In the spirit of naming our feelings: Race-based traumatic stress


I had the awesome opportunity of facilitating a restorative circle group in our community over the past six weeks with a group of elementary school students. The core goal of restorative circles is to build on the strengths and skills already present among the students and their connections to their broader communities and promote effective communication, problem-solving and ultimately transformative healing.

I noticed I was feeling not quite myself the same day that I was encouraging these students to name and share their feelings. As I continued to drag through my Monday busying myself with work and continued to hit a mental wall around what I wanted to write next or even the purpose of writing anything, it hit me that I needed to engage in the same process that I asked of our kids.

Why am I feeling so unbalanced at this time?

I began to think of our students and the observations of and exchanges with them and with one another over the past several weeks. I continued to observe the scavenger hunt that is finding and identifying our own feelings, let alone what might be causing these feelings.

I listened to expressed desires to relate to our families and community in a more meaningful way. I listened to wishes to be heard and respected as a young person.

I heard more complex themes begin to emerge around identity, skin color and even hair texture as kids attempted to make meaning of the features they see looking back at them in the mirror compared to the features they might favor on loved ones and peers that might not necessarily look like them.

There was an awkward dance during these points in time as we sat with the uncomfortable feelings these experiences and realizations provoked. I noticed the general disconnect from our emotional experience as we discussed these themes.

Our youth wish to be respected, heard, seen and most significantly, valued. Simply for existing rather than as a result of meeting a racist and oppressive societal standard of beauty and behavioral conduct. Yet, we simply cannot find this insight or these words in the midst of the chronic assaults experienced on a day-to-day basis.

Race-based traumatic stress is most simply understood as the black/brown body’s stress response to chronic and ongoing encounters with racism. These encounters are experienced insidiously in everyday conversations and interactions that might have an implicitly biased and/or racial undertone.

They are also as blatantly violent as being the victim of or taking on the vicarious trauma, or trauma experienced by witnessing or even hearing about a triggering event, of racialized harassment, verbal and physical abuse, or police brutality and murders.

More times than not, we are forced to deal with the compounded trauma of these emotional, psychological and physical assaults going completely unchecked and unaddressed. Our body’s stress response can include bouts of depression and anxiety.

Such stress responses can bring up feelings of anger, agitation and even loneliness as we might believe we are the only one affected in this way by such encounters. We might physically begin to feel lethargic and tired or find it hard to concentrate; we might even feel body aches and headaches manifest.

We wonder why our children struggle so much to identify their own feelings and be able to connect triggers and experiences to those feelings. How do we heal if we have no clue what is harming us?

I realize I had reached a tipping point of my own on Monday but was fairly quickly able to make meaning of my experience and put a name to it: race-based traumatic stress. I even have the privilege of releasing through writing about it now.

How do we better understand what is harming us when we consciously and unconsciously are being persuaded to ignore the roots of our trauma and pain? When will we then give ourselves permission as a people and a community to dig up our roots and demand accountability?

Remind your children that they are magic because of their melanin and kinky hair, not in spite of it. Remind your children that they are valued simply because they exist and we see them.

Share your tough encounters with them; do not be surprised if they have their own stories to share. Help them put a name to their experiences and feelings. Remind your children that they are not alone. Remind your children that they have the power within them to demand and move toward change.

Kayla Nembhard

Kayla Nembhard

Kayla Nembhard is a licensed psychotherapist, budding writer and community warrior. Her mission is to use words and narratives or stories through therapeutic practice and simple everyday conversation to remind people of their inherent magic and power to transform not only their individual lives but their communities as well. To contact Nembhard, email

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