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Talking Racial Trauma from the personal to the systemic: listening, sharing and healing

We kicked off the DMC Adda in October with a conversation on Racial Trauma with Joshua Isaac Smith a trauma therapist and behavioural specialist. It’s the epitome of a messy and complicated subject that is seeped in a history that is swept under the carpet yet is so visceral that it affects our day-to-day lives. It seemed like the perfect conversation to start the series and one that so desperately needed to be had. All that said, I wasn’t quite ready for how it would make me feel.


The backdrop of George Floyd’s murder has brought race relations to the fore over the last few months, in the USA clearly, but the solidarity protests have happened across the world and it’s made us question ourselves and the institutions that we’re supposedly meant to trust.

Race is very rarely considered with regards to trauma. Trauma is something that is usually associated with a one-off incident and is associated with PTSD in order to be healed. When it comes to racial trauma however, it’s much more complicated because it’s being going on for hundreds of years and there is an experiential legacy at its very core. The implications can be much more intense as healing is often not on the cards because it’s not understood and properly identified, let alone some of the symptoms and manifestations linked to it in the first place.

People are now beginning to see the extent of ongoing exposure to what Joshua calls “micro-aggressions” - that for some communities, the threat of being discriminated against doesn’t ever go away and the pressure of that is felt emotionally and is also physically held in the body. “It’s not possible for your body to truly rest if you’re always expecting race-based micro-aggressions” which means that that tension is always held, the anticipation of something coming whether you’re walking down the street, entering an office building or going about your daily life, is continuous. It permeates so much of people’s lives; the personal as well as the professional. Its ongoing and continual nature is what distinguishes racial trauma and this is what makes it so incredibly exhausting.

For the black community, George’s death wasn’t something new. Countless others who haven’t been filmed are left unknown and justice is left undone. That knowledge coupled with the onslaught of negative messaging in the media, how normalised these killings are, the health disparities that have left the community disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and again, watching people needlessly die, is not only exhausting, it leaves its mark on the emotional, physical and mental wellbeing of the whole community.

The legacy of colonialism and slavery and how that impacts the genetic make-up of children from an early age is a real one and is something that is only just coming to the fore. The fact that children are physically scarred as a result of intergenerational racism and that they are then disproportionately susceptible to knock-on illnesses, is frankly scary. The cycle seems never ending.


It turns out that it’s not often that people are provided the opportunity to share their experience of incessant misrepresentation; what it feels like when people see you approaching as a black man and put a hand on their handbags or lock their car doors from the inside when they see you walking down a street (even if you’re dressed in a suit), the toll of making holiday choices based on how you’re likely to be treated as the only black person on the beach, and how the need to advocate for yourself can be an uphill battle because the people in power within our organisations don’t even consider you, let alone understand the circumstances in which you exist.

How can we really comprehend that the feeling of uncertainty and not feeling truly safe never entirely leaves without creating a space for these stories to be told? Hearing them was uncomfortable and heartbreaking in equal measure but most importantly, it was empowering for those telling the stories to be heard.

The inter-racial dynamic of the space was an important consideration when we designed the session as I believe you can’t have an inclusive conversation about this topic without the uneasiness of acknowledging white privilege and white guilt. This meant that a white man was able to talk about the privilege of never having to have “the talk” with his children. For those not in the know, that’s the chat that black parents are forced to have with their kids from an early age about the dos/ don’ts of what to do when (not if) approached by the police. The expectation from the outset that there will be an altercation that they need to protect themselves from escalating into something fatal. The very people from our community that are meant to protect us are, from an early age, introduced as people to fear - that’s pretty messed up, it’s not the way it should be. That’s my privilege talking too; I grew up not having to be cognisant of police brutality as part of my own personal security.


Though we examined the personal, for me it was important to also step back and look at the institutional and systemic implications of racial trauma. As I posed so eloquently in the session, “How can we heal our institutions when things are so frigging broken?”

The police force has been spoken about across the world because of George Floyd’s murder, however, what of the other institutions and systems that make up our societies? There were a number of things that came up as we had people who work within the prison system, the NHS and academia in the room. Here are some of them:

Dealing with legacies: We talked about symbols and the markers that celebrate colonial and racist histories; from the statues that we walk past every day without really knowing who, the usually white men, are and why they warrant celebration in this day and age to the endowments that have funded core public policy services (in the UK) that have roots in the slave trade. To just remove the statues is one thing, however this needs much more nuanced consideration. Acknowledgement of a past is one thing, to proactively seek reconciliation and offer reparation is another. How can our institutions step into the latter?

Joining the dots: A big part of the business community came out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matters movement, some even looked inward and talked about improving the representation within their own organisations. Diversity and Inclusion measures are much needed. We know that in the UK, the update to the Parker Review in early 2020 showed that the representation of minority communities at C-Suite level remains woefully inadequate. It goes so far as to say, “To many, our continuing lack of ethnic diversity looks less like a failure on the part of minority communities to produce competent candidates, and far more like a choice on the part of business to settle for the familiar and traditional recruitment processes.” Importantly, diversity of leadership is increasingly becoming an issue for investors and is linking to both risk and corporate governance criteria, but clearly, much more needs to be done.

All this said, it’s disingenuous for companies to solely look at the composition of the boardroom. It’s much more significant for organisations to consider their full value chains. Can you really be considered as progressive on D&I when your supply chains are based on the frankly, exploitation of poor, and mainly minority (to where the headquarters are based) communities around the world? Our current supply chains are largely still based on colonial practices by way of the farmers that grow our foods, to the people that make our clothes or those that mine the minerals that make up all our products. To be anti-racist and inclusive would be to really examine these value chains and to adapt business models to be far more inclusive than they currently are.

Calling out the socio-economic: Covid-19 has brought out, particularly in the UK and USA, racial disparities when it comes to how disproportionately effected minority communities have been. Yes there are genetic predispositions, however, economics plays a major part. Our newly termed so called “heros” are those that are in lower paying roles that have been keeping us running during the lockdowns; those that work in supermarkets, our postal and delivery services, public and private (i.e taxi drivers) transport to health care professionals and associated staff that are keeping our hospitals clean, safe and running. Not only are people dealing with the health implications of the pandemic but often they are faced with no option but to go to work because the lights need to be kept on. From a racial trauma perspective, the impacts of this disparity again perpetuates this ongoing emotional, physical and mental upheaval that minority communities are forced to experience.


Joshua talks about the need for Racial Compassion really eloquently in his article: Why Black Trauma Matters - the Emerging Opportunity for Racial Compassion which outlines where we can go as individuals to learn and to act much more inclusively. It’s a must read.

From my perspective, yes the personal healing and compassion leads to changing the way that we show up in the organisations that we run, the way that we interact with colleagues and the counsel that we give. But we also have a responsibility to call out inconsistencies in practices, to challenge why investments are bizarrely only going to white entrepreneurs, to question why it only seems to be white middle-aged men talking on panels about socio-economic systemic change and to consciously provide spaces for our colleagues to be seen and heard.

For our institutions just acknowledging the problem is not the finish line, it’s the beginning. Recognising that these are indeed uncomfortable conversations and that it’s not the job of Black or minority ethnic colleagues to make you feel better is a start, but how you choose to move forward will really distinguish the anti-racists from those playing lip-service with tokenistic rhetoric. For businesses, it’s really simple, show up wholeheartedly by looking at your value chains, work to unpick the systems that make your bottom line and business models actually deeply exploitative. Finally, ask what more you can do.


Through enabling and facilitating this conversation I realised how incredibly needed it is, how important creating a safe space for listening and sharing is, and how powerful that is. We need to understand racial trauma so much better because that constant misrepresentation, discrimination and desperation needs to be seen, understood and acknowledged as something that has emotional, physical as well as psychological implications. Even as a woman of colour, I see my own privilege. Identity and culture have been big influences in my life but my race, well..never. As a woman I make choices based on my perceived vulnerability, or if you flip it more accurately, the fact that I need to be cognisant of attack - I never have headphones in when I walk out of a tube station, I think about the areas I stay in when I travel alone...these are things that I've grown to take as a norm. Think smart, be safe. That hightened alertness, the tension in my body as I walk home late at night, that I experience in those moments, is something that I realised that my Black friends feel ALL THE TIME. More significantly, they're always anticipating it, expecting something to happen whereby the colour of their skin will play a part in how any given interaction or experience will go. That's incredible to me and it's no wonder that it's exhausting and people are tired of it.

Our session ran long, not because I’m a Chatty Kathy but because people didn’t want to leave and they called for us to convene another session. Honestly, we weren’t expecting that but we swiftly realised that we have a responsibility and a duty of care to make that happen. Though some of the stories truly broke my heart, the fact that I’d enabled a forum for them to be told also filled me with gratitude. For the first time in a really long while, I believed that I'd done something useful.

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