Trauma and Racism

As a lifelong Baltimore City resident, never has the help I provide as a social worker been more important.

African Americans need not point to a specific traumatic event to know that the trauma of racism is real. Centuries of oppressive systems have contributed to both increased resilience and susceptibility to issues of mental health in communities of color. The repetitive enduring of psychological, social, and environmental stressors of racism cannot be ignored, if we are to heal.

Repeated experiences of racism occurring in daily life can create overwhelming emotional pain and stress. An individual’s ability to cope can become significantly compromised, and can result in symptoms like hyper-vigilance, anger, apathy, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

We know from research that black boys as young as 10 are often seen as older and less innocent than their white counterparts. It was also found that people with African-American-sounding names, like Jamal or Lakisha, were 50% less likely to receive a call back when applying to a job. The ideas behind these data points support and perpetuate the burden of racial oppression experienced in the black community.

In some instances, when an individual is constantly reminded of their powerlessness, the resulting pain, frustration, and anguish can lead to one’s entire existence being traumatic, a mental health problem that cannot be ignored. Left untreated, the trauma of experiencing persistent, systemic, and institutional racism can have devastating results.

The immensity of the problem of racial inequity cannot be understated. Here are some ways we can all help the healing:

  1. Listen and resist the urge to be defensive. When asked what she says to black women who feel excluded from the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem replied, "I don't say anything. I listen."
  2. Learn the language of racial equity, and inform yourself about the struggle. There are many resources out there highlighting ways to fight racism.
  3. Actively engage in discussions with community members, influencers, and decision makers at all levels and of all backgrounds.
  4. Don’t get caught up in the views of radical individuals. Instead, focus on systemic issues, and cultivating healthy dialogue.
  5. Be an ally of anti-racist struggles. Challenge yourself and your friends to stand against racism in your circles as boldly as you would any other form of discrimination.
  6. Don’t perpetuate stereotypes. Before you re-tweet, re-post, or repeat what you see or hear, think to yourself: “am I contributing to the problem?”
  7. Talk to your children and family about race. Diversity and multiculturalism mean more than eating ethnic foods and having friends of color.
  8. Recognize the additional challenges faced in minority communities. Everyone has stressors in life. Minorities often deal with the significant added stressor of discrimination. Turning a blind eye to this  perpetuates the cycle, vs. supporting a solution.
  9. Support anti-discrimination efforts in a way that works for you. Begin to educate yourself. Join an advocacy or discussion group. Become a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters, write an op-ed, or just simply start talking about the issues.
  10. Help those who need help, get help. If someone is experiencing trauma or a mental health issue, encourage them to seek professional help. Sheppard Pratt’s Therapy Referral Service can help point the individual in the right direction.

As Carter Woodson, a 1926 historian once said, “We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”

As a lifelong resident, I feel proud of our city. But alongside that pride, is a corresponding sense of responsibility to continue working toward ending racial oppression and the related traumas that so many of us have experienced. I want to make this a safer, healthier place for my children and their friends. I love this city and hope others continue to join together to make Baltimore even stronger.


Duane P. Haley, LGSW, is a clinician at The Mann Residential Treatment Center (Mann RTC). His primary focus is on helping adolescents experiencing co-occurring disorders apply dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills as part of their treatment program. As a founding member of Mann RTC’s DBT Substance Abuse Committee, Duane works with the treatment team to develop interventions that support the residents and their families in their recovery. Duane is also a local activist and adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Social Work.