‘It’s Not in Our Head’… and yet Pain is in Our Brain: Why Racialized Exclusion Hurts and How We Can Remain Resilient
Going into your home while Black, waiting in a coffee shop, playing with your child, styling your hair, swimming, cooking, flying as a doctor while Black…living while Black. And as such, being subjected to undo questioning, demeaning and sometimes life-threatening reactions - you name it, we have seen it. And we feel it…which means our children do as well. A starkly sobering example in recent weeks with the news of a 9 year old Black girl who committed suicide, no longer able to cope with the racist taunts she faced from peers at school.
Each of these widely known and growing incidences of exclusion, harassment and race-based violence impose criminalization of everyday behaviors onto people of color and others in marginalized groups. These attacks have and continue to have a cumulative impact that injures psychological and physiological well-being. Evidence regularly grows about the impact of racial trauma and race-related stress on our emotional and physical health. What may not be as widely known is how racialized exclusion and violence show up in the brain.
Our neurobiological network is wired to connect. Which is why belonging and exclusion fundamentally impact us as human beings. With generational experiences of social exclusion and inequity, marginalized groups experience chronic pain from being left out or treated less than that is literally registered in the brain. These exclusions range from the slightest to the most flagrant forms of violence, be it emotional, mental or physical.
The fact is, being socially excluded or targeted is harmful. What we experience is actual pain. And members of groups who have been chronically marginalized have experienced pain for generations and in multiple forms. This real impact requires our vigilance to resist the hurtful consequences and engage strategies to prevent them.
How Pain Is Perceived
To be in pain is itself difficult, and to be in pain and unseen or neglected is even worse. Studies of how physicians perceive pain in their Black patients reveal startling results with data showing that White people are more likely than Black people to be prescribed strong pain medications for equivalent ailments. This muted perception of pain in African-Americans was attributed to physicians' difficulty empathizing with patients who they perceive as having experiences that differ from theirs, and based in assumptions on status.
Researchers have linked these issues of implicit bias and unconscious stereotypes to what is known as the "racial empathy gap". Empathy is a foundation for healthy relationship, growth and communal wellness, thus warranting our attention to counter the harm that is done, perhaps unintentionally, by deeply embedded and cultivated by societal norms.
The importance of disrupting these cycles of bias that seed empathic dysfunction is especially true for children who can fall victim as both perpetrator and target in any given situation. Investigating the root of race-based perceptions, researchers studied children's racial bias in perceptions of other's pain . They found that in a sample of mostly White American children as young as seven, and particularly by age 10, participants report that Black children feel less pain than White children. With rising rates of emotional and behavioral health crisis among children of color, including suicide and depression, it is imperative that we remain aware of what hurts and how to help.
How Pain Is Received
A groundbreaking area of relational neurophysiology or brain science identified how social exclusion appears in the brain. Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT) confirmed that the pain from social exclusion and pain from physical injury or illness share the same brain pathways that register distress (Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex). Whether we have been punched in the stomach or wounded by direct or indirect marginalization, our brain pathways set off an alarm that activates pain.
Bottom line - images, messages, and actions, whether they are direct or indirect, that signal or shout that one is left out, not worthy or deemed “lesser than” cause real hurt to our being. These experiences of marginalization and exclusion register pain in the brain, and we experience it everywhere in our body.
The more we understand about pain, the more is revealed about how the body and mind are connected. The growing field of relational neuroscience not only provides clear evidence backing what we are uncovering about race-related trauma, but also provides information for methods that may help our families stay resilient.
Hold Up, Wait a Minute ... S.T.O.P.
An emerging model to counter the effects of Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT) known as S.T.O.P is framework that I and colleague Dr. Amy Banks have created that offers an approach to stop the pain. In our developing research and practice, we have designed a working model to explore and address social pain that builds on the neuroscience of Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) and Optimal Resistance to Marginalization strategies:
1. See – Eyes Wide Open
Locating and naming marginalizing forces and experiences gets it out of our bodies. When we intentionally stay aware and see how stratification and exclusion occurs to us and around us we counter the impact of hidden shame and pain that is triggered as a result of an area of our nervous system that is activated which often reduces our energy and causes us to isolate. By actively seeing and helping our children to see what is happening we can free ourselves to see an alternative.
2. Talk – Express Yourself
Telling our stories and sharing experiences of social exclusion connect us to others and activate certain muscles in our face all of which simultaneously stimulate and suppress parts of our nervous system that lower distress. Speak your truths and encourage your children to speak theirs regardless of how painful. When we give voice to what hurts, we optimize opportunities to heal and deter feelings of shame.
3. Open – Think and Link
Being a target of or even a witness of social exclusion and harm can make you feel very vulnerable often triggering a response to escape or attack, but if we activate our thinking channels in the brain toward connecting with others we can find safe spaces that transform vulnerability and pain into a deeper sense of belonging and comfort. Taking the time needed with our children to stay open to process the situation and to develop strategies to handle it together supports empowerment and agency, while allowing room to safely feel all the feelings.
4. Partner - Relationships Keep Us Resilient
When we regularly participate in healthy relationship we move into a physiology of wholeness and power that sustain the brain-body wellbeing. Brain function that governs our ability to stay focused and energized is activated by healthy interactions which in turn cultivates resiliency. Communicating and actively showing your child that they are not alone is essential. Enlisting loving active support from trusted adults and peers can be key to restorative healing.
…Produce - Collaborate and Create
Lasting resiliency comes not only by partnering with others, but also coming together around a common purpose and goal to create new realities and experiences that counter toxic exclusionary actions and mindsets. When our children see or partner with us to intentionally and creatively collaborate with others to disrupt systems of hierarchy and violence, it is then that liberating wellness can replace lurking pain.
In psychological resistance to marginalization research that I conducted among Black mothers, data showed that being purpose-driven, participating in healthy relationship and being creative were among the most adaptive and optimal attributes of resistance for long term well-being. This is in line with brain research outlining the differences in brain circuitry linked to short term pleasure versus long term happiness, the latter being associated with relational sharing, generosity and productivity. While other studies confirm that being part of an inclusive community and having healthy connections helps us to live longer and be happier.
The Children are Watching ... and Feeling
Children are learning and developing in the midst of a volatile time which makes it all the more important for parents and adult caregivers to think about safe and supportive environments that are mindful of their physical, emotional and mental well-being, particularly in a currently hostile schooling climate. While attention is being brought to social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and approaches, it is critical for educators and providers to use a racially aware and culturally responsive lens to design and implement activities. These approaches and programs must be anchored in equity and social justice frameworks that prioritize a full understanding of the pain of social exclusion and includes the authentic range and strengths within diverse communities. This is especially important to remember during holidays, which is often a heightened time for cultural appropriation, stereotypes, direct and subtle exclusionary practices that reflect racial and cultural aggressions.
Programming that involves families and communities will also help to make lasting results, and including necessary spaces for racially and culturally alike people, also known as affinity spaces, will foster deeper experiences of belonging and affirmation. These are essential building blocks for developing overall resiliency and wellness. Additionally, racially diverse groups that work together to address, discuss and dismantle exclusion and marginalization, both structurally and interpersonally, are key to the process and progress.
Considering the ideas presented in the S.T.O.P model may offer a way to begin to take steps that tackle social exclusion, cultivate resiliency and build relationship. Together we can help to stop the pain of exclusion that weaves its way around our schools, homes and communities...and shows up in hearts, bodies and minds.
Karen T. Craddock, PhD
Karen's passion for building bridges between the world of ideas and the world of practice is anchored in the power of connection, inter/personal understanding and creative expression - these are the threads that weave throughout her life and are the basis of her work as an applied psychologist, action researcher, and strengths-based practitioner. Karen is a Visiting Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.