I contemplated writing a post about trauma, education, and poverty, but…..I decided to go for the jugular and throw race in there. Because we need to talk about it.
Last week I sat in an auditorium, witnessing and applauding my youngest’s preschool graduation. Shy little kids walked across the stage, glowing under yellow lights, to receive carefully-rolled diplomas.
The woman next to me noticed my eyes become glassy, so she smiled and commiserated, “I know. It’s so hard to see our babies growing up!”
But my emotion had nothing to do with my youngest little snowflake ending his preschool chapter.
Since I am a psychologist with an interest in individual and generational response to relational trauma, I sometimes look at the world through a particular lense.
My family lives in a somewhat diverse area of Maryland. (Well, with 3-4 black kids and another 3-4 Hispanic and Asian kids in each of my sons’ classes, our community beats the whitewash of their mother’s childhood anyway.)
So, in that emotional moment in the community college auditorium, what I was actually noticing were all the different ethnicities, particularly the black moms and dads, all around me. I was moved, not in a condescending, pitiful way, but in an awe-inspired way. Filling up a good portion of the auditorium were smiling, clapping, prideful, African Americans, a mere three generations away from this, a mere two generations away from this, and currently living in the generation of this and this. My psychologist brain registered that I was witnessing first-hand a triumph over trauma.
Due to my line of work, I well-know that there are consequences to humans being severely mistreated and disrespected.
People who are abused and dehumanized, as, undeniably, Africans have been for the majority of their time in America- hide and soothe their distress through acting-out, numbing, and relief-seeking behaviors. Very few people, faced with enslavement, physical abuse, debasement, violence, denial of humanity and education, and surrounded by society-accepted disgust, would not suffer psychological effects of hopelessness, helplessness, inadequacy, rage, loss of motivation, and shame.
And, as is the case with trauma, just because the danger supposedly goes away (or just because one could argue- and many comment sections enthusiastically DO argue- that slavery doesn’t exist while affirmative action and access to eduction grants do exist), the effects of trauma linger when shame and powerlessness are not resolved, both personally and societally. In essence, traumatic effects are generational.
There are many ways in which the effects of trauma linger for generations ongoing. The common reactions to hopelessness, anger, worthlessness, and shame are power/adequacy-seeking and numbing. Often victims become preoccupied with gaining power and adequacy in any way possible, because feeling like not-nothing is an emotional need. Alternatively, they may turn to drugs or other addictions to numb their distress. Their traumatized, hyper-vigilant, and primed-for-pain brains may even struggle with emotional regulation and cognitive abilities, further leading them away from school and toward prison, addiction, and other conditions that are emotionally devestating for their own children. To compound matters, trauma survivors, captured in their own self-loathing, often have difficulty accessing patience, emotional control, and empathy during child-rearing as raising children triggers any unresolved helplessness, powerless, and lack of respect. In order to nurture another person one must first be nurtured one’s self. In addition, single and absent parents parents are not uncommon in traumatized families and groups, as relationships suffer when people are shrouded in the shame and emotional-disregulation associated with trauma….
And so the cycle of trauma that began with depriving an ethnicity of their own humanity gains momentum with the weight of new familial traumas and a continued influx of societal messages about one’s inadequacy. Unless trauma is psychologically healed in the context of a validating and shame-erraticating system, kids who are raised in trauma raise kids who will raise their kids with trauma. This is the stuff that ultimately takes down entire families, communities, and even segments of cultures.
I do not mean to imply that “all” of even “most” black people are reacting to trauma with violence, addiction, giving-up, power-seeking, etc. I only suggest that these reactions would be and are psychologically understandable, even generations after literal slavery has been abolished, and also that societal/environmental attitude matters when it comes to healing trauma. And whenever I see black families and individuals enjoying the positive opportunities and the life that were only made possible by the psychological miracle of resilience in an unforgiving society, I get shivers.
We live in a society that sometimes chalks crappy post-traumatic realities up to simple character flaws and errors in choices. These easy answers breed a sense of superiority in some and a furthered sense of worthless-and-flawed in others. The rarely-acknowledged reality is, of course, your side only depends on the luck of the draw- to whom and where you were born.
We live in a society that likes categorical explanations and easy answers. Fifteen years ago, one of my professors matter-of-factly taught research that pointed to African Americans having a lower IQ than whites, even when overall poverty and cultural/language factors of the test are controlled-for. When the only black girl in the class bravely asked why this was the case, our professor simply shrugged his shoulders. There was no discussion about the generational cognitive effects on mistreated populations, or emotional traumas and relational stressors that exacerbate cognitive decline. Just a shrug that spoke volumes and made me wince for the black girl in the room.
We live in a world where Don Lemon’s admonitions of some segments of the African American culture- to stop having kids out of wedlock, take pride in their environments, to finish school instead of dropping out- are urged with the simple dismissiveness of asking an adult to recite his own name, but with a lot more contempt.
I will not debate whether the goals of Lemon and others are consistent with the well-being and prosperity of the black community. I’d imagine most people would agree that they are. But (and the psychologist in my wants to scream this from the rooftops), this segment of the population is so obviously post-traumatic. Simply requesting these changes from a culture that has segments which are emotionally sick, from generations of society’s mistreatment giving birth to generations of internal shame and misguided grasping for relief (in the context of continued societal contempt), is not helping anything or anyone. Because now, not only do we have problems that are the effects of reactive numbing and adequacy/power-seeking (crime, drugs, sex/pregnancy, drop out, denying the value of education, broken relationships, glorifying money, etc, ), but we have added a layer of shame which only leads to more numbing and power-seeking.
Why do I keep mentioning the importance of societal attitudes and non-categorical labeling to allow groups of people to become “unstuck” from the effects of trauma? Let’s look at how an attitude of shame and judgement work to help or hinder behavioral coping on an individual level:
When a woman comes into therapy and admits that she regrets yelling at her kids and fighting with her ex about custody in front of them, I don’t tell her that she is characterologically flawed for her temper and her broken marriage. I seek to understand her reality and struggles as they exist, without judgement and condemnation, and moreover take the step to validate that she is not shameful and crazy for her reactions. I also make sure she has an idea that she can succeed with the small, realistic goals we create. Therapy attempts to remove barriers to her success such as her habit of comparing herself to other moms and her raw sensitivity to her kids not listening to her, born from a neglectful childhood. And the whole time, she has to know that she is not fundamentally flawed or worthy of condemnation. Only then will she, or anyone with a complex and u resolved history, start to make the productive changes that are in her best interest and the best interest of her kids.
Our society is the antithesis of productive therapy. As a society, we are the ones calling “character flaw” and adding shame to the equation when it comes to the problems within segments of the black community. We are the ones not seeking to understand and shore-up and validate before we offer support. We lack mere mention of travesties suffered by black people in our history books; We lack education or even discourse on the conditions that destroy human cognition, motivation, and emotional well-being essential to productive functioning. We deprive the children of criminals, let alone the criminals themselves, a chance at life before a crime has even been committed, let alone a chance to end the cycle once a sentence is imposed. And we scratch out heads, wondering why things don’t change.
Our simple answers and lack of empathic contemplation psychologically snuff-out the would-be effectiveness of scholarships, affirmative action, drug resistance edication, and sex ed programs, by maintaining the very messages of shame that started it all. I do wonder if the black girl sitting in my college class, hearing that she was basically defective, ever did graduate and get a job. If so, it would be a triumphant psychological anomaly.
And yet. That day, and in auditoriums this spring across the country, black families clapped for their kids on stage, clapping for education and hope and moving forward and pride, and, maybe even collectively manifesting the most triumphant recovery from generational trauma of our time.
THAT is what I was thinking about in that auditorium.
Just something to think about as usual. From the psychologist who has been interested in race issues ever since she worked at a max security prison that housed offenders from the south side of Chicago, prisoners who weren’t around to nurture and raise their own kids and whose lives would not have been changed even if someone told them “don’t join a gang or do drugs.”….