We’ve Been Breaking: Attending to Racial Trauma During Resistance

Jun 9, 2020
4:19 PM

A protester holds white daises in downtown Los Angeles, June 7, 2020 (Photo by Francisco Lozano/Latino Rebels)

“No man’s death is indispensable for the triumph of freedom. It happens that one must accept the risk of death to bring freedom to birth, but it is not lightly that one witnesses so many massacres and so many acts of ignominy” – Frantz Fanon

When check-in texts started pouring in after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, (and after the killing of Breonna Taylor, and after the killing of George Floyd, and after the killing of Tony McDade) my immediate reaction was a numbed frustration. Why should this moment be my breaking point? Why these stories? Why not the stories of the many Black incarcerated people who receive mental health treatment in the form of indefinite confinement? Or those that have lost decades of their adult lives for mistakes made in their adolescence? Why not their families, fractured by state and federal actors that drain community resources in the process? Why not the millions previously and continuously smothered under the weight of our criminal justice system?

The answer emerges as quickly as my frustration: not everyone is forced to witness all of this breakage. So when hi-def footage begins to circulate on social media, non-Black people are subject to the first-hand trauma of how authority too often responds to Blackness. But these videos are just glimpses. The synchronized “how are you doing” texts so many of us are receiving these days can suggest that we haven’t already been experiencing ongoing breaking points. For some people, their breaking point was earlier this year, losing an elder to a pandemic that has disproportionately claimed Black lives. For others, it was the expectation of carrying on through their predominantly White workplace as if their worlds weren’t falling apart. My breaking point came in January, when I sobbed to my partner after a 6-hour interview with an incarcerated Black woman in New York that had endured decades of abuse. When people’s breaking points don’t line up with national tragedies, they are often invisible.

This particular moment of national tragedy has done more than just highlight the individual traumas that the Arbery, Taylor, Floyd, and McDade families have to endure. It has laid bare the severity of collective wounding that Black Americans have been negotiating in our daily lives for generations. Racial trauma reflects the cumulative and insidious ways that racism actively wears down the mind, body, and spirit. It has been understood to afflict people individually —with symptoms that can expand beyond those traditionally associated with PTSD— and collectively, by shaping how people understand their cultural identity and the humanity of those that look like them.

For Black people, racial trauma doesn’t assume that whiteness would render us impervious but rather, in the face of a torrent of tragedy that we might think, “if not for my Blackness then maybe….” In this moment of speculation, our love for ourselves, our people, and our culture is forced to reckon with the myriad of ways in which the nation seems to conspire against it. And this current moment presents new scales of breakage. Even among those Black folks who have weathered storms of racial trauma, and whose grounding in self has remained unflinching, the combination of devastating and unequal losses through the COVID-19 pandemic with sustained state-sanctioned violence against Black people has understandably served as a breaking point. And in response, a generational tradition of resistance has shone through along with the pain. Resistance has looked peaceful and riotous, hopeful and despairing, focused and ubiquitous. It has held all of the complexities of emotion and logic that guide people who want a just world in which those they care about most deeply are safe.  As many others have suggested, I would also offer that this social resistance can both lay bare the wounds of racial trauma while also actively healing.

What does it mean to attend to these wounds? The ones that are currently motivating millions to mobilize online and on the ground against a deeply-entrenched system? In the same way that racial trauma and resistance have persisted through generations, so has the radical thought needed to integrate them. Scholars from within the tradition of African-Centered psychology have intimated the importance of attending to trauma during political movements, not just in their aftermath. Otherwise, trauma can be turned inwards, towards peoples’ friends, families, and communities. In this way, an untended fire, meant to protect the people we love, can inadvertently engulf those same people. Healing begins by recognizing and holding those contradictory ideas. We need to remain deeply pained by injustice while remaining steadfast in love for ourselves. While there is a level of urgency that guides these protests and engagement, these are fights that will unfortunately remain for years to come. The breakings will happen again, and we need to keep developing a practice of tender presence and repair, for when they do.

For further guidance, here are just a few of the organizations that provide emotional support and nourishment for Black people:

Association of Black Psychologists: A professional organization dedicated to advancing theory, promoting treatment, and engaging in activism for Black people. Currently such endeavors include the launch of virtual emotional support healing groups developed for Black first responders, but since expanded for Black people generally. For more information on leading or attending healing circles contact: virtualhealingcircles@abpsi.org.

For more information visit abpsi.org.

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation: An organization launched by Taraji P. Henson to address mental health among Black people. Their website offers a directory of Black therapists as well as free teletherapy.

For more information visit: borishensonfoundation.org.

Black Emotional and Mental Health (BEAM) Collective: BEAM is a mental health organization that seeks to provide education, training, art, and advocacy that target mental health among Black people.

For more information visit: beam.community.

Therapy For Black Girls: Therapy For Black Girls started as a podcast and now is one of the largest hubs for Black mental health awareness. Their website features a directory to find Black therapists as well as an online community for Black women to find healing.

For more information visit: therapyforblackgirls.com.


Evan Auguste is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at Fordham University. He recently published an academic piece overviewing how Haitian Vodou has been key in Haitian mental health interventions. He tweets from @SonDessalines.