Since European expansion into the Americas, white people have demonized Black people and portrayed them as undesirable, violent and hypersexual. Originally, the intent of this demonization was to legitimize the conquest and sale of African people.
One consequence of this negative portrayal has been the documented psychological impact on Black people themselves. It includes self-hatred, internalized racism and an erosion of Black consciousness within the Black community.
During the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the consequences of racist stereotypes and tried to change the language and symbols of racism.
“Somebody told a lie one day,” King said. “They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word white and it’s always something pure. …”
Though King longed for the day when the word “black” would be associated with beauty, Black people are still coping with feelings of alienation as a result of what is known as racialized trauma, the emotional impact of racism, racial discrimination and violence on mostly Black people.
I am a psychologist and professor of counseling. In our 2022 peer-reviewed article, mental health counselor Janeé M. Steele and I detail the mental injuries caused by encounters with racial bias, hostility, discrimination and harassment.
More important, our research has shown that healing from racialized trauma can help reduce the negative impacts of racism and provide the emotional resources necessary to challenge racial injustices.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.”
Common ways people are exposed to racialized trauma include everyday slights such as a store owner following a person of color around the store, racial slurs, denied opportunities, racial profiling and hate crimes.
These encounters, known as race-based events, may occur directly between individuals or groups of people, or they may happen indirectly – for example, as a result of watching a video of police brutality.