Trauma is an experience of threat to safety and survival. Threat activates fight, flight, freeze in the amygdala of the limbic brain in our animal body. Trauma is stored in the body. So are generational histories. So is historical trauma.
A hallmark of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) includes anniversary reactions. Seasons and dates often trigger embodied memory. When the anniversary remains unconscious, there can be a higher risk of trauma reenactment. Unhealed trauma is disorienting. It doesn’t know that the circumstance of threat is truly over, clouding perception in the here and now. This vulnerability is another reason why it’s vital for trauma to be respected, taken seriously, understood.
The complexity of trauma’s invisible imprints are humbling, especially when the trauma is relational, between individuals or peoples. When it looks like history is repeating itself, there’s often trauma that hasn’t been metabolized, processed, healed. The language used to describe the present offers insight into our relationship with the past. “After the US Capitol attack, some Republican party officials are adopting war talk long used by far-right extremists, white supremacists.”
Five of the six Republican senators who voted to oppose Biden’s election win represent one of the Confederate states. The Confederate States of America were forming exactly 160 years ago, just after the election, between the end of December in 1860 through the beginning of February in 1861. The American Civil War ended on paper and the battleground, but apparently not in the collective soul, psyche, and body of our nation.
The Confederate states didn’t create whiteness. They organized around it. For a reminder of the historical context of whiteness and its foundational role in establishing the US, consider The 1619 Project created by Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist Nikole Hannah Jones.
Wellworn assumptions that racism is primarily a Southern problem ended on January 6, 2021, when Americans from all across the country violently seized our nation’s capitol, and Republican representatives of 35 states voted to disregard election results of Biden’s win. Both were authorized by whiteness, in resonance with the embodied collective memory in the American soul.
In speaking about the insurrection, Representative Maxine Waters (CA) said, “When I looked out on that crowd, I didn’t see any Black people — all I saw was determined and angry white faces,” Ms. Waters said. “The white people of this country are going to have to take responsibility, and they’re the ones that are going to have to help change the thinking.” We cannot change if we don’t fully see or acknowledge that the United States and American democracy are sourced in the violence of whiteness.
Our nation has been at war since its beginning, on this soil and across the globe, visibly and covertly, requiring an enemy, real or perceived, and identified with victim or rescuer roles. We are challenged to grasp how our reliance on a national self-image of goodness and innocence — synonymous with whiteness — perpetuates violence, disrespects the complexity of our humanity, and disables our democracy.
We cannot afford to continue this trance of goodness and innocence.
Social psychologist Gilad Hirschberger writes,“One of the most difficult decisions perpetrator groups face is whether to accept responsibility for past transgressions and apologize for the harm they have done. Acknowledging responsibility may be devastating for a group’s moral image and for its sense of meaning and significance. It is no wonder, then, that many groups are reluctant to admit their faults and moral failures.”
I would add that perpetrator/victim roles are two sides of the same trauma coin. Healing of trauma requires both to be visible.
Representing the unclaimed perpetrator in the American soul, Donald Trump embodied our national shadows that we’ve been unable to claim, emboldening the braids of whiteness, patriotism, and innocence. His authorization of an insurrection was made possible in part by the human challenge, especially for white Americans, to consider and comprehend the violence and effects of colonialism and slavery. “What we don’t face, faces us,” a teacher of mine once said.
I’m not sure that it’s possible to wrap our minds around the complexity of post traumatic effects of the violence at our nation’s capitol on January 6. For those reading this who are Americans, our shared citizenship with all who were there is worth remembering, so that we keep our eyes open to how very important it is to understand all that we can about how we got here. One of my prayers has been that our elected legislators are in consultation with seasoned trauma specialists, both for their individual wellbeing, and for guidance about how their experience of this trauma is affecting their decision making abilities as legislators. For every politician who immediately began speaking about unity and healing, my reply would be, “So tell me what you know about trauma and PTSD.”
We cannot prevent the events that have already happened, whether 400 or 160 years ago or last week. We can commit to expanding our capacities necessary to truthfully face and disarm the violence of whiteness. Doing so is required if we are to follow Georgia’s lead, with gratitude for Stacey Abrams, Nsé Ufot and an intersectional movement, to an American democracy authorized by all of its citizens.
The territory we are navigating includes realizing the difference between:
belonging and membership in groups
family roles (e.g., daughter/son, granddaughter/grandson, descendant, etc.) and citizenship
authorization and elections
whiteness and white people
individual and group conscience
unhealed PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and present trauma
We are all influenced by generational and national histories as descendants, daughters & sons, granddaughters & grandsons, future ancestors. We have everything to gain by deepening our understanding of our shared humanity, including clarity of our roles as citizens in all countries.
With gratitude for the life and light of Martin Luther King, Jr.,