Black Women’s Wellbeing Matters: Healing the Soul Wound of Racial Trauma

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In recent years, there has been greater recognition and acknowledgment of the unique challenges that Black women face in the workplace, as well as a deepening awareness of the subsequent impact of these challenges on their wellbeing (see Dickenson, 2018; O’Neil, 2024). The tragic death by suicide of Lincoln University’s VP of Student Affairs, Dr. Candia-Bailey, earlier this year, bought to public view the hardships that Black women often face as they traverse their professional journey as well as the detrimental and even tragic impact this can have on their mental health (Lawrence, 2024). While Dr. Bailey’s story garnered national attention, many Black women, including myself, carry untold stories of trauma, wounds, and scars that they amass as they rise the ranks professionally.

In addition to the typical occupational hazards of toxic stress and burnout, Black women experience an insidious type of trauma that only recently has been officially recognized as a distinct form of trauma – racial trauma. Racial trauma refers to “mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias, ethnic discrimination, racism and hate crimes” (Mental Health America). As Duran et al., (1998) describe trauma as a “soul wound”, racial trauma is a persistent, life-sucking “soul wound” that maims and scars at the deepest level those who experience it. Moreover, as racism intersects with institutional patriarchy, workplace racial trauma takes a particularly devastating toll on Black women’s wellbeing.

As part of my healing journey, I have had to acknowledge the racial trauma that I have endured and the subsequent toll it has taken on my wellbeing. As a seasoned licensed social worker who has worked with vulnerable populations in high pressure, high stress environments, navigating the occupational hazards of secondary trauma and burnout has been an ever-present reality. As I have spent much of my career in white institutional spaces, navigating racism, unfortunately has also been a reality for me with deleterious consequences, consequences that for a long time I was not consciously aware of. During the roughest periods of my career, I experienced decreased self-worth, bouts of depression and anxiety, and a host of physical ailments. What is particularly striking as I reflect is that even during my roughest moments, on the surface, I was functioning quite well. By society’s standards, I was overall highly productive with a consistent, stellar performance. However, just underneath the surface, I was silently suffering.

My experience is not unique. What makes workplace racial trauma so particularly harmful to Black women is not only its insidious nature as it operates stealthily in the background, but it also intersects with traditional, stereotypical narratives and tropes about Black women as strong, resilient powerhouses who never stop and always forge ahead despite the odds. Unfortunately, due to historical and intergenerational trauma, Black women are often taught and trained to embrace a “superwoman” identity (see Negussie et al., 2024).

As I reflect on my own experience and situate it within the broader societal context, the question I have been pondering is How do Black women heal from the soul wound of racial trauma? I have come to understand that to fully heal from racial trauma, we need to move beyond the trite vernacular of “take care of yourself,” or “see a counselor.” To mend the soul wound, we need deep and radical healing; healing that first acknowledges that there is a wound in the first place. A significant part of the healing journey is healthily detaching from the “superwomen” identity and giving ourselves permission to pause, to stop, and to fully acknowledge what we are going through. This pause is also an invitation for Black women to assess their relationship to self-care. Part of my journey has been acknowledging the ways in which self-care was too often an “after-burnout” practice, and another thing to do. I now see self-care as not another thing to do but an invitation to be; to be in a deeper relationship and dialogue with myself. Furthermore, healing embraces community care – healing does not occur in isolation. True healing is communal. As we create intentional communities of healing, we generate ripples that extend ever outward. Activist and scholar, Valerie Kaur states, “Revolutions do not happen only in grand moments in public view but also in small pockets of people coming together to inhabit a new way of being.” In my own journey, I have been deeply inspired and moved by the power of these small pockets to generate transformational change.

About the author

Cecily is a cisgender Black woman born in Sierra Leone, West Africa and raised in Mount Vernon, NY. Cecily seeks to live and work in a way that is healing, restorative and creates sustainable communities of liberation and care. Her guiding mantra for how she moves through life is “Transform yourself to transform the world” (Grace Lee Boggs).

Cecily is also a NYS Licensed Social Worker who has a passion and specialty for integrating research and practice, with a particular focus on developing transformative practices and processes to support programs that serve racially marginalized youth and families. She practices with an anti-oppressive, anti-racist and decolonial lens. All her work stems from a deep desire and commitment to see that youth-serving programs are equitable, inclusive and honor the full humanity of staff, young people, and their families.

Cecily currently provides professional development training, coaching and consultancy services to youth serving non-profit organizations. Her areas of expertise include creating healing centered organizational practices and cultures to support holistic wellbeing, supporting direct service staff in their own healing from secondary trauma and burnout, and utilizing a continuous improvement framework to support institutional change. Additionally, Cecily is a featured guest speaker and presenter at various professional conferences and events and holds active professional memberships.

Citations

Dickenson, S. R. (2018). Effects Of Racial Microaggressions On Black Women’s Work Performance As Government Workers.

Duran, E., Duran, B., Heart, M. Y. H. B., & Horse-Davis, S. Y. (1998). Healing the American Indian soul wound. In International handbook of multigenerational legacies of trauma (pp. 341-354). Boston, MA: Springer US.

Lawrence, A. (2024, Feb. 28). ‘She endured cruelty’: What led to a leader’s death at a historically Black  university? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2024/feb/28/antoinette-candia-bailey-lincoln-university-death

Mental Health America. Racial Trauma. https://www.mhanational.org/racial-trauma

Negussie, T., Harrison, C., Pineda, D., & Ederson, A. (2024, Feb. 5). Black women suffer disproportionately from “Superwomen Schema.” ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Wellness/black-women-suffer-disproportionately-superwoman-schema/story?id=106837601

O’Neil, D. (2024, Jan. 29). Lincoln University Administrator’s suicide sparks conversation about mental health. The Hilltop.  https://thehilltoponline.com/2024/01/29/lincoln-university-administrators-suicide-sparks-conversation-about-mental-health/

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