What Is Racial Trauma? An Interview with Dr. Jamila Holcomb

Trauma-informed care practices have become increasingly popular within human service organizations, as well as across school systems, criminal justice systems, and healthcare. Professionals and clinicians within human services are increasingly expanding their awareness of how trauma impacts the populations they serve, and how they can better address symptoms of trauma.

One aspect of trauma-informed care that is beginning to gain more awareness is how trauma impacts people of color. Current events surrounding police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other issues of racism in America have spurred more clinicians to consider the nuances of how these events impact their clients of color, especially Black individuals.

Dr. Jamila Holcomb, a licensed marriage and family therapist and faculty member at Florida State University, has extensive experience researching the impact of trauma on Black children and families. She sat down with Relias to discuss racial trauma and its implications for clinicians and persons served.

What led you to begin researching racial trauma?

When I went to Florida State to get my doctorate degree, I was trying to figure out what I was interested in researching. Clinically I have always been interested in working with children and families, but as I started looking at research, I found that I was passionate about supporting and helping Black children and their families.

I realized that a lot of the literature I was reading was really negative regarding Black families, so I wanted to take a more positive approach in my research. I started looking at ways that Black families cope with racial trauma, such as the ways they prepare their children for racist experiences. So, my research always took a more positive spin on how we protect kids and their families from racial trauma.

But then I started to realize that a lot of people don’t even know what racial trauma is! So, I thought, maybe we need to backtrack a little bit and talk about what it is, how impactful it is, and then get into what families can do to try to cope with racial trauma.

How do you define racial trauma?

It seems like a complicated topic, and it can seem like there is a lot that goes into it. But, broadly, it includes the psychological, emotional, and physical impacts of experiencing racism.

There are a few categories of racism where this trauma can occur. First, there is interpersonal racism, which occurs within a relationship. This can include bias, discrimination, or violence that occurs between individuals because of someone’s race. There is also institutional racism that occurs at an organizational level, within their policies, hiring practices, and disciplinary actions. Then, we have systemic racism. This is the racism that is embedded in the foundation of everything around us. This includes how organizations interact together, how institutions interact, and how our political system is structured. Racism and racial trauma can play out in all of these different levels.

How does racial trauma affect the Black community specifically?

Racial trauma affects the Black community in a variety of ways. It affects an individual’s mental health, including self-esteem, sense of safety, and can cause PTSD-like symptoms. We also see impacts on physical health, such as somatic symptoms (like headaches or stomachaches), increases in hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and increases in substance use. It can affect relational dynamics too—you can be distrustful or fearful of certain people or groups, which can lead you to withdraw from different social interactions. So now you could be isolated from your community or from different opportunities because you may not feel safe.

On a larger scale, we see racial trauma affect the Black community by creating a lack of access to resources. This includes a lack of access to mental health care and healthcare in general, not as many opportunities for economic advancement, and disproportionate access to educational opportunities—it’s wide-reaching. It makes it so that it’s really difficult to mobilize and advance your community when you are being held back and marginalized in pretty much every area.

How does racial trauma affect children, emerging adults, and families?

With children, it will impact their initial understanding of race. It will impact their worldview, which then impacts their self-esteem. If a child is Black, and they are internalizing this as negative or believe that people perceive this as negative, that will impact their sense of self and ability to be successful in the future.

In emerging adults, it gets a little more complex, because they now have the cognitive capacity to understand the complexities of racism. You’ll have all the same mental health concerns that I mentioned before, but it also impacts their identity development as well, which is critical during this stage. Developing a positive racial identity during this time has very strong protective factors for combating racism, but if you are experiencing racial trauma during this developmental period, it can negatively impact your success of establishing a positive racial identity.

For families, they have the burden of supporting one another through racial trauma and preparing children for experiencing it. It places undue stress on families to try to cope and navigate the barriers that racial trauma and racism present.

How do you see racial trauma affecting Black clinicians?

It really impacts Black clinicians’ mental health and their ability to be healthy and successful. They are there to support their client through experiences of racial trauma, but Black clinicians are also being traumatized. So, it becomes two-fold: you’re experiencing racial trauma in your personal life, but then you’re experiencing the vicarious trauma of hearing your clients discuss their experiences with racial trauma.

You can also have “racial battle fatigue” as a Black clinician—you feel compelled to provide your services, to use your voice to advocate, and to educate others about racism, especially during times of need. But it’s exhausting. So, you become fatigued from the education and support, and you’re also being traumatized in your personal and professional life. It takes a significant toll on Black clinicians, especially because there are not many of us, so the need is very high. As a Black therapist, it’s really important to go to your own therapy and have some social supports to be able to balance the countertransference and vicarious trauma.

Between Black clinicians and non-Black clients, they could potentially by triggered by things their non-Black clients are processing with them. Microaggressions can happen all the time, and they can happen frequently in the therapeutic relationship. Their clients might have different views about race or racism and believe that therapy is a safe place to discuss these issues, but it can re-traumatize the clinician. In these situations, it is important to try to manage the countertransference—how do I support and be authentic to myself, while also supporting and helping my client be their authentic self?

Are there any negative repercussions when clinicians fail to address racial trauma?

I think it’s our ethical duty to do so—I don’t think we are following our ethical code if we don’t actually address racial trauma. If you ignore it or avoid it, not only are you not helping your client, you are harming them—you are choosing to participate in a racist system that marginalizes that client. Even if you don’t say anything, sometimes saying nothing tells the client that you are uncomfortable, or worse, that you don’t see it as an issue. This devalues and minimizes their experience, and pretty much any therapeutic work after that could be fruitless.

What are some best practices for addressing racial trauma with persons served?

One of the best practices that I can’t stress enough is doing a lot your own work to learn about racism and racial trauma. No matter what intervention or clinical practice you follow, if you engage in microaggressions or display implicit bias, that will re-traumatize the client all over again, even if your intentions are elsewhere. You want to make sure you’ve done your own homework and self-exploration of your biases, and that you understand the impacts of racism and the Black experience. That’s going the be the number one best practice.

Overall, there are some other things to consider. There are steps you can take to help address racial trauma, which includes affirming and acknowledging that racial trauma exists and working to create a safe space to talk about these issues in the therapy room. Historically, Black experiences have been devalued, so the therapeutic space needs to be one where their experience is validated and the client is empowered.

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Dr. Jamila Holcomb

Teaching Faculty, Florida State University: Family and Child Sciences Department

Dr. Jamila Holcomb is Teaching Faculty at Florida State University in their Family and Child Sciences Department. She teaches undergraduate courses on parenting, adolescent development, and public policy related to children and their families. Dr. Holcomb is also a licensed marriage and family therapist in Florida, specializing in individual, family, and trauma counseling. Dr. Holcomb obtained her master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) from The Family Institute at Northwestern University, and her Ph.D. in MFT from Florida State University. Her dissertation was titled: Predictors of Ethnic-Racial Socialization Profiles in Early Childhood Among African American Parents. Dr. Holcomb completed her clinical training at Northwestern’s Bette D. Harris Family and Child Clinic and FSU’s Center for Couple and Family Therapy. She also has experience working with children and their families involved in the child welfare system and who are survivors of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. Dr. Holcomb is certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), and Adoption Competency. She is also trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

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