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Kniffley speaks on ‘Racial Trauma and Communities of Color’

Dr. Steven Kniffley said moving past trauma requires awareness, affirmation and advocacy. (Campbellsville University Photo by Chosalin Morales)

By Scarlett Birge, student news writer, Office of University Communications

CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – “We have a very singular way of thinking about the brown and Black experience. We’ve been taught over the last couple of years that we don’t matter and that we have no value.”

Dr. Steven Kniffley, clinical psychologist and expert on race and racial trauma, who teaches at Spalding University in Louisville, Ky., led a discussion on “Race and Racial Trauma” April 28 in the Badgett Academic Support Center Banquet Hall presented by Campbellsville University’s Office of Diversity and Community.

Kniffley said 96% of Black Americans experience racism and discrimination daily. He said the three objectives to help decrease this statistic are to be connected, feel seen and know your past.

“One of the ways in which we can support Black and brown folks is by helping them to be seen and feel seen for how they wish to identify as Black and brown individuals,” Kniffley said.

The key to understanding one another and decreasing race-related stress is through being educated and open to conversations. Kniffley said discussing these issues helps to advocate for those who are experiencing racial trauma.

“The only way we can heal the divide in this country is through conversation, and sometimes we have a hard time doing that because we never learned how to talk with one another,” he said.

The conversation around dealing with racial trauma needs to change, Kniffley said. He said there are direct correlations of the thoughts and behaviors that are upheld by society to the lived experience of people of color.

“We ask what’s wrong with you rather than what’s happened to you,” he said.

Kniffley said that a large problem that contributes to racial trauma and race-related stress is that people deny that there are systems in place that are intentionally designed to create challenges and difficulties for people based on the color of their skin.

“There are legally sanctioned and culturally enforced ways of thinking about Black and brown folks that leads to difficulties and causes stress,” Kniffley said. “It’s chronic in nature.”

A result of race-related stress and racial trauma is restrictive emotional expression, Kniffley said. Being rooted in emotional pain can greatly affect someone’s mental and physical state.

“People who are traumatized literally lose the ability to communicate their emotional experience to others around them,” he said.

The effects of racial stress and trauma also affect the body’s chemistry and biology. Kniffley discussed the stress hormone, cortisol, which involves the fight, flight or freeze reaction. He said there are higher levels of cortisol in people of color. This contributes to several physical health challenges such as sleep deprivation, heart related issues and weakened immune system.

“For Black and brown folk, our bodies are always on high-alert; our bodies are always in this state of being stressed,” Kniffley said.

Kniffley discussed how generational trauma plays a part in racial trauma. He said there is often no space for people of color to process their trauma and, as a result, their emotions are boxed up and passed down through generations.

“Many of our youth now are having to hold all this generational trauma that have been passed through nine generations at this point,” he said, “We are unable to move, all we are focused on is this trauma.”

Kniffley said moving past trauma requires awareness, affirmation and advocacy. He said in order to heal from racial trauma and stress there must be support to people of color to develop racial identities, process trauma and build and practice skills to handle traumatic events.

Campbellsville University is a widely acclaimed Kentucky-based Christian university that has enrolled up to 12,000 students yearly. The university offers over 100 programs of study including doctoral, masters, bachelors, associate and certification programs. The website for complete information is www.campbellsville.edu.