Supporting Black interns through racial trauma: a guide for colleges, employers

By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications

As all aspects of American society face a national reckoning on racism and police brutality, new UW−Madison research is providing a playbook that employers and higher education professionals can use to help Black student interns cope with the continuing public protests against anti-Black violence.

Recognizing the “psychological tax” borne by Black interns, levied as they seek to maintain their academic and internship commitments in the current racial and political climate, is a prerequisite for providing support, according to authors of a policy brief from the Center for Research on College to Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) in the School of Education.

“Although the long history of systemic racism within America is gaining widespread attention due to the recent civil unrest and growing movement for policing reform, the reality is that racism is a continued and undeniable part of the everyday Black experience,” writes first author Kevon Williams, a graduate student in counseling psychology. Brief co-authors are Mindi Thompson, a professor of counseling psychology in the School of Education, and WCER research scientist Matthew Hora, director of CCWT.

Black Americans have the highest mortality rates from police brutality across all races, dying at a rate roughly 2.5 times that of white people in the U.S., the brief authors note. The accumulative impact of systemic racism over the centuries and a documented rise in hate crimes in recent years exact further “vicarious racial trauma” that Black student interns may experience at work or in school, as they experience distress and perhaps seek to manage their worries about becoming a victim themselves.

The CCWT policy brief describes five broad steps that organizations can take to support Black student interns, with a detailed list of practical actions to accomplish each one, plus a dozen informational and support websites for further education and to share as resources with Black interns.

While much abbreviated here, the brief says organizations working with Black interns should:

  • Enhance supervisor support – Intern supervisors should communicate directly and regularly, acknowledge distress, and explain the most effective way interns can voice concerns.
  • Maintain engagement – Many factors can stop interns from reaching out, including their trust in organizational justice, prior life experiences, and being new to the job. To enhance trust, managers should describe actions they’re taking to support change, offer self-disclosures, and praise successful performance.
  • Offer flexibility in work schedules – Supervisors should allow interns engaged in activism the time to attend important community organizing events and consider extending deadlines for work projects if an intern is experiencing distress or grief from any traumatic events or loss of life in their groups.
  • Avoid making assumptions about them and avoid workplace discrimination – Avoid singling out interns to provide insights about the current climate or to ask them how to be a better anti-racist or ally, and remember not all Black interns share the same reactions to current events.
  • Encourage self-care and resilience – Systematically develop and provide resources.

Brief authors completed a detailed review of prior literature on vicarious trauma and organizational practices to produce their policy brief, hoping to both raise public awareness of these issues and identify ways to reduce the effects of trauma on Black student interns in their day-to-day functioning.

Disabling systemic racism requires “an aggregated and incessant effort” to head off both its immediate harms to individuals and its potential future damage to whole communities, the brief concludes ─ closing with a quote from the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who said, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”

The policy brief defines vicarious (or secondary) trauma as the process by which racial injuries from witnessing globalized policy brutality and hate crimes can be internalized, with potential personal consequences such as burnout and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Research finds such racial trauma can lead to Black students’ increased susceptibility to mental and physical health concerns that can in turn impair daily activities and lead to acute stress, anxiety, non-clinical paranoia, and symptoms of depression. Over time, these stressors can contribute to chronic physical illnesses, such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which both harm the Black community disproportionately, research shows.

Read the full policy brief, here.