To All Americans: A Call to Heal Our Trauma

I am anti-racist. I can’t figure out how to best provide anti-racist support to Black people. But that’s not the issue. That’s not what’s needed.

Racism isn’t a Black person’s problem. It isn’t a Brown person’s problem. Look at our history. Look at who set this system up.

No, White people. I am not blaming you. White people of 2015, I am not saying you’ve set this system up. It is not your fault. Truly, it’s not. So if you feel tense already, if you feel anger welling up in your body, breathe, relax. I am not blaming you. This is not your fault, and frankly, the parts of racism that are our current fault are not helped through shame and blame. I do not blame us, I do not shame us.

White people, we have ancestry in our blood that has been oppressed, and our ancestors have learned to survive through oppression of others, even if our ancestors weren’t directly involved in the slave trade. This oppression is ruining our health, our minds, our relationships. If we really want to break through today’s racism and rebuild something, we need to first heal the ancestral trauma that runs through our blood every moment of our lives. That ran through our mother’s blood, our grandfather’s blood.

And it’s not just racism. I’m talking about school shootings. I’m talking about child abuse. I’m talking about struggling to pay bills, feed our kids, and “succeed.” But really, I’m going to focus on racism.

It doesn’t matter when your family “came over.” Whether your family immigrated before the slave trade or after, your family experienced oppression, poverty, difficulty “making it,” difficulty achieving that so-called “American Dream.” Your family worked hard. Hopefully, your family “made it” and you grew up in a house you owned, with food to eat, with a new outfit every first day of school. You had school, and graduated from it, and maybe even moved on to more school, and graduated from that too. I hope your family made it.

Here’s where I come from. I am White. On my mother’s side, my family has been in the United States since before the slave trade was abolished. We were impoverished and lived in the South. We were indentured servants and my mom says we worked side-by-side with Black slaves. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t know the full truth, and that my family was also involved in the oppression of Black people, maybe not by being slave owners and Plantation owners, but oppression has many forms, and I’m sure that powerless indentured White servants oppressed the Black people they worked with, not worked “side-by-side” with them.

On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather “made it.” He invented an air filter and was paid a lot of money. He then provided the funds for my great-grandmother to move out West with their six children and said he’d quickly follow. He didn’t, and that wealth disappeared for my family. My great-grandmother raised my grandmother in poverty, and my grandmother married a handsome WWII soldier. They were madly in love, had my mother as their only child, and then my grandfather died three years later from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. My mother blames the shrapnel still in his shins when he died. My grandmother never worked, severely physically and emotionally abused my mother, blaming her for my grandmother’s unhappiness, telling her she wished my mother were a boy, that she was worthless, never said “I love you” with anything but a wooden hanger, and my mother grew up in extreme poverty, living only on paltry veteran’s benefits. My mother swore to never hit her children, and I owe her the world for that strength that that took, and for breaking that part of the abuse cycle. She was extremely emotionally abusive to me and I grew up with direct trauma in my blood, and still feel it flowing.

On my father’s side, my great-great-grandparents immigrated from a war-torn Czechoslovakia. Extremely impoverished, they benefited greatly from the Homestead Act and were given a 40-acre piece of land in southern Idaho. Their extended family also received 3 80-acre parcels nearby and they worked the land together. My father’s generation was the first to leave this farm, and I grew up visiting my grandmother on the same farm that my great-great-grandfather received from the U.S. government. My father grew up in poverty, though thankfully never having trouble with food because of the land they owned. Both my father and mother broke immense barriers by being the first generations in their family to go to college. They were able to get steady jobs as a result, and entered the working class out of college, worked extremely hard, bought a house in Idaho, and had two children. They decided to have a third child (Me!), and my mom took on caregiving nearly full time, and my father got laid off. My parents re-entered poverty, had $100,000 in debt, separated, struggled. We were lucky though, and even though they were working poor and I grew up in the working poor/working class, they benefited from their hard work and White privilege and we soared into the middle class when I was 9 (they stayed together). They remodeled our house, we all went to Hawaii, and as far as I could tell, we were “happy.” I suddenly had choices, an allowance, and vacations. It was amazing! At the age of 19, I came out as gay, and my mother didn’t talk to me for a year and a half, and it was traumatic. And then we yelled at each other for many more years, and then we reconciled. Now she is a champion of the gays, including me, and I cherish it and will never take it for granted. I’m also genderqueer, but I don’t talk to her about that anymore. I have only been in abusive romantic relationships and I have been abusive in romantic relationships.

This is how much I know about where I come from. I know there is still more to learn.

I have trauma flowing through my blood. I’ve been treating it for the last year and I know now that I will never not have trauma in my blood, no matter how much I try to bleed it out. But I am learning how to manage it, and will continue to learn. But don’t walk within a foot of me if I can’t see you. Don’t talk right next to me, even if it’s into a cell phone, especially if you have a deep voice, and especially if I don’t know you’re there. When I say I need to stay home, or lock my door during the day, or leave the light on at night, know that I have an incredible depth of knowledge around what my body needs for me to feel safe, and honor that. 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. You will support my struggle. My community is a strong and vital part of my healing. When I say, “make sure I’m eating today,” you say, “Yes!” I have healed partly, but my trauma runs close to the surface. 

Yes, my trauma runs close to the surface. But something runs deeper too, and it runs deeply in every White person’s body in the U.S. We look at racism and we say “that sucks. That sucks for Black people, for Brown people,” or depending on where you are at in your anti-racism training, “that sucks for POC. I stand with them.” But the trauma of oppression runs deeply in your blood too, White people. The Irish were enslaved. The Jewish were enslaved. The first people coming over to the U.S., if you are fortunate enough to have their blood in your blood (and by that, I mean, you’re probably rich!), know that they came over in religious persecution, having been shamed and tortured for what they were. They came over, starving and diseased, on a boat for months only with people who were also starving and diseased and holding religious persecution in their bodies. The White part of this nation was founded by these people. Their trauma runs in our blood. Even if your heritage didn’t start with the “founding fathers,” your own heritage probably involves struggle, shaming for what your family was, extreme poverty, persecution.

Learn fully where you come from. Be angry about where your family struggled. Even if it was 300 years ago, be angry about it, because epigenetics now show that trauma runs deeply in our genes through generations, and if that trauma hasn’t been healed, and maybe even if it has, that trauma will continue to run in your parents’ blood, your blood, your children’s blood.

And here’s the thing, White people. Because I’m shouting “Trauma!” and you’re shouting back, “you started this post out about racism!” and now I’m going to shout back. Trauma trickles downwards. No, it doesn’t trickle. It kicks, and it hits, and it spits downwards. When I say “trauma,” I really mean “powerlessness.” We have powerlessness in our blood. At some point, our ancestors felt powerless. And there’s a chance that you may feel powerless now. Powerless in your job that you hate but can’t quit because you have a mortgage to pay and a family to support, or worse, powerless to get enough food on the table or powerless to pay your bills, powerless to keep your house or your marriage. Trauma and powerlessness go hand-in-hand. They work side-by-side, in a way that my White ancestors and Black slaves probably didn’t.

When we feel powerless, we seek to feel powerful. Our fight-or-flight trauma mode kicks in, and we need to feel powerful, Please, Let me feel powerful somehow! And if we haven’t healed our trauma, we, and by “we,” I mean Humans, Everywhere, not just White people, but all of us, feel powerful by making someone else feel powerless. Breathe that in.

We feel powerful by making someone else feel powerless. 

And what better person to choose than someone who is already a little more powerless than you? That way, you’re sure to feel powerful. Breathe.

That’s why parents who were kicked are likely to kick their children. Why older children who are kicked are likely to kick their younger siblings. Why those younger siblings are likely to kick the dogs. We feel powerful by choosing someone who is already less powerful than us, and then affirming our power over them. In less traumatic situations in our present, this is a boss being angry at a situation and then giving you more work, or moving up a deadline. This is a boss giving you a good enough performance review that you feel good about yourself, but not good enough that you get a raise. In more violent situations, this is sexual assault, this is rape. Affirming our own power where we can.

This is why the “founding fathers,” coming over from powerlessness, immediately killed and enslaved Native Americans. Had the Witch trials. Stole people from Africa and owned them. Killed them. Worked impoverished people in factories for at least 12 hours a day, worked them to death. Kept Black people powerless long after slavery “officially ended” through Jim Crow, redlining, jerrymandering, lynching, and today through falsified history class curriculum, gentrification, still lynching, burning Black places of worship, police brutality, hiring discrimination. Jailed Japanese people in Internment camps. Established lethal immigration policies against Latinos.

White people, you probably have never kicked a Black person. Hit a Brown person. Spat on a Person of Color. That’s not what I mean. I mean trauma runs so deeply in our blood, so many generations back, that our entire U.S. system of being is based on a need to feel powerful when we’ve felt powerless in the past. Most government policies are built on helping once-powerless people feel more powerful over others (see list in above paragraph after “Kept Black people powerless”). Until we heal our own trauma, we White people will continue to live in a system that White people created in order to bring less powerful people into even less powerful spaces.

And here’s the thing. I mean, here’s the thing, really. Maybe you don’t care about racism, or maybe you think we’ve solved it (Obama!), or maybe it just isn’t prevalent in your community, because well, your neighborhood and workplace are mostly White, or maybe they’re diverse racially but mostly Middle Class or Owning Class (“Upper Class”). Maybe it isn’t always on your mind or flowing through your Facebook feed. Maybe the word “obsessed” doesn’t cross your mind when you think of your experience with racism. But when you heal your own trauma, YOU win. It is freedom, it is true power, to feel healing course through your blood louder than your ancestral trauma. You are not doing it “for” the People of Color. You are doing it for yourself, and everyone wins. People of Color must also heal their trauma, though they have survival skills and trauma awareness built from their entire lives. And “allyship” work is important, though you are not fighting racism just to “help” Black and Brown people finally have a sense of safety when they see a police officer, or to get Black and Brown people better jobs and higher incomes. You are fighting to rebuild 350 years of traumatic experiences for all people in the U.S., including yourself, and People of Color are the most powerless in this system.

Your healing work needs to start now, White people. Grieve, cry, be angry about your past, and about your present. Learn, scream, heal. It feels amazing.

  • Many thanks to the people in my life who have opened my eyes up to trauma, racism, and classism in new and incredible ways. This includes but is far from limited to: Julia, Larry, Laura, Wendy, Lacie, Ava, and my Mindfulness community. I am excited to put your full names here, but I want to ask your permission first. Much love and gratitude to you all.

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