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Peer Perspectives

Understanding Racial Trauma-Informed Interventions

By Alexandra Pajak, LCSW

As the United States continues to become more racially diverse, the activities of white supremacists are increasing. Social workers may encounter clients of color who have experienced racial trauma by this population. Education on the activities of white supremacist organizations, the psychological impact of traumatic behavior inflicted upon communities of color, and a working knowledge of racial trauma-informed interventions may assist social workers in the treatment of clients who have experienced this trauma.

Activities of White Supremacist Organizations
The white supremacist movement comprises various subgroups, including neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the Alt-Right, and white supremacist prison gangs. Most white supremacists are not formal members of white supremacist organizations, but are instead loosely connected to the movement. Although the number of white supremacists has not increased, extremist activity has shown a surge in violence since 2009. Within the last 10 years, social media has increased the ability and frequency of members of the white supremacist movement to communicate and disseminate hate speech, plan events, and plan violence against racial minorities, especially the African American and Latinx communities (Pitcavage, 2015).

Psychological Impact
Racism—which can include power inequalities, prejudices, stereotypes, discrimination, beliefs, and systemic lack of access to housing and health care—has been linked to poorer physical and mental health in people of color. The rise of white supremacist organizations is increasingly posing a challenge to their safety and to social workers who encounter victims and communities of hate-based discrimination and violence. Research indicates that racial trauma, whether overt or subtle, can lead to PTSD. Trauma symptomology secondary to race-based trauma is in fact similar to trauma development in survivors of sexual harassment, rape, or domestic violence. Such symptoms include to avoidance, hypervigilance, nightmares, anxiety, and negative affect (Williams, Printz, & DeLapp, 2018).

Culturally Competent Trauma Interventions
Therapeutic interventions may be most effective when racial trauma is addressed and treated as just that: trauma. At assessment, social workers can incorporate questions to gain information regarding the quantity and nature of the trauma and learn about the relationship between the client and the perpetrator. The clinician can also identify whether the racial trauma was overt, systemic, or covert, and should explore the client's interpretation and perception of the event (Carter, 2007).

Incorporating this information into the treatment plan, research indicates the clinician should address self-blame and rumination, while encouraging physical activity, participating in positive activities within the community, and making medical/psychiatric referrals as needed; these are helpful strategies to assist a client in coping with race-based trauma. Questions exploring the client's spirituality, religion, and life philosophies can help the client with making meaning of the incident and coping with resulting feelings of guilt or shame (Forsyth & Carter, 2014).

Importantly, social workers who are members of the dominant group may not be able to identify the often complex, ambiguous, and subtle ways in which racism manifests in the lives of nondominant group members. In fact, research suggests the ambiguous, subtle forms of racist acts can have an even greater negative psychological impact that more overt racist acts (Edwards, 2017).

Racism and prejudice affect all people's paradigms, including those of social workers. Being mindful of our own prejudices is important in addressing our own emotional responses during sessions when clients report race-based trauma. Self-reflection can be important to develop a level of comfort to introduce the topic of race within a session and to validate racism's impact on a patient. One place to start is to complete Harvard College's Implicit Association Test, an online self-assessment to identify our own biases and privileges (Project Implicit, 2011).

This is as a deviation from the statements "I'm colorblind," or "I don't see color in people." Racism does exist and people of color will have experiences that differ from the white social worker who make that statement. Furthermore, a social worker verbalizing "I'm colorblind" to a client can make a client feel invalidated when reporting racial trauma, making them reluctant to report racial trauma and therefore harming the therapeutic process, especially when a client reports micro aggressions. Awareness of race assists clinicians in gaining a deeper understanding for the complex ways in which race affects people in a racial group different from their own. Guidance from supervisors may also be helpful in addressing a social worker's own prejudices or similar experience as a victim of racist acts.

As the United States continues to become more racially diverse, the visibility and activities of white supremacist organizations are increasing. Education on the psychological impact of violent and covert behavior inflicted upon people of color and a working knowledge of culturally competent trauma interventions may assist social workers in most effectively meeting clients' needs.

— Alexandra Pajak, LCSW, specializes in individual and family therapy for adolescents and adults.


Carter, R. T. (2007). Racism and psychological and emotional injury: recognizing and assessing race-based trauma. The Counseling Psychologist. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0011000006292033. Published January 1, 2007.

Edwards, J. F. (2017). Color-blind racial attitudes: Microaggressions in the context of racism and white privilege. Administrative Issues Journal, 7(1), 5-18.

Forsyth, J. M., & Carter, R. T. (2014). Development and preliminary validation of the Racism-Related Coping Scale. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(6), 632-643.

Pitcavage, M. (2015). With hate in their hearts: the state of white supremacy in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/media/9471/download.

Project Implicit. (2011). Retrieved January 3, 2019, from https://implicit.harvard.edu.

Williams, M. T., Printz, D. M. B., & DeLapp, R. C. T. (2018). Assessing racial trauma with the Trauma Symptoms of Discrimination Scale. Psychology of Violence, 8(6), 735-747.