All posts by Nikisha G Vaghjiani

Racism and Trauma

In Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War, Abramowitz emphasizes the presence of trauma as it exists in the larger context of war conflict.  Her exploration of trauma is unique because, by focusing on war conflict, she talks of a disturbance that is inherently discrete in its timeframe–in the case of the Liberian Civil war, approximately a decade.  But, what happens when that phenomenon of rupture is spread over a longer breadth of time, perhaps centuries?  Is trauma as Abramowitz defined it applicable to long internalized conflicts, such as racial conflict?

Abramowitz defines trauma as “what happens when pervasive violence and vulnerability lead to profound experiences of rupture.”  This indicates that trauma can be triggered by physical and nonphysical impetus and by first hand or indirect manners.  Monica Williams in the NPR article argues that it is this vicarious nature of trauma that allows us to understand racial conflict as a harbinger of trauma.  Speaking as an expert in mental health disparities, Williams says, “We hear in the news about African-Americans being shot in a church, and this brings up all sorts of other things and experiences.  Maybe that specific thing has never happened to us. But…we know people in our community, and their stories have been passed down. So we have this whole cultural knowledge…[that] sort of primes us for this type of traumatization.”  From William’s work, we can extrapolate that the recent media focus on black brutality must be having significant, collective effects on the mental health of the African American populace.  Moreover, second-hand traumatization, such as the overwhelming presence of police officers in the predominately black community of Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting, can only exacerbate vulnerabilities felt by African Americans.

Nevertheless, second-hand trauma is not a recent experience for African Americans.  Despite contemporary media attention to the phenomenon of black inequality, social disparity has long been the narrative of Africans in America ever since the establishment of the slavery enterprise in the late 17th century.  Over centuries, social hierarchy based on race has been so ingrained in the U.S. that it has become the exemplar of social reality (see Smedley and Smedley).  Therefore, not only is society trained to exhibit certain behaviors to African Americans, but also African Americans naturally internalize and reflect such socially-engineered prejudices. Carl Bell, the former CEO of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago, suggests that as a result of this institutionalized racism, African Americans must endure speckles of microaggression during their day to day lives.  Overtime, these microaggressions build and build and essentially pull away the individual from his place in society.  As the social fabric ruptures, racism as a whole has an individual & very personal traumatic effect on the African American.

The difficulty with attributing the racism experience to traumatization (as proposed in the NY Times article and the NPR article) ) is that the event of “violence and vulnerability” is not always immediate or readily apparent.  For instance, in chapter 3 of her book, Abramowitz cites Suah, the Liberian director of an international NGO.  Suah claims that the Liberians present in the country during the war were physically marked by trauma.  On the other hand, those who were removed from the incident, such as refugees and Liberians living outside the country during the war, looked significantly “younger, healthier, happier, and fatter.”  This essentially begs the question: where is the empirical proof that racial conflict can cause trauma, especially when experienced second-hand?  Moreover, how can racism, which is often exhibited in contemporary society as underlying rather than overt, be linked to mental health of African Americans with certainty?  The fact is that connecting racism to trauma is difficult especially with the dearth of research.  Perhaps the even bigger worry is whether we need to understand the trauma in its larger context to treat the trauma.

Outside Sources

Corley, Cheryl. “Coping While Black: A Season Of Traumatic News Takes A Psychological Toll.” NPR. NPR, 02 July 2015. Web. <http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/07/02/419462959/coping-while-black-a-season-of-traumatic-news-takes-a-psychological-toll>.

Hu, Elise. “The Psychological Effects of Seeing Police Everywhere In Ferguson.” NPR. NPR, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366611989/the-psychic-effects-of-seeing-police-everywhere-in-ferguson>.

Wortham, Interview Jenna. “Racism’s Psychological Toll.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 June 2015. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/magazine/racisms-psychological-toll.html>.

Class Readings

Abramowitz, Sharon. 2014. Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Ch. 3)

Smedley A. and Smedley, B. 2005. Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race. American Psychologist 60(1): 16-26.

Discussion Questions

1.  Does trauma exist within a well-defined “time frame of injury”?

2.  Should/can race-based trauma be recognized by the DSM(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)?

3.  Perhaps for a second we conclude that race-based trauma should be recognized. According to Williams, race-based trauma should be treated pathologically with clinical interventions. Do you agree?  Or is this just analogous to the case of infectious disease in which intervention (i.e. vaccination) does not really change the course of the culprit at hand?

4. Considering the lack of sufficient research on trauma and racial conflict, in what ways can the evidence behind race-based trauma be strengthened?