University of Georgia

Helping minorities navigate racial trauma

Photography By Amy Ware
University of Georgia researcher Isha Metzger

Group photo at Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS
In June 2019, Isha Metzger was a visiting professor at Yale University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS. Pilot funding from CIRA allowed her to develop the initial racial socialization adaptation that will be used for Project NaviGAte to deliver trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy and services in a culturally sensitive way. Metzger (top left) is shown with (left to right) Raquel Ramos, Barbara Guthrie, her mentor, Jasmine Abrams, Trace Kershaw, CIRA director, and Jessica Jaiswal. (Photo courtesy of Isha Metzger)

Let’s talk about “the talk” and your research.

“The talk” is a component of racial socialization. It’s how Black families talk to their kids about what it means to be Black in America. Families talk about the birds and the bees in order to protect kids from unhealthy relationships and outcomes like sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. We also protect our kids by saying, “Look both ways before you cross a street” because it protects them and also teaches them the rules of society.

Black families are having the talk in a similar way that says, “If you get pulled over by the police, your hands go to 10 and 2, and you say, ‘yes, sir, no, sir.’ If you’re in class, you might have to raise your hand twice as much to get called on. You’re going to have to work twice as hard to get ahead.” The talk is a series of conversations you have with your child to prepare them for racial stressors. These conversations get very concrete in terms of talking about racial barriers, and they start early, and they happen often.

The talk also has racial pride messages. Previously, those were to combat a lack of representation—here’s a Black role model, or here’s what we know about Black history because you’re not reading about it in your school books. Now racial pride messages combat messages that we’re receiving with [current] events in the news. These barrier messages prepare our youth, but also teach them how to respond and how to heal after experiencing racial stressors.

Part of the work I’m doing is to integrate these messages into cognitive behavioral therapy, which allows individuals to make the connection between what they’re thinking and what they feel. It helps them to not internalize or participate in harmful outlets for coping with the race-based experiences they’re having.

My recent work includes creating a cultural adaptation to trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy that integrates “the talk” in order to improve engagement and decrease negative consequences, an approach that will be used in Project NaviGAte. This work is influenced by my previous research evaluating existing treatment and prevention programs for African American youth.

Other recent work delves deeper into the impacts of trauma on minority populations. One such study found that exposure to violence, crime and drug usage led to collective feelings of hopelessness in Black and Latinx youth, which was associated with a host of negative outcomes.

My work has also examined racial disparities in other psychological outcomes, including a study that explored mechanisms contributing to increased suicide rates among Black youth. The results indicated that socioeconomic status, racism and discrimination, and sexual and gender minority status are important factors.

Do you feel encouraged by increasing awareness of issues facing minority citizens?

I’m definitely encouraged by the attention that’s being placed on the harmful effects of racism right now. I think initially people were overwhelmed with the media coverage. For myself and many of my colleagues, our response personally was, “Welcome.” This is work that we’ve been doing for a long time; this is work that we’ve known is important and necessary.

A lot of my work now is in reminding people that it’s OK to unplug as a behavioral strategy for coping with racial stressors. You don’t have to become oversaturated with negative messages. Once you’ve restructured your thoughts and channeled your anger into proactive strategies like calling your senators and getting out to vote, you must be sure to rest. Recover. Restore yourself. Smile. Racism takes a physical and mental toll, and one of the things we can do while combatting it is to hold on to the joy that racism tries to stem.

The clinical skills we’re teaching like mindfulness are thought to foster “Black joy” and to emphasize celebrating all of our strengths and successes as we continue this exhausting but necessary work. So yes, I’m encouraged that the work is being done, and also I’m intentional about making sure that as we’re working, working, working, we’re also recovering and restoring ourselves. Those are equally important—to eradicate racism, and to rest.