Modern Intimacy, a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, helps people live more fulfilled lives by shattering stigma and erasing shame. Dr. Kate invites you to join her as she investigates the relationship between sex, mental health, relationships and modern society.


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