Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson Discusses Racial Trauma and Healing

Written By: Maggie Warnick

Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson was the third speaker in the psychology department lecture series  Intervention Science: Harnessing Psychology to Address Oppressive Systems. Greeted with some mild technical difficulties via Zoom, Anderson’s Oct. 23 lecture focused on “Healing racial trauma: Focusing on racial socialization as a CBT strategy for Black youth.”

Anderson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. According to insideSMCM, she primarily studies racial socialization and discrimination in regards to stress and trauma in Black families, and she is particularly interested in how these factors “predict familial functioning and subsequent child psychosocial well-being and health-related behaviors when enrolled in family-based interventions.” 

Anderson’s talk was presented as a pre-recorded lecture, with Anderson active in the chat to answer questions as they came up. She began with the question “what is a pandemic?” defining the term and describing how race is a social determinant of health. “We are talking about the virus, the pandemic of racism, and how we go about healing it,” Anderson said, applying a metaphor that continued throughout the talk. 

Demonstrating the impact of discrimination as a stressor, she showed a graph of anxiety levels, sorted by race, after the police killing of George Floyd. Anxiety spiked for adult Black and Asian Americans, and Anderson explained how this added stress can impact mental well-being and impact parenting, internalizing these issues in young children. “What’s really unique about racial discrimination is how it impacts children directly,” said Anderson, noting how the same direct effects are not present in other stressors. 

In one of the most powerful sections of her lecture, Anderson showed a video bringing to life the psychological and physiological toll racial discrimination and trauma can have on juveniles. The video showed AJ, a 10-year-old who was asked what he thinks is the most pressing issue facing adolescents today. Without hesitation, he began speaking about the pervasiveness of systemic racism and racial violence. Anderson asked attendees to respond with observations about the interaction, and the chat flooded with comments on his youth, his understanding and knowledge of racial issues, and how he appeared physically impacted by the weight of his words. An observation Anderson made was that it seemed like all of his ideas were clicking into place as he spoke. 

When faced with discrimination, individuals often encounter the problem of compromised comping, an impairment of the normal coping process that is unique to racial discrimination. To provide assistance in coping and help lead families on the path to healing racial trauma, Anderson developed and directs an intervention called EMBRace. Traditionally, methods of racial socialization and discussions about racial discrimination are measured in terms of content and frequency, but often this measure does not get at the emotional pain of the issues discussed. EMBRace seeks to open up coping strategies to empower Black parents to successfully navigate feelings associated with discrimination in order to reduce both parent and child stress. By encouraging communication and the vocalization of stress, Anderson’s intervention has received a positive response, with attendees noting a relief of stress and improved parent-child communication. 

Anderson’s parting words were a reminder to be straightforward and open with regard to racial matters, as well as to be willing to acknowledge your own bias and privilege. “My basic point is that there is no excuse,” Anderson stated. She stressed the need to both prepare for the virus of racism and intervene when it is spreading in order to inoculate for the future and “get our masks ready.”
More information about the EMBRace intervention and the research referred to in her lecture can be found in Anderson’s 2018 article “EMBRacing Racial Stress and Trauma: Preliminary Feasibility and Coping Responses of a Racial Socialization Intervention.”

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