It is with many painful emotions that I write likely one of my last messages as President of NESTTD. More than once in my opening remarks I have mentioned the connection between our mission, related to trauma and dissociation, and noting (understatement) the trauma associated with racism in our country is profound, and the systematic dissociation involved with purposefully or casually “not knowing about it” among those with white privilege perpetuates the harm.
This week we all know about it. As a series of events unfold on camera, there is no hiding from the truth of how Ahmaud Arbery was hunted, of how Christian Cooper was swatted while birdwatching, and how George Floyd was killed while his killer looked squarely into the camera.
I write as a white female President of a largely white organization, and I may get some things wrong since I do not represent well enough our smaller contingent of therapists of color. I do intend to be speaking rather than silent, and would rather get it wrong than not get it at all. I care that you all are here with us, included, and cared for, although I primarily speak for myself here.
The camera offers us all horror, and makes it harder for white America as a whole to do what is so often done, to invalidate the story of the oppressed or murdered. Nevertheless the effort at invalidation continues unabated. What angle can be found by those in power to make the horrific events ok? High blood pressure? Trespassing? We know as trauma therapists all about the role of invalidation. Trauma itself is profound invalidation (and much more) and then is cemented into place by persistently invalidating environments. That white society often tries to tell black individuals how to understand their own stories, big or small, made it necessary long ago for Twitter for instance to have #believeBlackwomen and other hashtags of validating communities. This week, as in times past, the protests are focused on police brutality, and rightfully drawing our attention to one area that must be addressed consistently across our country. But we have been hearing, if we listen, to many additional areas of systemic inequity that must be addressed.
We have heard the outrage before about the gross injustice.
Some ask what can be done. While I personally don’t have all the answers (I offer this: link for one of many helpful lists intended for white people to learn more about what to do), I know that the first step is to fully validate the problem and to believe the people affected, just as we do in all our trauma work. By this I mean people in power, generally power structures set up and perpetuating white people’s safety, wealth and comfort at the expense of others. And for the people benefiting from that power structure to open their eyes as well. I mean people like myself need to fully believe the stories we hear, even when there is not a video camera, and take it as the real problem that it is.
What would be the sign we were doing that as a society?
We see how the country responded to the COVID 19 crisis, and in a period of weeks changed the way we did absolutely everything, because the stakes were high. Although we argue about whether we acted fast enough, and some argue about balancing high health stakes against high economic stakes, nearly everyone is taking the problem seriously right away because something about it threatened everyone. We validated the importance of action, whether with the shut-downs, or later with the importance of closing down streets so that restaurants could re-open with outdoor seating. This is what things look like when a society takes a problem seriously, and quickly. Not 400 years later.
Even with this, the knowledge of how COVID affects our people of color does not translate into the same level of emergency action. So while our overall response to COVID shows that society can change things when we find something important, there will still be a racial way in which that plays out, both on the health side and the economics side. Will this elicit an emergency response? We have seen the answer thus far.
So our society does know how to turn on a dime and address huge problems with it decides to open its eyes and see what is happening, and validate its importance. With the pandemic it required people to believe charts of exponential math, that 2 instances of disease were going to turn into hundreds of thousands in no time, difficult for many to comprehend. With racism we just need to believe the actual stories that people have been telling us all along, and reclaim the history that has been dissociated and “not known” in service of preserving power.