How Black Women are Harnessing the Power of Racial Identity in the Face of Racism

How Black Women are Harnessing the Power of Racial Identity in the Face of Racism

Ifrah Sheikh, MSc, MA

Ifrah S Sheikh ADAA

Ifrah Sheikh, MSc, MA, is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student at Georgia State University. Her research is focused on the relationship between racial oppression and trauma symptomatology, with special emphasis on how culturally-salient factors like racial identity may be protective for those who experience multiple marginalization, such as migrant, refugee, and racially minoritized groups. Clinically, she is interested in the conceptualization and assessment of PTSD and the impact of oppression on mental and physical health outcomes. In her clinical and research endeavors, Ifrah takes a community-based lens to enhancing resilience across the lifespan and is committed to conducting translational research that informs the development of culturally-centered prevention and intervention options. She has published on memory and sexual assault trauma, fear processes in PTSD, the protective potential of social connectedness in buffering the effects of racial discrimination on trauma cognitions, and psychological outcomes in forcibly displaced Muslims. 

Ifrah has also been involved in leadership, activism, and community engagement work for over a decade. She is currently serving as Research Director on the executive board of the Muslim Mental Health Initiative of Atlanta (MMHIA), a community organization aimed to reduce mental health stigma and increase access to care in Atlanta and Georgia Muslim communities. 
 

How Black Women are Harnessing the Power of Racial Identity in the Face of Racism

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Ifrah S Sheikh ADAA

In recent years, civil rights activists and racially marginalized communities have worked to highlight the continuous and devastating effects of systemic racism in the United States and beyond. As researchers have consistently established that racism takes a toll on mental and physical health, we have also begun to investigate a very important question: 

What, if anything, may be protective against the overwhelming effects of racism on the mind and body?

As part of this area of work, researchers have established that chronic stressors like racism are linked to  many negative mental health outcomes, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Researchers have also started to examine what could be protective in the face of chronic racism, leading to culturally-salient considerations of racial identity. Racial identity can be defined as the way people relate to their racial identification, both in how they define themselves and how they define their racial group. 

Our recent research has attempted to decipher the relationship among racial identity, stress from racism, and trauma symptoms with the emergence of some fascinating and illuminating findings.

What we found:

First, consistent with other recent research, we found that Black women’s report of stress from racial discrimination was significantly linked to PTSD.

Second, when we considered the racial identity of the Black women in our study, three distinct racial identity profiles emerged:

  • One group of women had average racial identity levels across the board in terms of the extent to which they define themselves by race, how much they like being Black, how they think others view Black people, and how central Afrocentric values are for them.
  • A second group of women placed emphasis on being of African descent, defined themselves strongly by race, and believed others viewed Black people negatively.
  • A third group of women held negative views about being Black, did not centrally define themselves by a Black identity, and also did not think others viewed Black individuals negatively.

Lastly, from these racial identity profiles we wanted to know if any of these profiles buffered the negative effects of stress from racism on PTSD symptoms. In other words, can racial identity minimize the link between racism and negative mental health outcomes like PTSD?

In short, yes. We found that for the second group of Black women (identifying strongly with their Black identity, Black values, and believing society views Black people negatively): as race-related stress increased, PTSD symptoms stayed steady. Therefore specifically, this type of racial identity buffered the negative effects of racism-related stress and its impact on trauma symptoms for these Black women.

So, what does this all mean for the health of racially minoritized individuals?

The results of our research highlight very important findings that racially minoritized individuals have been pushing to address for decades, and researchers have now begun to highlight:

  • Experiencing racism can lead to significant distress that is in line with how we view symptoms of other traumatic stressors.
  • A strong racial identity may protect racially minoritized individuals from the negative health effects that can come from experiencing racism, while also recognizing the continued need for systemic change to reduce racism broadly. 
  • For Black women in particular who experience multiple forms of marginalization, a strong racial identity that centers Afrocentric values and an understanding of systemic racism can be protective in the face of racism, especially when it comes to trauma symptoms.

What does this mean for minoritized women’s health?

Our growing understanding of the relationship between racism and health has enormous implications broadly and in relation to minoritized women. Black and Brown womanhood often results in the exposure to multiple oppressive and traumatic experiences uniquely dependent on the intersection among racism, sexism, and violence. 

As we expand our insight into the effects of racism on the mind and body and how culturally-salient factors like racial identity may be protective, we must ask: how do the unique experiences of women of color impact identity development, the experience of systemic marginalization, and adverse experiences?

What we do know is that despite experiencing intersecting marginalization, women of color demonstrate enormous strength and resilience; finding ways to harness connection to self and others in order to persist in the face of systemic oppression across generations. As researchers, clinicians, and providers, we must work to amplify these strengths while remaining mindful of the likely cost to marginalized women to consistently need to utilize strength-based resources to combat the unrelenting stress of racism in our society. 
 

Ifrah Sheikh, MSc, MA

Ifrah S Sheikh ADAA

Ifrah Sheikh, MSc, MA, is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student at Georgia State University. Her research is focused on the relationship between racial oppression and trauma symptomatology, with special emphasis on how culturally-salient factors like racial identity may be protective for those who experience multiple marginalization, such as migrant, refugee, and racially minoritized groups. Clinically, she is interested in the conceptualization and assessment of PTSD and the impact of oppression on mental and physical health outcomes. In her clinical and research endeavors, Ifrah takes a community-based lens to enhancing resilience across the lifespan and is committed to conducting translational research that informs the development of culturally-centered prevention and intervention options. She has published on memory and sexual assault trauma, fear processes in PTSD, the protective potential of social connectedness in buffering the effects of racial discrimination on trauma cognitions, and psychological outcomes in forcibly displaced Muslims. 

Ifrah has also been involved in leadership, activism, and community engagement work for over a decade. She is currently serving as Research Director on the executive board of the Muslim Mental Health Initiative of Atlanta (MMHIA), a community organization aimed to reduce mental health stigma and increase access to care in Atlanta and Georgia Muslim communities. 
 

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