Applied Psychology OPUS

Spaces for Young Women of Color’s Trauma Meaning Making and Identity Development

Mercedes J. Okosi

Most people experience at least one traumatic event over the course of a lifetime that is violent in nature, disorienting, and/or life threatening (Manici & Bonanno, 2006).  Trauma, broadly defined, can encompass a wide range of direct or indirect negative life events that influence an individual’s ability to adapt (Dill, 2011; Mackay, 2002; Manici & Bonanno, 2006; Park & Ai, 2006).  Healthy adaptation after trauma, however, is not a discrete event; it is both an outcome and process of development in the face of adversity conceptualized as resilience (Bonanno, 2012; Dill, 2011; Lynch, Keasler, Reaves, Channer, & Bukowski, 2007; Manici & Bonanno, 2006; Singh & McKleroy, 2011; Zhang, DeBlois, Deniger, & Kamanzi, 2008).  Such a transformative personal process often impacts an individual’s sense of identity and relation to other people depending on the interpersonal nature of the trauma.  Although trauma literature describes the process of resilience and identity formation from various perspectives, there is a failure to acknowledge specific populations.  For example, young women of color may experience trauma and resilience in a distinct manner linked to their social identities.  Research about the nature of their specific trauma may have implications for cultural sensitivity in community organizing and treatment.

Nature of Traumatic Events

Traumatic events are often framed as objectively clear adverse events such as combat experience or sexual assault.  Recently, more subjective personal and interpersonal experiences are labeled as trauma in order to acknowledge an individual’s unique perception of an experience.  Many traumatic events can occur in the context of an instable family environment (Dill, 2011; Park & Ai, 2006).  These include interpersonal conflict within a family, which is viewed as a betrayal of trust and comfort.  Other examples of subjective traumas and their contexts include parental mental illness, maltreatment, chronic illness, catastrophic life events, socioeconomic status disadvantage, and community violence (Dill, 2011).  Much of the literature is centered on violent trauma because it is the most tangible and has both a physical and psychological effect on an individual.  Violent trauma calls into question one’s vulnerability, self worth, and perception of a just world (Mackay, 2002; Manici & Bonanno, 2006; Park & Ai, 2006).  An individual who experiences violent trauma is no longer oriented to their physical space in the previous manner because they may perceive greater thereat and may feel insecure in interpersonal interactions.  Reaction to trauma depends on the strength of self-concept and its ability to withstand adversity which changes as individuals develop new cognitive and emotional strengths.

An analysis of the trajectory of research in resilience claimed that children and adults experience similar exposure to potentially traumatic events (Bonanno, 2012).  This idea becomes an area of conflict in the literature because the position of adolescents in this paradigm is obscured or lost.  Qualitative studies of adolescent narratives and correlational studies demonstrated that youth experienced and enacted violence disproportionately (Dill, 2011; Mackay, 2002).  Adolescents seem to be more vulnerable to trauma, especially that which is violent in nature.  The volume of potentially traumatic events may be a risk factor for the way in which adolescents conceptualize their environments and perceive their opportunities.  Adolescents are at a developmental period in which cognitive abilities allow them to perceive trauma in a different way than children (Mackay, 2002).  Social location is a concept that describes the inextricable link of one’s identity demographics such as age to one’s perception and interaction with the environment.  The period of adolescence is a distinct social location, worthy of further research.

Qualitative analysis of narratives of transwomen of color demonstrated that social location (i.e., race, age, gender, and socioeconomic status) shaped experience and reaction to trauma (Singh & McKleroy, 2011).  This concept of social location is also linked to the experience of broader groups.  Women in general reported more interpersonal trauma that had fear inducing capabilities compared to men (Cromer & Smith, 2009).  One’s disadvantaged social position influences vulnerability and reaction to trauma.  Results of a correlational study with a diverse, although mostly white, sample reveal that there were interaction effects across different social locations in the outcome of well-being after trauma.  Women of color had lower scores on well-being; yet racial minority status was a positive predictor of well-being (Ryff, Keyes, & Hughes, 2003).  Race is a social location inextricably linked to class and physical location.  The processes of gentrification, urban renewal, and deindustrialization relocate people of color and result in a concentration of poverty, violence, and disease (Dill, 2011).  The potential for traumatic events is increased and processes of meaning making recovery are threatened due to the chronic nature of a dangerous environment, yet racial identity development can serve as a protective factor.

Meaning Making Processes

Resilience as an outcome and process is accompanied by meaning making.  Individuals have a manner of meaning making through which they understand experiences.  Global meaning consists of beliefs, or schemas through which an individual interprets experiences, goals toward which an individual continues to strive, and subjective feelings of meaning or sense of life purpose.  Trauma can shatter this system of meaning (Park & Ai, 2006).  For example, death of a family member challenges the idea of invulnerability and exclusion from the possibility of experiencing death of a close one.  When trauma is repetitive or chronic, the effects are especially harmful.  Negative schemas, or cognitive organizing mechanisms, can be a result of this cumulative strain on global meaning (Cromer & Smyth, 2010).  Thus, the process of meaning making and development of resilience are an avenue of restructuring.  Meaning making describes the process of rebuilding global meaning and reestablishing consistency in one’s beliefs, goals, and purpose (Park & Ai, 2006).  Meaning making also functions as an avenue for autonomy because it can be a purposeful, emotionally engaging act that reframes the traumatic event (Park & Ai, 2006).  Global meaning is made more flexible to accommodate these potentially traumatic events and is stronger because it withstood the aftermath.

Due to its productive and adaptive function, researchers agree that having a sense of meaning is essential to survival of trauma, (Park & Ai, 2006; Ryff, Keyes, & Hughes, 2003).  Certain personality characteristics aid in this process and act as protective factors, or buffers, of the effects of trauma.  Protective factors or processes include self-concept, sense of control, and future orientation (Dill, 2011; Lynch et al., 2007; Manici & Bonanno, 2006; Pace & Zappulla, 2009; Zhang et al., 2008).  An individual who has a strong sense of self and has concrete goals or aspirations for the future can focus on productive activity and withstand the effects of trauma.  Commitment to self-reflection, tolerance for negative emotions, and meaning making were associated with resilience (Lynch et al., 2007) but rumination or dwelling was viewed as nonproductive and motivated by fear (Luyckx et al., 2007).  Additional characteristics of people who achieve this resilience include flexible adaptation, or the ability to change behavior in the face of a challenge, and pragmatic coping which is the use of practices that can be maladaptive under different circumstances. Examples include repression, dismissive attachment, and self-enhancing biases (Manici & Bonanno, 2006).  Behavioral flexibility allows the “shattering” of one’s global meaning to be less intense because these actions facilitate meaning making.  Thus restructuring is not as difficult and the process of resilience is facilitated.  For example, dismissive attachment can be helpful for someone who has experienced trauma in an interpersonal context.

Although dismissive attachment can be an effective mechanism for resilience, the process of resilience does not have to unfold individually. Resilience is often constructed as a self-generating and self-reproducing concept because of the correlated traits such as autonomy, self-efficacy, and sense of purpose, but this definition fails to acknowledge other mechanisms and organizational structures for resilience (Zhang et al., 2008).  With a stronger self-concept, an individual also conceptualizes interpersonal relationships differently, especially if the trauma they experienced was interpersonal in nature.  An individual who made meaning of a traumatic event feels empowered to demand reciprocity and respect in future relationships and reconstructs the idea of attribution and responsibility in old ones (Lynch et al., 2007).  Meaning making, thus aids in the eradication of negative outcomes such as self-blame and low self esteem.

Regarding young women of color, a strength-based approach is encouraged to explore competencies and skills (Singh & McKleroy, 2011; Zhang et al., 2008).  Strength based treatment is often manifested in the form of staff of community agencies.  Young people gain access to recreational and career oriented services that act as protective factors (Dill, 2011; Lynch et al., 2007).  Meaningful participation provides young people with a sense of purpose and achievement that can strengthen global meaning.  Young people of color also have the opportunity to share narratives of racial and ethnic challenges that can function as opportunities for meaning making

Autonomy and Identity Development

Meaning making of trauma can lift a weight from the individual that then allows for constructive identity development and achievement of tasks such as autonomy that are hallmarks of adolescence.  Adolescence is recognized as a unique developmental stage meant to organize self-concept and purpose (Mackay, 2002; Sandhu & Tung, 2006).  A sense of self during adolescence is linked to the way in which one experiences family dynamic and one’s relative independence from the family unit.  A warm, supportive, cohesive family environment enhances identity formation but some conflict may be necessary for separation and autonomy (Mackay 2002; Mullis, Chaterjee Graf, & Mullis, 2009; Sandhu & Tung, 2006).  In other words, the family can provide a type of scaffolding for the development of individual identity and internal conflicts can illustrate to adolescents that they cannot be entirely dependent on family members.  It is also important to note that conditions in which young women of color in urban areas live may not nurture a warm family environment from the start, so supportive families can be valid but not sufficient to the process of identity development.  Perception of parents also influences autonomous identity formation.  Individuation and perceiving parents as people with multiple roles and flaws are important processes in autonomy (Sandhu & Tung, 2006).  In addition to the condition of separation from parents, the quality or nature of the separation is significant.  High levels of identity commitment and separation from parents are related to better emotional adjustment but unhealthy detachment is related to maladjustment (Sandhu & Tung, 2006).  Detachment connotes a different meaning than separation and has a different influence on well-being.  However, trauma can be interpersonal and family-based causing a young person to detach from parents but this does not mean that she cannot process the trauma and emotionally adjust.  The relationship between family structure and autonomy can be complex so external resources such as community organizations are helpful. 

In the process of identity development and achievement of autonomy, young people often take the initiative to utilize community resources.  Young women of color can capitalize on organizations such as youth centers or after school programs focused on building strengths. Social capital describes interpersonal structures that provide resources and protect against negative effects of poverty, but marginalized groups like women and people of color have unequal access to these structures (Dill, 2011).  The idea of young women of color reaching out on their own after experiencing trauma and navigating unequal distribution of resources speaks to autonomy.  Interpersonal social capital often exists in the form of mentorships.  Young people seek safe spaces and adult mentors for social mobility (Dill, 2011; Lynch et al., 2007).  Embedded in an atmosphere of rich social capital, young women of color can feel safe to process traumatic events because they are allowed to be removed from the immediate context of the trauma.  Mentors act as secure bases outside of the family that can foster identity development and support young people while encouraging autonomy.

Another aspect of identity related to autonomy and well-being was positive racial identity (Dill 2011; Singh & McKleroy 2011).  Racial minority status and strong racial identity may act as a protective process and lead to well-being after trauma.  The concept of eudaimonia is a measure of well-being through engagement in life challenges, purpose, growth, autonomy, mastery, positive relationships, and self acceptance (Ryff et al., 2003).  African Americans, and Mexican Americans whose scores were mediated by education level, have higher average levels of the autonomy element of eudaimonia than white subjects (Ryff et al., 2003).  These findings have implications for safe community spaces for the processes of meaning making and identity development after trauma for young women of color.

Implications for Safe Spaces Facilitating Identity Development

It is important that any approach to identity development of young women of color be grounded in their narratives and perspectives.  An examination of the way these young women tend to think about the world can be helpful for aiding them in discovering their position in the world.  A qualitative study of narratives of high school young women of color found that they plan a future for themselves that contrasts with prevalent images in the media of dependent, materialistic women, yet they often doubted their capacities to fulfill their dreams (Schultz, 1999).  For example, many young women did not prioritize marriage or finding a partner.  Instead they envisioned a future in which they provide for themselves autonomously.  That future is difficult to imagine when placed in a social context of negative life events and trauma.  Thus young people in urban environments experience discrepancies between what they are told they can accomplish and what they view as possible in their unique social context (Pastor et al., 2007).  It takes a great deal of personal strength to set goals for oneself that have no precedence in one’s surroundings because one must have courage and determination in the face of doubt from others.  For example, many young women took the initiative to be the first in their families to complete high school and pursue college (Pastor et al., 2007).  This goal setting is an act of resistance that allows young women to form their own identities.  As young women negotiated the two worlds of empowerment and powerlessness as a result of becoming subjects of their circumstances, they performed acts of resistance against futures others had imposed upon them or predicted for them (Schultz, 1999).  For example, despite having a child at a relatively young age, many participants refused to drop out of school like others thought they would, or as they saw other girls do in the past.  These identity formation processes take place in the contexts of what are called homeplaces.

A study of young women’s narratives defines the concept of homeplaces as comforting, safe spaces in areas such as social movements, institutions, or schools (Pastor et al., 2007). Young women actively search for places to feel at home where their voices will be heard and their lived experiences taken into consideration.  However, the process of homemaking is not without challenges.  Pastor et al. explains “urban girls of many colors cannot simply pursue autonomy, freedom, and independence as Erikson (1968) theorizes. The challenges of racism, sexism, classism, and cultural hegemony profoundly interfere” (2007).  So traditional models of development organized based on the experience of white males is not generalizable to everyone.  Systems of oppression are additional hindrances to adolescent identity development.  Yet the challenges help young women of color develop a critical consciousness with which they can see faults in society and assert themselves in white, male-dominated institutions not designed to promote their interests or protect them (Pastor et al., 2007).  The creation of homespaces that are sensitive to race, gender, and class issues then becomes a protective factor promoting resilience.

Young women of color have adverse reactions to institutional spaces not designed to meet their needs.  There is a feeling of surveillance that many adolescent girls experience when they experience metal detectors in their schools for example.  They feel monitored but not considered.  They avoid revealing personal narratives in spaces where “their lives feel invaded but not engaged” (Pastor et al., 2007).  There is a distinction between a unidirectional process in which the young person is passive, and a bidirectional process in which a young person is engaged and encouraged in the process of identity building and goal setting.  Mentoring relationships embody the latter.  Community mentors, who take into consideration multiple and shifting identities of ethnicity, gender, and class, play an important role in helping to shape identities and helping young women formulate and reach goals (Dill, 2011; Pastor et al., 2007; Schultz 1999).  This may be the most adaptive model for young women of color. 

This population is disproportionately effected by violence which has the potential to become interpersonal trauma.  Community workers who share an understanding of the environment in which these young women live can provide strategies and support to prevent negative life experiences and trauma before it happens.  A safe space can keep young women of color away from potential trauma.  Culturally sensitive community mentors also act as an audience to listen to and facilitate the meaning making processes of young women of color.  At community organizations based on mentorship, young women are more likely to feel that their voices are heard instead of studied and monitored.  Mentors also act as examples of successful professionals who can model autonomy and positive sense of self to young people while they scaffold identity development.  Future research on this subject should provide additional support for the implementation of mentorship programs in communities of people of color and develop strategies to build the most effective programs.