We Are All Survivors: How Systemic Inequality Traumatizes Black Women

by Marena Bridges

I didn’t know what to expect when I went into my first appointment with my therapist so long ago. As we walked to her office, she explained that she specialized in working with trauma survivors. Trauma survivors? Sure, I’d had my share of awful experiences just like anyone else, but I’d never thought of myself as a survivor. But, as I continued attending therapy sessions, I came to realize that I had a rather narrow view of exactly what it means to experience and survive trauma.

Everyone experiences trauma. Whether it’s natural trauma, such as the death of a loved one or a serious illness; interpersonal trauma, such as abuse or sexual violence; or insidious trauma, such as racism and sexism—we can all count ourselves as trauma survivors.

But some of us are more at risk for experiencing trauma than others, and very few are more at risk than Black women. Why? Simply put, oppression and abuse go hand in hand, and given that Black women wield less social and political power compared to other demographics, we’re more likely to experience all types of trauma.

We know by now that Black women suffer disproportionate rates of sexual violence, incarceration, interpersonal violence, and state violence. Black women are more likely to experience poverty, chronic illness, and reproductive and medical violence. We are also more likely to die younger than our white peers. Queer and trans Black women face even higher rates of life-threatening violence and poverty. Black women often must also cope with the high rates of incarceration and state violence experienced by their brothers, sons, and other Black men in their lives. The lingering social and political effects of slavery and Jim Crow segregation also arise in racist and sexist interpersonal interactions, such as microaggressions and abuse.

All of this—from “big T” traumas like sexual violence, to “little T” traumas like the continued vigilance borne of coping with anti-blackness—has real and measurable effects on our physical and emotional well-being. Besides the obvious physiological consequences such as chronic illnesses and shortened life spans, we often experience lasting psychological consequences from the constant stress of merely existing as Black women in a world hostile to our presence.

So, what do we do with all of this information?

We must recognize the ways in which structural inequality and trauma are connected, and the implications they have for the mental and physical health of Black women. We must think and talk about how macro-level marginalization lays the groundwork for micro-level trauma. We must know that confronting these macro-level issues may help reduce both macro- and micro-level trauma for Black women. Most importantly, we must recognize that we’re all survivors here—each and every single one of us—and that we share so much as Black women.

It can be difficult for us as Black women to address this trauma and begin healing because many of us want to be strong. For me, the process began with the simple act of recognizing many of my life experiences as traumatic and acknowledging that these experiences framed some of the emotional and mental health issues with which I struggled. Further into the process, it meant seeking out therapy to learn healthier coping mechanisms than those I previously used to deal with the stressors of life as a Black woman. It meant reaching out to other women of color (in this instance, in the form of a women’s trauma group), realizing I wasn’t alone, and supporting others and gaining support in return.

Most of all, it meant realizing that I’m not made of Teflon, that I’m not always a Strong Black Woman, and that’s okay. It’s not a sign of weakness nor is it whining, crying, or making excuses to say, “You know what, this hurts.” Once we can do that, we can build even more positive relationships within our communities and hopefully continue to look toward reducing the high rates of interpersonal violence. We can collectively turn toward healthier ways of coping with our traumas. We can lean on each other for interpersonal, social, and political support without deeming it weakness.

We must turn to each other for hope and for healing.

Photo: Shutterstock

Marena recently earned her Master’s degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular media. When she’s not writing essays, you can find her creating fan works, beading, flailing over fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can visit her blog at Marena ni yukyats.

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