Why Black Trauma Matters – The Emerging Opportunity for Racial Compassion

Nearly 200 years ago, French essayist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled throughout America and studied its society. He offered a collection of his observations in Democracy in America (1835), a book that has since become required reading for political science undergrads.

In it, de Tocqueville unveiled what was then considered a controversial idea, called the “Tyranny of the Majority.”

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinions, and frequently whose interests are opposed… to a minority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever… I say there is the germ of tyranny.”

I find this notion is applicable to what the world has witnessed recently with the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others at the hands of police brutality and white supremacy. The global uprising that has followed these deaths is in direct response to the tyranny of the majority—a tyranny that has systematically oppressed black people, designed by a majority that has long profited from that system. As such, examining the tyranny and mistreatment of black people in America supports the foundation for #WhyBlackTraumaMatters and the emerging opportunity for racial compassion.

This consideration is especially impactful for non-blacks because exploring and understanding black trauma helps non-blacks explore and understand their own trauma. As James Baldwin reminds us:

“Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”

Baldwin’s writing helps us understand why supporting the foundation of #BlackLivesMatter has instigated such a charged discussion around #AllLivesMatter. The key is developing racial empathy, and putting in the hard work of validating the experiences of those who are non-white.

This current discourse on race has offered us all the opportunity to heal deep, traumatic wounds in our society, wounds that permeate our hearts, our minds, and our tyrannical past. This is an opportunity to explore how to be compassionate in the face of black trauma and, in so doing, learn how to become self-aware and self-compassionate in order to heal your own trauma.

This is what I mean by racial compassion, the ability and opportunity to be with another race’s suffering as an opportunity to be with your own suffering.

In this post, I offer three ways to do this:

  1. Offer Psychological Safety for Others
  2. Listen and Speak from the Heart
  3. Be Curious and Learn

I’ll explore these in greater detail throughout this narrative. For now, defining trauma is our first step in exploring Why Black Trauma Matters.

What is Trauma?

Dr. Judith Herman, former professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, worked for decades with survivors of atrocities and other unspeakable tyrannies. In particular, she supported the recovery of female survivors of domestic violence, women who were oppressed and persecuted by their male partners. In her classic book, Trauma and Recovery (1992), she developed the perspective that “traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.”

Simply put, trauma can be defined as an overwhelming experience where we lose our connection with what is safe. As a result, we become disconnected from our ability to access the internal resources that could help us heal. Instead, traumatized people are left detached from feeling “normal” and are often unable to take action to heal because they feel helpless, broken, unwanted, and inadequate. The key word in trauma healing is “safe”—without safety, we can’t heal.

Trauma can stem from a one-time event or be the result of an ongoing experience—from abuse or serious injury, to violence and war. When someone recalls a traumatic event from the past, it is likely they feel overwhelmed and unsafe. This trauma can cause a lifetime of hypervigilance and flashbacks and result in a myriad of secondary psychological conditions, including depression, mood disorders, psychosomatic issues, and substance abuse.

Trauma can be reactivated long after the traumatic experience is over. Even the slightest reminder of similar danger can trigger our brain circuits to respond as if the event is happening all over again.

Black Trauma

Trauma happens to all of us. Yet for most black Americans, the accumulation of 400 years of racial oppression results in a far greater depth of trauma. Slaves’ experiences of being held against their will, followed by their descendants’ experiences of being openly and systematically discriminated against, results in a profound and overwhelming lack of safety. This is trauma. Imagine this as the black experience, watching four centuries of trauma go by, repeated over and over again, with no end in sight.

With this in mind, it is no wonder that past trauma has been triggered for so many in this moment, as black Americans watch their peers get killed at the hands of police and white supremacists. This episode is all too familiar within the black experience. Add to this the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on the health and economic prosperity of the black community, with a devastating impact on the black and brown essential workers who suffer higher incidence of infection. Experience all of this, and it becomes clear how and why COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd have triggered a collective trauma and ignited a global powder keg demanding social change.

The Trauma of Being Held Against Your Will

Another important aspect of understanding trauma is understanding the conditions that can lead to a traumatic experience. I’ve spent many hours in lectures and trainings with trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, author of the bestselling book on traumatic stress, The Body Keeps the Score (2015). A founding principle of his work is that traumatic experiences are stored in the body, and, if left untreated, are often passed down to future generations. In short, the mind may forget, but the body never does.

In one of his lectures, Dr. van der Kolk gave an example of how trauma can occur, even in a seemingly innocent violation between a parent, a child, and a doctor. The situation he laid out is common, but by the time he finished explaining its potential traumatic effects on the child, my jaw—along with everyone else’s in the room—hit the floor.

In this example, when a parent and doctor hold down a child to take a blood sample or inject a shot, the process may very well save the child’s life. However, if the child is so afraid of needles that she doesn’t want to undergo the experience and protests vehemently, she leaves the parent and doctor with few alternatives. As the child protests, the doctor and parent conspire to make the child stay still by holding her down. The more the child screams, pushes away, and tries to escape off the table, the greater the physical pressure placed on the child to keep her still.

This may seem like such a natural occurrence for many parents, but Dr. van der Kolk asserts that being held down against your will is one of the single most pernicious forms of trauma one can experience. Viewed through this lens, this scenario had everyone in the audience wriggling in their seats. According to Dr. van der Kolk, what may appear natural as a parent can actually cause significant traumatic stress for the child.

What the child really wants is to be soothed by her parent with a compassionate touch and an understanding voice that helps her calm down. She wants to feel safe and protected. Instead, her mother and doctor join forces against her to physically dominate her—the very opposite of what she is seeking. They proceed to hold her down with adult force and then inject her with very thing she fears most. Instead of being soothed and protected, the child gets violated by her most trusted care figures.

By being forced into submission, the child is rendered helpless, experiencing emotional and physical overwhelm without anyone focused on soothing her. Mostly, the child is made to feel insignificant and betrayed. According to Dr. van der Kolk, this is a traumatic memory that her body will remember into adulthood, even though her mind may forget the event entirely.

Extend this notion to African Americans: Imagine the accumulation of trauma that black people carry in their bodies as the result of 400 years of forceful submission, helplessness, bondage, and emotional and physical overwhelm. African Americans have lived for centuries within a society that denies rights and dignities to their entire race. The many generations of pain and denial of positive regard is the trauma that the Tyranny of the Majority has inflicted on black people.

Now, the question we must ask ourselves becomes: What can we do about this today? Racial compassion lies at the heart of the answer.

It starts with psychological safety.

The first step in how you can offer racial compassion to oppressed minorities and work to end the cycle of racial trauma is to:

1. Offer Psychological Safety to Others

Psychological safety means reaching into your higher sense of morality and offering connection with empathy and compassion, free of judgement and criticism. A psychologically safe environment is one where the “ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning” are deliberately available.

Psychological safety is crucial for success in meetings, group settings, and personal interactions, but the trauma embedded within the African American experience robs many of this safety. The key to offering psychological safety to black and brown people you’re around is to acknowledge their human dignity, honouring them for the mere fact they are human and possess unique skills and experiences that are worthy of respect and honour. The late psychotherapist Carl Rogers called this “unconditional positive regard.” So rather than worrying about the question “am I a racist” perhaps ask yourself, “Do I treat black people with dignity at all times?” Add to this the question, “Am I empathetic and compassionate in light of the added burden of racial trauma black people carry?” This is your opportunity to test your unconditional positive regard for people of color.

How to Repair a Traumatic Memory

The next step in extending racial compassion is to understand how to offer repair to someone who has experienced a history of racial trauma. The path toward offering repair is simple:

2. Listen and Speak from the Heart

The key to healing trauma is to help a victim concentrate on repairing the memory of what happened. This model is framed as the Rupture and Repair model in trauma therapy.

Applying this to a black or brown person you’re around, you have an opportunity to really listen openly to their issues and treat these concerns with dignity. View their experiences with empathy. Look through the lens of racial trauma, and validate their experiences through that lens.

If a black person speaks to you about being discriminated against, treat this seriously, as if you’re listening to someone speak about being attacked and violated. Show you care—see if you can limit your judgements about whether it is “actual discrimination.” After all, many situations that you might see as benign could be seen as discriminatory and traumatic through the lens of racial trauma.

Listen compassionately for how the situation they describe is making them suffer. Take their trust of you in sharing this issue as an expression of gratitude and appreciation that you are trustworthy. You have offered sufficient psychological safety, and they’re comfortable expressing this destabilizing experience with you. When you’re speaking with them, share from a place of deep compassion. Show that you care about their feelings and how they’re impacted, even if—and especially when—you don’t fully understand the situation.

Extending your compassion, through listening and speaking from a deeper place in your heart, builds more trust and strengthens possible bonds. This is one of the fastest ways to repair a previous rupture from a history of trauma, even if that trauma history extends over the span of four centuries.

3. Be Curious and Learn

The final step in building racial compassion is to be curious and learn. This helps us develop the knowledge and empathy to view others’ experiences through the lens of racial trauma. In highlighting this important step, it is interesting to note that anti-racism book titles have dominated Amazon’s best seller list since June. All of this occurred after the death of George Floyd. Seeing racial violence broadcast on the air multiple times has impacted millions of people, galvanizing and committing them to action. But oddly enough, I had the opposite reaction.

After watching the George Floyd video multiple times, suddenly I couldn’t work or focus on anything for three days. Rather than joining #BlackLivesMatter protests, my body shut down. I was frustratingly incapacitated. Only adding to my debilitation were the precedent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, not to mention the white privilege muscle flexing of Central Park “Karen” on Christian Cooper, the birdwatcher.

My body simply had enough and completely collapsed into what is called a “flop” reaction. Many may be familiar with fight and flight reactions; however, research into trauma has identified two other reactions: freeze and flop.

After three days, my experience led me to understand what my body was telling me. In order to feel safe from a predator I didn’t know existed, my body dropped into a reaction of playing dead, or flopping, as if I were being hunted by killers who were closing in. The knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on George Floyd’s neck was like a knee on my neck. It was as if I experienced “I can’t breathe” in my own body.

I later realised this was generational trauma I was re-experiencing. In other words, my body was replaying the persecution of people I’d never met, from decades or even centuries before I was born, to finally repair a trauma that my body was carrying. All this happened from watching George Floyd die on video.

It was curiosity and learning that helped me adjudicate what happened, and compassion that helped me accept such a bizarre verdict. In short, my body kept score.

Being racially compassionate with black and brown people requires you to open yourself to curiosity and learning about black history, black triumphs, and experiences of tyrannies, and many have already begun this journey. In doing so, you may not understand everything, yet you open yourself to the possibility of healing your own history—even a family history that you may not be proud of. This helps you focus on repairing cultural and racial bridges for the future, rather than burning them by staying stuck in a racially tyrannizing past.

Joshua Isaac SmithJoshua Isaac Smith is Co-Founder of the HappiMinds Foundation and Impostor Breakthrough, and is a clinical trauma therapist based in London.

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