When people think about trauma, what often comes to mind is exposure to war, intimate partner violence, or car crashes. Trauma, however, can be more subtle but just as harmful. A car accident is a single moment in time that can lead to broken bones, scar tissue, and fears of getting behind the wheel. Discrimination, however, may be a lifetime's worth of mental and emotional cuts and bruises that are inflicted upon an individual. Every. Single. Day.
Discrimination can be blatant or covert, intentional or accidental. It can be a snide comment, a sideways glance, or being ignored altogether. It can be the feeling of being singled out and treated unfairly because of who you are, how you look, or your affiliation with the group of people you call community. It leaves people feeling unseen, unheard, and sometimes even unsafe. Whether we're talking about racism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, sexism, ageism, sizeism, ableism, or any form of discrimination where one is showing disgust for another based on an identity outside of one's control, it can be considered trauma.
When you look at how a person who survives a traumatic event experiences post-traumatic symptoms (not to be confused with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD), you will see a number of things. A person might find it difficult to see or think of reminders of the traumatic event. They might go out of their way to avoid places or people that bring up memories of it. And, if exposure to a trigger does happen, it can lead to a number of things like anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or significant fear.
When looking at people with oppressed identities, we see the same thing. People who experience discrimination as a result of their identity often go out of their way to avoid things that might trigger memories or feelings of being devalued and dehumanized. This can look like avoiding certain neighborhoods, not talking about certain aspects of their lives, or hiding parts of themselves so that they don't experience name calling or even physical harm.
The American Psychological Association posted a blog a few years ago bringing more light to how racial discrimination, racism, despite not always experiencing the definition of "Big T" trauma can lead an individual to have symptoms of PTSD. This is something that many in the field are highly aware of, but not many people talk about it. Why is that?
There are a number of reasons why discrimination might not be considered trauma. First, it's often seen as a normal part of life. Second, people may not want to admit that they're being harmed by something that is happening to them on a daily basis. Third, there is the assumption that people who experience discrimination can just "suck it up" or "deal with it." Finally, there is the belief that if you're strong enough, you won't be affected by discrimination.
All of these beliefs are harmful and untrue. Discrimination is trauma. It begs the question, however, of how in the world are we supposed to treat something that is so pervasive in our society? There are a few things we can do, whether you are a practitioner in the field of mental health or someone who simply cares for another human being.
Acknowledge your own biases. All of us have different identities that come together and make us who we are. That means there are many other identities, especially oppressed ones, that we are not ever going to have lived experience for or understand. Before we place judgment on the things we don't fully understand, it's important to acknowledge that we are coming from a place that lacks awareness of another person's life.
Challenge where your bias came from. We are all told messages, whether explicit or subtle, from the people around us about how we should think and respond to things that are unfamiliar. Maybe you've seen people criticize bodies that don't look absolutely perfect. Maybe you've heard friends use racial or homophobic slurs when insulting someone. Maybe you've watched as an employee in a store begins following around a person of color. These all communicate something: it's not okay to be xyz. When you've made those subtle messages explicit, think for a moment: is that really what you believe? If not, what do you believe?
Stay curious. It's important to ask questions in ways that are to gain understanding, not to challenge. We know that having your own harmful behaviors pointed out can result in defensiveness. We've all been there. However, it's important to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, we don't know everything there is to know about something and we can listen with humility. When you learn something, it's okay to say to acknowledge that you have!
Have these conversations with others. It might feel very uncomfortable to have open discussions about painful things that you may have contributed to. However, know this: we have all made missteps, and it is a good thing to acknowledge them. When you've contributed to someone's pain, it's a good thing to acknowledge your impact. Acknowledge where you hold privilege and reflect a bit on how this has shaped your life to overlook others. It's going to be uncomfortable. Learning is uncomfortable. AND it's okay to sit with the discomfort.
Advocate and speak up. We're not saying that you have to go out into the streets for the next protest in your community. However, it can be as little as calling in (not necessarily calling out!) a friend who uses harmful language, thinking about how you can make your space/presence feel comfortable and affirming, or getting involved in the community by writing letters to your public officials about how to make resources and spaces equitable for everyone.
Be kind to yourself. We've said it in other blog posts before: this is hard work. It's going to feel uncomfortable. It might feel confusing. The world is always changing to fit our complex and always-changing lives. We won't be able to keep up with every little detail, but the fact that you're trying says so much. Don't feel too discouraged when you get something wrong.
It's hard to acknowledge when you've been part of someone's trauma story. The fact of the matter is, each of us is in someone's story whether we know it or not. It's our responsibility, however, to decide whether we want to keep inflicting pain or contribute to the healing.
If you have experienced trauma from discrimination, know that we at Cultured Space see you. When you're ready to seek healing, we're here for you.