Researchers found that systematic exposure to racism among Black women can induce a stronger brain response to threat. According to the clinical neuropsychologists behind the new study, the effects on the mind and body of racism exposure are akin to those seen in people who experienced childhood abuse, physical or sexual violence, and other traumatic events.
Sierra Carter, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgia State University, has been studying how trauma exposure affects our personalities and health through things such as stress for more than 15 years. But although there is a lot of research relating childhood maltreatment, physical and emotional abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorders to changes in brain function, how the brain might respond to racial discrimination has surprisingly been understudied.
Seeking to address this gap in the scientific literature, Carter and colleagues recruited 55 Black women from the United States, whose history of racial discrimination was ascertained. The women then had to focus on a task that required their attention while stressful images simultaneously popped up on a computer screen. During this entire time, the participants’ brain activity was measured using functional MRI.
Black women who reported experiencing more episodes of racial discrimination also had the highest response activity in brain regions that are known to be associated with vigilance and threat monitoring. Specifically, these include the middle occipital cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These responses were on par with or even more pronounced than those caused by traumatic experiences not related to racism, the scientists reported in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
“Our research suggests that racism had a trauma-like effect on Black women’s health; being regularly attuned to the threat of racism can tax important body-regulation tools and worsen brain health,” Carter said.
The researcher adds that Black American women have had to adapt to living in societal spaces where racism is perpetuated, which turned them into more vigilant people as a consequence of perceived threats. When our body is stressed by continuous threat stimuli, the risk of mental health disorders and other problems affecting brain health increases.
“My colleagues and I believe that neurobiology research is just beginning to appropriately investigate the effect that racism has on the health disparities seen in this population. Our study provides a preliminary glimpse into the need to consider the traumatic nature of racism in Black lives,” she added.
Previous research found many ethnic and racial groups tend to experience higher rates of PTSD than White Americans, one possible explanation being the experience of racism.
Monnica Williams, a board-certified clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Psychological Sciences, claims that racial trauma should be included in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is used to diagnose PTSD, among other psychiatric disorders.
Currently, the DSM-5 limits what can be defined as traumatic experience to “direct exposure to physical and sexual violence up to and including actual death, repeated exposure to traumatic information in a work setting, and indirect exposure by way of receiving news of a traumatic event involving a close friend or loved one.”
These criteria may miss the impact of discrimination, failing to recognize racism as traumatic. Williams argues that being bullied at school for not being White, racial profiling by the police, and workplace racial harassment can be sensibly considered traumatic experiences, but such events are rarely included in checklists and batteries for trauma.