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  • Writer's pictureTroy Piwowarski

Lifting the Barricade, Part II: Acknowledging the Trauma of Racism

By Troy Piwowarski, PsyD

In this three-part blog series, I offer my perspective as a depth therapist who co-leads four weekly men’s groups in the Bay Area of California and a White person actively working to challenge my own racist programming.  My co-leader Brian and I see group as a microcosm for larger systems, such as our families, our local communities, and even our national and international communities.  Thinking in terms of small groups is helpful because they are personal, not abstract.  If I hurt you or marginalize you in a small, ongoing group, I have to see and feel the impact it has on you.  Further, I have figure out a way to be in relationship with all that comes up in me while staying in relationship with you.  That’s a lot in and of itself, and in group, we go deeper still.  Each of these articles offers some things group has highlighted for Brian and I that shed light on healing processes and the barricades that get in the way. While I think these connections could be valuable for everyone, I’m aiming my focus toward fellow White people in order to to highlight how racist dynamics can show up within any system, and how we can cultivate more empathy for Black trauma, while taking up our own work to explore our shortcomings and blind spots in relation to race and racism.  Last week’s article on scapegoating can be found here.  Next week’s blog will conclude the series with responsibility.

Therapists have to learn a whole lot of theory and technique in their training.  But my experience as a practicing therapist has also taught me that there are some things beyond technique that are deeply important in fully seeing another human being.  

One of them is the importance of acknowledging and bearing witness to trauma. 

As my mentor, Franklin Sollars used to say, “no one escapes childhood unscathed.”  We all get wounded in small or big ways because as children, our needs are so big, and our ability to communicate them is so limited.  We have also come to understand that the injury is not the end-all, be-all—it’s what we do to meet the injury afterward that matters most.

I’ve heard many survivors of traumatic abuse echo this sentiment: “The abuse was horrible, but it was the fact that my family stood by and did nothing that haunts me.”  I’ve witnessed clients find the courage to share their trauma with their family years later, and how big an impact the family members’ responses can have on the adult child even decades later.  

When a parent has enough strength to tolerate hearing that their child was traumatized and that the way they handled it as a parent only served to further the injury, the parents’ acknowledgment of their child’s pain is profoundly validating.  A parents’ acknowledgment also usually has an incredibly positive impact on their adult child’s trajectory of healing, because the adult child no longer has to carry the burden of the trauma on their own—they feel validated and joined in their pain, even though it is still their pain to bear.

In cases where the parent or family member cannot tolerate acknowledging their child’s trauma, the road to healing is ten-fold steeper.  Without acknowledgment from their family member that what happened to them is real, the adult child has to take on the load for themselves and find a way to validate their own experience, despite their family’s denial.  

Let’s zoom out to our current cultural moment. The murder of George Floyd sparked a public outcry from the Black community seated in trauma endured for centuries. And yet, a large subgroup of mostly White Americans are in deep denial about the long-lasting and unresolved grief that Black people are feeling. This group is holding the perspective that “a few bad actors” are responsible for police brutality and are generally critical or dubious about the protests.  I’ve been puzzling over why some people seem to be in deep denial of a reality that seems so glaring and obvious to others.

Recently, I flashed back to something that I learned in grad school about Freud.  In the 1920s, Freud conducted case studies to understand the etiology of hysteria (a diagnosis that has its own sordid history of misogyny).  After analyzing a group of women diagnosed with hysteria under hypnosis, Freud discovered that most had experienced some form of sexual abuse, which appeared to be the primary underlying explanation for their symptoms.  When Freud published his paper, a massive uproar ensued: the professional community railed against him, calling him a charlatan and demanding that he recant his assertions that hysteria was linked to sexual abuse.  While Freud’s work was clinically sound, his conclusion threatened the highly repressed Victorian society of the time.  If hysteria was caused by sexual abuse, that would mean that so many of the women in their lives—mothers, sisters, wives, daughters—might have been sexually abused, a possibility too dreadful to acknowledge.  The push-back rose to such a fever pitch that Freud eventually caved and recanted his conclusion.  Freud inadvertently uncovered another powerful psychological phenomenon: that certain truths are so overwhelming, people will do nearly anything to avoid acknowledging them.

While the US is far from the level of repression of 19th-century Victorian society, the power of denial should not be underestimated.  So much of therapy is about helping people accept the parts of themselves and their histories that feel too ugly, repulsive, or unthinkable to acknowledge consciously.  To look at our national history of brutality against Black people from slavery to redlining, segregation, and Jim Crow, and more recently, to a criminal justice system that continues to disproportionately target and oppress Black men might be a little like staring at the sun—simply blinding.

What do we do with things that are too horrifying to be real? According to Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people to talk about race, when it comes to race and racism, White folks often react in predictably defensive ways:

As White people, we might push them underground because they feel like too much. 

We might feel inclined to equivocate, arguing that “all lives matter,” as if to say “we all struggle in our own ways, why are you asking me to elevate your struggle over mine and everyone else’s?”

We might find ourselves deferring to our lowest level of societal rank as a way of saying “I grew up poor, so I’ve struggled too.  How dare you call me privileged!”

We might scramble to explanations like “a few bad apples spoiling the bunch” regarding police brutality, even when it ignores glaring patterns that are quite obvious to others. 

And because White folks are not disproportionately targeted, we might find it easy to operate in our own world as though oppression is not totally real, because hey—we don’t get pulled over by the police on the basis of our skin color.

For parents and family members of traumatized children, the reality of their guilt and responsibility may feel like it’s just too much to absorb, and so they stay in denial.  Like the adult children of those family members in denial, Black people in America are often left to shoulder more of the burden, left to validate their own experience and wait for the rest of the world to wake up. 

One of the powerful things about this historical moment is that many people are starting to wake up and acknowledge the ugliness as real and horrifying.  Thanks to smartphones, it’s getting harder and harder to live in denial.

In this precious window of awakening, imagine that as White people, we could be the other kind of family member, the one who’s strong enough to tolerate the horrible realization of Black trauma.  I believe this is what can happen when White people show up by protesting, boycotting known racist companies, donating to organizations challenging systemic racism, and taking an actively supportive stance in the Black Lives Matter movement, as just a few examples. We can show up as affirming siblings who acknowledge the trauma and are ready to do our own anti-racism work.

If you would like to begin this work, here are some resources I’ve found useful in my own process.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

2018 non-fiction book by Robin DiAngelo challenges White people to work through their own shame when confronted with racism and its manifestations in everyday life.  DiAngelo coined the term “White fragility” to give a name to the experience of defensiveness that many White people tend to espouse in uncomfortable moments of contact with their own inadvertent racism. Buy it here.

White Like Me

Antiracism activist and writer Tim Wise on the topic of race.  Watch it here.

The UNtraining

The Untraining provides tools, insights, and group trainings for all levels of experience and activism, based on the work of Rita Shimmin.  It is geared toward White liberal folks who consciously reject racism, but struggle to see their blind spots and unconscious racism. Check out their website here:

Scene on Radio Podcast, Season 2: “Seeing White”

In “Seeing White,” the second season and a 14 part documentary series of Scene on Radio Podcast, host and producer John Biewen questions whiteness, where it comes from, what it means to be white, and why.  Find Seeing White, Episode 1 here.

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