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8 People of Color Describe Their Experience With Trauma and Stigma


Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the people involved.

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Trauma — a word that is considered taboo in my culture. It’s the elephant in the room that no one addresses but is the weight we carry on our shoulders, pervasive throughout our lives, perpetuated throughout generations. One thing I’ve learned in my own life as a Puerto Rican woman and after interviewing many people of color is that although trauma is something everyone experiences, it is something that is dared to be talked about within the Black, Latinx and Hispanic cultures.

Growing up, I was always told I was too sensitive; I would easily be brought to tears and was indirectly and directly taught that crying or showing emotion was weak. But I’m not alone in this — it has become evident that suppression and avoidance are how people of color have learned to cope. It is normalized to be silenced, to not speak about our pain is “strength” and it has been ingrained in us that talking about trauma is considered shameful, disrespectful, disloyal, embarrassing and sometimes even a sign of betrayal. Ironically, however, showing emotion and feeling is the very thing that is healing my trauma.

But it wasn’t until graduate school that I realized that unless you have the privilege to receive an education that teaches you about psychology or mental health, or you are lucky enough to afford or even have health insurance to receive mental health services, people in the Black, Latinx and Hispanic communities don’t get exposed to or have access to this type of knowledge. So, where do people like me learn about mental health and the importance of seeking help otherwise? That’s where mental health advocacy comes in, especially by people of color who do have the awareness that trauma is the root cause of many mental, emotional and physical ailments being experienced.

I asked my community what trauma means to them as a person of color and how it has shown up in their lives to further help dispel the myth that our trauma is something we shouldn’t talk about openly. On the contrary, it’s something we need to talk more about in order to normalize the importance of speaking up in these cultures:

Family Stigmatization and Ostracization

1. Jessica M.

“One of my biggest traumas growing up in a Latinx household was my sexuality because in our culture, being anything but heterosexual was a sin. At first my mom was OK with my sexuality, but once she told my stepfather (without consulting me first), she completely changed her mind. She said he is the man of the house, and he says it’s disgusting so you can’t be with women. She began to bash me and make life impossible for me at home to the point where I cried every day and was not invited to the dinner table to eat because I was an ‘embarrassment to the family.’ Years later, my mother has become more understanding and has let go of the machismo view that she has to follow what the man of the house says or believes. Even though that ended well, I still have a fear of the rest of my family knowing because they have the same mentality — that women should be feminine and with men because they are the ones with power.

“As a black Afro-Latina, it has been extremely difficult. In my house, I was taught that what happens at home stays at home. I was taught only ‘crazy’ people go to therapy. At a young age, I was told not to smile in pictures because my smile was ugly. That has stayed with me throughout my whole life so sometimes I am self-conscious when I take pictures and smile. When I expressed this to my Latina mother, she told me to get over it because it wasn’t a big deal, then she denied ever saying that to me. She taught me to push forward no matter what, which I’m grateful for but at the same time I regret because I don’t allow myself to truly feel how I feel when I need to. Eventually, I just blow up from holding things in.”

2. Coral R.

“For starters, my relationship with my parents isn’t healthy. How can it be if the people who are supposed to be your number-one support system refuse to acknowledge that depression is a real thing and just criticize you for dealing with in your own way? It also just intensifies my imposter syndrome. Part of the trauma is that I keep going back to this time and place where I felt like a failure and still apply the same emotions to my life now.

“As a young Latina woman and one of the few people of color at a predominately white school, this wasn’t a place that instilled confidence in me. [The boarding school her parents sent her to when she was 13.] This was a place where I started to think of myself as a failure and out of sync with the people around me. I didn’t know how to handle that emotionally. For whatever reason, some Latinx parents choose to look the other way at mental health issues. I expected to be met with compassion but I remember my mom yelling at me and telling me I was acting out and embarrassing them.

“For a year, I knew I needed help but could not afford to get it. So, I had this overwhelming feeling that all of the systems were failing me. In the Dominican Republic, I just feel like there’s the general sense you don’t get to pause life and feel bad because you just have to keep it moving and survive. You don’t get to talk about how depressed you feel because you’re in America now, where you have more material possessions than your parents ever did growing up, so what the hell do you have to be depressed about? It’s very much a culture that forces you to shut up and swallow your emotions, which is not the right approach for healing at all.”

3. Adriana O.

“I come from a community where seeking mental health services is seen as a bad thing. My guardians are all about ‘lo que pasa en esta casa se queda en esta casa’ [which translates to ‘what happens in this house stays in this house’]. There weren’t open conversations. You couldn’t ask to see a therapist, you don’t want to be the ‘loca’ [‘crazy’] or ‘dramatica’ [dramatic]. It has taken me a long time to realize these notions my family instilled in me weren’t OK. That it is truly OK not to be OK and that it takes strength to seek help. (Check out the book, ‘The Body Keeps the Score.’)”

Physical Manifestations 

1. Garfield H.

Trauma, to me, is when I react a certain way based on my circumstances, thinking my response is normal and then realizing other people aren’t thinking this way. For example, I take my durag off when I’m driving, I use cruise control set to the speed limit in white neighborhoods, I keep my insurance card and registration paper clipped together in my glove compartment so I’m not rummaging around for them when I’m pulled over. And I do this all because I get pulled over and arrested regularly.

I got pulled over once because the police had ‘noticed my car around here for a few nights in a row.’ This led me to being facedown on the ground in a snow angel position while the police searched my car. When I moved my head, guns were pulled on me, so when I act a certain way when I drive, this is normal to me. I don’t consider it being paranoid, but to others it seems like I’m doing the most.”

2. Jessica M.

“It’s played out throughout my whole life. In the littlest things I do I know I do them because of my life experiences – When I have to triple check to make sure the bathroom door is locked, when I feel the need to speak louder in order to feel like I’m being heard, when I feel like I have to justify everything I say or do, when I’m afraid to go out if the floor is wet or icy, when I say things don’t bother me even though they do in fear of being ridiculed or rejected, when I cry in the shower so no one will know I’m struggling with myself is how I know trauma lives within me.”

Insight Through Hindsight and Psychoeducation

1. Katerin G.

“I realized the truth of a traumatic experience years after it happened mainly because I was very good at suppressing the pain at the moment which it happened. Whenever a situation reminded me of that pain of the experience, my brain temporarily shut down, and I felt lost.”

2. Zakira P.

“I didn’t really associate my experiences growing up with trauma until recently. As a kid, I just thought people were mean, and again, I internalized everything so I used to think something was wrong with me. In high school health class, we spoke about depression and the signs of depression. Even when I was able to pick out the signs my health teacher was explaining about and I wanted to seek help, my mother just brushed it off. I think Black and Latinx families have this pride issue, and they don’t want to believe their child needs help. I feel like they may look at it as a direct reflection on themselves, and they don’t want their business out in the open.”

3. Garfield H.

“All of these experiences I’ve gone through have brought about a greater understanding of our system, and I think I’m much more suited to enact change now that I’ve gone through these things. I think, as a culture, we need to end the stigma against therapy. I think one way to help with that is to make sure health care is required to take care of our mental health. I think more people would consider therapy if it was covered and was available to them.”

4. Rhonda S.

“I’ve seen how trauma has affected me in so many ways. I’ve seen how I’ve been impacted by racial trauma, intergenerational trauma, vicarious trauma, and family trauma. I was fortunate enough to study the concept of trauma in college and grad school. I’ve studied psychology and social work, so I learned through classes what trauma is and how it affects individuals.”

5. Edekira L.

“We don’t talk about trauma in my household. Growing up, if I’d followed my family’s example, I’d have just swept things under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. I feel like being a minority, we’re more vulnerable to experience trauma. My story isn’t an isolated one; most of my girlfriends have a similar story to mine, including denial from the people they needed the most support from. In studying psychology, I decided to break that cycle. In educating myself, I opened the minds of my family — getting help is no longer a taboo here but a necessity to heal.”

***

Despite the negative connotation associated with the word “therapy” in these cultures, and there being a lack of representation of people of color in the mental health field, it is vital for us to take care of our mental health as much as we give attention to our physical health. For me, it wasn’t until I moved to California, started going to a trauma recovery center and seeing a Latina therapist that I realized I can break the cultural patterns I was born into, and there are options for those who can’t afford to see a therapist or don’t have health insurance. You don’t need to go to college to receive psychoeducation. My therapy is free, and there are programs and books out there that can help you too.

Photo by Clarke Sanders on Unsplash