STAR Adversity and Trauma Research Group Panel - Stress, Trauma, and Racial Injustice

In the wake of this year’s ongoing protests and movements addressing systemic racism and police brutality facing Black people in the United States, it is an even more pressing necessity to address the inequities and disparities that perpetuate adversities faced by underrepresented minorities. The STAR Initiative’s “Stress, Trauma, and Racial Injustice” panel discussion was the starting point of a conversation about the importance of researchers and clinicians being aware of the social and professional responsibility they have to confront racial injustice in their work. Notably, the panel was held on Juneteenth, the annual holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States after the Civil War.

Leading the discussion were panelists Ernestine Jennings, PhD, Research Scientist, Miriam Hospital Behavioral Medicine Center, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, and Co-Chair, Diversity Committee, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior; Dionne Poulton, PhD, Chief Diversity Officer of Care New England; and Blessed Sheriff, a student at Warren Alpert Medical School. The panelists detailed the intersections of their respective educational and work experiences as Black women within the context of larger themes of stress, trauma, and racial injustice. Meeting attendees were encouraged to engage with the panelists with questions and dialogue.    

In mentioning her experiences from high school and undergraduate studies at Brown University, Blessed spoke to the racial biases in education that served as challenges in her pursuit of learning. “I was ignored for most of my high school education until I scored well on the ACT...and was supremely underestimated,” she recounted when explaining how racial bias impacted how she was perceived as a student. “There’s this ongoing pattern of ignoring Black students...which as we know produces a lot of trauma for Black people.        

Dr. Jennings shared insightful perspectives about her experience as a clinical psychologist addressing health disparities in her work. When speaking with patients from underrepresented backgrounds, she learned about the barriers they faced with feeling comfortable talking with healthcare providers about their race. In her work in the Providence community, she learned from patients about their experiences being called “paranoid” by providers when discussing their experiences being followed in stores, getting pulled over more frequently, and having fears about the safety of their children in school. “The stress of seeing someone that looks like you being killed on TV every fifteen minutes,” is something Dr. Jennings mentioned as an illustration of the importance of being intentional about listening to people and understanding their circumstances.        

In sharing her life’s journey, Dr. Poulton reflected on multiple points of stress and resilience. Raised in Toronto with parents that immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago and who were actively engaged in immigrant and employment equity work, Dr. Poulton was able to embrace the value of diversity from a young age. Despite enduring challenges with racial bias and being underestimated in her educational pursuits spanning from high school to the several professional degrees she obtained, she persevered and worked hard to obtain her goals. “It’s very difficult to be living in Black skin. I am proud of my Black skin, I am proud of who I am, but we are talking about trauma,” stated Dr. Poulton when speaking about the emphasis she places on training providers to be able to really pause and listen to people of color. “If you don’t have an outlet or an opportunity to talk about it and vent, it can really erode your self esteem, really hurt you and hamper your journey.”      
The STAR Initiative is grateful for the insights of this meeting’s panelists and to have provided a space and platform for discussing these important topics. For further information about efforts to confront and create awareness about racial injustice, check out the following resources.