Racial trauma is as inescapable for many people of color as it is invisible to many white people. Although racial trauma is now included in conversations about social determinants of health (SDOH) along with other identity-related variables that affect a person’s health care experience, its prevalence in everyday activities, even in the workplace, often goes unnoticed and unacknowledged, even by those subjected to it. Dr. Charmain Jackman, a Harvard-trained psychologist with more than 23 years in the mental health field, and founder of InnoPsych, Inc. With a focus on racial trauma, she spoke about how it plays out in the workplace during a recent Mental Health America conference.

“This work is really personally meaningful for me,” Dr. Jackman said. “I bring a personal lens to this conversation.” Her childhood was in Barbados, a small island nation composed primarily of people from the African diaspora. Upon coming to college in a small town in Iowa, one of her very first experiences was being called a slur by a passing driver. Some time after, a person at the organization she had been working for repeatedly engaged in highly inappropriate behavior involving her identity and her partner. “At the time, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of power to call out her behavior. I was someone who was an immigrant, so my immigration status was very tenuous. And so there were a lot of things that I took without calling attention to,” Dr. Jackman said.

Making people feel powerless is often key to perpetuating discrimination and prejudice. Knowing how to advocate for yourself, whom to talk to and how to report maltreatment is key to avoiding being robbed of your agency in situations like these, Dr. Jackman said, though many people of color may still not feel free to report maltreatment even if they have that information. Even so, saying anything at all is better than nothing. “The impact of silence in racial stress and trauma, it’s so profound.”

Racism in the workplace follows the same layers that racism in the U.S. as a whole inhabits. On a systemic level, redlining, company policies, and health inequities impact the day-to-day working experience of people of color. On a cultural level, the representation of workers of color in media and beauty standards and cultural norms, ranging from what cultural celebrations to what names are considered ‘normal,’ influence how a person of color’s coworkers and bosses treat them.

Interpersonal racism manifests in microaggressions, decisions based on stereotypes, and even name-calling which is just as liable to appear in the workplace as anywhere else. The difference between work and the rest of life, of course, is that work is what most people’s livelihoods depend upon, meaning that their ability to distance themselves or take action on their behalf may be severely limited by their need to maintain their livelihood. Speaking up, in short, can be risky.

Those experiences of racism build over time, creating racial stress and trauma. “What we found is that race-based traumatic stress can often look like PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder,” Dr. Jackman said. “They can experience fear and anxiety. They may notice that after the event has happened they may have flashbacks of the situation. They may avoid those people or avoid situations that remind them of that event. There may be a numbing, where people are not connected to their emotions. They may often withdraw from other people. There’s often shame or guilt, so people don’t want to tell their story.” The less people immerse themselves in the experience, the more they may feel they can cope with it by distancing themselves from it, especially when they feel they have no recourse other than to carry on as before.

“Growing up, I was often told within my family by my parents, ‘You have to work twice as hard to be seen as just as effective as a white counterpart.’ Often we see in the workplace people are working really hard, but the effort is not recognized,” Dr. Jackman said.

The emotional tax of racial stress in the workplace, sometimes dubbed “the Black tax,” is added emotional labor that never is compensated and rarely is even acknowledged. Having to be on guard all the time and having sleep problems are commonly-reported symptoms of these experiences—things which may seem small, but add up to take a toll on people of color. Lost trust in their coworkers and leaders resulting from these experiences with racism in the workplace can exacerbate the stress of those traumatic experiences by marooning a person without any support, effectively trapping them in a situation ranging from uncomfortable to unsafe under threat of losing their job.

What can people of color and their workplaces do to work against racial trauma? One thing Dr. Jackman pointed out was the difference between people who had active responses and passive responses to experiencing racism.

Passive responses, accepting that racism was inevitable, often caused numbness and poor mental health outcomes. Active responses, on the other hand, help a person preserve their sense of agency, stave off hopelessness, and have better mental health outcomes through finding connection with others and speaking up about their experiences. “Often, leaders don’t recognize what their employees are experiencing because they don’t ask,” Dr. Jackman said. “And if people aren’t telling you, then it’s going to be really hard to know how impactful this is for some of your employees. So one of the things I really encourage leaders to do is be brave. Ask questions. Be clear that this is not tolerated in your workplace.”

In the event that an employee of color does take the risk of coming to speak to their bosses or human resources department about an experience or a problem they are having, they must be trusted or else the situation is much, much worse. “When you get reports from people, as awful as it may sound, you have to believe them and you have to trust that people are sharing their experience,” Dr. Jackman said. “One of the things that we found is that people of color often don’t share their experience until things are really bad. So if someone is coming to you and telling you that there is a problem, trust.” While no employers can protect their employees from every possible instance of racism before it occurs, with the appropriate actions taken in response on behalf of the employee of color, they can still help a person comfortably feel that they are supported and respected, decreasing as much racial trauma in the workplace as possible.

To learn more about racial trauma, visit these MHA resources: https://www.mhanational.org/racial-trauma