Racism and Trauma

17 Apr

I saw Tim Wise speak at the University of Washington on April 9 and it was amazing. I’ve watched a ton of Tim Wise videos and read his book, “White Like Me,” but seeing him in person was a different experience.

There is something to be said about a person who doesn’t mess around when talking about racism. He doesn’t waver: racism exists, it destroys, and if we aren’t actively working to change it–we are participating in its continuation. Tim Wise doesn’t F around.

But it wasn’t just Wise that got me thinking after the lecture. It was one of my friends who went with me. She explained to Wise that as a Latina woman studying in higher education, she finds herself reliving trauma every time the subject of race comes up in the classroom.

She said that her classmates are at varying levels of understanding about racism and white privilege. This hinders their ability to have a real conversation about race in class, and it also brings up painful feelings about her own experiences with racism and oppression.

She told me after the lecture, “When white people tell me racism doesn’t exist, it’s like they’re telling me my lived experience, my life, doesn’t exist.”

Racism does exist, and I’m not going to entertain ideas on this blog that it doesn’t. My friend is one of the strongest women I know. She
is incredibly smart, well spoken, kind and powerful. But I didn’t realize the extent of the pain this issue has caused her. She has to continually argue with classmates about the very existence of racism and white privilege.

People have written in the comments section here that all people can be racist. I do not believe this. I believe racism is a system of advantage based on race. This system, which includes but is not limited to education, health care, jobs, law, housing, and media, was created by white people and benefits white people, while simultaneously oppressing people of Color. I believe the United States is a white dominated society and, therefore, white people are the only people that benefit from systemic  racism. There may be racial prejudices between all races, but those prejudice don’t have the power that creates racism.

I know it’s difficult for white people to hear and read that they benefit and contribute to racism. The first time someone told me this, I felt defensive, angry and guilty. There are times I still feel this way. I don’t think all white people are bad people. I’m white, my husband is white and our daughter is white. I love them more than anything.

But racism can be overt or covert, active or passive, blatant or subtle. It is both individual and systemic. It exists and white people are
contributing to it. I am contributing to it. White people must actively work to recognize these systems and do the work to change them.

I want to be clear too that I do not think that people of Color are weak or unable to defend themselves. Not at all. You have to be strong
to every day fight through a system that was created to work against you.

My friend is right. We can’t have an honest conversation about race if we’re not starting on the same level. I will provide materials to read, watch or listen to on the right side of this blog if you would like to join me in this conversation. I’m open to people asking questions but will not argue about whether or not racism exists. Nor will I entertain the idea that not talking about racism will make it go away. As Tim Wise said at the lecture, “If we didn’t talk about world hunger, would children magically be fed?”

What role do you play when conversations about race come up? Are you active or passive? Teachers, how do you handle these topics in your classrooms?

*I apologize for the delay in a new post. I’m still figuring out this new mom thing.


7 Responses to “Racism and Trauma”

  1. Kristen Chapman Gibbons April 17, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    Must read. +1, Endorse, Cosign, ::nods::, Right on, ::puts fist defiantly in air::

  2. AJ April 17, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    I think it’s good to draw a line. You make more progress talking about an issue if we can all agree, a priori, that racisim exists.

    “A priori” is used in the legal profession to refer to the set of facts and assumptions that both sides agree upon, so they can spend time debating what is disputed, rather than the facts upon which both sides agree. Thus, this blog’s a priori assumption is that racism exists. If you don’t believe that, then scurry along, nothing to see here. 🙂

    I agree with you that racism exists. And increasingly, I’m subscribing to the phenomenon that you see in Toni Morrison’s, “Beloved,” which is that what happened to our ancestors still affects us today.

    A big part of me doesn’t want to believe this. I want to believe in what is seen and in the here and now and in what is provable by science. But I can’t escape a sneaky suspicion that ancestral trauma affects us on a biological and emotional level. It’s so weird of a concept that I’m choosing to remain anonymous with this comment.

    I think what makes it hard for many white people to participate in these discussions is that they don’t *feel* that anyone has given them an advantage. They don’t feel like life has been particularly generous to them just because they are white. And they feel misunderstood for other reasons. A white boy who couldn’t sit still in the classroom and fell behind in school because the school wasn’t set up to honor his very nature might resent, for instance, any implication that he had any racial advantage. Everyone has their own mountains to scale. Ok.

    Dear other reader and commenter, I acknowledge that you had your own traumas and mountains to scale and challenges to overcome. But racisim is a particularly insidious disadvantage, all the more so because it’s stealthy, unseen and part of a hegemony that we often accept without question.

    Ask yourself this: You just hired a house keeper, who scrubs your toilets and ties up your trash bags and picks up the stray dental floss from behind your sink. How do you picture this person?

    My past two housekeepers have been white males and I could instinctively sense theirs and my discomfort. Both told me that theirs was a temporary gig, maybe for their own pride. The guy I have now tells me about his education, says he’s studying nursing.

    I’ve had another housekeeper who was not a white male, let’s leave it at that. She never sought to explain herself. She just cleaned and collected her check.

    Racism is everywhere.Thanks for this blog, White Mom!

  3. hillarycartigan April 18, 2013 at 6:51 am #

    Hi White Mom,
    Thank you for the distinction between racism and racial prejudice. My husband and I sometimes laughingly call each other white slurs. I think we can do this because the white slurs aren’t loaded with a history of power and oppression. I can’t quite tease all the pieces out, but it certainly seems tied to the fact that we are coming from a place of privilege – the names don’t represent a history of racism and oppression.

    @ AJ,
    I am also starting to hear about ancestral trauma and it sounds like there is some scientific evidence of biological change that is inheritable as a result of trauma. I’ll see if I can find some more specific information and post a link to it.

    • AJ April 19, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      I am interested in seeing your links! 🙂

      • White Mom April 19, 2013 at 10:53 am #

        I’ve got some under resources. It’s a good place to start!

  4. Sandy Thompson May 8, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    Hey Buffy, nice post. Thanks so much!

    I have been through the same stuff you describe, trying to talk to white people about racism. There is always another excuse, another defense, another deflection. Unless you’re careful, you will wind up spending more time explaining what you DON’T mean than what you DO mean.

    And it’s easy to see where the defensiveness is coming from! Nowadays, white people from the working (or middle, lower-middle, whatever) class are getting screwed. No one gives them anything, their future is being stolen, and you are now expecting them to believe they are privileged? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, as we used to say. And they are supposed to do exactly what about it? Feel bad? Be more sensitive?

    To the extent I have had any success with this, it has been along the lines of ‘don’t make other people’s lives worse than they already are’, or the kind of scenarios described in the excellent “knapsack” paper (I hadn’t known about that one, so thanks!). You can talk to a job interviewer, a landlord, a bank teller, a cop who has pulled you over, and feel confident that certain bad things won’t happen; if you weren’t white, you couldn’t.

    For the rationalizers who argue, incorrectly as you point out, that ‘all people can be racist’, I point to the work of the great Oliver Cox, whose “Caste, Class and Race” (http://archive.org/details/casteclassracest00coxo) first came out in the 1940s. He describes modern racism as something qualitatively different from historical cultural/national/religious/linguistic antagonisms. It came into the world with the global economy that developed after 1492, and it rationalized practices that consumed millions of African lives. It was later extended and elaborated to cover Asians and Latin Americans. It aspired to explain that subject peoples were inherently inferior based on science. It tried to rationalize a global division of labor, and still does. Modern white racism has a historically unique role that sets it apart from all other similar ideologies that have ever existed.



  1. Why Are White People Called Caucasian? | Talesfromthelou's Blog - April 20, 2013

    […] Racism and Trauma (whitemomblog.com) […]

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Bicultural Familia

Celebrating familia & culture in South Texas.

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