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Racial Trauma: Your Questions Answered, Part 2

Racial trauma is becoming more commonly recognized as a significant and specific type of psychological trauma, in which people of color have traumatic responses to incidents of racism. These incidents could be on an interpersonal level (such as experiencing someone using a racial slur against them), or they could be the result of institutional or systemic racism (such as racist hiring practices or incidents of police brutality).

Dr. Jamila Holcomb, Ph.D., LMFT, provided an insightful and powerful webinar for Relias on racial trauma and how it affects the Black community specifically. The first part of this series of blog posts discussed questions that arose from the live webinar surrounding screening for racial trauma, issues of racism for BIPOC clinicians, and how children are affected by racism. In this post, Dr. Holcomb answers questions regarding institutional and systemic racism, and ways that white clinicians can better serve their clients of color.

Addressing Institutional and Systemic Racism

Systemically, it seems that racism has been long-standing. Do you think there is a difference between the frequency and the visibility? Or the acceptability or the boldness by which incidents occur?

There is absolutely a difference between frequency and visibility. It would be difficult to know if racism has increased in frequency because in the past we did not keep good data on this. I don’t believe that the frequency of racial violence has increased; just our awareness and knowledge of it occurring has increased. Media coverage absolutely has increased the visibility, as well. As I said in the webinar, Black individuals have always been aware of the frequency. I think it is other racial groups who are now becoming more aware.

I think you can make the argument that the more incidents of racism are shown, the more some people also view them as acceptable and feel more comfortable or bold in expressing racism. Honestly, I believe that the boldness of racism that we see as of late is related to fear—fear that the system and demographics of the country are changing.

Can you provide an example of how a company’s policies would be racist?

Racist policies within the workplace are often not going to be explicit. They hide behind hiring discrimination, within the process of promotions, within the process of reporting discrimination or harassments, or within salary negotiations.

How can organizations begin to address institutional racism?

I provided some very general guidelines for this in the webinar, but this is a difficult issue to tackle. Organizations need to do a complete overhaul of their policies, and at times, may need to be dismantled in order to address their history of participating in a racist system. They must also be consistent in their work toward dismantling systemic racism as it relates to their engagement and involvement with other organizations. This means holding themselves and others accountable. Those who specialize in developing diversity and inclusion strategies for businesses can answer this question in more detail.

I feel that my “higher ups” at my workplace feel uncomfortable bringing up racial issues and have barely brought up anything during this time. How do you suggest we bring this up to our employers?

I am sorry that the leaders at your organization have been failing to address this. How comfortable do you feel bringing this to their attention? You could start by simply stating that you’ve noticed there has been minimal conversation about racism and current events, and bring to their attention that this is impacting the employees. You could do an assessment with your colleagues and see if others feel the same way—then you’ll have data to support your stance. You could also share the webinar with them and then discuss ways they can incorporate some of the information into your agency.

When a client accuses staff of racism, what is the best way to respond? I want to validate the client, but I cannot take sides until I investigate a situation.

We want to be as objective as possible and not feel as if we need to “take sides.” The only side we should be pursing is anti-racism—I would try to step back and look at the situation from that lens. Also, if the client feels that the staff was racist, I think it would be important to validate that client’s experience and learn from them about what was triggering. I would also recommend implicit bias training for all your office staff. Racism is not always about intent, and your staff may not have been aware that they were displaying bias.

How White Clinicians Can Promote Racial Equity

As a white clinician, I never address the fact that we are of different races. Should I always raise this issue?

Yes, I think this is so important. Simply acknowledging that you are of different races begins to create space for this conversation.

How do you start a conversation on racism among multiracial staff?

Great question—You just start it! You can even start by saying something like this: “I’ve struggled with how to start this conversation for a while because it seems uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to offend anyone. However, I realized that I cannot be silent, as that is being complicit in a racist system. What would be a good way to facilitate a conversation about racism in this space?”

How can I as a white person be more supportive?

I appreciate your willingness to be an ally. There are many great resources for you to utilize (provided at the end of this blog). I would also add that, as you educate yourself, you begin to educate those around you (family, colleagues, etc.) and stand up for racial injustice within your community.

Also, as a clinician, be mindful of not falling into the role of being a “white savior.” Affirming and acknowledging the impact of racial trauma does not mean that Black individuals are “less than” or “damaged,” or that they need saving. The clinician should consistently be managing their own tendency to come in and save the day, and they can do this by continuing to process their own biases and by getting supervision and consultation specifically on this topic.

Could you make recommendations for white supervisors to address racial trauma with clients/supervisees of color?

In regard to the supervisor-supervisee relationship, I think you can follow many of these same tips I provided in the webinar for clinician-client relationships. Other things to consider would include bringing up issues of racial trauma both for your supervisee and for their clients. Give your supervisee the space to process how current events or their own personal experiences might be impacting them in the therapy room. Simply asking about it and giving space to it will immediately open the door for the conversation.

You don’t have to be perfect, and it may be uncomfortable at first. As clinicians, we can even name that discomfort! Saying things like “I recognize that there is a lot going on right now and that you (or your clients) might be impacted by this in a unique way. Could we talk about ways that I could support you or ways that you could support your clients? How do you see this impacting your clinical work?”

How can we create a safe environment for clients of color?

Creating a safe environment includes making sure that your office reflects diversity, and that it is free of racist symbolism that can be commonly used in artwork (e.g., rope, cotton). Other organizational policies could create an environment that doesn’t feel safe, like whether there is police presence in the building (e.g., security guards), or things of that nature.

We also want to ensure emotional safety. A safe emotional space can include groups established for people of color to connect and provide support to one another. Another option is access to other mental health services that are culturally sensitive.

I recognize that I carry racial bias and fear toward Black men. I recognize this is a problem. How can I begin to address my own racial biases?

We all have bias, and it’s important that we recognize it, just as you are doing. Acknowledging your bias is a good first step. Now, I would encourage you to explore this bias further and find evidence against it. Do you know of any Black men who are not dangerous? Do you know white, Asian, Latino, or other individuals who are dangerous? Is it the combination of “Black” and “man” that is most scary to you? Or, are you also fearful of Black women? Is this a realistic representation of Black men? Start doing some exploration around these questions and challenge this bias that you have.

Do you have any educational resources or recommendations to help me learn more?

Great Big Story is an excellent resource for learning how to be a better ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. If you enjoy reading, Business Insider recently published a list of 22 books on race and white privilege, curated by Black professors and scholars.

For more information on implicit bias, UCLA and Harvard University both have excellent resources on understanding bias, including an Implicit Association Test to help you identify attitudes or beliefs you may carry that include bias. The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy also has a curriculum online for increasing empathy for others.

For more resources on the intersection of mental health and the experience of being Black in America, I recommend visiting NAMI’s website. This also has more information on barriers to mental health care for Black Americans as well as how to seek culturally competent care.

Dr. Holcomb is happy to address any other questions you have, so please feel free to send her an email at [email protected].


Understanding How Racial Trauma Affects the Black Community

Racism, whether subtle or direct, has long-term impacts on the mental and behavioral health of Black communities. Hear Dr. Jamila Holcomb, Ph.D., LMFT, discuss how racial trauma affects the Black community and ways both clinicians and organizations can better connect with Black clients.

Watch the On-Demand Webinar →

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