Awakening to the Trauma of Racial Injustices
Article by Marsha D. Stonehill, MSN, PMHNP/CNS, BC
To my fellow colleagues in the caretaking fields and white Americans who would like to consider deeper perspectives than where most conversations about racial dialogue take us.
I have far too often witnessed that when someone starts a conversation about racial injustices, people’s defenses come up immediately. These defenses usually sound something like “I’m not racist”, acknowledging fear of saying anything out of concern that it will sound racist, or making statements like “I have black friends, therefore I’m not racist”, and the list goes on. Voice tones shift, postures become tense, and eye contact is often avoided.
When we say things such as “I’m not racist” or “I don’t say anything because I don’t want anybody to think I’m racist”; we are missing a very important opportunity to bring ourselves into greater awareness. A deeper understanding of racial injustices can create a path for further healing among those who have suffered the terrors and traumas of racism, which can in turn bring healing to individuals and our communities. Take a deep breath and be at ease. Racial dialogue is not a question of whether you individually are racist or not. It is a necessary dialogue that can allow those who have been traumatized to heal and can unite citizens to create changes in our systems where barriers persist for those among us who are non-white. It is only natural that white people would not automatically see these systemic problems because we are not directly affected. First, it is important to take into consideration that even though we as white people may have experienced different forms of oppression, we have not experienced oppression as a race.
Therefore, I invite you to consider what it might be like to be part of a race who has been oppressed to varying degrees at different points in time in this country. It is not a task of being nice to a person or group of persons who are experiencing this oppression. Even though this oppression does not present in the form of slavery or in the blatant disregard and violence toward non-whites in the Jim Crow Era; it does still exist. We must ask ourselves where and how oppression still exists. We must ask ourselves how are we currently desensitized to it?
I am a white women who had no idea about the persistent, intertwined, neatly packaged, systemic barriers non-white persons encounter on a daily basis. I was not aware because I had bought into a story of believing because I love and accept people; because I’ve been in school with, worked with, or done projects with other ethnicities; because I’ve had pleasant and friendly encounters with; and because I see everyone as equal, then there is not a problem right. Afterall, it is the 21st century!
Another observation that created confusion for me is the fact that there are many black Americans who have excelled in ways I would never be able too. What I did not know is the difference in what it took for those persons to excel versus what it takes for white Americans to excel. I bought into the “if you just work hard enough, anybody can do anything” story. It is true that for any of us to accomplish our individual potential, we must work hard. It is also true that there are barriers for the non-white American that white people do not see because it is not our experience and we have been told only parts of the American story. And, more common than not, when a non-white person attempts to share about their human experience; it is disregarded in some manner.
Another barrier to my ability to initially grasp the reality of how our American system continues to be infiltrated with policies and laws that provide relief to some and barriers to others is the experience of my own hardships. I have experienced the rather usual gamut of life hardships including various forms of loss and betrayal; loan or job rejections, meanness from people for no reason, sexist issues, and other painful things while pushing forward toward a career and personal goals. As a result, I made a gross error of assuming equality had been accomplished and did not see the barriers that remain for black Americans. Now that I am looking, it seems quite blatant.
I have mentioned “story” and “American story” a couple times. Here is an over simplified description of what I mean by “story”. We have been told partial truths about slavery, the Jim Crow Era, and the Civil Rights Movement. We have been led to believe all that was needed for equality has been accomplished and now it is simply up to each individual. As we watch Hollywood portrayals of horrific events that end on a good note, we can easily walk away feeling like “Thank God that’s not happening anymore.” and still have no awareness of the ongoing work that needs to be done. We are not given the full historical realities. We have not been exposed to the deep, personal stories as we look someone in the eyes who have been affected by these atrocities. We seem to quickly become very defensive when others suggest there is more to the story. How can this not be absolutely maddening to those who have lived the unveiled part of this American experience!
What I have observed since I have become more aware of the partial stories we are taught or exposed to is more complex than can be written in a few paragraphs. Please accept this material as an introductory conversation. I have learned that most non-white people are not going to share the reality of their truth because it’s too anger provoking, exhausting, and draining to experience the persistent responses that are either defensive, resistant, or shocked in nature. You know, things such as: “Really?” “This is still happening?” “I thought that was over now?” “But I see you as equal.” “They’re pulling the race card again.” or “I’ve experienced reverse racism!”
Now, let us go deeper. What I have also learned is that our lack of attention to the repercussions of the oppression that has been imposed on black Americans continues to carry on from generation to generation. This idea that “once the older generation dies off, all will be well” is a fallacy.
I am going to start with this statement, but please do not get stuck on this statement. This is part of our problem. We fall way back and fail to see what is happening right here, right now. Being a slave is traumatic to the human psyche. Period. It doesn’t matter if the slave owners were “nice” to their slaves. Can we see the dismissiveness of the pain of slavery when a white person makes a statement of that nature? Being a slave is oppression. The strength¹ it would take for a non-white American to internalize all personal feelings and respond in whatever manner was expected by the people who owned and oppressed you exceeds anything I could possibly imagine enduring. Please remember also that most slave owners were also proclaiming to be Christian. Another matter I cannot begin to wrap my mind around. How is it that the human psyche of one person can justify atrocities on another person and think nothing of it? This is actually quite frightening and leads me to ask myself: “What am I accepting as normal because I was born into it when it is anything other than normal and needs addressing?” I especially want to reach out to white women to look at what we as a group have done historically and are doing currently to both make matters worse and/or better? Where are we as white women today buying into a story that continues to bring harm to black women.
Having said these things, how is it that as a nation we seem to feel justified in glorifying those who participated in atrocities toward another human being and call this honoring history? How is it that we can tell ourselves all is well, when we don’t allow ourselves to hear or believe the other side of the story? Why do we so quickly fall into traps of extreme thinking, cynicism, dismissiveness, hate, denial, and other forms of resistance?
Have you ever thought about how oppression transfers from one person to another and then from generation to generation? The oppression in current times may not be in the form of slavery, but is still prominent in not having the freedom to share the real story, the real experience, have the experience validated, heard, and learned by individuals, communities, or as a country.
Have you noticed that the atrocities have been so painful to those who live(d) them² , that for many they do not dare discuss the experiences even in their family. Why? It’s too painful! The hope is simply that life will indeed be different and better for the future generations. It is part of our American culture that we believe painful things are better left unspoken. This belief is deeply harmful to the human psyche because no matter how much a person tries to move forward that internal pain still sits and can often be triggered.
We must be thoughtful to provide a platform for black Americans³ to share their experience, their pain, and be properly validated without labeling or judging. We must be open to learn from these atrocities. Telling someone “it’s over”, “get over it”, “that’s in the past, move forward” is harsh and cruel. Everyone needs their truth heard. Everyone deserves access to the same opportunities. Take for example the movie Selma which in one scene reveals how voting privileges were thwarted for black Americans even though everyone had the legal right to vote. Is it not possible that similar tactics are still being used in other ways within our systems that we cannot or do not want to see? Why do we not listen? Why are we not more careful about who we are listening to?
Challenges to the process of healing and effective racial conversation:
- Resistance to hearing the perspectives of those who experience the oppression
- Not having “resistance free spaces” to share these experiences
- Labeling those with internalized pain as having a mental health condition.
- White people who still respond defensively and disrespectfully instead of simple listening, learning, and validating. This may seem difficult to accomplish but we are capable of meeting each other in this way.
Awareness and practice of change are not accomplished by:
- Immersion in diverse populations.
- Having black American friends or acquaintances
- Individual acts of kindness
What i must ask myself:
- Have I really made it safe for someone to tell me what they are experiencing or have
experienced? Have I considered how deeply hurtful it can be to say “Really?” when someone
tells me of the racial injustices they continue to experience.
- In what ways do I resist the conversation?
- Have I ever told a black person or other non-white person that they were not experiencing racial
injustices from my perspective? Did I really undermine the perspective and experience of that
individual just because I did not know how to face racial injustices myself?
- In what ways have I stopped learning and insisted on a very particular perspective?
- Am I defensive?
- Can I listen without imposing my perspective?
- Have I considered the trauma of oppression and the ongoing cycle of pain?
- Would I not be angry or have I not been angry when others have oppressed me in some way in
my life? Can I imagine being oppressed as a race?
- Have I ever considered that I am living in a system that has taught me to see things in a very
- Have I considered that I am harming black Americans by not listening to the reality of their
- Have I ever asked myself why black Americans are not telling me a deeper truth?
We must consider the impact of trauma in the context of race.
Why do we fall way back on arguments about slavery whenever racial conversations come up?⁴ Can we look at what we are doing right now? For example, the way we continue to undermine the pain and residual effects of the oppression put upon black Americans. Sure, maybe each of us as individuals have experienced one form of oppression or another but never to the magnitude that the black American has in our society.
Communication matters. Our lack of ego control within ourselves blinds our ability to communicate with respect and consideration. We must learn to talk to each other before we can begin to have conversations about race, oppression, transference of oppression, and the generational impact of unresolved trauma from oppression.
Look at the simplicity of the statement and movement “Black Lives Matter”. Why are we not confident enough to simply say “Yes, Black lives do matter.” Why does the response often jump to “All Lives Matter” when all lives have not experienced oppression? You have to look at the perspective of the group that has been oppressed and has endured horrific injustices to this day.
Another phrase that seems to bring defenses up immediately is that of “white privilege”. As a white woman I can say that it took me a while to wrap my head around that concept because my life was not easy. Nothing was handed to me, I have worked hard for everything, and I have certainly endured sexism and other painful events in my life. So, it was easy for me to clump all women into my experience; not realizing that black women have not only experienced racial oppression but sexism on top of it; plus the overall unavoidable life hardships that all humans do experience to one degree or another. We must face it. We have had opportunities available to us as white people that were not equally available to non-white Americans. We are not responsible for the creation of that system but we are responsible for changing a system that is not effective for all. It is easy to remain unaware when there is no direct affect on your life. It is easier to be deluded by the success of some and fall into the trap that “if you work hard enough” then you can have all good things too. Our system is infiltrated with injustices that we have been taught to overlook, or worse yet, that we have been taught to justify.
There is no easy answer here. Consider the possibility that many black Americans are tired. Tired of trying to help white people see a different perspective and experience. Why? It is met with
defensiveness, rationalization, dismissiveness, and potentially still with violent acts. This is unacceptable and creates barriers where simple validation can open channels of clarity, healing, and new ways to move forward as a society within family systems, community systems, and societal systems.
Thank you to the countless people who took the time to help me to learn what I did not know I needed to learn even though it was certainly painful for you to hear my initial confusion. Thank you for the conversations, the direction toward particular books, documentaries, films, and other materials to provide insights that I, because of my skin color, could so easily dismiss. I share this with my colleagues because I know we are a group of big hearted movers and shakers. We are in this profession because we are not afraid to bring forth change that helps people. We like to relieve suffering whenever that is possible. I know how we are. We become aware and we want to implement change immediately. We want to ask, learn, research, and have the right approach. In this regard, remember this is a very delicate and pertinent matter. We must train ourselves well to do the job right. The first step is digging deep into these questions within yourself and being clear that your actions are moving toward a collective greater good.
Overview | Points to Consider
THE ILLUSIONS WE BUY INTO | THE INDOCTRINATION
The historical perspective taught in our public school systems.
The fact there is NOT conversations or perspectives shared allows assumptions to be built and
concretely held onto.
What about the immoral, unjust behavior by White people in our Nation? How many of you have asked yourself how this type of terror could go on in America???
Have you thought about whether there might be rules in place that are outdated yet we continue to operate under these influences?
Have you ever asked yourself: What am I accepting as “normal” now that is actually hurting someone else?”
Just work hard. | Just be nice.
“Thank God that’s over!” therefore believing there is no further work to do.
Instead try to Understand the following: Systemic Racism | Biases | Individual Hate
WHAT DOES RESISTANCE LOOK LIKE?
- “What are we talking about this for?!?!?”
- “That happened xxxx years ago!!” “Move on!” “Let’s just move forward!”
- “Why can’t we just love each other?”
- “Just leave people alone.”
- “I’m tired of hearing about this all the time!”
- “I didn’t have anything to do with it and I’m tired of getting blamed for it just because I’m white.”
- “I’m not racist!”
- “They need to stop acting like victims!”
- Judgements: “pulling the race card”, “they’re just an angry black man/woman”
- “Everybody needs to stop being so sensitive!”
- Using religion to avoid the necessary discussions:
- “They just need to forgive”
- “They just need to let Jesus……..”
- “They just need to……”
- “I’ll pray about it.”
- Of retaliation
- Of Loss of Safety: physical, financial, emotional
- Cycle of not saying anything or the opposite extreme of aggression
HOW CAN WE SUPPORT THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE?
- Allow people to talk
- Be a person who can hear the unedited version of what black Americans have to share.
- Avoid being dismissive: “I know what you mean.”, “I’ve experienced things like that too.”
- Recognize the strength and tenacity it took to endure such horrific circumstances.
- Recognize what people REALLY endured to accomplish the things that have been accomplished.
- Recognize the conversation is not about pity or how a white person feels. It is about honest reflection and validation. It is about knowledge and awareness. It is about appropriate action and change.
- Recognize what we take for granted:
- As white people
- As future generations
- CONSIDER THE IMPACT OF THESE EXPERIENCES
- Ask yourself how these experiences have “programmed” you.
- How much of this programming was born out of ways to survive versus freedom to fully express your individuality.
- Can you:
- Walk in CONFIDENCE
- Lose all defensiveness
- Take time to think about the information shared with you…..don’t judge it…..take time to reflect on it
- If you experience guilt on some level, ask yourself why? Guilt is not productive and is NOT the point.
- EMBRACE THE OPPORTUNITY INSIDE THESE TERMS
- Things taken for granted
- The things that I have overlooked
- Fragility/Guilt | Defensiveness/Dismissiveness/Avoidance
- The unwillingness to talk without becoming defensive
- Unwilling to acknowledge personal lack of awareness
- Microaggressions | The daily cuts/Conscious & Unconscious biases
- The lack of awareness and unwillingness to consider the perspective of another leads to daily painful experiences for many.
1: Using the word “strength” does not properly embrace the fact that people were being forced to not express any displeasure toward what was happening. Expression of displeasure or lack of cooperation most often lead to severe beatings, rapes, or death. The harshness of retaliation and control over another human being continued into the Jim Crow era. Because of this ongoing control over another human being, black American parents had to teach their children how to relate to white Americans to circumvent this extreme and irrational behavior of beatings, rapes, death, loss of income, or loss of housing somehow still being justified. Take an honest look at how you either witness or continue to participate in resistance by formulating reasons to not listen to someone because it’s not what you experience or perceive.
2: Plus when the information shared is resisted that just adds to the pain. A part of the solution is for us to become better listeners.
3: For those black Americans who want to. Avoid monolithic thinking.
4: This question is raised as I often hear White people use “slavery is over” as a deflection to avoid the discussions we need to have now to continue to eradicate all the ramifications that is rooted in slavery.