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On Trauma and Allyship

On Trauma and Allyship

Over the past several days, I have seen multiple posts on Facebook from People of Color asking why White Americans are more inclined to demonstrate allyship with People of Color now than they have in the past. The answer to this question is complex and multifaceted, but I believe that part of it lies in the long-overdue acknowledgement of collective trauma in the Black community and other non-White ethnic groups, including Indigenous peoples. I believe that White people - especially White women - are able to acknowledge Black trauma in part because our own collective trauma was acknowledged by the MeToo movement.

I have long held the belief that the most important work that any of us can do is the work of attending to and healing from trauma. Many of us seem to be incapable of acknowledging the suffering of others until our own suffering has been acknowledged.

Why is that?

One of the more insidious aspects of trauma is that it can be incredibly isolating. Traumatic events tend to shatter our sense of safety in the world. When we are negotiating the pain, anger, vulnerability, and anxiety associated with trauma, we tend to withdraw, holing up in our caves and licking our wounds in private. If we have experienced sexual or physical violence, or have been abused by caregivers, partners, or other trusted people in our lives, the shame and self-blame we experience can make the idea of connecting with others – or even showing our faces to others - feel intolerable. Trapped in our own suffering and thrown into survival mode, we shut down and become self-oriented. If our pain is not acknowledged, we can become locked in this emotional prison for years, functioning (if we are lucky) but cut off from joy, creativity, and, critically, compassion for others.

Women - especially women of color - have been living with unacknowledged trauma for generations. The trauma of domestic violence. The trauma of rape and other forms of sexual abuse and violence. The trauma of discrimination, of being seen, at best, as second-class citizens. As Americans, we live in a culture that prides itself on a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethos of self-management. We are expected to be rugged individualists, self-regulating and resilient in the face of hardship. We are taught that being strong means being silent, and that naming our pain shows weakness. It has not historically been a particularly safe culture in which to expose our tender places of vulnerability.

Tarana Burke, a Black activist from Harlem, sought to break the silence around sexual trauma when she founded the MeToo movement in 2006 "to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, and other young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing."1 But the MeToo movement did not gain national attention until it went viral in October of 2017, when White actress Alyssa Milano used the term as a hashtag in a tweet responding to the firestorm that was ignited when the New York Times broke an article detailing Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual harrassment.2

White women began coming out of the woodwork, breaking long-held cultural taboos by talking about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. While many of us were appalled at the sheer number of tweets, posts, blogs, and articles disclosing sexual violence, we also took heart at finally being seen and heard. We were not alone in our experiences, after all! We rejoiced as men who had long abused their power toppled from their pedestals. We watched, captivated, as survivor Christine Blasey Ford took the stand, and wept when her abuser was elevated to the highest court in the country. We weathered the backlash of misogyny leveled at us by men (and women) entrenched in patriarchal privilege, and reveled in the newfound allyship we found in many others who came forward to support women and denounce rape culture in America. For the first time, we were able to cast our cloaks of shame aside, and begin to heal.

And yet, while the topics of racial inequity and intersectionality were introduced into the overall MeToo conversation from time to time, by and large, women of color were left out of the movement. Discussions of the horrors visited upon women were largely focused on White experiences. This is not a new trend. The period of first-wave feminism in which the battles of women’s suffrage were fought generally left women of color out of the conversation, and no Black women were in attendance at the Seneca Falls Convention (nor were they invited). Second-wave feminism also tended to prioritize issues of sexism over issues of racism. "Racial segregation impeded [the ability of White women] to break out of their own racial and class positions, to understand that they could be racist themselves, and to recognize the particular needs and quandaries facing black women."3

The primary difference, as I see it, between first- and second-wave feminism and the MeToo movement, is that the latter involved the acknowledgement of White women’s collective trauma. While women’s suffrage and the women’s rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s were focused on rights and equality, the MeToo movement was focused on sexual trauma and its aftereffects. Did women in the MeToo movement express outrage and demand change? Absolutely. But that outrage was firmly grounded in the expression of our pain and suffering. We exposed our wounds, our most vulnerable selves, and found that we remained strong - in fact, we were stronger than we had been in our silence. Acknowledged and met with compassion by so many, we began to heal.

And so, two weeks ago, when the Black community cried out in pain and rage, we were, perhaps for the first time, able to really hear them. Because we are no longer pretending that we haven’t been wounded by the violence visited upon our bodies, we don’t have to pretend that People of Color haven’t been wounded by the violence visited upon theirs. No longer locked inside our own victimhood and suffering, we have been able to respond with compassion, to step up and denounce the culture of oppression that has led to the suffering and incalculable loss of life visited upon People of Color for hundreds of years. We have, finally, belatedly, begun to pay the privilege of healing forward.

It is critically important that we each do the hard work of acknowledging, grieving, and healing our own trauma, not only for ourselves, but because it gives us the emotional bandwidth to acknowledge and have compassion for the suffering of others. And we, as White people, must acknowledge the privilege that we have long held in our ability to heal, from having access to mental health workers who look like us, to the automatic cultural validity given to our perceptions and experiences. We must look at ways in which we can support the healing of communities of Color. Perhaps most importantly, we must find ways to sit with our own experiences of trauma while acknowledging and honoring the trauma experienced by of People of Color. The time for rugged individualism is over. If we cannot find ways to heal together, none of us will truly heal at all.

1. https://metoomvmt.org/about/
2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html
3. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/ctx.2007.6.1.18

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