A Look at Racial Trauma (featured article)


*With expressed consent from BossMann magazine, the following manuscript is directly abstracted from the print publication of BossMann magazine, July edition (page 22).


When They See Us: A Look at

Racial Trauma Due to Ethnic Discrimination

 By John A. Nelson, PsyD, MDiv

When They See Usis a recent Netflix film series directed by Ava DuVernay that has sparked much emotion, public conversation, and may have left many of its viewers feeling traumatized [1].  If you have not seen this miniseries yet, you have probably heard people discussing how emotionally difficult it was to process what is arguably one of Duvernay’s most seminal works. Gut-wrenching pain, anger, rage, shock, helplessness, literal moments of gasping, increased heart racing, pressured breathing, and tensed muscles are emotions and behaviors many viewers may have experienced after watching this film.

In her film, DuVernay highlights the common issue of racial profiling and criminal injustice. When They See Us chronicles the 1989 criminal case involving the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old, White, female jogger in New York’s Central Park. Black and Latino minority youth were wrongfully accused of this crime, detained, interrogated by law enforcement (without parental or legal counsel present), placed on trial and ultimately sentenced between 5 to 15 years behind bars. These boys were Raymond Santana (14), Kevin Richardson (14), Antron McCray (15), Yusef Salaam (14), and Korey Wise (16). Four of the defendants were initially sentenced to juvenile hall and completed their terms in adult prison, whereas the fifth defendant was tried as an adult and served his entire 13 years in adult prison. When They See Usportrays the struggle of each of these teenagers and their families fighting for their innocence and freedom over a period of several years. Although each of these innocent teenagers turned men were ultimately exonerated in 2001, they had already suffered years of physical, emotional, and psychological trauma—trauma they would be forced to live with for the rest of their lives.

It goes without saying that what the Central Park Five men endured has impacted them on deep emotional and psychological levels. Individuals who hear about and learn of their stories may never be able to fully understand what these men went through firsthand. Yet and still, the Central Park Five story may trigger memories and negative reactions of viewer’s own personal experiences of racial discrimination. This phenomenon can best be described as stress reaction due to race-based stress or racial trauma.

Many researchers have studied the effects of racial discrimination on minority mental and physical health. There is general consensus that minorities who are subjected to long-term racial mistreatment will suffer a range of psychological problems over the course of their lifetime, including depression, anxiety as well as trauma symptoms [2].  Developing research suggests the negative effects of racial discrimination are not limited to psychological effects alone, but also extend to chronic medical conditions, including heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases and metastatic cancer [3]. Because racial trauma has so many implications on minority health and well-being, a discussion on this topic and how to respond when confronted with racial discrimination is offered below.


An understanding of general trauma is helpful to clarify the impact of racial trauma. Trauma is defined as a significant stressful event or experience often associated with physical or emotional damage. Many traumatic events are known to be physical, such as a motor vehicle accident or a fatal injury. Other traumatic events may not be caused by physical force, but may result from psychological ache and pain, including the sudden or tragic loss of a loved one. An individual’s reaction to a traumatic event indicates how intense the event was for them. For example, someone may witness a fatal car accident on the highway and maintain the ability to continue to drive that same highway without experiencing much impairment. On the other hand, a different person who witnessed the same fatal incident may be impacted so much that they are gripped with fear and unable to drive that same highway without experiencing distress. In this example, two different people were exposed to the same traumatic incident, yet their reactions were drastically different. The same event was more traumatic for one person over the other.


“Race-based traumatic stress can be defined as (a) an emotional injury that is motivated by hate or fear of a person or group of people as a result of their race; (b) a racially motivated stressor that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope; (c) a racially motivated, interpersonal severe stressor that causes bodily harm or threatens one’s life integrity; or (d) a severe interpersonal or institutional stressor motivated by racism that causes fear, helplessness, or horror” (Bryant-Davis, 2007, pp 135-136) [4].   Based on this definition, examples of racial trauma might include being treated differently simply because of the color of your skin, victimization of racial profiling, racial slurs, police harassment, harsher legal sentences, workplace discrimination, hate crimes, as well as misdiagnosis and over-diagnosis of health conditions in medical settings. A person who is victim to racial trauma may be hypersensitive or hyperaware of their skin color, acknowledges being treated differently compared to other races, and is ultimately impacted either emotionally or physically as a result.


Experts have argued for increased awareness and acceptance of the link between racism and psychological issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [5]. Racial trauma is characterized by race-based stress reactions. Stress reactions are considered normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. These reactions can be appropriate, warranted and even expected in the context of a given situation. For example, an appropriate response to racial discrimination might include hypervigilance to threats, intense emotional reactions such as anger, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, suspiciousness, and even physical reactions such as headaches, muscle tension and heart palpitations. These reactions are similar to PTSD symptoms; however, the major difference between the two is when the reactions become so intense they begin to negatively interfere with normal functioning. This is most noticeable when an individual begins to have significant difficulty with normal daily functioning, personal relationships, or even work performance due to inability to adequately cope and manage these stress reactions. Race-based stress reactions that significantly interfere with an individual’s normal functioning can lead to PTSD.


After experiencing Ava DuVernay’s miniseries When They See Us, many viewers may have experienced stress reactions or even racial trauma. As described above, stress reactions and racial stress are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. It is normal and even expected for viewers to feel unsettled, bothered, and maybe even agitated after watching this film. It is important, however, to monitor how these intense emotions are experienced, as well as the resulting reactions and behaviors. It is adaptive to channel negative energy into positive and productive behaviors.


Racial oppression can create invisible scars and hidden wounds that others cannot see. Whenever individuals are exposed to traumatic events, one of the most helpful responses is to process what happened. This includes talking to someone about what you are experiencing, in an effort to receive support as well as attempt to make meaning of how the experience has impacted you. One of the most unhelpful responses to racial discrimination or racial trauma is internalizing the emotional response, refusing to share it with anyone, and keeping it all to oneself. This response style tends to make dealing with the traumatic incident even more difficult. Similar to dealing with PTSD, dealing with racial trauma can be effectively managed by sharing` your experience with someone you trust, being patient with yourself, as well as allowing yourself to feel the emotions and thoughts that come without judgment or self-blame.

From a professional counseling standpoint, counselors are increasingly encouraged to consider the role of race-based stress when working with minority clients. Therapy is strengthened when counselors consider the impact of racial trauma and how it may impact their client’s presentation. A culturally sensitive counselor will acknowledge this importance and intervene appropriately.


  1. Skoll, J., King, J., Rosenthal, J., De Niro, R., Welsh, B., Winfrey, O., & DuVernay, A. (Producers). DuVernay, A. (Director). (2019). When They See Us [Motion Picture]. United States: Harpo Films.
  2. Assari, S., Moazen-Zadeh, E., Caldwell, C., & Zimmerman, M. (2017). Racial discrimination during adolescence predicts mental health deterioration in adulthood: Gender differences among Blacks. Frontiers in Public Health5(1), 1-10. Doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00104
  3. Thames, A., Irwin, M., Breen E., Cole S., (2019). Experienced discrimination and racial differences in leukocyte gene expression. Journal of Psychoneuroendrocrinology106(1), 277-283.
  4. Bryant-Davis, T. (2007). Healing requires recognition: The case for race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist35(1), 135-143.
  5. Williams, M. T., Metger, I. W., Leins., C., & DeLapp, C. (2018). Assessing racial trauma within a DSM-5 framework: The UConn racial/ethnic stress & trauma survey. Practice Innovations, 3(4), 242-260.

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