The Trauma of Racism

(Click to hear audio. Please note, text includes several links that I do not refer to in the audio.)

Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges last week — he killed George Floyd and will serve time for this crime. As I was listening to the verdicts, I felt “At last — one small step toward justice.” And then I became aware that before the verdict had even been read, a fifteen year old girl in Columbus, Ohio had called the police for help and was instead shot and killed by an officer within moments of his arrival on the scene.

Yes, the girl had a knife.Yes, the scene was chaotic. Still, did a fifteen year old girl have to die?

Is there a way for police officers to arrive at a scene and de-escalate a situation, even after weapons have been drawn?Are law enforcement teams trained in trauma-informed procedures that they might utilize when responding to traumatic situations? Is their goal to control and subdue or de-escalate and restore? How might this scene have played out differently if the goal was restoration? Officers may still have arrived with their hands on their guns — a knife was drawn and visible after all — but might they have found a way, short of death, to separate the young women involved in the altercation? Might they have secured the knife? Could they then have found the space to ask, What happened? We got your call, and we’re here to help. Fill us in. What’s going on?

Might Ma’Khia Bryant have had a chance to say why she was holding that knife, why she was lunging at someone with it? Why she had reached out to the police for support?

Look, law enforcement can’t be easy. I can’t imagine how complicated and stressful — even traumatic — it must be to arrive at a scene where violence is in progress. I have no idea what it feels like to have a gun on one hip and a taser on the other. I can’t fathom the impact of such day in and day out stress on the body.

Researchers, however, have studied trauma and its impact — how cortisol and adrenaline, though crucial in moments of crisis, can wreak havoc on the body during periods of sustained or ongoing trauma — the kind that law officers witness every day. Costello, Wachtel, and Wachtel, three practitioner-researchers in the field of education (The Restorative Practices Handbook) have used such research to inform strategies that have been impactful in mitigating undesirable behavior and restoring problematic relationships. Is it possible that such strategies might be replicated or adapted for use in law enforcement and beyond?

Isn’t it safe to acknowledge at this point that large swaths of the general public have experienced trauma? Research has shown that one out of six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, one in seven children has experienced child abuse or neglect in the last year, and one out of five students report being bullied in school. Trauma, it seems, is ubiquitous. Yet, even if we are aware of widespread trauma, it may be difficult to measure the pervasiveness of trauma in communities of color where many live with the daily fear of violence, the impact of systemic racism, and what trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem calls “the historical and current traumatic impact of racism on the body.” For generations — for centuries — nonwhites have been subjected to repeated traumas, many of which are recorded in history.

We could go back to colonial days to look at the ways in which Native Americans were traumatized by the colonists who showed up first needing assistance after a long and certainly traumatic sea voyage on the heals of their own traumatic othering experiences in Europe, having been persecuted themselves to the extent that they were willing to board a ship powered only by the wind to travel for months to a land where they hoped to find liberty but certainly no family, no existing structures in which they might live, and God only knows what dangers. Native Americans were at times helpful to the settlers but also subsequently used, dehumanized, brutalized, and all but exterminated in the colonists’ attempts to overcome their own trauma and secure their own livelihood.

In their further attempts to create and attain the American Dream, white Americans engaged in the slave trade by which they participated in or sanctioned the abduction of Africans from their own homes. These Black humans were shackled and chained like animals by white humans, the likes of which they had never seen before, crammed into overcrowded holds of ships, and transported via their own perilous and traumatic months-long journey. Once on North American soil, those who survived the journey were then bought and sold, beaten and abused, raped, and forced to work to secure the prosperity of their owners.

After hundreds of years of this type of existence, when slavery had been outlawed, the trauma persisted in the bodies of both white and Black Americans. The dehumanization — the othering — of Black bodies was hardwired into the fabric of the nation, and it was perpetuated through Jim Crow laws such as segregated schools, restrooms, bus seating, etc., not to mention the racist beliefs that fueled hateful speech, intimidation, lynchings, and the like.

Still today, in 21st century America, we see racist practices that persist in education, health care, criminal justice, housing, etc. Centuries after the colonists arrived on the shores of this continent, the mistreatment of people of color in the pursuit of the white man’s American dream continues to be elemental to this country. Not only Native American and Black, but also Asian and Hispanic blood has been shed; bodies of all kinds of colors have been dehumanized in the making of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Resmaa Menakem suggests that these many traumas and others like them produced biological responses that continue to live in our bodies — not just Black bodies or brown bodies, but white bodies, too. We all carry the trauma of our collective history in our bodies. All of us have been shaped by the racism of this country. All of us believe and feel things about race as a result of the “historical and current trauma of racism”.

So when a police officer arrives on the scene to find a 15 year old black girl lunging at someone with a knife, he interprets that in his body much differently than he would if he arrived to find a 15 year old white girl lunging at someone with a knife.

Did you see the difference in your mind? I did. And that, my friends, is racism.

And because this racism — this dehumanization — lives in our bodies, in our minds, in our societal ethos, we continue to traumatize one another. And the impact of the trauma multiplies and spreads, a sickness hurting everyone it touches.

When are we going to decide it’s time to deal with this hundreds-years-old disease?

When are we going to create the space in which we can turn to take a different way? When will we take the time to come into a circle, to share openly with one another what happened, what we were thinking, what impact our actions had on one another, and what actions would begin to make things right (Costello, et al)?

Can you imagine the healing that might happen if we were willing, in small pockets across the country, to start this practice — not a one and done act, but an ongoing practice of confession, repentance, and restoration? Wouldn’t we be partnering with God in His work of reconciliation?

Isn’t that the most loving way we could spend our lives?

What does the Lord require of you, but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah 6:8

Come Closer

In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Times reports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.

At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.

What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.

I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.

The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.

Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

excerpt found here

Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!

Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.

Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.

If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.

The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?

In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.

Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”

So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?

I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.

And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?

The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.

The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.

These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.

What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.

Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.

It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”

I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.

I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4: 32

Coronavirus Diary #29: Flip the Funk

I haven’t written a new blog post in over a month now. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Each morning, I scrawl three pages in a spiral notebook before I do anything else. I dump the raw ramblings of my mind uncensored on the page in an attempt to clear my mind, see what I’m thinking about, and discover any insights.

Many blog posts have grown out of my morning pages. My chaotic run-on sentences give birth to ideas that I carry to my laptop, explore freely, then rearrange, revise, edit, and publish. I love the process, and I’ve learned so much about myself through writing this way over the last several years. As I’ve written through my health challenges, my grief, my healing, and my celebrations, I have learned to articulate what matters, what hurts, what I love, and what I’d love to change. For almost seven years, I’ve found something to say almost every week. In the beginning, I found something to say almost every single day.

But lately I haven’t had anything I’ve wanted to commit to a public page — nothing I’ve wanted to share, even though I’ve had plenty of thoughts about the pandemic, the almost daily tragic gun violence, the Derek Chauvin trial, education, standardized testing, the beauty of spring, and the joy of Easter. I’ve had plenty of thoughts, but I haven’t been able or willing to pull them into any cohesive package. I haven’t been able to find a theme among the fragments, and I’ve been struggling a little to hold on to hope.

It’s still in my grasp — hope, that is — but I’m having to put a lot of energy into swatting away distractive thoughts while still keeping my fingers wrapped around it.

I started my therapy session last week saying, “I’m struggling, and I don’t exactly know why. I’ve got an undercurrent of negativity — a mixture of worry, regret, and old business– I know it’s there, trying to harass me, but I haven’t wanted to give it my attention. I’m so tired of processing all the time.”

I really want to be happy and hopeful, I explained, and I have every reason to be. Winter has flown away, making way for warmer weather and the breaking forth of new life. Despite Covid-19 and the ever-changing restrictions, I have made it three quarters of the way through my first school year back “in” the classroom after several years away. I have a loving marriage in which both of us continue to heal, grow, and remain committed to each other. We’ve come back from so much hurt and devastation, and we find ourselves enjoying time together, even as we start the second year of Covid restrictions.

I know all of this, and I am thankful, but the harassing thoughts persist — throwing up past failures, parading worries, and waving banners of self-doubt. They’ve quieted a bit in the last few days since I called them out in therapy; they’ve gone back to their corners to sulk, making space for me to see the green buds emerging on the trees in the yard, last year’s lettuce sprouting from the soil, and the rhubarb doubling in size inside of a week.

My therapist asked, “Can you think of what has triggered these thoughts?” and I started by listing the obvious — months and months in front of a computer screen — an introvert surprisingly starving for meaningful physical human contact, the current surge of Covid cases in Michigan specifically focused in the regions where I live and work, and continuing social distance and mask wearing for who knows how long.

I mean, we’ve made progress. Along with 20% of the general population of the United States, I’m fully vaccinated. My husband will be, too, probably by the time you read this. Our parents are all vaccinated and so are several of our kids. I recently returned from a couple of days with my mother after a long time away, and we have plans to see our granddaughters and their parents in just a couple of weeks. Our (vaccinated) son joins us for dinner every few weeks in our home, and we are hopeful to visit our daughters this summer. These things give me hope — and I hold them in my hand, caressing them, willing them to grow into reality.

But last Sunday, we spent our second Easter on our couches, watching the livestream of our church’s worship service. We put on new T-shirts to mark the occasion. After the service was over, we chatted with another couple in a Zoom room then climbed into the car to go to church for in-person communion. When we arrived, several people were standing outside the building, dressed in their Easter finest, having attended the service in-person. Since they were outside, many of them were not wearing masks, and perhaps feeling the joy of doing something resembling ‘normal’, they weren’t keeping six feet of distance from each other either. They were smiling and laughing, chatting like it was just another Sunday. We walked up in our new T-shirts and masks, and as everyone greeted us, I felt myself retreat into my interior, step to the perimeter of the cluster of bodies, and quickly make my way past them. It was overwhelming to be so close to so many bodies, even though we were outside, even though I had on a mask, even though these are people who I know and love.

Will we ever feel normal again?

My therapist assures me I’m not the only one feeling this way. She says that everyone she sees has been struggling a bit more since the one year mark — one year since we had the first case in the US, one year since we started social distancing, one year since we marked our first 10,000 fatalities, one year since we last saw someone we loved.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m joining in the communal grieving, and that grieving has caused remnants of my own grieving to bubble up, and since I have not wanted to give it my attention, I have just been feeling the funk, like I was when I wrote Coronavirus Diary #3 near the beginning of the pandemic when I already felt like we’d been “sheltering at home for a million days”. Who could’ve imagined that we’d still be living restricted lives one year later.

I’m over it. You’re probably over it, too. And, if you’ve read this far, you may be hoping that I’ve got some profound thing to say that will flip your funk. Maybe you’re waiting for me to tell you what I did to make it all better.

Near the end of my session, my therapist said, as I was dabbing at my eyes, “We’ve got to turn this around.” I looked at her face on my laptop screen, doubting her ability to magically wave a wand and make me feel better. And what she said surprised me. She didn’t suggest I take a deep dive to examine all the feelings that were bubbling up. She didn’t tell me to dump out my backpack and examine my hurts and losses one by one. Instead, she said, “I’m not one whose ever going to suggest we deny our feelings, but sometimes we need to give ourselves a break from them. Sometimes we need to give ourselves something positive to think about. Get outside, go for a walk, do something you enjoy.”

Seriously? That’s how I was going to shake this funk? Go for a walk? Shoot, I’ve been going for a walk every day of this pandemic — rain, shine, or even snow. That’s all I needed to do, was to not wallow, not succumb to the negativity that my harassing thoughts were throwing at me, but get outside, dig in the dirt, go for a walk, read a book?

I can do that.

Turns out that my therapist’s ability to offer me grace — a break, some space, an out — was just what I needed to flip out of the funk and into a more functional state. I don’t need to force myself to look at the stuff that I’ve looked at, examined, and analyzed ad nauseam — not all the time and not right now. Instead, I can offer myself some grace, to step outside, examine my rhubarb, search for the peonies that are poking their fingers through the soil and getting ready to burst forth with bouquets of hope.

And hope does not put us to shame.”

Romans 5:5