The Emotional Trauma of Racism

Featured Artwork: Daylight Illustrations


I cried when I heard the story of Althea Bernstein, an 18-year-old biracial woman whose face and neck were burned by white men wielding lighter fluid in Wisconsin, though she fortunately survived. It’s clear that this was a racist hate crime, given that her attackers called her a racial slur just beforehand. Althea is one of an innumerable amount of Black people who have been violently harmed at the hands of white supremacy. It’s a well-known fact that racism harms and kills in so many different situations — whether you’re driving and have stopped at a red light like Althea had, or if police officers brutalized you and ignored your distress like they did to George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and Eric Garner. If you’re sleeping at home like Breonna Taylor was. If your children whose deaths the state does not adequately investigate, like Shukri Abdi and Christopher Kapessa. Or if you’re a patient that doctors are ignoring like Kira Dixon Johnson. For others, racism and other forms of discrimination intersect, such as transphobia, as they did for 17-year-old Brayla Stone, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, and Riah Milton — three Black transwomen.

My emotional response to Althea’s story reminded me of when I first heard about the death of Kira Dixon Johnson. Last year, medical drama The Resident did an episode inspired by and dedicated to Kira, which highlighted how racism plays a role in maternal mortality rates. In April 2016, Kira died just 12 hours after delivering her second son via cesarian section, due to heavy internal bleeding. Blood was noticed in her urine but her doctor was not notified until several hours later, despite her husband pleading for help, meaning that her death was preventable but she was ignored. At the end of the episode dedicated to Kira, I broke down crying. It was a tangible example of how pervasive and insidious racism is in our world, and that the ways in which it can kill us are varied. Kira’s story was particularly harrowing for me because I want to be a mother someday — which is deeply important to me. But yet in the UK, where I live, Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

Also in the UK, recently two Metropolitan Police officers were arrested after taking ‘selfies’ with and other pictures of two deceased Black women, sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, who had been stabbed to death in a North London park. This heartbreaking story is unfortunately another addition to the extensive list of the ways in which people, state employees or otherwise, view Black people as subhuman, and therefore violate our dignity because they do not view us as people deserving of respect. Bibaa and Nicole’s mother, Mina Smallman, described it as an example of how toxic things have become as “those police officers felt so safe, so untouchable, that they could take photographs.” It’s an enormously disturbing and equally terrifying reality that people like me are forced to navigate. It’s also incredibly exhausting.

It’s not uncommon for Black people to feel fatigued in the face of such rampant and inescapable anti-Blackness, especially in the current racial climate. It affects us in all aspects of our lives; from offhand racist comments in our day-to-day conversations to the fact that people with ethnic names are less likely to be hired by employers. In the face of recent mass international protest and organisation within the Black Lives Matter movement, I have seen many Black people remind themselves and others to take very necessary social media breaks. Consuming and engaging with so much content that details and describes the lengths to which people will go to dehumanise and mistreat you is so mentally and emotionally exhausting that these breaks are crucial. Racism can have a profound psychological and emotional impact on those who deal with it, which can be worsened by the valid fear of experiencing further racism from mental health service providers. This constant infliction of racism upon us is demoralising and traumatising.

I have been open about my mental health before, having dealt with depression, anxiety, and other conditions, so for me personally the last few weeks have been incredibly difficult, and I know they have been for others too — regardless of whether they have previous experiences with mental health issues. For non-Black allies of the Black Lives Matter movement and those committed to anti-racism, especially those who are white, this kind of emotional and mental trauma caused by racism often goes unseen. On that note, this article isn’t a call for you to check in on your Black friends, because if they are your friends you should have been doing that anyway, as well as doing anti-racism work where you can. Do your own research without expecting your Black friends to do the emotional labour of explaining racism to you, which can also have negative psychological impacts. I wrote this article to vent mostly, because I find writing therapeutic, but also to draw attention to the less-visible but equally insidious ways that white supremacy harms Black people.

Bearing witness to the variety of ways in which people actively choose to violate and disrespect your people across the globe perpetuates profound pain and anguish within our communities.

If you are Black, live in the UK, and are in need of mental health services, please consider checking out the Black, African, and Asian Therapy Network. If you would like to support efforts to provide Black people with improved mental health services, please support Black Minds Matter UK and Black Thrive, the latter of which focuses on Black residents of the London Borough of Lambeth. Please also support and donate to the Black LGBTQIA+ Therapy Fund and the Exist Loudly Fund for Black LGBTQIA+ people. And of course, take those social media breaks whenever you need them in order to protect your mental and emotional wellbeing.

Janiene Farquharson

Janiene is a writer, editor, and Modern History graduate. A huge fan of literature and television, these make up a good portion of her writing, as well as a look into social issues.

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