Race-Based Trauma: The Blacks And The Blues

“There is a systemic targeting of African-Africans and a systemic lack of accountability when police use excessive force.  This is a national problem.  It is deeply disturbing.  And it has real life effects.”

-Rep Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) US Congressman

“Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver (Philando Castile) and the passengers, were white?  I don’t think it would have…I think all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront that this kind of racism exists.”

-Mark Dayton, Governor, Minnesota

“Black men are on the endangered species list.”

-Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile

Dear Dr. Kane,

I am writing because I need help.  I’m frightened, and I don’t know what to do.  I have three sons ages 16, 12 and 8.  We have all seen the videos of police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.   We have watched all of the media coverage and engaged in online conversations, and I am exhausted.  My fears are overwhelming me, and it is impacting my work.  I am unable to sleep.   I find myself always calling and checking on my children.

I have spoken to my pastor about this, but he feels this will pass. We have prayed together, but I want to do more.  Please help.

-Worried Mom, Seattle


My Dear Readers,

It may look like the world is turning upside down. It is shocking and saddening to all of us that lives of African-Americans and police officers have been needlessly taken.  As these horrific events unfold, we are being bombarded with continuous media coverage of the events.  As a result, we are continuously exposed to race-based trauma that is compounded through repeated media coverage and sharing over social media outlets.

Race-based trauma can occur in several forms:

  • Witnessing ethno-violence or discrimination against another person,
  • Historical or personal memory of racism,
  • Institutional racism,
  • Micro or macro aggressions, and
  • Hypervigilance due to the constant threat of racial discrimination.


Race-based trauma can come from any traumatic event and can be marked by an acute state of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.  This is an acute trauma, which means that if it is not treated in a reasonable timeframe, it can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder.

Vicarious trauma is a term that has been utilized to define the constant re-exposing of trauma workers to traumatized clients and the reports of traumatic experiences.  This definition has been extended to include persons impacted by repetitive or continuous media viewing of traumatic events.  Therefore, it is important to be aware of the possible emotional and psychological harm that can occur by following traumatic events via social media or online conversations.

Understanding How the Brain Responds to Trauma

  • In anticipation of the pain, the body signals the brain to activate the limbic system
  • The limbic system is responsible for the functions that inform one’s survival instincts and reflexes
  • The limbic system also regulates autonomic nervous system and informs one’s stress and relaxation.
  • The amygdala lights up and begins attaching emotional meaning to these sensation
  • It is the amygdala that signals other parts of the brain that there is danger (habitual pain) and sends outputs to the  hypothalamus for activation of the sympathetic nervous system
  • This creates a freeze, fight or flight response within the individual


Signs of trauma include the following:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Feeling sad or hopeless


It is through regular processing of the feelings that these events evoke that one is able to achieve a sense of well-being as well as growing and maintaining good connections with others.  When a traumatic event occurs, the brain becomes deregulated, creating a disconnection that moves the person away from being safe with themselves and with others.

Self Care After Emotional & Psychological Trauma

Use the Five R’s of RELIEF (respite, reactions, reflections, response and reevaluation)

Respite-Step Away

  • Disconnect from triggering interactions or other situations that may elicit the freeze, fight or flight response

Reactions– Own them

  • Take responsibility for your feelings
  • Understand the consequences of undirected anger/rage

Reflect-Seek balance in your feelings & thoughts

  • Find ways to exert physical energy
  • Create a daily routine that includes brisk walking or jogging
  • Find safe ways to discharge intense feelings and respond to mood swings

Response-Openly Communicate

  • Ask for help
  • Find a support group
  • Seek counseling or therapy
  • Connect with others within your community

Reevaluate –Self Care; consider the following:

  • Am I eating well?
  • Am I getting enough rest?
  • What is my intake of alcohol?
  • Am I maintaining my exercise regime?


Concluding Words

“Will my son live to see another day?  This question is now my reality.”

-Dr. Micheal Kane

“We’re hurting.  Our profession is hurting. Dallas officers are hurting. We are heart broken.”

-David Brown, Dallas police chief

It is without question that Black Lives Matter, but the same is true for the lives of those who wear the blue uniform of law enforcement.  We currently live in fear of each other.  Regardless of the reasons, this is our sad reality.

Many are expressing fear due to the actions of the recent past and the uncertainties that lie ahead.  We are taught to control and manage our fear, but because it is impossible to do so, we move with anxiety and hesitation.  Fear is not a bad emotion; it is simply an emotion that we can choose to balance in our lives.

The fear that divides us will not dissipate overnight.  Because this fear is also historical and intergenerational, it will not dissipate over time, either.  African-Americans will continue to live in fear of law enforcement and police will continue to live in fear of black males unless we focus on the work of healing the vast wounds and closing the gaps that thrive between us.

Time, in and of itself, does not heal wounds.  Time can be meaningless.  It is the work we do, utilizing the time that is given to us that will heal our wounds. Until we are ALL willing to do that work, the best any of us can do is to move towards living WITH our fear instead of living IN our fear.

Now is the time to do the work.

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…

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