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Racial Trauma and Police Brutality

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Providing a brief understanding of Racial trauma and its impacts on the Black community in light of the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests.

In light of the shocking and disturbing news of the unjust murders of #GeorgeFloyd #AhmaudAbery #BreonnaTaylor by police officers and vigilantes of the state, we would like to bring awareness to, and highlight the mental health impacts of exposure to traumatic racial incidents to the Black community.

So what is racial trauma?

Racial trauma refers to peoples’ reaction to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination. These include threats of harm and injury, humiliating and shaming events, and witnessing racial discrimination towards another Black person. Exposure to these experiences can occur either directly or indirectly, through the learning of, or witnessing of an event of the sort.

As such, exposure to police brutality – where officers exercise undue or excessive force against a civilian resulting in harassment, injury, property damage, and death – against a Black person can evoke racial trauma amongst Black people. Particularly as police brutality towards Black people is known to be fuelled by racial bias and racial profiling.

Experiencing racial trauma is even more likely in an age of social media, where individuals can easily access, witness or learn of incidences of police brutality. Prior exposure to racial discrimination, microaggressions, racial trauma’s historical roots or even vicarious traumatisation can also increase the likelihood of Black people experiencing racial trauma after being exposed to police brutality.

With this in mind, it is increasingly important that those affected are aware of how to cope with news circulating around these recent events.

So how do we recognise race-based trauma?

Similar to the symptoms of PTSD, researchers have argued that individuals experiencing Race-based trauma react in the four main ways:

One may also experience diminished self-worth, feelings of confusion, shame and self-blame which can increase risk of depression and anxiety. Further impacts are summarised below:

However, it should be noted that not everyone will experience racial trauma in response to the recent police brutality cases.

Whether or not one becomes traumatised is based on many things including coping strategies and if the incident is perceived to be negative, sudden and uncontrollable. Therefore a lot of Black people may have already developed coping strategies to deal with the recent events in light of the several previously reported police brutality incidents against unarmed black men and women. Accordingly, reports have concluded that Black people are 3x more likely to be killed by police than white people, with often no accountability for the officers involved. This can make the repetitive witnessing or learning of police brutality against Black people feel like an inevitable event, which can sadly lead to desensitisation to trauma.

Radical reform is needed of the systems that perpetuate such incidents.

However, this does not diminish the urgent need for therapeutic support amongst Black people. The following tips can be useful for anyone trying to understand, process and cope with their emotions in response to the recent events:

If you are in need of professional help, please aim to seek a culturally reflective, sensitive and competent service or practitioner who can emphasise with and validate your emotions surrounding racism and police brutality.

Note. Information from this thread was drawn from Robert T. Carter’s (2007) Theory of race-based traumatic events, a perspective largely ignored in the UK’s psychology curricula and scarcely researched.


Carter, R. T. (2007). Racism and psychological and emotional injury: Recognizing and assessing race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist, 35(1), 13-105.

Champlin, K., Oldham, C., Salvatoriello, P., Zhao, H., & Fang, Z. (2017, January 17). Police Brutality. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from Legal Dictionary.

Comas-Díaz, L., Hall, G. N., & Neville, H. A. (2019). Racial trauma: Theory, research, and healing: Introduction to the special issue. American Psychologist, 74(1), 1-5.

Metzger, L. (2019). Don't Shoot: Race-Based Trauma and Police Brutality. Retrieved from,

Mapping Police Violence. (2017). Mapping Police Violence. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from



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