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According to Mental Health America, racial trauma or also known as race-based traumatic stress (RBTS) is “the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. Any individual that has experienced an emotionally painful, sudden, and uncontrollable racist encounter is at risk of suffering from a race-based traumatic stress injury” (MHA, 2022). I would have a really difficult time believing that a BIPOC individual living in western society has never in their life encountered some form of racial bias and/or discrimination based on race. Which means that most of our population is living with RBTS whether they are conscious of it or not. There are very REAL psychological and physiological symptoms associated with RBTS, if you’ve experienced any of the below, you are not alone and should probably seek support.

  • PTSD-like symptoms

✓ Distress relating to trauma

✓ Avoiding things that remind the person of the trauma

✓ Intense anxiety or depression relating to the trauma

✓ Feeling distracted by memories or thoughts of the trauma

✓ Negative thoughts about self, other people, or the world

✓ Increased sensitivity and reactivity

  • Dissociation – Feeling numb or disconnected from themselves or others

  • Low self-esteem

  • Physical pain

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Hypertension

  • Higher allostatic load – the wear and tear of the body caused by chronic stress

  • Digestive issues (ODU, 2022)

Racial trauma is being under a chronic state of psychological and physiological distress caused by racially nuanced events and experiences that trigger painful emotional & mental responses. The safe spaces and people available in our environment to process and cope with these emotions are so scares which continues to feed into the cycle of distress itself. – Lethicia

As immigrants in this Canada, my family has always valued two things: hard-work and discipline. I, second generation immigrant, was no different. I started to understand how unfair this world was when I immigrated to Montreal, at the age of 8 and was bullied, intimidated, racially traumatized by fellow peers, adults themselves and the systems around me. By the age of 12, you could say that I joined the workforce and started to hustle. I did door to door chocolate sales, where I made $1 per chocolate sold, selling on average 50 tablets a day. $50/day, which I did 5 days a week, for roughly 4 hours a day, for 4 weeks of the summer. While people my age went to summer camps, travelled, summer vacations and went to their grandparents’ cottages, I worked and could make up to $1000 in a month. When September came around, teachers loved to ask, “what did you do this summer?” uggggh, and of course I had nothing half as fun to talk about. By age 14, I started working at my local Dairy Queen restaurant, where I worked all year long while being a full-time high school student, playing competitive sports and doing school extracurriculars. My peers at this time, still mostly went on lavish family vacations, cottages, boat cruises, fishing and all kinds of other fancy stuff my family couldn’t indulge in. Not only that but they had free tickets into post-secondary education while I had to set myself up for scholarships and financial security to simply be able to attend those same universities and colleges. I always heard “you just have to work hard there’s no excuse because we all have the same opportunities” which I never took for granted, thus why I worked hard. With a 4.0 GPA I could get admission anywhere; I was brilliant, and I knew it. I never quite understood why my peers weren’t doing half the things I had to do and yet were never half as worried as me about accessing post-secondary. Perhaps working hard had different definitions for different groups of people? I don’t know. All I do know is, I didn’t go to parties, or go on drinking binges, nor had the luxury of engaging in self-destructive behaviors most teens around me did.

By age 18, after graduating high school, I moved to a different city on my own, where I studied full time for 4 years to do my undergrad including completing crazy numbers of non-paid internships with a 20-25hours per week part-time job to support myself. Some peers I studied with during that time had parents pay their schooling, rent and living expenses. For the ones who took student loans, they used it to go on vacations in Hawaii or Punta Cana. By age 21, I moved to crazy city Toronto to complete my masters, where again completing crazy hours of non-paid internship, working part time to support myself and hours of commute as I lived far from the school. The story continued all the way ‘til now, with me working full time hours for demanding systems and doing private practice part time to support other dreams and aspirations.

I hope that so far, you’ve found the common denominator in my professional story. I’ve never had a break. I didn’t grow up wealthy, I didn’t have the lavish experience. I’ve worked hard, and remained disciplined since I was just a little girl. I thought that’s what I had to do, probably like most immigrant thought they had to do. Yet, people are going to have the audacity to look at me, see the color of my skin and assume all kind of stereotypes and things that could never align with my values and principles and then expect me to just be fine with it and not ever bring it up because it’d make them feel uncomfortable? Throughout all my employments, internships, volunteering, never have I been in a space where I wasn’t the obvious minority. In case some of you don’t know, it’s uncomfortable. I hate it. Most BIPOC people will tell you that they hate it. So, understand that just existing in the same space is challenging daily. Never have I walked into a room feeling like I wasn’t going to be scrutinized or had to work twice as hard to deconstruct what people may or may not have been thinking about people that looked like me. To sit in a room with all the knowledge that’s in my brain, all the impactful things I’ve accomplished in my life, and yet never feeling like it’s enough for people to see or let alone respect you for it? It makes me question, what the f**ck is the point of “you just got to work hard”??

Along with other colleagues, we make jokes about this because if we don’t, we might slip into a major depressive episode just thinking about it. We admitted to one another that sometimes we park our cars outside of work, and we have mini panic attacks and feel extremely anxious about the day ahead and just walking into the building. Being at work isn’t safe and our nervous system reminds us of that. For many people of color this is a reality, especially when it’s the place where most of your racial trauma is triggered daily. It feels like our nervous systems are shot, and chronically heightened, but because “you just got to work hard” we keep going until we break. Speaking from personal experience, this level of stress chronically isn’t good for our health, it’s actual toxic for the body as it releases to much of the hormone called cortisol. It will affect people differently, but for me due to pre-existing family history, I gained a lot of weight unexplainably, became emotionally sensitive to many things, isolated from people when I could, felt chronically fatigued and lived with chronic pains in my body for a very long time, which all makes stress levels even worse. I have nightmares and difficulty sleeping thinking about things that happen at work during the day from the obvious micro-aggressions to the more subtle ones that eat away at you for days because you cannot make sense of it.

The recent shooting that took place in Buffalo, NY was a difficult one to swallow. I work within a system that wants to pride itself for being progressive and wanting to reconcile with hurt communities and yet, they said and did nothing. No supporting words, no kind messaging, no check-up on their own staff and the saddest part, no support to their students. A few days after, there was another school mass shooting in Texas where many students and teachers lost their lives. In a heartbeat, the organization sent out a supportive message to the community. No life is above another. I think both shootings were horrific and devastating. What does however hit home as another micro-aggression is the fact that the same level of care wasn’t shared with the black community, and which also barely trended on the internet as is. When things like this happen so often, that’s what leads to believe that to most, black lives don’t matter. Or at least don’t matter as much.

Through all this, it’s important to find healthy ways to cope with your symptoms while addressing the true causes of your experience. I want to share a few things I’ve learn to practice to stay sane and preserve my health, mental health and overall sense of well-being:

1. I don’t watch the News. I feel like watching the News is like inviting bad energy in my spirit so I minimize that as much as I can. It also applies to social media platforms that may share News and all things that may be triggering for my fragile nerves.

2. I limit my interaction with white people. It may sound harsh but it’s the honest truth. Some white folks are WOKE enough and can hold meaningful conversations with you about race and you can come out of it feeling good. However, most of the ones in my spaces, especially at work, just aren’t. Being in their presence is enough to trigger me both for the ignorant things they say along with the ignorant things they do in their respective lives or in my presence.

3. I make sure I recharge my tank. Spending a whole day in an environment in which you don’t feel safe is draining both physically and mentally. It’s important for me to set time aside to recharge my tank. On different days, it can look different. I might take a nap, watch something on TV, talk with a friend/family, I might enjoy the outdoors, go out to eat, paint, and when I can travel out of town to get away from that space all together.

4. I practice grounding techniques. When the nervous system is in overdrive, it’s important to soothe it so it can regulate. The easiest way to remember how to ground oneself is by using one of your 6 senses. What works well for me is during my lunch break, taking 10min to do some deep breathing and a short meditation in my office. If I can, I’ll even lay down and allow myself to do some visualization to escape the present. Calms me down long enough to get through the day.

5. I try to talk about it. It is so difficult to talk about one’s racial experience in very white spaces without feeling like you might be attacked for speaking your truth. When it is significant enough, I will say something. I’ll be going crazy afterwards but it’s important for me to establish some form of boundary no matter how it’s received by the other party. I will speak up and name it. There’s something quite powerful about being able to name the things that bother us and/or eating away at our sense of self. If it’s difficult to say something to the person causing you harm, talk to a colleague, a friend, or even your therapist! Whenever it, just find a way to talk about how it makes you feel.

6. I don’t work hard anymore. I know right? That’s wild. I’ve learned the hard way that “working hard” isn’t getting me anywhere. I work smart. I give what I can, when I can, and I am learning to not pour my all into the things and people that do not serve me. I am learning that I will be valued at the same title as any of my co-workers even if that means not getting the same opportunities for advancement. I am okay with not working hard anymore. Since we are all so equal, let’s do equal work and be appreciated as equally. No more going above and beyond, it’s cost me my health and I will not let it cost me my sanity as well.

7. I am putting myself first. What that looks like in the workplace? I take my breaks and my lunch. I am known for not wanting to be disturbed and I say “no” like it’s nobody’s business. I take my sick days as mental health days, I use my benefits to take care of my body and mind, I set boundaries that separate work and personal life, I make sure I don’t take on more than needed, I take my leaves and vacations with zero guilt. I always remind myself of this, if something happens to me, I will be replaced by the net person. No one should care about me like me. I hope you can remember the same for you!

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