Understanding Racial Trauma: Our Talk With Natacha Pennycooke

"Unfortunately, there are some people who don't understand that the Black Lives Matter movement isn't saying that only Black lives matter. The movement is a call for Black lives to be included and valued just as much as other lives."

Natacha Pennycooke is a Registered Psychotherapist, with the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (CRPO). In her practice as a psychotherapist, speaker, and consultant, her work is guided from an anti-oppressive, healing focused, trauma-informed, and anti-Black racism lens, to unpack and challenge euro-centric practices, systemic oppression and generational traumas that have been detrimental to racialized communities. Natacha is an independent clinician with over 10 years of experience. She has presented at a number of international and national psychological conferences; and, is sought after for her expertise on mental health, trauma, and healing to speak at various community and corporate events across the Greater Toronto Area. She is a founding member and current vice-chair of the Association of Black Psychologists - Toronto Chapter (ABPsi-TO), and a member of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA).

SWY: Can you please describe what you do and the way you came into this work?

NP: I work mainly with women and men who are struggling with trauma, anxiety, and depression; people who are feeling a lot of self-doubt, and maybe shame from things that may have happened in their past. I help them to move forward, to heal, to thrive and to live their best life.

I work very much from an anti-Black racism, trauma-informed and anti-oppressive lens. What that means is that I educate people to better understand what trauma is, the impact of trauma, and the different traumas that they may experience. Trauma is not only limited to experiences like assault (physical or sexual) or wars – the usual things that a lot of us may think about as “traumatic”. But traumas can be anything that has happened that changes the way a person views their world and themselves and affects their propensity to cope. So, what I teach my clients is that any event can be trauma (from a paper cut to an assault) if it impacts your ability to cope. If something happens that you don't have the means or know-how to cope, it could definitely be perceived as traumatic.

"But traumas can be anything that has happened that changes the way a person views their world and themselves and affects their propensity to cope."

How I got into this work is a great question. Psychology was always something that I liked and enjoyed. I was very much intrigued by the person dynamic. I studied Psychology and Biology in my undergrad because I was so intrigued about the interplay between human dynamics and the impact on the human body. So, I did the psychology side of it and also did biology to understand more about the human dynamic – the mental and physical. And then I found myself also gravitating towards anthropology because of the cultural side, and how culture very much impacts the psychology and the biology of a person. So, it's like the full scope of a person’s being and of the different ways in which, not only from the biological to the psychological but also from the social interactions of people. Being very much intrigued by human behaviour led me into the field of psychology. All of my education is in psychology and then practicing psychotherapy so people can get to a place of healing.

SWY: What inspired you to go into the psychotherapy field and specialize in trauma therapy?

NP: Thinking about myself, I recognize that I have a number of experiences that have really propelled me to do the work that I do. One of them was being raised in a household with an alcoholic father who was also physically abusive. That was one of the ways where I started to recognize my own lived experiences and lived traumas. Another experience, also from my household, is from my mother who was not very emotionally present. I’m not sure if, at that time, there was ever an understanding of what was happening in the household, but very much from an emotional side I remember feeling invalidated a lot of times about the experiences that I had gone through.

Another experience from my youth was where my best friend had disclosed one time in class during high school, that she was being sexually assaulted by her brother. This particular experience was very much secondary trauma for me, which is hearing about or witnessing someone's traumatic experiences. So, all of these different traumatic experiences, especially this one, led me to want to do this work, especially from a trauma-focused lens.

Another experience that I went through in primary and daycare was being the only Black girl in a lot of the activities that I did. So, such as in girl guides or jazz ballet, being the only little Black girl and recognizing how I was often made to feel different and othered. Whether it was from my hair or even something as simple, like jazz ballet, getting a uniform. Where a “nude” costume for someone else is not “nude” for me. So being very much aware of how these different experiences impacted my life. All of these experiences were traumatic - from a friend who was sexually abused, to being emotional invalidated and physical abused, to racial trauma. All this kind of came together for me and made me want to really focus on trauma.

SWY: You are known to help others embrace and overcome their trauma by using a trauma-informed, anti-oppressive, and anti-Black racism lens. With this perspective in mind, what are some of the treatment methods you use in your sessions to help others heal from generational traumas that have been detrimental to racialized communities?

NP: I was initially trained in the CBT and the DBTs from a client-centered approach. I have since incorporated modalities to include the family and cultural system influences, as well as attachment, all used from more of an Afro-African psychological perspective. The largest inclusion is in recognizing that the self is understood and impacted by relations with others. So, we as people, learn about ourselves and we learn about others; we learn how to interact with ourselves and interact with others. We learn how to view ourselves and view others through relational interactions with those around us. The whole idea is that the self is not a single entity, that we are a part of each other. Like the African proverb says, “I am because we are." This also includes the soul, the spirit, ancestors, spiritual and religious realms.

It is really the way that we view the world and how our world shapes our perceptions. In using African centered modalities, very much in an eclectic way with CBT and DBT, which are more the Western traditional ways, really using these different modalities and including things like emotional regulation and emotional processing. Very much understanding, “How do I see myself?”, “How do I understand myself, the self which has been impacted by my relationship with someone else?" And because you've been impacted by the relation with someone else, you are left feeling a certain way, but how do you understand that feeling? And how do you get to an idea of what it is so that you can get to a better place. So, really understanding the self and how that has been impacted by those around us. The whole thing about emotional regulation is being able to understand the emotions that I'm feeling in the time that I am feeling them. This is actually really difficult for a lot of people.

I deal a lot with anxiety as well. Anxiety is something that I really enjoy working with. A lot of us have a lot of different fears that put us into an avoidance cycle. That means that we avoid doing things because of the fears that we have. Avoidance is something that's very common. We, I guess mainstream, may think of avoidance in terms of substance abuse or substance use, right? But, we don't only have to think about substances. People tend to think of all the drugs and alcohol, but what about shopping and gambling and sex and emotional eating, as emotional avoidance? These are different ways that people try to take care of their anxieties, to avoid the feelings that we are feeling.

In emotional regulation, what I do a lot of is getting someone to understand the foundation of the feeling - where it came from and why. And a lot of times, for a lot of different people that I work with, the foundation of the discomfort and uncomfortable feeling is fear, but also fear because of what they've seen in other people, what they have experienced from other people, and how they begin to understand themselves from other people. Some of the tools I use with clients learning about emotional regulation and emotional intelligence is a face chart and feeling words to build an emotional vocabulary. So, a face chart is a chart that has all these cute little faces and maybe in different cartoon colors to get someone familiar with different emotional states, to understand that they have the propensity to feel different emotions, to help them learn to validate the emotions they are feeling by making space of these feeling and to learn how to understand their feelings when interacting with someone else.

SWY: How do you think attending therapy can be used as an intervention in stopping racial trauma from being passed down from generation to generation?

NP: This, I thought, was a really interesting question. Racial trauma is about the hurt and pain that has been experienced from racism, from prejudice and from racial discrimination. Therapy can help to begin the healing process from this hurt and pain. Therapy is about validating the experiences and feelings that all too often are invalidated. Intergenerational trauma is the hurt, pain, and impact of these experiences that are passed down from one generation to the other, because prior generations were in survival mode and many times due to barriers, did not have the means to heal and thrive. Survival is about living, healing is about thriving.

"Racial trauma is about the hurt and pain that has been experienced from racism, from prejudice, and from racial discrimination. Therapy can help to begin the healing process from this hurt and pain. Therapy is about validating the experiences and feelings that all too often are invalidated."

I'm not sure if racial trauma can be stopped, I would love it to be, but our reality is that our systems are built on racism and on the oppression of peoples. The change will only happen when governments make a systemic change to dismantle racism, racist policies and make actionable commitments to target anti-Black racism within these policies and the people who hold up these policies.

SWY: What is the importance of using a trauma-informed, anti-oppressive, and anti-Black racism lens in your field?

NP: As a Black woman living in a society that is very much governed by institutions that are built on systemic racism, racial trauma and oppression are a part of my everyday life and everyday lived experience. This is the case for a lot of my clients as well. My Black identified clients have historically experienced racism because historically race and the impact of racial trauma have been detrimental to our lived experiences. Whether it be from watching TV where my race is not represented, or shopping for nude color clothing, or applying a bandage to my child, or walking into a store and being the only black face, or being denied a rental unit because the landlord doesn't want to rent to a Black person. The system is built as a constant reminder to Black people that we are different and are made to feel othered.

This is why many Black folks searched for a Black therapist because representation does matter. Being seen does matter, and not having to continuously pacify the self, for White fragility allows for healing. As a Black person, living in a predominantly White space, racial trauma and oppression are daily occurrences that can't be teased out of our experiences. They're woven together as a by-product of colonialization and slavery that have a continuous impact on how we are living our everyday life.

SWY: Do you think the increasing number of Black youths getting involved with the current Black Lives Matter movement will have any consequences, positive or negative on their mental health? If so, what consequences and why?

NP: I think those consequences are both positive and negative. Some of the positive consequences are getting involved in activism. Part of it is also community building and a sense of belonging. It's also a validation of race-related stress and trauma, and connecting with likeminded people. The reason why these are some positive consequences is that for a lot of the time, the lived experience of Black youth is that, you know, that they don't matter. I mean, I mentioned about “nude colour” bandages. It's 2020, and we all heard about Band-Aid brand now changing their bandages and making them a variety of different shades. This is something that I remember as a child getting a bandage. I would be like, "How come it doesn't look like me? This is supposed to be skin colour. That's not my skin colour." So the positive about it is really connecting with like-minded people and knowing that you're making a difference to the world that the youth are living in, especially as the youth are going to be in the next couple of years, the ones running things in our community. So knowing that they have a hand in making some changes is positive.

Part of the negative is the mental drain and the exhaustion, and the potential to be targeted. Some youth may lose friends, may lose peers that don't understand the importance of Black Lives Matter, and Black Lives Matter as a movement, as well as racial trauma. The mental drain and the exhaustion are something that I, myself, as a therapist, as a Black woman, as a mother to a son, as also someone who has dealt with and who deals with trauma and racial trauma on a daily basis, something that I've personally been feeling. And this is why last week I took the whole week off just to be able to decrease some of that exhaustion. The mental drain and exhaustion are very real. I think it's part and parcel of racial trauma. So that could definitely be some of the negatives.

Unfortunately, there are some people who don't understand that the Black Lives Matter movement isn't saying that only Black lives matter. The movement is a call for Black lives to be included and valued just as much as other lives. I'll use the bandage example again. I mean, it's 2020 and Band-Aid is now putting darker skin bandages for people of varying shades. That's the whole idea, that Black lives matter to be included in with everyone else. So those are some of the negatives. However, there are some positives as well. And I think that there are both positive and negative consequences.

SWY: Do you have any experience with Black LGBTQ+ youth? If so, how are their experiences similar or dissimilar to other youth?

NP: Yes, I do. Some experiences are similar, such as worrying about fitting in with peers, peer pressure, appearances on social media, beauty standards, bullying, managing stress, mental health, physical health, learning about formulating healthy relationships, managing experiences of racism, prejudice, discrimination, building a sense of self belonging. Also building identity, which also includes race, religion, and culture.

However, the difference is that Black LGBTQ+ youth experiences are compounded by the intersectionality of added identity surrounding sexual orientation and sexual identification. So, add on race, racism, culture, and religion, and this further compounds youth and LGBTQ+ youth experiences. For some of the Black LGBTQ+ youth that I have worked with, they face homelessness, isolation, feeling unworthy, and hopelessness, due to being ostracized from the family.

Some of the Black youth that I've worked with are forced to choose between two options:

1) Either denouncing and hiding your sexual orientation/sexual identification, which is a vital part of identity, for the shame of bringing it to the family; or

2) Maintain your sexual orientation/sexual identification and face family separation and ostracism.

This is a hard choice for anyone, especially Black youth, as culture, race, food, religion, and community is very ingrained as a part of the Black family experience and one's own personal identity.

SWY: If you could give one piece of advice to a child or youth who is suffering from abuse and is looking for ways to heal, what would you say?

NP: I think what I would suggest is you're not alone. You’re not the only one going through this, even though it feels like it at the time that you're going through it, even though it feels like you're not safe and there's no one to turn to, and you may feel like you have to keep it a secret because that's what you've been told by your family. You can reach out for help. You deserve to reach out for help. The abuse that you were going through, it is not about you. A lot of times, those of us who have experienced abuse and trauma, we internalize it. And think that it's about us. The abuse that you're going through is not about you. It's about the hurt and the pain that someone else has experienced. And they don't know the proper ways to deal with it and they've pulled you into it, causing a transfer of harm onto you.

So definitely reach out. I know that it's hard. I know that you may be feeling that you are not worth it. I know that you're feeling that you’re probably not enough. Let me be the first to tell you, you are enough. You are worth it. You are important, you matter. You matter enough to seek help. So allow yourself permission to reach out. There are a lot of different ways to seek help. There are lots of hotlines. There are people that you can trust, adults that you can trust. Allow yourself to trust a safe person and reach out for help because you deserve more.

We want to thank Natacha for not only taking the time to share her story and experiences with racial trauma but for educating us on the importance of racial trauma and the effects it has on those in our shared community. If you would like to learn more about Natacha and the services that she offers, check out her Instagram, @natachapennycooke.therapy!