Healing Racial Trauma in the Academy, Part I – WOC Guest Post


I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color. These go up on Wednesday.

PLEASE submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration! I want to hear from you! Email me proposals or drafts at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by Candice Nicole Hargons, PhD. Dr. Candice Nicole Hargons is an award-winning psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. She leads the RISE^2 Research Team, where they study sex and social justice with a love ethic. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Therapy for Black Girls, and Liberate Meditation. Dr. Hargons has been a leader in psychology and the community, serving on the executive boards of the Society of Counseling Psychology, American Psychological Association Council of Representatives, and the Lexington Urban League Young Professionals. She is also the founding director of the Center for Healing Racial Trauma, where they use love, liberation, equity, and creativity informed therapeutic interventions to help racially/ethnically marginalized people heal from racism. Connect with her at www.DrCandiceNicole.com and www.CenterForHealingRacialTrauma.com.

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You enter the faculty club, and every portrait on the wall is of a White man.

You refrain from using your mother tongue at work to avoid possibly confirming stereotypes. 

Your colleague publicly conflates the demand for a “diversity hire” with lowering the academic standard.

And you wonder why you have a headache, why you’re taking shallow breaths, or why you’re more fatigued than normal. Racist stressors – from microaggressions to direct racial harassment, and everything in between – take a physical and mental toll. Racist stressors elicit race-based stress reactions, the involuntary, immediate responses we experience in our thoughts, emotions, and bodies. 

My research team recently completed a pilot study where we played consenting Black students a five-minute audio recording of a White woman saying disparaging things about Black people. We observed their body language, measured their heart rates, and then interviewed them about what they noticed. Three different race-based stress reactions were occurring. 

We called the first one RISING ABOVE. This was a cognitive reaction where people tried to intellectualize the racism or distance themselves from the emotions and sensations the racist stressor triggered. “You don’t want to give her the satisfaction of getting a reaction out of you.” People with this race-based stress reaction style used their academic privilege to deconstruct the White woman’s rant, “You can tell she’s just not educated on some of the things she’s speaking on.” Anybody been there? Yup, me too. In some ways the academy, among other things, socializes us to enact a rising above race-based stress reaction. It feels, and in some ways can be, protective. 

We called the second one SITTING WITH. This was an affective reaction where people identified their emotions. They felt sadness, powerlessness, and various levels of anger. Someone said, “it just really annoyed me hearing that.” Another talked about feeling surprised, “wow, people really think like this?!” Many people tried to reframe their anger into something more palatable, because they didn’t want to be the stereotypical angry Black person. One person said, “I felt enraged, but I’m more sensible than that.”

We called the third one LETTING OUT. This was a somatic reaction. People experienced these race-based stress reactions in their bodies: muscle tension, heart racing, tearfulness, and even shaking. “My blood was boiling…I could feel my heart pounding.” Another person said, “I could feel myself getting tense.” 

These latter two race-based stress reactions might feel more vulnerable, because POC receive so many sanctions for expressing normal reactions to stress that many of us learn to suppress them, stuffing it down until numbness takes over. All three of these reactions are normal. We may experience all of them, but there’s usually a predominant one. When we don’t acknowledge and cope with the reactions, they can become race-based stress symptoms. You might find yourself feeling hypervigilant – always on the lookout for the next racist stressor, because to be ready for it feels like it will prevent it from hurting so badly. You might even begin to feel fatigued or tense more often. And when these race-based stress symptoms stick with you, causing you to suffer severely, it’s racial trauma. (For a formal definition of racial trauma, see my Instagram @drcandicenicole.) 

Academia requires a lot of work when it comes to healing racial trauma. At predominantly White institutions, every POC is navigating White habitus – a space designed around the norms, values, aesthetics, and interests of White people. Depending on your stage of racial identity, you might not experience White habitus as a racist stressor, but many of us do. Added to that, you might have an administrator address you as Ms. X, when he addressed your colleagues as Dr. X. You might also receive teaching evaluations that call you intimidating. It can hit from multiple angles, and over time racial trauma can wear you out.

Universities want to know what to do, but there is no panacea. Healing racial trauma requires multifaceted, intentional, and consistent effort. It requires empathy, discomfort, and change. The best efforts invite stakeholders at all levels to actively participate in dismantling the systems that uphold racism, while sanctioning and reeducating (if possible) the individuals who have bought into and perpetuate racism and facilitating healing among POC who are targeted. In part II, I am going to provide a few strategies to get universities started in the systemic work and POC started in the self and collective healing. But for now, I end with this:

You enter the faculty club, and every portrait on the wall is of a White man. Remember that every external resource was provided through the university for those men to be there and prosper. Very few of the same resources were allocated to you, and you are there anyway. You shouldn’t have had to be as good as you are to be there, but there you are. And because you are, we are.

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