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How Black people can cope with the trauma of witnessing repeated death and violence against them


Witnessing the repeated death of and violence towards Black people on video is a horrific event in and of itself. For Black people watching, it can have traumatizing physical and mental effects. I wanted to know why it's so important to hold space for this trauma in the Black community. So we called on Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia. She's an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert in trauma medicine, and she joins us now. Welcome to the show.

ALISHA MORELAND-CAPUIA: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: This is not a conversation that any of us really want to have. It's very difficult. But, you know, it is important. We're bombarded with these brutal images of Black people dying, and it feels like collective trauma for Black people. Is that an accurate way to think about this?

MORELAND-CAPUIA: Yeah. I want to step back just a little before even hopping into a collective trauma. And I want to talk about something even more basic, a basic requirement that all of us need. And that is this idea and this theme of safety. What we know is that all human beings require safety in order to be able to thrive and really to exist. And it's the one thing that is oftentimes breached. As I was thinking about this and many other community acts of violence that have happened - and it seems continuous, this idea that safety is ever elusive, and it is something that most feel like they are not able to hold tightly to. There are multiple models in social science that basically help us understand that this safety requirement - how critical it is and when it's nonexistent, how it creates a lot of chaos, uncertainty, depression, anxiety, even violence in some situations.

RASCOE: I hear you. But, you know, as you well know, we have had these conversations so much before. And I know that it certainly does feel unsustainable to live in a state of 24/7 fear. But, like, how are Black people surviving then? How do we go and carry on?

MORELAND-CAPUIA: Such a good question. And I can tell you that many, many folks are hanging on by a thread. There was a recent study that came out, and it was in relationship to what some would refer to as the superwoman phenomenon. And this study essentially cited what many of us know to be true. While many Black women and Black people have found a way to survive - which, by the way, let me add that survival is a low bar - what that means is that in the context of microaggressions, macroaggressions, discrimination, unsafe work conditions, unsafe environments and community - that they've been able to be cognitively intact, meaning you're able to complete cognitive tasks and get the work done. But it comes at the expense of overall physical and mental health. So while folks may look good on the outside or look like they're performing, on the inside there's a much different story. And so what you get to is shorter life span or even less sort of quality of life.

RASCOE: When you talked about that superwoman issue, to me, what that sounded like and what I hear in church very often is I don't look like what I've been through.


RASCOE: But we - it's inside.


RASCOE: And so it's like, on an individual level, how can people figure out how to cope with the trauma that they feel, with the trauma responses? What are some tactics that an individual can take to deal...


RASCOE: ...And to cope?

MORELAND-CAPUIA: So there's a few. I - one is if you have the time, the patience and the space, mindfulness and meditation, really taking some time just to do some breathing. Be mindful. Be quiet. And just be present with oneself and feel all the feelings. You don't have to temper anything down. It's just being aware of that and breathing. The second that I oftentimes refer to as everybody deserves support. I suggest that folks find a counselor, a therapist, a neutral party - and for those who have a faith that it's important to be connected in that way, those who can find solace in nature to do that. And so there are multiple ways to get involved. My goal is never to tell people how they have to feel or even how they have to heal. But I do believe that those of us who want to see healing happen - we have to be willing to create the conditions. So there are multiple ways. We do know that folks feel better when they can connect and they can process in the way that they feel comfortable absent of judgment.

RASCOE: That was Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia. She's the founder and director of the Institute for Trauma-Informed Systems Change at McLean, Harvard. Thank you so much for joining us under difficult circumstances for all of us. But I thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

MORELAND-CAPUIA: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. And to the extent that folks can, please be well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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