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Racial Trauma Part 1: What it is and how it impacts on children and young people

This article is part of a 2 part-series. Part 1 focuses on an introduction to racial trauma and Part 2: Developing an anti-racist approach in settings and schools, explores ways in which staff can develop a pro-active approach to tackling racism, regardless of context/location/age.



‘Racism causes harm.

Harm to the body. And harm to the mind.’

Guilaine Kinouani (2021)[1]

Race is a social and historical construct. There is no biological or scientific accuracy to the term, but it has been used over hundreds of years to put people into different groups and allow a system of inequality. Whilst race is a fabrication, racism is very real for people of African, Asian and Caribbean Heritage and other racially minoritised groups.

Guilaine Kinouani (2021)[2] describes racism in this context as:

'A system in which white groups… are placed in a position of power over various other races deemed inferior, and where power is used to maintain privilege access to material resources.’

There is clear evidence that the levels of racism have increased significantly over the last few years. The Guardian[3] cites a poll by Opinium in 2019 which interviewed 1006 people (nationally representative) from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds showed an increase from 58% in 2016 to 71% in 2019 of people experiencing racial discrimination. There was a 12% increase in Black and Asian people being targeted by a stranger, from 64% to 76%.

The Guardian[4], reporting on the latest figures (Oct 2021), explains:

Racially motivated crimes, which are nearly three-quarters of the total number of 124,091 hate crimes, increased by 12% over the year ending in March 2021 amid Black Lives Matter protests and a backlash from far-right activists.

Racism comes in many forms and can be explicit but also subtle; Anthea Benjamin, Integrative Arts Psychotherapist, Adolescent Therapeutic Counsellor, Group Analyst and Supervisor[5], talks of microaggressions[6] being ‘normalised’. Gaslighting[7] is also talked about as a common experience of people experiencing racism.

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic has shone light on the extent of the structural inequalities, institutional racism, and systemic discrimination that exists.

All of this has had a traumatising effect on Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people, adding to existing trauma caused by the harsh realities of racism and social and economic impacts on already poor and marginalised communities.

This trauma is named Racial Trauma, which is defined in the following way by Comas-Diaz et al., (2019)[8] as:

‘… a form of race-based stress refers to People of Colour and Indigenous individuals’ reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination.’

Some researchers have likened it to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the authors quoted above distinguish it from the former:

‘Racial trauma is unique in that it involves ongoing individual and collective injuries due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based stress.’

The history and present-day experiences of discrimination can be passed on from generation to generation. Although present day generations may experience different forms of discrimination to their ancestors, they will hold this trauma. This collective trauma is called ‘Intergenerational trauma.’

Studies have suggested that there are different ways in which this trauma is communicated across generations. Kinouani cites the theory of Dr Harrell[9] that ‘storytelling that focuses on the hardship of those who came before us is one way to pass on trauma.’ Kinouani also refers to ‘unconscious communication, such as psychological projection, which is when our thoughts, feelings and fantasies are communicated non-verbally to those around us,’[10] as a way of passing on trauma.

There may be a biological channel for transferring this trauma: epigenetics, which Kinouani describes as ‘the intersection between the genes we inherit and the environment we grow up in.’ In some contexts, adversity and trauma can result in changes in the way DNA is expressed and can be passed on.[11] Most studies have focused on Holocaust survivors but there is evidence cited by Kinouani that ‘children of Black migrants tend to experience psychological distress more than both their parents and their white counterparts.’

Manifestations of racial trauma

Some of the ways in which racial trauma manifests itself:

        • Increased Hypervigilance
        • Anxiety
        • Depression
        • Disrupted neurodevelopment
        • Self-hatred

The diagram below (shared with the children in the TV programme ‘The School that tried to end Racism’)[12] shows the cycle of oppression that depicts what happens to people when they are subjected to both explicit and implicit racism:

The signs of trauma vary depending on individuals and their social context - an understanding of intersectionality[13] is key to understanding everything that may be going on for a child or young person.

The school context


Schools and settings are not, as we all know, islands isolated from life outside. Children and young people will often be aware of racism at a young age and sadly even experience it directly within education.

Various reports have identified and described some of the experiences of racism and unconscious bias experienced in their education settings by children and young people in the UK.

The Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Sally Holland, stated in the foreword to the Race Alliance Wales (RAW) ‘Show Us you Care’ report (2020)[14] on racism in schools:

‘This report shows the repeated trauma caused by racism, and also shows that racism threatens all of the rights of a child, including the child’s rights to safety, to education, and to taking part in decisions.   … We need to listen.’

The key issue of safeguarding is raised in other reports (Runnymede Trust; Intercultural Youth Scotland; YMCA).

A spreadsheet compiled by a teenager, Iftisar Chowdury[15], who put a shout out on social media asking his peers to share their experiences of racism and racial traumas, reveals the distress caused to children and young people.

In the YMCA report[16] there are startling statistics:

‘95% of young Black people report that they have heard and witnessed the use of racist language at school, 51% of young Black males report this occurring ‘all the time’ in school, compared to just 4% of young Black females.'

Mind’s report, ‘Not making the grade: why our approach to mental health at secondary school is failing young people’ (2021)[17] has a section on racism and states:

The young people…said that experiencing racism affected their mental health, enjoyment of school and relationships with teachers.

Impacts of racial trauma by age group

Pre-birth to 3

The UK Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths (2019)[18] found that black women are 4 times more likely than white women to die before, during and after childbirth. The reasons for this shocking statistic are being investigated with medical conditions and poor working and living conditions affecting black women disproportionately being cited, but comments from black mothers indicate that racial bias plays a strong role.

We know that early childhood trauma, such as maternal toxic stress and depression, can have a significant impact on children’s outcomes. For some children this trauma starts in the womb. There is evidence that the foetus registers maternal emotional distress and that the placenta may be the way that cortisol accesses the foetus.

Although very young children will not have yet developed the cognitive ability to identify and understand discrimination and racism, they are still impacted:

‘Being exposed to racially motivated traumatic events toward them or their loved ones can be perceived as threats by young children who might respond with physiological or emotional difficulties. In addition, caregivers’ own stressors, including the effects of racial trauma, can impact their emotional availability for their children and ability to protect them from danger and stress.'

(Brown 2015, Van Horn & Lieberman, 2008)[19]

3 - 5s

Children in this age group, when affected by trauma, not specifically racial, may experience sleep and eating difficulties; they may be on their guard if they hear a loud noise or sense a sudden movement. If they have been exposed to reports of incidents on social or other media they will focus on the sights and sounds, interpret the images and words in a very literal way and think the events are happening again and again.

6 - 11s

Reactions in this age group will vary considerably depending on whether they have directly experienced the trauma or whether it happened to someone they know. The children may worry a lot about their safety, and that of others and may become totally focused on this, which will impact upon their focus and learning.

12s and over

From this age children and then young people have a clearer understanding of society and the implications of racism. They become very focused on events as a way of controlling their anxiety or other emotions and feelings provoked by these experiences.

For example: in the programme, the ‘School that Tried to End Racism’[20], a Year 7 boy talks to his mum about how his bag was searched in Asda by the security guard but not those of other young people. When he asked the guard why, he was told that young black people do take things. You can see his frustration and distress when his mum says: ‘They are doing this for a good reason.’ He replies: ‘You don’t get it.’

Summary and considerations

The evidence clearly identifies how deeply racism impacts people of African, Asian Heritage and other racially minoritised groups; it impacts unborn children, babies, and young children as well as older children and adolescents; adults, families, and communities.

The impacts are far-reaching, causing racial trauma which is not widely understood as being a specific form of trauma, thereby leading to children and young people’s presentation being seen as something else.

One of the recommendations in the ‘Show us You Care’[21] report asks the Welsh Government to recognise the trauma caused by racism:

Recognise racism as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), ensuring racialised young people have access to appropriate, culturally sensitive support, such as counselling, in line with positive action provision of the Equality Act 2010.

This sentiment is echoed by the Psychotherapist, Anthea Benjamin[22] who asks for schools to look at the behaviour of black boys who act out in school with a trauma-informed lens: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and not ‘What happened to you?’

To support a child/young person/member of staff experiencing racial trauma effectively, ensure that there is access to culturally sensitive support and counselling.

*We know that colleagues may choose to identify themselves in different ways, including as Black, Brown, BAME, as ‘people of colour’ and/or as members of Global South Communities. These commitments support all Barnardo’s colleagues and service users who experience racism.

Many thanks to Leethen Bartholemew, Head of the FGM Centre and Lead for the Boloh Service, who co-wrote this article.

With thanks also to Aisha Thomas from Representation Matters, Joe Secrett from Learning Partnership West, and my Barnardo’s colleagues Cenzina Barclay and Charmaine Lynch for their help, recommendations, and contributions.

This article is part of a 2 part-series. Part 1 focuses on an introduction to racial trauma and Part 2: Developing an anti-racist approach in settings and schools, explores ways in which staff can develop a pro-active approach to tackling racism, regardless of context/location/age.

[1] - Kinouani, G (2021). Living While Black – The essential guide to overcoming racial trauma. Ebury Press.

[2] - Ibid.

[3] - Booth, R (2019). ‘Racism rising since Brexit vote, nationwide study reveals.’ - 

[4] - Syal, R (2021) Reported hate crimes in England and Wales up 9% since start of pandemic - 

[5] - Trauma Informed Schools (2020). ‘Conversations that Matter: from racial trauma and discrimination in schools and communities, to respecting and celebrating difference and diversity’.

[6] - Oxford Dictionary: ‘commonplace, daily indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or harmful racial slights.’ Whilst microaggressions is used as a term, it is loaded because any form of aggression shouldn’t be seen as micro or macro.

[7] - Oxford Dictionary: ‘When someone undermines and make a person question their own judgement, perception, or memory.’

[8] - Comas-Díaz, L., Hall, G. N., & Neville, H. A. (2019). Racial Trauma: Theory, Research, and Healing: Introduction to the Special Issue. American Psychologist, 74(1), 1-5. 

[9] - Harrell, S.P. (2000). ‘A Multidimensional Conceptualization of Racism-Related Stress: Implications for the Wellbeing of People of Color’. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70(1), 42-57 cited in Kinouani, Living While Black.

[10] - Kinouani, Living While Black.

[11] - Avramova, Z (2015). ‘Transcriptional “memory” of a stress: Transient chromatin and memory (epigenetic) marks at stress-response genes’. The Plant Journal: For Cell and Molecular Biology, 83 (1), 149-159 cited in Kinouani, Living While Black.

[12] - C4 - The School that Tried to End Racism 

[13] - Oxford dictionary: ‘The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.’

[14] - Show Us You Care - exploring the cumulative impact of racism upon racialised young people in the Welsh education system (Race Alliance Wales, 2020) 

[15] - Chakrabortty A. ‘There's a hidden epidemic of racism in UK schools – but it's finally coming to light.’ (2020) 

[16] - YMCA (2020) Young and Black: the young black experience of institutional racism in the UK 

[17] - Mind (2021) Not Making the Grade: why our approach to mental health at secondary school is failing young people

[18] - Kasprzak, E. ‘Why are black mothers at more risk of dying?’ BBC News, 12 April 2019 

[19] - Van Horn, P., & Lieberman, A. F. (2008). Using dyadic therapies to treat traumatized young children. In D. Brom, R. Pat-Horenczyk, J.D. Ford (Eds.), Treating traumatized children: Risk, resilience and recovery, 210-219. New York: Routledge cited in Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom: A Resource for Educators, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2017) 

[20] - C4 ‘The School that tried to end Racism.’

[21] - YMCA (2020) Young and Black.

[22] - Trauma Informed Schools (2020).

Resources and References:





  • Bristol, North Somerset & South Gloucestershire Webinar Series. Racism and Trauma- An introduction to the traumatic impact of racism and discrimination



  • Kinouani, G. (2021) Living While Black – The essential guide to overcoming racial trauma. Ebury Press
  • Menakem, R. (2021) My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Penguin

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