The True Costs of Racial Trauma
by Management Leadership for Tomorrow
Recent race-related incidents, exacerbated by the global pandemic that is disproportionately ravaging the lives and livelihoods of people of color, are traumatizing.
In addition to the COVID-19 crisis, communities of color have had the added injury of enduring racial traumas during the past several weeks, worsened by the high-profile videos of public deaths of Black people. The horrific video of Ahmaud Arbery’s death, the weaponization of police against bird watcher Christian Cooper, the extrajudicial police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — all have created an extra layer of burden and trauma for people of color in America.
These scenes unfold as people of color push through the detritus and show up to do their jobs each and every day. But make no mistake, the blatant reminders of the underlying scaffolding of structural racism that continually feeds persistent disenfranchisement take their toll. “We’ve been focused on the coronavirus for the last few months,” said MLT Senior Coach Andrea O’Neal, “and racism is an equally virulent pandemic that is affecting the quality of life for everyone in the nation.”
“I was doing okay with COVID-19 until this episode. I can barely process it. I don’t know how to bring it up with my manager at work. I feel overwhelmed, and they’re not talking about it at all.”
O’Neal and Rishal Stanciel, another Senior Coach for Management Leadership for Tomorrow’s (MLT) Career Prep program, say they knew they needed to host the virtual town hall meeting to provide an opportunity for Fellows to reflect and process how the incidents are affecting them — both personally and professionally. “It’s okay, but we are not okay,” said O’Neal. “It’s important that we name it and that we have agency, so we don’t perpetuate feelings of victimization and powerlessness.”
More than 100 undergraduates and recent alumni showed up for the discussion. One participant noted he was doing well navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic, but was overwhelmed by recent events, especially since they went unacknowledged in the workplace. “I was doing okay with COVID-19 until this episode. I can barely process it. I don’t know how to bring it up with my manager at work. I feel overwhelmed, and they’re not talking about it at all,” he said.
MLT’s goal is to help propel underrepresented people of color into high-trajectory careers and leadership positions. Senior Coach Rishal Stanciel says that having a supportive and understanding community is critical to that mission, especially during times like these. “We give Fellows the coaching, playbooks and the network they need to make sure they have the very economic stability and mobility that has historically been denied,” Stanciel says.“We are certain, as always, our Fellows are more than capable of getting the job done. But we also know it is critically important to acknowledge the tangible negative effects of these repeated incidents on our community.”
During the town hall, another Fellow reinforced the importance of addressing the fallout from racial incidents and seemed relieved that MLT was hosting the convening. “Spaces like this one are helping. This is one of the only spaces that’s trying to address this and the additional things we’re having to deal with.”
Dr. Terrell Holloway, a psychiatrist at Yale University Hospital and specialist in the health outcomes of prolonged exposure to racial trauma, joined the town hall to offer insights on the damage that racial trauma can cause. Holloway says the neurobiological effects of race-based traumatic stress can have a pronounced negative impact on both mental and physical health. He explained that clinical studies show that repeated experiences of discrimination — and the resulting state of constant hypervigilance — launch the body into a continual “fight or flight” response that affects a person on a cellular level. “Chronic stress can leave us more vulnerable to a host of ailments,” Holloway said. “It causes underlying inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, Rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimers and cancer.”
In addition to ensuring there is recognition of the very real mental and physical effects, Coaches provided Fellows with a roadmap for addressing racial stressors by practicing radical and intentional self care. O’Neal opened the meeting with a short mediation session. Stanciel advised Fellows to “make an impact where you are planted.” That is exactly what MLT Career Prep Fellow and University of Minnesota Student Body President Jael Kerandi did when she successfully demanded that her school sever ties with Minneapolis police after George Floyd’s extrajudicial killing.
In a compelling letter to university administration, Kerandi wrote, “It is our job as an institution to exert whatever pressure we can to keep our students safe and demand justice in our city and state.” The university promptly responded by cutting ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. O’Neal pointed to Kerandi’s civic engagement as one option for responding to racial trauma, noting, “Jael had power within her space to make demands, and she used her relative privilege and position of power to be an ally for her university and broader Minneapolis community in the moment.” O’Neal and Stanciel coached students to engage in the activities and self-care practices that best suit their personal needs: Reading more history to have context on racism, reading less on social media if it is a trigger, making community connections, and engaging a counselor if appropriate.
Dr. Holloway wrapped up the town hall meeting by telling Fellows, “This week was particularly hard for me, and being able to see your faces is one of the things that keeps me going.” That sentiment was echoed by participants, who chimed in with their own messages of gratitude for the opportunity to spend a moment with an empathetic and understanding community.
Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) is a nonprofit organization that equips and empowers African American, Latinx, and Native American women and men to realize their full leadership potential. Launched in 2002, MLT provides a winning professional playbook, intensive one-on-one coaching, and door-opening relationships. Through MLT, diverse rising leaders achieve high-trajectory careers, amplify their impact, and realize economic mobility for themselves and their families.
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