Trauma cannot heal trauma. AKA a few too many words on brain science, the South Carolina student, and police brutality.

[TRIGGER WARNINGS: Trauma, racism, police brutality. I am white. My goal for writing this is that more white people acknowledge the importance of understanding trauma science when viewing any racially-motivated events, and that they understand the importance of stopping racism as a way to stop trauma. I also hope that it helps white people develop their empathy by understanding how their own difficult childhood experiences have affected their own brains, and understanding that in the context of People of Color experiencing racism. I don’t want to speak to the experience of People of Color reading this but I hope that it backs up what they have been teaching me and calls white people to anti-racist action in a way that POC support. If not, do let me know. There are more details on an invitation for feedback at the very bottom of the essay.

If you know my family or past partners, please keep me protected and don’t share this with them.

tl; dr: This is in response to the young South Carolinian Black teenage woman who was a victim of police brutality in her classroom when she used her cell phone in class. This child was a recent orphan and was just placed in the foster system. Youth acting out in schools, regardless of race, most likely are coming from a traumatic background or dealing with trauma in that moment. We cannot heal trauma with trauma, but we keep trying. And we already have incredible tools so that we can stop doing that, if we have the courage to stop doing that. There you go, that’s the whole message behind this post. You can stop here if you want. If you want to get into the why of things, read on. Things get heavy, and also there is a happy ending. Fania Davis, founder of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, is talking tonight here in Seattle! She is a mover and a shaker in this world, so come and celebrate her and learn from her!

I could not have written this post without the input and learning from some incredible organizations led by People of Color, mentioned below, as well as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, dharma lay teacher Larry Ward, and especially the incredible wealth of knowledge from the POC warriors filling my Facebook News Feed daily with important things.]


INTRO (Yes, this writing is long enough that I have separate headings.)

A few weeks ago, my Facebook News Feed was splashed with a video of a young South Carolinian Black teenage woman who was brutalized by a police officer in the classroom. I’m sure yours was too (I mean to say, I hope yours was, too, because it is important news.) If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a link to the video, with a strong trigger warning from me.

There are a lot of key issues that came up for me with this, and that came up for many people on my News Feed. Here are a few of them that I read over the days following, and listened to on the radio:

  • This is child abuse. Why isn’t it getting treated like child abuse?
  • Why was the police officer called to the classroom in the first place, and what role do police officers currently have in our youth discipline system in schools?
  • So many people’s reactions online were “This is disgusting,” and many others’ were “what did the girl do?” Victim shaming and blaming crosses the “isms” in our society needs to stop, and is the basis for racism, sexism, and rape culture, among others.
  • What would have happened if this girl was white and using her cell phone in class?

Another issue that came up for me is: trauma trauma trauma, this is trauma. Why are police officers traumatizing our youth? Why are police officers specifically traumatizing Black youth? And for that matter, Black adults?

Youth acting out in schools most likely are coming from a traumatic background or dealing with trauma in that moment. More on that in a bit. We cannot heal trauma with trauma, but we keep trying. And we already have incredible tools so that we can stop doing that, if we have the courage to stop doing that. There you go, that’s the whole message behind this post. You can stop here if you want. If you want to get into the why of things, read on.


Here is where I come from on the trauma front: I experienced intense emotional abuse as a child. Don’t get me wrong: my parents loved me very much. But something about intergenerational trauma…well, it’s intergenerational, and my mother was severely beaten and emotionally abused as a kid by her mother. I was lucky that she was strong enough to never hit me, but I still received a lot of emotional abuse. My brain has taken on some amazing survival strategies throughout my lifetime that I am beginning to heal from, because I no longer am in a survival situation and am able to think about thriving. I am privileged enough to have had the resources to start healing from it last year when it began to resurface. I was working my first full-time job with health benefits just a few months before a traumatic event resurfaced my childhood trauma, and I had health insurance to cover some of the cost of my healing, as well as a paltry nonprofit salary to cover the rest of the health costs of healing. I am still healing today.

A bit more about where I come from: I’m gay, genderqueer, female, and from working poor class turned middle class when I was 9 years old (I remember the vacations and the sudden house remodel well. “What happened to being stressed about buying clothing, Mom and Dad??” It was an amazing year!). I have a college degree and have been able-bodied for most of my life, though currently I have acute chronic back pain that limits me. I am half Czech and half Western European mix of Norwegian, Welsh, English, and maybe other things. My parents explored many religions and gave me the opportunity to do the same. Currently I most closely follow a Buddhist tradition and have mindfulness to thank for much of my trauma healing. Professionally, I have been working with kids with and without complex trauma for the past 9 years in various capacities, from in the classroom to rock climbing outdoors, but stopped recently to heal my physical pain and my own complex trauma so that I don’t pass it on to children. I am now incorporating a nonprofit organization dedicated to affordable housing development (Shameless self-promotion plug here. If we can connect on resources or interests, contact me!).

I experienced all of these identities while also being white. I am so white. I have white skin and grew up in a very white culture. I grew up in Idaho, and my parents, who spoke of great intentions and values around inclusion and diversity, were still incredibly racist and taught me racism. I believe strongly in reversing the current oppression against People of Color in the U.S., both the systemic oppression and the day-to-day, in-your-face racism that my friends and colleagues still experience. I’ve been involved in anti-racism work in a variety of ways for over 10 years, but I still have to check myself on my inherent biases and privilege constantly, and I make a lot of mistakes.

I wanted to explain all that so that you understand where I’m coming from as I write about this. My writing is through the lens of the identities and histories that I shared with you.


Some important news came out the day after the young Black woman was thrown from her desk: she is a very recent orphan, and very recently entered the foster system. There aren’t too many details about it in order to protect the identity of the teenager, but here’s a bit more information if you’re interested.

Before I start talking trauma science, I want to be clear about my views: she was caught using her cell phone, and when she resisted authority, the teacher ordered a police officer into the classroom, who violently threw her from her desk and dragged her across the floor. That is never an okay response to a child no matter what the infraction is (again, let’s get off the victim blaming and talk more about the real issues behind why a teacher and police officer are treating a Black child like this).

OK, on to trauma science. This young woman’s mother recently died. This in and of itself is a traumatic life event. What happens to our brains when we experience a traumatic life event?

There are two main parts of the brain that are critical when exploring trauma and every human’s reaction to it. The first is the amygdala, or the “fight or flight” center of the brain. This is where sweaty palms, rapid breath, and racing hearts come from when I’m about to speak in public. Because I have PTSD, it’s also where my instinct to jump comes from when I hear a person talk close to me who I didn’t know was there, and where my quick walking or quick dissociation comes from to escape a situation when a person tries to exert power over me. Here’s a map of this amazing part of the brain:


Brain not drawn to scale. The amygdala probably isn’t in exactly the right place and is spelled wrong because I drew this on paper, where spell check doesn’t exist yet. I’m not a brain scientist, and only sometimes an artist.

Notice that the amygdala is at the very core of our brain, in a pretty inaccessible spot. If you were to receive a physical head injury, regardless of where the source was coming from, this part of the brain, our survival center, would be the hardest to damage. That’s been a key part of our survival over these thousands of years. It’s well protected.

The other important part of the brain is our pre-frontal cortex. This is where we do our critical thinking, where we process communication with others, do math when we have to (or get to, and if you’re that kind of person, more power to you!), and where the things we most associate with “personality” come from – friendly, curious, caring, among others. This is the part of the brain where we take notes when we’re in a classroom or meeting. This is the primary part of the brain that we’re all expected to use in a standard classroom in our current society.

Here’s a drawing of it:


It’s also not drawn to scale. Notice that it’s right at the front of our head, easily exposed to head injury. It’s not considered a “vital” part of our survival, though it sure makes life more fulfilling and fun. You may have heard of people who have received strong head injuries to their foreheads and experience a personality change. They experienced damage to their pre-frontal cortex.

Here’s the most important brain science-y thing you can take away from this blog post: these two parts of the brain cannot work at the same time. That means that if we’re experiencing trauma in any way, and our fight-or-flight system is firing, we cannot expect our brains to do math, take notes, pay attention, or communicate. Let me repeat: or communicate. Our beautiful, survival-focused, highly-evolved brains are so focused on surviving that we cannot do anything, including thriving in a work or school environment where critical thinking is expected, let alone communicate to others, such as a teacher, about what is going on.

You probably know where I’m going with this. This child’s mother just died and she just entered the foster system. Those two things in and of themselves are traumatic enough for someone’s amygdala to be firing at full strength for a long time. This last year when my childhood trauma was resurfacing and I was treating it with the wrong healthcare resources (I had never had to navigate the healthcare system as an adult before), constantly retraumatizing myself, I was frequently (I mean, several times an hour) on my cell phone because it was a way for my brain to dissociate from the present. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I’d be at work with curriculum to write and would be on my phone instead, playing 2048 (a very popular game, for those of you who have avoided this sub-culture). While you may imagine that my supervisors may be unhappy to read this (I’ve since quit), I view this as another incredible thing that my brain knows to do to survive. That teenager’s brain is also brilliant, and was doing brilliant things in that classroom. It just wasn’t the thing that the teacher wanted it to be doing, and the teacher and police officer responded in a way that further traumatized the child, rather than helped to heal the trauma.


If you’ve come this far in this writing, then we’re probably ready to dig a little deeper into trauma science, specifically surrounding children.

Nadine Burke Harris has done incredible work explaining Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores and has explained it for us all in laypeople terms for us in a TED talk. I strongly recommend watching it and skipping over the next few paragraphs. If you’re reading this at work or with a sleeping baby nearby, however, and can’t turn on your sound, read on:

ACE scores are a firm measurement tool for analyzing the traumatic experience of a child. They are extremely specific experiences that allow myself (and other people) to measure the amount of trauma and resilience that was present in their lives during their childhood. Tragically, around 2/3 of Americans have experienced at least one of these traumatic events during their childhood. The numbers drop off steeply after that. ACE scientists have been studying the effects of childhood trauma for years now and show that people with higher ACE scores have higher health risks as adults.

If you want to go down this road, you can learn more about your own ACE score and resilience score here at Aces Too High (trigger warning).

The tool isn’t perfect; I was so dissociated from my childhood memories that two years ago, my score would have been zero if I had known about this. In February of this year when I heard about it, my score was a 3. A month ago, with more memories uncovered, it was a 6. Even with this extremely objective tool, the brain, when in survival mode, makes this sort of analysis very difficult.

The ACE score is also currently imperfect in another, very important, way.

If you watched the TED talk, start reading here!

The most important thing to take away from learning about ACE scores is this: racism isn’t yet considered an Adverse Childhood Experience. Trauma is powerlessness, when another person or system takes away control from a person and that person no longer feels in control of their environment, their life, or their safety, whether for one intense but short moment, or at a subtle but chronic level for a very long time, or at an intense level for a very long time. This means that racism, as well as all other forms of oppression, including sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, among others, result in trauma: the brain is firing its survival mechanisms and shutting down its critical thinking until it feels safe again.

The ACE score sneaks in racism at the end of the scoring system by asking if anyone in the child’s household has ever been to prison, since an absurdly disproportionate amount of inmates are Black and Latino. I’m not sure if this was the intention of Aces Too High or not. Regardless, People of Color with or without close relatives in prison still experience racism at a degree that is traumatic.

If we want to stop this child abuse and trauma from continuing to happen (and I sincerely believe that many people who read this will want to do that), are we able to reframe how we look at our discipline system at schools with a trauma lens? We can never heal trauma with trauma. I could not heal from an abusive childhood while in an abusive relationship. I could not heal from the abusive relationship with an abusive ex stalking me. As long as I felt like I was in danger, I could not heal from trauma. I could only survive. And what this police officer did was put a child who was already experiencing trauma, already in her survival part of her brain, and make her feel more danger. Trauma cannot heal trauma.


 If you don’t have trauma in your direct life experience (you probably have it in your blood from your ancestors, though, no matter what race or class or other group you’re a part of, though that’s for another blog post), but you are an extremely empathetic person, I’m concerned that you may be seeing these brains as these damaged little tissues on the floor that you must save. Let me be clear: these are the most powerful brains. The brain that gets to perfect both its survival skills and its critical thinking skills are incredible brains, especially if they’re allowed to heal from their trauma. I have a superpower of reading people’s faces and knowing their emotions, because it was my survival tactic when I was young. I learned to read small twitches on a face, or a tiny furrow in a brow, and I knew when to stay away from my caregiver and when it was “safe.” If you get to know me in all of my trauma, I will probably hear you admire me for how self-aware I am, and you will probably also admire that I can read sensitive and escalating situations, and then diffuse them (if I choose to). Most professionals treating me for trauma have had a direct traumatic experience in their lives. People who have experienced trauma are our healers and our experts in human connection. 

GOOD STUFF IS HAPPENING (The obligatory positive end to every blog post that involves heavy feelings.) (And, really, because good stuff is happening! And it’s important to share resources!)

I hope that you’re not feeling hopeless or powerless in this situation. There are both individual and systemic tools that are extremely healing for anyone who has experienced trauma. Spirituality and religion have been shown to be incredibly healing, especially daily mindfulness (from a deistic or atheistic perspective) or prayer from any religious perspective. For People of Color, many POC-led groups focus on resilience building. Trauma-specific therapy, now that that resource is available to more people because of the Affordable Care Act from President Obama, is an incredibly healing tool, especially EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or what I like to call “follow my fingers therapy”). I will share some more of the individual tools in future posts.

Systemically, there are already some amazing people and organizations doing incredible work around reshaping our school discipline system and justice system by working on healing trauma through Restorative Justice Circles and other healing circles, originating from the Tagish clan of the Tlingit tribe. Here are a few resources that I know of:

In addition, two critical organizations in Seattle are doing important work to empower people who have experienced trauma and specifically racist trauma, specifically in the prison system (this is a very related topic warranting another post, or read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for more info):

Let me know if you know of more resources.

I recently had the joy of participating in a Peacemaking Circle, very similar to a Restorative Justice Circle, through No New Jim Crow and the Center for Ethical Leadership in Seattle. I may write more about it in another post, but the key for me was that it was a way to equalize and share power. Every person had the opportunity to speak, for as long as they wanted. They also had the power not to speak if that’s what they wanted. Power was shared, and giving someone power is healing to the powerlessness they have felt in the past. 

We have the tools to heal trauma. Many people and organizations are already leading the way by doing Restorative Justice; we can use our courage to join in.


I welcome feedback. Please let me know your thoughts, and please first let me know where you’re coming from. Tell me some of your core identities (race, ethnicity, class background, sexuality, gender, religion/spirituality, ability), and some experiences that may shape your core values and opinions around this topic. If you are a Person of Color or an anti-racist white person and have the patience to tell yet another white person that they said something racist, tell me, and also I’m sorry. I will listen, not defend myself, not tell you where I’m coming from, not tell you why it wasn’t racist. I’m also open to receiving “your trauma science is wrong!” feedback, because, like I said before, I’m no brain scientist, and honestly only learned how to spell amygdala today, for this essay. Help me grow, and share your thoughts.

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