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Race-Based Trauma

"But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” -Ta-Nehisi Coates

The US history of colonialism, genocide, slavery, and white supremacy continues to impact BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) children and families through covert and overt forms of racism resulting in the death of Black and Brown lives. These forms of racism manifest in widespread structural and systemic racism, high prevalence of and tolerance for interpersonal racist acts, and intergenerational harm. There are many ways in which children and families are impacted, including:

  • being born into cycles of intergenerational trauma passing toxicity down in bodies, brains, and spirits
  • systemic exclusion, targeting, and violence
  • centuries of history and culture made invisibilized, dismissed, and controlled by white supremacy culture
  • environmental racism
  • racist land use and ownership policies and decisions
  • dehumanization and lack of belonging leading to feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, and suicidality
  • being subjected to narratives of “other”, “less”, or “inferior”
  • individual, interpersonal, and systemic instances of hate, violence, and marginalization
"The answer to why so many of us have difficulties is because our ancestors spent centuries here under unrelentingly brutal conditions. Generation after generation, our bodies stored trauma and intense survival energy, and passed these on to our children and grandchildren.” -Resmaa Menakem

Throughout our history and in our present in the US, racism and forced assimilation continue to undermine the very identities and value of BIPOC children and families - intentionally stripping away wellness, wholeness, and connection to ancestral practices and traditional ways of healing - and therefore serving as both a cause of trauma and an inhibitor of healing.

For most of its history, the field of child traumatic stress has focused on and given legitimacy to the kinds of trauma that result from individual direct exposures, while ignoring those traumas that are caused by secondary, communal, and/or vicarious exposures. Despite advancements in scientific and clinical knowledge, the field has failed to address exposure to racism as a pervasive child trauma exposure. Further, the field has failed to recognize and address how its own history, culture, and institutions cause race-based trauma and to mount a sustained effort to upend racism and its impact on children and families.

In spite of the lack of recognition and prioritization within the field as a whole, many scholars have worked to define and name the impact of racism on levels of traumatic stress for BIPOC children and families. These include, but are not limited to: Racial Trauma (Kenneth Hardy, PhD, Monica Williams, PhD), Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (Joy DeGruy, PhD), Racial Battle Fatigue (William A. Smith, PhD), Racialized Trauma (Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW), Race-Based Traumatic Stress (Robert T. Carter, PhD), and Historical Trauma (Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD). In addition, there are many others who are unnamed here but who have dedicated their lives to truth-telling and building a greater understanding of these harms and pathways toward healing.

In spite of these many harms, both historical and ongoing, BIPOC individuals and communities have continued to thrive, find joy, create ways to heal, and build toward liberation. In order to address race-based trauma, child and family serving professionals and systems must be willing to name its pervasiveness and impact, and they must commit to amplifying, supporting, and following the lead of BIPOC experts and communities who have actively been doing the work of dismantling white supremacy culture and reclaiming their own healing.

"Colonial psychology & psychiatry reveal their allegiance to the status quo in their approach to trauma: that resourcing must come from within oneself rather than from the collective. that trauma recovery is feeling safe in society, when in fact society is the source of trauma…we are not, in the end, preparing the body to ‘return’ to the general safety of society…we are preparing the body, essentially for struggle- training for better survival & the ability to experience joy in the midst of great danger." -Kai Cheng Thom

This page is currently in progress and will continue to grow, evolve, and have more information and resources added. If you have questions or feedback, you can email

NCTSN Resources

The following resources on Race-Based Trauma were developed by the NCTSN.