How our treatments for “racial trauma” only make the problem worse
Microaggressions and affirmative action are harming the very people they are supposed to protect
America has come a long way on racial equality. Yet, surprisingly, recent polls indicate that many Americans believe that racial bigotry is worsening. A Florida Atlantic University and Mainstreet poll in April 2023 of over one thousand voters found 56% reported a rise in racism and bigotry. A Gallup poll from 2021 revealed that 64% of respondents believed racism against black people is widespread, a 13 point jump since 2009. What could explain this divide between the objective improvements in racial equality in our country and the subjective feelings of many Americans? Surely there are many factors at play, but one crucial and often overlooked variable is the new way the medical community treats “trauma.”
Until very recently, the word “trauma” was used to describe the residual effects of a severely disturbing experience. Veterans who had witnessed and been part of extreme violence would often experience trauma; women who had been raped would feel the lingering traumatic effects of the attack. There was also a general consensus on how to treat trauma: patients would work closely with a trained medical professional to find strategies to overcome their feelings of trauma and become more comfortable and confident in themselves.
Today, the word “trauma” has been expanded to encompass almost anything unpleasant a person might have to deal with. A heated argument with a friend can now cause “trauma,” as can a bad breakup with a significant other. Someone can also suffer from “racial trauma,” which Mental Health America defines as “mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.” Similarly, a person can also suffer from “historical” or “generational” trauma. For example, a black man or black woman whose ancestors were slaves can, according to this concept, experience trauma themselves from the abhorrent treatment their ancestors faced when they were alive.
There are many reasons to question the validity of these newer types of trauma. In fact, many people who are members of a minority group would find it offensive to suggest that they are necessarily “traumatized” by virtue of their immutable characteristics. However, let’s assume for the remainder of this essay that these new types of trauma are every bit as real as the older types that we all understand and agree are legitimate. We all want to help people who are dealing with trauma, but are the methods we are now using to treat trauma actually helping those who are suffering from it, or are we making it worse? In most cases, I believe the latter is true.
Let’s consider the concept of “microaggressions.” A microaggression, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” In practice, this concept trains individuals who happen to be a member of a marginalized group to be hypersensitive to any comment or action that could in any interpretation be deemed prejudiced. Questions like “where are you from?” may sound innocuous to most of us, but according to most tutorials on microaggressions this question is actually a subtle form of racism.
However, encouraging a traumatized population to seek out the smallest hint of injustice in an otherwise harmless interaction contradicts established approaches to helping traumatized individuals. Traumatized populations are already hyper-sensitized to behavior that can trigger trauma; encouraging them to actively seek out these triggers only increases dysfunctional behavior. Rather than allowing these individuals to grow in comfort and confidence, this approach traps them in an endless cycle in which every interaction they have is likely to include a comment or action that could be construed as racially traumatizing.
The underlying premise of microaggressions is that prejudicial attitudes towards minority groups are ubiquitous in our society, and that members of these groups have to always be on their guard to protect themselves against these attitudes. It requires people to assume mal-intent from anyone they meet who does not belong to a minority group. But this assumption is entirely unfeasible in modern-day society, where people from all walks of life must know how to work together. An effective treatment for trauma leads to the patient regaining the ability to function normally in society, including building healthy relationships with others across differences. Any treatment that makes it more difficult to function in society is no treatment at all.
The same problem is illustrated by another concept: modern race-based affirmative action policies. In their modern form, these policies are effectively quotas in favor of people from certain minority racial and ethnic groups. A university will have the goal for an incoming freshman class to be 25% black, for example. Or a company will have the goal for at least 10% of their Board of Directors to be hispanic. These practices are often justified as an effort to rectify our nation’s past mistreatment of people from minority groups.
But do these policies actually help the “traumatized” individuals from these groups? Far from it. For one, the rectification, or “healing,” that affirmative action policies promote is predicated on “traumatizing” another individual. In other words, members of minority groups benefit from affirmative action policies unavoidably by taking away opportunities from members of the majority group. There may be an initial sense of satisfaction in this practice—but this satisfaction is short-lived and superficial. This is not only unhelpful in reducing a victim’s own trauma, but it forces the abused to become an abuser, and perpetuates a cycle of trauma.
Moreover, preferential treatment based on immutable characteristics is, by its nature, divisive and harmful for all involved. For those who benefit, it clouds their ability to accurately assess their own skills and talents. It sows seeds of doubt as to whether they have actually earned what they have achieved or if it is simply because the scales have been weighted in their favor. Worse, it can result in individuals obtaining positions for which they are not qualified, leading to unnecessary failure and self-doubt. And there is also the guilt of knowing that their gain comes at an unfair cost to another.
We cannot rewrite historical injustice, but we have the power to choose how we help those traumatized from such past wrongs. We can follow the best practices, and we can remain steadfast in our commitment to judging individuals based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
We welcome you to share your thoughts on this piece in the comments below. Click here to view our comment section moderation policy.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
We are actively seeking other perspectives on this topic and others. If you’d like to join the conversation, please send drafts to firstname.lastname@example.org.