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Healing the Scars of Race-Based Trauma

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Unseen and, for many, often forgotten, the extraordinary violence of American slavery in the first few hundred years of America’s inception has left a long and devastating imprint on the psyches, spirits and bodies of African Americans today, according to a growing number of trauma experts, psychotherapists, sociologists and others.

Then followed 100 years of sanctioned post-slavery persecution and oppression known as Jim Crow, when many Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the chosen people and the laws allowed the restriction of African Americans’ rights. Still today, Black Americans continue to be unrelentingly victimized by racially biased institutions and individuals from childhood into adulthood.

Taking a penetrating look at the pervasive and devastating physical, emotional and behavioral legacy of American slavery and its aftermath in modern times—with an eye to heal it—is no simple task, but a paradigm-shifting movement has started to take a full inventory of the traumas that have been perpetrated and the means to go about healing. Two experts, Dr. Joy DeGruy, an internationally renowned author, practicing researcher and educator, and Resmaa Menakem, trauma specialist, consultant, coach and The New York Times bestselling author, are at the forefront of the movement, guiding all those who care enough to learn what it might take to dismantle the injustices and heal the pain.

Trauma Passes through Generations

In her groundbreaking 2005 book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury & Healing, DeGruy describes many of the damages and scars—what she calls “post-traumatic slave syndrome” (PTSS)—that African Americans have inherited from their enslaved ancestors through the generations, along with what it will take to heal them. An emerging cascade of research in epigenetics and psychology suggests that traumas experienced in previous generations might carry forward in both the DNA and the behavioral styles of future generations. On top of that, children model the behaviors and attitudes of their parents and caregivers. As a result, says DeGruy, many unhealthy, painful and even crippling behaviors persist for Black Americans—behaviors that have their roots in slavery. She writes that many behaviors in African American communities today can be traced to what people needed to do simply to survive while they were enslaved. “These behaviors and beliefs may have been necessary for survival at one time,” writes DeGruy, “but today they undermine our ability to succeed.”

Courtesy Dr. Joy DeGruy

One example of a behavior that originated as a survival tactic is punitive parenting. “Many of us grew up in families where corporeal punishment was the norm,” she writes. “For hundreds of years, enslaved mothers and fathers have been belittling their children in an effort to protect them.” Those parents might have been overly harsh to keep their children in line, preventing them from getting punished by enslavers who wielded harsher punishments, including family separation, dismemberment or even death. Severe punishment is still sometimes seen as protective even in modern days. A beating at home is preferable to a murder at the hands of police. It also can offer a misguided feeling of empowerment for parents. “For these reasons, overly punitive parenting has been perpetrated,” DeGruy writes.

Another behavior with likely roots in slavery is a fear of loving too much. If one never knows if a parent, spouse, child or friend might be taken away, beaten or murdered, loving becomes emotionally risky. The reality of slavery was a “uniquely cruel system of punishment that absolutely, categorically destroyed existing relationships and undermined people’s ability to form healthy new ones,” according to DeGruy.

Other expressions of slavery’s legacy in modern times include deflecting praise, body-shaming, family disintegration, and an antipathy or aversion for members of one’s own cultural group, says DeGruy. Perhaps even more pernicious are the three conditions that characterize PTSS: vacant esteem, ever-present anger and racist socialization.

DeGruy first defined “vacant esteem” in 2005, describing it as hopelessness, depression and a general self-destructive outlook, but her perspective has deepened over the years. While the temptation is to think of it as something like the more-familiar “low self-esteem”, it is wholly different. Low or high self-esteem is usually a measure of confidence and efficacy. But “vacant esteem” points to the very absence of a sense of self at all: “It’s a hugely bigger issue than not feeling good about yourself,” she said in a phone interview in January. “I’m talking about the lack of a whole fundamental sense of self in response to everything in this country that says you are deficient, defective, underachieving that anyone that looks like you is someone not worthy.”

Courtesy Dr. Joy DeGruy

DeGruy says that “ever-present anger” is understandable when someone’s personal, professional and life goals and aspirations are consistently and repeatedly thwarted—and Black Americans experience it from childhood to adulthood. “There is an infinite number of things that get in the way—laws, redlining, attitudes, etc. And then you’re surprised that there’s a reaction!” The anger gets directed at society, of course, but also is expressed within families and communities. 

“Racist socialization” is DeGruy’s term for the insidious way that society has encouraged Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to see themselves as inferior, uneducated and powerless. For some who have fallen victim to it, antipathy for their own race and culture can develop. This is dramatized in the “doll test” of the 1930s. Black psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark asked black children to examine white and black dolls and choose the “good” doll. Because of racist socialization and brewing self-hatred, black children consistently favored the white doll.

How can people heal trauma that goes so deep and expresses itself in so many ways? DeGruy writes, “Healing must occur on multiple levels because the injury occurred on multiple levels—individuals, families, communities and society itself.” As a foundation, she recommends that Black Americans take steps to nourish healthier patterns of behavior that build self-efficacy and establish real esteem, such as eating healthier foods, getting exercise, and building nurturing relationships, for starters. Working with others in community can be helpful, too. Creating a “virtual village” of safety and respect—a space to speak the truth, tell stories and learn more about who one is—can make a difference for many. Finally, DeGruy recommends “taking control of one’s inner world” by choosing one’s battles, getting support when needed, and building routines of self-care to create a foundation of health and stability.”

Still, when it comes to racial injustice, millions of Black Americans are regularly confronted with psychological, emotional and physical violence. Traumatic events are still being perpetrated. And while taking responsibility for one’s inner suffering is often the starting point and the hallmark of empowerment, DeGruy says that eradicating racial injustice is equally as necessary for healing the pain.

“Justice is needed. You cannot fix the angst in black people—the anger, the fear, the reticence, the suspicion—because of the betrayals,” said DeGruy in our interview with her. “Justice happens when everybody can have the expectation that they get fair, equal and equitable access in every situation.” And justice can only come about if white Americans lean into the effort alongside Blacks. DeGruy asks white people to step outside of their comfort zone to see how they can forward justice: “Look around your professional environment, for example. Look in your world. Look outside yourself and ask, ‘Where can I make a change and promote healing?’ Don’t be meek. Talk about it. Ask people to do things. Don’t let injustice stand.”

Healing Begins in the Body

Find a quiet, comfortable place where you can be alone. Now, think back to an incident in which you experienced a lack of regard from someone else. Relive and replay that interaction. Now replay it, paying close attention to your body. What sensations did you experience? Where, when and how does it experience discomfort or feel good?

Courtesy Resmaa.com

So begins just one of many “body practices” peppered throughout My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, authored by Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, SEP, a therapist, trauma specialist, consultant and coach.

Menakem states that healing the deep and abiding trauma of racism begins and ends with the body, not the mind. White bodies have inherited their own legacy of trauma, too, he points out. Most white people in the U.S. come from ancestors who fled the brutality and suffering of the Middle Ages in Europe. But while white Americans have the advantage of not having to deal with their trauma, millions of black Americans are regularly confronted with the psychological violence of disrespect, marginalization, disenfranchisement, dehumanization, legal inequities, brutality and wrongful incarceration. These patterns of assault on the African American mind, body and soul have been relentless. White Americans also have some degree of investment in the status quo because it affords them tremendous advantages every day—both obvious and subtle—that can sour their motivation to do anything about it.

“Things happen so fast in the body and become decontextualized that these reactions [and] protective mechanisms happen way before the intellect or the conscious mind is even aware of it,” Menakem writes. Healing deep, internalized trauma requires that individuals take time with their own bodies, inquire into the trauma triggers, bring awareness to the pain. By allowing it to emerge, it can dissipate and finally heal. He asks, “Where does that land in you? Is it a lump or an ache? Does it radiate? Keep coming back to it and then notice what emerges from that place.” Only in this way, he says, will we at last heal our bodies, our families, and the social body of our nation.

Courtesy Resmaa.com

Being with the pain in the body can be overwhelming and our natural inclination is to avoid and override it, says Menakem. “But those that stay with it develop more discernment, develop more conditioning and tempering as they’re going through it,” he shared in an interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True.

Menakem says that, ingrained in the trauma in our bodies—and fueling it—is an underlying, unconscious assumption that impacts our perceptions of ourselves and everyone else, with devastating consequences. It is a covert belief that the white body is the supreme standard against which all others are measured and judged. He calls it “white body supremacy”, reflecting that it both lives in, and it is about our bodies. And while it makes its home in all bodies around the world—white and nonwhite—it has engendered tremendous damage to the African American psyche in this country. “We are currently in a nation, nay, a world, where the white body is considered the standard, everything else is an aberration, a subclass and inferior, a deviation of that standard of humanness,” he said in a 2020 interview with Tara Brach. Such a perception can be crippling to all those that don’t meet the standard.

“We will not fix the problem of structural racism and racial violence in this country unless we heal the ways that racial trauma lives in our bodies,” Menakem said in a 2020 interview with Kristin Moe. But healing our bodies is only the beginning. To heal, people of all ethnic and racial identities need to educate themselves and their communities and acknowledge how deep the trauma goes. Then, the inner work begins.

Menakem urges us to make long-term, committed efforts to explore the inner trauma, let it emerge and “process it” both individually and in safe, committed groups. He presses all Americans to engage in the inquiry, to be brutally honest with themselves and their own circles and to ask others to be accountable, too. Only in this way will it be possible to uproot and dismantle white body superiority and unshackle the nation’s consciousness from a fundamentally racist and inhumane premise.

“If we don’t address our ancient historical trauma, what will we pass down to our children and grandchildren?” he asks all of us. “Healing is important, even before activism,” says Menakem.

Where does one start? In his book, Menakem offers five possible paths to take: healing on one’s own, with another trusted person, in community, with the help of a body-focused professional and with the help of a trauma therapist. He offers simple healing practices, including song, touch, movement and breath to help calm the nervous system and reduce the fight/flight response.

Both DeGruy and Menakem offer a personal message they wanted to share with all people of color in this country. Says DeGruy, “Know that this injury does not define you or indicate any failure in you.” Menakem’s message is, “I want you to hear this from me: you are not defective. You are not wrong. You are not crazy. Something is happening and has continued to happen to your people, and the work that you’re trying to do is important and necessary.”

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Read the full April 2021 Magazine