Racial Trauma in the Workplace: How HR Can Help

July 10, 20202:02 pm1511 views
Racial Trauma in the Workplace: How HR Can Help
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Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the first weapon employers should employ to fight discrimination in the workplace. Title VII outlaws workplace discrimination based on a number of traits, including but not limited to race, colour, national origin, religion, and sex. The bar on discrimination applies to all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, benefits and workplace harassment. 

The recent COVID situation raises concern on the discrimination act in the workplace that is most likely based on race, national origin or both. SHRM reported that individuals around the world are being shunned, shamed, and verbally or physically assaulted as fear over the Coronavirus continuously spreads. For example, due to unsensible fear over the Coronavirus, an employer institutes a new hiring policy saying “anyone born in China need not apply”. Such move could be categorised as an act of discrimination. 

See also: HR Knowledge: Understanding The Root of Discrimination

Racial trauma 

Racial trauma is a term used to describe physical and psychological symptoms that people of colour often experience after exposure to particularly stressful experiences of racism. Similar to survivors of other types of trauma such as sexual assault survivors, people of colour often experience fear and hypervigilance, headaches, insomnia, body aches, memory difficulty, self-blame, confusion, shame, and guilt after experiencing racism. 

Many mental health professionals and scholars have called for the recognition of racial trauma as a mental health concern. Yet, there is a lack of awareness among professionals that such trauma could exist within society and workplaces. Owing to this reason, Janet Helms in collaboration with Boston College advocated the following recommendations for professionals, business leaders and HR practitioners at large to encourage the awareness of racial trauma and how to mitigate it. 


Some helpful ways to increase self-awareness are journaling, practising mindful body scans to check for signs of stress and anxiety, and active reflection. Such activities can all serve to increase the ability to identify the range of emotions and physical reactions a victim might be experiencing, all of which are normal and should be discounted. 


Open discussion can help to minimise the tendency to internalise negative racial experiences, which can lead to a feeling of anger, sadness, or anxiety. Determining when and how to engage in a discussion also requires some considerations. It is important to note that not every victim serves the same character. The support should be adjusted to make the victim feel that the discussion centres on the topic of race. It is also helpful to not engage in repetitive discussion with the same victim over and over again which might exacerbate negative reactions. 

Empowerment through resistance 

Experiences of racism and discrimination can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Prolonged personal experiences or the continued witnessing of racial discrimination can prompt avoidance, fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, or lack of motivation. To help combat such feelings, it is important to encourage the victims to engage in activities that might make them feel empowered and seek to promote change, such as involving oneself in mentoring youths or personal commentary. 

Read also: Sexual Harassment Facts and What You Can Do About It

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