Not All is Shared Trauma - The Impact of COVID and Anti-Black Violence

Rhona Kaplan

The description of COVID 19 as a shared or collective trauma among the global population does not accurately convey the disparate affects of the pandemic influenced by race and class in the US.


The description of COVID 19 as a shared or collective trauma among the global population does not accurately convey the disparate affects of the pandemic influenced by race and class in the United States. I locate this essay in the present time when the trauma of violent losses to an entire community – sparked by the murder of George Floyd, has ignited a movement. The far-reaching tentacles of institutional, systemic racism and anti-black violence (Ross, 2020) has been elucidated and magnified by COVID. Boulanger et al. (2013) post-Katrina illustrated ‘how personal and professional inevitably inform one another when clinicians and patients survived similar dangers and losses’. As a white psychoanalyst sharing the experience of the pandemic with my white patients I register, what I more aptly identify, as a shared stress or anxiety evoked by health, economic concerns and uncertainty. The experience for many patients of color – and particularly my black patients, is far from similar or symmetrical to this anxiety. Black Americans are dying at highly disproportionate rates (Thebault et al., 2020). The alarmingly large numbers of black people incarcerated intensifies COVID’s toll on the black community. In the midst of it all several murders of black people within weeks of one another feels almost impossible to bear and metabolize. In a recent moving essay Nyle Fort (2020) writes about the grief of the black community not being able to mourn collectively, a grief in and of itself:  

How do we keep that tradition alive amid deserted sidewalks and overcrowded morgues? Hell, how do we keep ourselves alive as we witness, once again, Black death go viral?

Deconstructing ‘collective trauma’ is the first task in centering our work on the trauma of racism and racist acts of violence. The word collective ‘denotes a number of persons or things considered as one group or whole’. The words trauma and anxiety are widely used in our day-to-day vernacular. They are often inaccurately interchanged in describing stress ridden emotional affect. As mentioned earlier, it is crucial to delineate the anxiety provoked by the pandemic and traumatic impact on the black community:

…traumatic affect is not anxiety with its volume turned. It is the shock of an affective flooding intense enough to disrupt because it is inherently chaotic. (Bromberg, 2011, p.49)

In the words of one patient:

I either feel terrified, angry, or hurt or sometimes numb because it’s too much. I have not left my home in days. I am as scared of being killed by police right now as I am of dying of Corona. I cannot even go to my [family member’s] funeral either. I have to live with this fear every day, not feel fully human every day.  Usually [we] just have to manage it, pretend we are ok to function and go on with life each day. But I am not really ok. 

Dehumanization and degradation are the insidious effects of racism and political/governmental acts of violence, including executions by police colliding with a virus that has killed black people at devastating rates. These injuries chronically flood and overwhelm my black patient’s sense of self and vitality. The inability to mourn collectively further alienates and disrupts memory and the capacity for formulating meaning (Gerson, 2009). If one cannot speak, grieve, ritualize, and mourn in the face of political oppression then how do we begin to help our patients regain a sense of their vitality and to put words to what has been lost?  In an earlier paper, ‘Can the Center Hold’, I presented a racial conflict that erupted in a mixed-race group I facilitated. I discussed the black members of the group’s ‘screams’ to be heard in the face of racist beliefs. Gerson (2009) asks ‘what can exist between the scream and silence?’  

This is what exists: as a white psychoanalyst working with black patients, we must consistently educate ourselves and others, learn, bear witness and acknowledge the wounds of oppression. It is imperative to remain acutely sensitive to the fact that the immense loss and grief of COVID and black murders is not symmetrical to the experience of a white psychoanalyst. To this end we bear witness (Gerson, 2009), support, and carefully and thoughtfully acknowledge (Benjamin, 2009) the deep hurt and grief of our black patients, friends and colleagues. In our work with white patients we must be cognizant of our complicity when we do not address their dissociation to their white privilege and implicit biases. When they describe uncertainty around COVID as ‘traumatic’, we must help them deconstruct what is trauma in contrast to stress and anxiety. 

Franz Fanon (1963), Dorothy Holmes (2006), Kimberlyn Leary and (2007) Lynn Layton (2006) address the traumatic impact of othering, colonialism, and systemic racism on mental health, identity and internalized unconscious processes. These analysts and writers urge us to approach our work with all patients through an intersectional lens. If we do not then we are neglecting aspects of trauma and racial injury (Leary, 2007) woven into the accumulated collective damage of the marginalized and oppressed. 

This essay emphasized the indescribable grief and trauma experienced by my black patients and community. Due to brevity and for the sake of clarity I recognize that much has been left unaddressed. The discrimination and acts of violence towards the Asian community also has left a traumatic scar on many of my patients. This is not mutually exclusive from the pervasive racism endured by all people of color and must also be attended to during this time and moving forward. 

As I have described the immense toll on black patients I believe we are at a reckoning. The central theme of this essay was to delineate the shared anxiety around COVID from the grief and wounds this time has inflicted on black patients, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It is also an awakening for our field of psychoanalysis to heed the call of social justice. This essay is offered in solidarity with all who grieve and suffer and in the fight for black human lives.

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Boulanger, G. (2013). Fearful symmetry: Shared trauma in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 23(1): 31-44.
Bromberg, P. (2011). Trauma and defensive dissociation and dissociation and dentalization. The Shadow of the Tsunami and The Growth of the Relational Mind, Chap. 2, p. 49:  Taylor and Francis.
Gerson, S. (2009). When the third Is dead: Mourning and witnessing in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 90 (6): 1341-1357.
Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth: New York: Grove Press.
Fort, Nyles (2020).
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Holmes, D. E. (2006). The wrecking effects of race and social class on self and success. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 75(1): 215-235. 
Kaplan, R. (2017). 'Can the Center Hold', presented at Division 39 2018 New Orleans - pending publication. 
Layton, L. (2006). Racial identities, racial enactments, and normative unconscious processes. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 75(1): 237-269.
Leary, K. (2007). Racial injury and repair. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 17(4): 539-549.
Ross, K. M. (2020). Call It What it Is – Anti-Black.
Thebault, R., Ba Tran, A., and Williams, V. (2020)