Invisible Wounds: The Impact of Racial Inequality


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The United States is still heavily dichotomized in the face of rampant police brutality, hate crimes and injustice. The grand jury decision not to indict the police who murdered Breonna Taylor, for instance, led to an eruption of pain and outrage in the Black community. While the sociological impact may be more readily evident, the psychological impacts of racial injustice cannot be ignored merely because they are less visible. Dr. Frances Shen, Counseling Psychology Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and expert in multicultural issues, provided research-based knowledge on those effects and how they can be mitigated.

            Racial discrimination, institutional racism, hate crimes, generational trauma and stereotyping are just some of the problems that racial minorities face on a daily basis. Dr. Shen added that internalized racism can occur as a consequence, in which a person of color absorbs discriminatory and hateful messages from society about his or her race – possibly to offset the cognitive dissonance between his or her environment and his or her belief system. Internalized racism correlates with lower self-esteem and worsening mental health, as individuals might integrate completely into the dominant culture at the expense of themselves. Instead of seeing the manifold problems embedded in the culture, they may start to hate themselves and those that share their skin color. This can alienate them from their support systems, further dilapidating their well-being.

            Additionally, minorities are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, elevated stress levels, psychosomatic symptoms and other detrimental effects. Dr. Shen explained that research embodying the biopsychosocial model of understanding indicates that consistent stress in response to discrimination damages physical health, puts people at risk for more serious health problems and exacerbates the prevalence of stress-related disorders.

            Empirically speaking, “[t]here is also research to suggest that these health consequences can be passed from one generation to the next through the body’s ‘biological memory’ and perpetuate[d] through [one’s family members],” Dr. Shen stated. Just like hearing about or witnessing a family member’s abuse may cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), someone whose ancestors were enslaved, beaten, sexually assaulted and otherwise mistreated may unknowingly bear their burden.

            In addition, Dr. Shen stresses the importance of studying intersectionality, as there may be synergistic factors that compound each other. The intersection of race and socioeconomic class, for instance, exacerbates physical and psychological symptoms even further with the added stress of living in poverty. Systemic racism and bias are at least partially to blame for the “disproportionate number of racial/ethnic minorities…of lower social class,” she elaborated. “All of these factors contribute to and can explain some of the health and mental health disparities that have been well-documented among communities of color, in addition to the inequities in access to, and quality of, care that exist.”

            When asked if she has any speculations about how the lack of justice for victims of police brutality is impacting the black community, Dr. Shen responded aptly:

“The black community has been gravely traumatized by a history of slavery and racism in this country, as well as the institutional racism and inequities that they continue to endure today across multiple systems – educational, health, etc. The recent focus on police brutality in the U.S. has helped shine a spotlight on the systemic racism that is pervasive within our criminal justice system to a larger audience. I believe that the recent grand jury decision not to indict the officers in the murder of Breonna Taylor serves to retraumatize the black community and reiterate that [African-Americans] continue to be second-class citizens in the U.S…and I think that the pain and anger from this trauma [are both] at the root of the uproarious protests that we have seen across this country in response to this outcome.”

            Although the damages cannot be undone, they can be mitigated through inner work and mental hygiene. Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as excessive alcohol or drug use, self-destructive or reckless acts and isolation can potentiate one’s problems and should be avoided whenever possible. A strong social support network, especially one that features friends or family members who understand the individual’s pain, is an imperative element of healing. Dr. Shen emphasizes the use of self-care and healthy coping strategies like adequate sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise, hobbies and the maintenance of social connection. Some activities, classes, Speaker Series events or organizations on campus are supportive of racial and cultural diversity. Participating in these events or club activities can increase pride and solidarity in one’s identity. If there are none offered on campus, there may be group meetings or events in one’s area. “Getting involved” through social justice work, volunteering, advocacy, charity events can also empower racial minorities in a way that allows them to uplift others.

            Overall, it is hard to fully grasp the level of suffering brought upon the black community and other people of color during this time. It is more important than ever to acknowledge that their feelings of distress, fear, helplessness, depression and anger are valid. They can also be assuaged on some level, despite the fact that those feelings will not go away until systemic racism is abolished completely. In the interim, help is available at the Counseling Center for those who need someone to talk to. Call (217) 206-7122 or email [email protected] to schedule an appointment.