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What is Racial Trauma: From Fetus to Adulthood?

Updated: Feb 11

If you look like you are Black, Indigenous, Asian, or a person from a racially marginalized group, then you have undoubtedly experienced race related discrimination in your lifetime. This type of discrimination does not know age restrictions. In fact, in studies for gestating (i.e., pregnant) people, Black and Indigenous people, in that order, consistently receive poorer medical treatment and have higher mortality rates regardless of their income and level of education, than White gestating people due to implicit and explicit racial bias. This means that Black and Indigenous fetuses receive poorer treatment. Furthermore, studies conducted in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) have the same findings.

Whether in the womb or recently born into the world, babies experience racial discrimination. Encountering racial discrimination tends to continue throughout their lifetime and can transmit across generations. For people with uteruses, prolonged exposure to stress and trauma can negatively impact fertility and womb health.

What is Racial Trauma?

As we have discussed previously, trauma is a psychological experience of feeling like one is in danger and may even die. While discrimination is being treated badly due to a characteristic, in this case race, trauma is when the discrimination is so intense that it causes cognitive and physical changes in the body. The distinction of discrimination and racial trauma is important because as a society, we can begin to decrease the discrimination in an effort to minimize the rise of trauma.

Racial trauma is formed from experiencing or even learning about upsetting racial events such as violence, threats, discrimination, and all layers of racism. The resulting effect is that the person comes to believe, rightfully so, that they are in a constant state of endangerment simply because they live in the skin in which they were born. In other words, simply for existing, we are in danger. Over time, the effects of racial trauma are identical to symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and have the same physical effects of prolonged stress and early childhood trauma.

What are Some Known Symptoms of Racial Trauma in Adults?

There is a great deal of documented data on the effects of stress on the body and on the symptoms of trauma. Below are some of the symptoms that are associated with acute (short and intense) and chronic (i.e., long and reoccurring) racial trauma for adults.

  • Inattention/difficulty concentrating

  • Re-experiencing the events (in your body, it feels like the event is happening again)

  • Intrusive thoughts about the event

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Hopelessness

  • Exhaustion

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Hypervigilance (always feeling on edge or “waiting for the other shoe to drop”)

  • Cardiovascular disease (heart disease)

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

  • Rapid aging

  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping

What Does Racial Trauma Look Like for Children?

Effects of Trauma: Health and Behavioral Outcomes in Children

Keep in mind that while babies can and do absolutely experience the psychological and physical effects of trauma, they are more likely to experience the transmission of their caregivers’ trauma. For example, caregivers who are hypervigilant, tend to send the message to their child that the world is unpredictable and vastly unsafe. While this is true, children need stability in order to take risks that are needed for healthy development. Without taking some risks, the result can be low self-esteem or self-worth. Here are some symptoms that children can have after experiencing racial trauma.

  • Inattention/ difficulty concentrating (i.e., the overdiagnosis of ADHD is often trauma being misdiagnosed)

  • Continually re-enacting the event without the guidance of a skilled play therapist

  • Intrusive thoughts about the event

  • Anxiety (extreme “shyness,” quiet or withdrawn when not at home, frequent complaints of stomach aches)

  • Digestive problems

  • Depression (in young children, depression often looks like anger and excessive tantrums or irritability).

  • Hopelessness

  • Exhaustion

  • Delays in social skills such as difficulty making friends or maintaining social relationships

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping

How Can We Cope with Racial Trauma?

Ideally, future generations will not have to deal with racial trauma because we are working to eradicate it. However, the likelihood is that you and I will not live to see that day. Therefore, we need to understand how to be the healthiest versions of ourselves within the context of trauma. It is important to note that for trauma treatment, we usually aim to start treatment after the person is no longer in danger. Unfortunately, that is impossible in the context of racial trauma and means that our trauma work will be ongoing. Below are coping strategies for children and adults.


  • If your symptoms feel manageable, please seek professional mental health intervention from a skilled and licensed trauma therapist who understands the nuances of racial trauma.

  • Talk about your experiences with others. Keeping things bottled up puts stress in a pressure cooker. Instead, share your stories of racial discrimination with those you trust. If your symptoms seem unmanageable.