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Historical Trauma & The Fight Against Racism


The events of recent weeks have once again set the world on fire in the pursuit of justice. The ongoing oppression and violence against people of color has continually revictimized and retraumatized individuals within the black community, as well as the community as a whole. The lasting effects of this trauma have a profound impact on not only the mental and physical health of those individuals, but ultimately on our entire country. As a white woman, I do not claim to fully know or understand the experiences of anyone of another race or culture, including those within the black community. I am, however, passionate about education surrounding trauma and the impact that it has on individuals and groups as a whole. By having a better understanding of trauma, and particularly historical trauma, we can build a more solid foundation for which to make lasting social change.


The oppression and injustice that has been aimed at the black community goes back to the days of slavery, when many American ancestors were forcefully brought to this country. Even after centuries of slavery, and once freed, descendants were faced with continual discrimination, oppression, hatred, and injustice. This history has made a lasting impression on the black community, and has deeply impacted the way that people of color are still viewed today. Through biology and trauma research, it has been shown that unresolved trauma, particularly extreme and complex traumatic experiences like those experienced during slavery and in the years since, can be passed down through generations. Known as historical or intergenerational trauma, many aspects that are written off as cultural of the black community are, in fact, the remaining effects of these original and ongoing traumas. 


Studies within the field of biology have found that our daily lifestyle choices and personal experiences can change the expression of our DNA, which then in turn is passed down to each generation of our descendants. Called epigenetics, further studies have discovered that physical and emotional trauma can also be passed to future generations in this way, particularly if the trauma remain unresolved. While this trauma research is still relatively new within the psychology field, it is a widely accepted belief that our bodies can hold the physical and emotional symptoms of our ancestors. These symptoms may be seen through depression, anxiety, substance use, hyper aggression, and overall mindset. Interestingly, studies have also indicated that certain characteristics, or lack thereof, may also be passed down through generations, contributing to patterns viewed throughout history. 


Dr. Joy DeGruy has spent decades working with people of color, both within the United States and in Africa, researching the effects that historical trauma has had on today’s generations. Through her work, she developed the theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which specifically focuses on the historical trauma of African Americans. This theory proposes that the ongoing trauma that has occurred to this community throughout the years of slavery, as well as the years since, have only continued to multiply and reinforce the trauma symptoms passed down through family lines. In fact, Dr. DeGruy has found various common behaviors between slaves of their day and current common behavior that has been deemed ‘cultural’ of the black community. While these behaviors were necessary for basic survival during the days of American slavery, they continue to be passed down to new generations, becoming a part of socialization.


Many are familiar with the “fight or flight” response from our brain when faced with a situation that is deemed as threatening. For those who have experienced long-term ongoing trauma, including historical trauma, the body and brain adapts to live in a near constant state of being on the edge of this response. The anxiety and high levels of stress that result from this state only work to further negatively impact physical and mental health. Every racial slur, act of violence, and unjustified death only reinforces the trauma response and embeds it further into the collective trauma. Unfortunately, this has become a historical cycle. 


Epigenetics also plays a role for those within the white community, whose ancestors may have been the initial oppressors and supremacists that initiated or perpetuated this trauma. Strongly held beliefs and fears have also been shown to be passed down throughout generations, deeply embedding biases and privilege into DNA. As historically many people within white communities saw themselves as superior to people of color, those who have not previously done the work to undo and change these internal biases and beliefs may have a difficult time empathizing with a person of color. 


While these biases, privilege, and beliefs may be unconscious, it is crucial to bring attention to and address these internal beliefs. Without becoming conscious of deeply embedded and historical beliefs, internal and external change cannot be made. Thankfully, the brain is highly adaptive, and the work can be done to alter toxic and racial thoughts. Brain studies have shown that deep changes can be made in the brain in as little as three weeks. As neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf state, our brains can either reinforce racism (which it may often do if set on auto-pilot) or actively work to fight against it. 


In order to make lasting change in the fight against racism, people of all backgrounds, cultures, and races need to come together. Through mutual respect, we must acknowledge that there has been a great deal of pain both individually and collectively. In addition to the pain, there is anger, shame, confusion, disgust, and anxiety. But there is also love, hope, and community. While engaging in collaborative discussion and efforts may be uncomfortable at times, we must remember that no positive change has come without feelings of discomfort. Ultimately, it is through dialogue, story, and relationships that change can happen. 




References & Resources:

  • Podcast - Cleaning Up the Mental Mess with Dr. Caroline Leaf; How to Begin Unwiring Racism from our Brains and Society: A Conversation with my Two African American Son-in-Laws, June 3, 2020

  • Dr. Joy DeGruy; Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome; Learn more here.

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