The Trauma of Racism and How Music Therapy Can Help in Healing

Racism is a trauma that our entire society is desperately trying to heal from while at the same time actively trying to change. Systemic racism is a trauma that dates back to the beginning of our society. People of color have experienced discrimination and racism for as far back as our history goes. It is an inherited trauma.

So what can I, a white woman, do about it?

I can listen. I can educate myself. I can implore you to do the same.

I can also use music. 

As a music therapist at SoundWell Music Therapy PLLC, I use music for healing, for creating a sense of calm in the storm, and for self-expression. In the case of our current climate, we need music more than ever. We need to understand the role that music plays in both experiencing and healing from the trauma of racism. And we need to realize how powerful music can be in that process.

Racism Is a Public Health Issue

According to the American Public Health Association, “Racism structures opportunity and assigns value based on how a person looks. The result: conditions that unfairly advantage some and unfairly disadvantage others. Racism hurts the health of our nation by preventing some people the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.” [1]

Trauma of racism
Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

Despite the global pandemic caused by COVID-19, there have been many protests and rallies across the country and the world with people coming together to call for action against police violence. Despite being told to social distance due to COVID-19, people have been gathering for protests.

There are many doctors, however, who support these protests, even during this pandemic. They are prioritizing the support of anti-racism over the risk of COVID-19 because they believe that racism is a public health issue. [2] These protests have taken precedence over the health concerns caused by the coronavirus because of how important the issues of systemic racism are.

Health inequities caused by racial, economic, political and social factors are our society’s reality. Racism impacts mental health and physical health. Inequality and inequity affect people of color’s ability to get proper medical treatment. And we have seen this especially when it comes to COVID-19.

According to an article by NPR at the end of May 2020, “It’s still incomplete, but now 48 states plus Washington D.C., report at least some data; in total, race or ethnicity is known for around half of all cases and 90% of deaths. And though gaps remain, the pattern is clear: Communities of color are being hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19.” [3]

The racial inequity in the healthcare system has a spotlight on it when it comes to this most recent coronavirus. All of this plays a huge part in the fact that racism is clearly a public health issue. 

The Trauma of Racism Affects Mental and Physical Health

We must consider racism as a trauma. Trauma lives in the body and can cause many physical and mental health issues. Trauma affects behavior as well as medical conditions. It dysregulates our nervous system that can affect our mood, our behavior and our physical health.  We see this especially in people who have experienced childhood trauma. 

Since racism is a systemic issue that has been around since at least the 1500s, it is safe to say that those who experience racism have been experiencing trauma since childhood. For the sake of this article, we will consider the trauma of racism as childhood trauma.

Trauma can cause dysregulation of our nervous system, which effects our emotions. Individuals who experience emotion dysregulation have difficulty accepting their emotional response which can lead to behavioral dysregulation including self-injurious behavior, suicidal ideation and attempts, excessive substance use and impulsivity. [4]

There are many health conditions linked to trauma. Trauma, especially childhood trauma, affects the brain and development. Childhood trauma can result in changing brain structure and release increased adrenaline and cortisol when triggered and cause the fight, flight or freeze response. [5]  This response occurs when the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

How Music Can Help in Healing From the Trauma of Racism

Music can be a powerful tool for helping people to heal from trauma, including the trauma of racism. Below I identify some ways that music can help in this healing.

Emotion Regulation

As mentioned above, we go into the fight, flight or freeze response when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. When our sympathetic nervous system is in control, we aren’t. Rational thought and verbal articulation aren’t available to us. We’re too heightened and our emotions are dysregulated. In order to calm our bodies down and regulate our nervous systems, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Music helps regulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Music calms and relaxes the body. Playing music that you find calming or vocalizing by humming or singing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. [6] 

Listening to music sounds like a passive activity but it is actually very powerful and healing. It taps into the parasympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, we feel safe because we are calm and regulated. We are no longer in fight, flight or freeze mode.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. “A number of studies have reported that listening to sedative music (i.e., slow tempo, legato phrasing, minimal dynamic contrasts) can lead to decreased heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure.” [7]

This all suggests that music and music therapy could be helpful in healing from the trauma of racism.

The Role of Music in Protests

As well, music unites us. It brings people together. Rhythm connects us in ways that just words cannot. This is the power of music.

There is often music playing at protests, rallies, and marches. People march in rhythm with their neighbors and feel connected to people they’ve never met before. 

Music is also a powerful tool in spreading messages. Playing music that speaks to the cause is a rallying cry and a way to further unite the protestors. We can find our common humanity through music.

The Colorado Sound, a local Colorado community radio station in Greeley, CO, has a program called “Music 101” where they highlight different themes and types of music. To see an example of a playlist of protest songs from the Civil Rights era check out their Spotify playlist here

Using Music to Express Yourself

Music allows people to express themselves. At SoundWell Music Therapy PLLC, I use different methods when working with people who have experienced trauma, including the trauma of racism, to express themselves through music. We listen to music, we write lyrics, we play songs.

Aside from regulating the nervous system, self-expression is one of the top benefits of music therapy. Together we explore your feelings and find ways to express them. We can use music to help you make sense of, as well as share your story in a way that feels safe and empowering to you.

Music is a great way to express anger, which is something we’re all feeling right now. When you are healing from a trauma that runs as deep as racism, you need an outlet. Tapping into your creativity through music is a powerful way to do that.

Music can make anger beautiful. It can make it real. It can make it whatever you need it to be. Through my work at SoundWell Music Therapy PLLC, I help you express your anger and heal from trauma, including the trauma of racism, through the use of music in therapy.

Taking the Next Step

If you’re looking to work through personal trauma, including the trauma of racism, through music with me at SoundWell Music Therapy PLLC, be sure to contact me. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation during which we can talk more about what your needs are. You can schedule here.









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