Clergy from around the nation lock arms in silent, non-violent protest directly across from alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017. (Photo credit: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches)

Living in a nation of historic, continuing racialized trauma

By the Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski

How can this be happening in 2017?”

If you haven’t said it, you’ve heard it. How is it possible that we are seeing marches with torches and swastikas in American streets? That the Ku Klux Klan is openly recruiting in public spaces? That public discourse regularly features words we thought had all but disappeared? How do we find ourselves here?

I believe that we are trapped in a system of unresolved trauma.

As a person passionate about the possibilities of peacemaking, I have been studying trauma and its ongoing impact for years, convinced that most of the personal and communal conflicts we experience stem from experiences of trauma that are unacknowledged and unaddressed. The impact of trauma has received sustained scholarly and pastoral attention that reveals that unresolved trauma leads to an endless cycle of violence — of acting in against ourselves and/or acting out against each other. Practitioners often portray this as a figure eight, with people and societies moving ceaselessly through cycles of harm.

Days after the horrific events in Charlottesville, I picked up one of the handouts we use in training and was shocked to see how well it portrayed what I had watched with phrases such as “attacking in the name of self-defense or honor,” “seeing self/group as victims,” “dehumanizing the other,” “experiencing unmet needs for safety” and “viewing violence as redemptive.” Although written years in advance, the handout was an eerily accurate portrayal of the Unite the Right rally and its aftermath.

We need not wonder why. Our national history is replete with racialized trauma we’ve experienced and inflicted individually and collectively. Our corporate trauma is rarely even acknowledged, much less addressed in meaningful ways. It is not surprising that we can see so clearly the ways we ceaselessly move through cycles of harm.

We have told our history as a nation far too often as if the cruel genocide of native peoples, their ongoing death-dealing subjugation, the barbarous centuries of chattel slavery, the continuing devaluing of black life, and the willing economic exploitation of brown bodies are simply side stories to the beautiful narrative of “all people created equal.” We speak as if what has kept us from responding to the critical needs of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico is really just that “big ocean.” But this is simply not true. There has never been a time in American history in which racism — in both its visible and its covert forms — was not a central part of our shared reality.

But there are ways out.

The deep study of trauma and the practices of real-world peacemaking that inform it reveal specific, concrete, effective ways of moving beyond trauma — ways that have been researched and lived out in the lives of people and societies. They begin with creating safety and support and then move to a phase of acknowledgement that includes mourning, grieving, naming and confronting fears, accepting loss, memorializing, reflecting on root causes, and acknowledging others’ stories. Only after the active work of acknowledgement does it become possible to begin the long process of reconnection.

I would suggest that the vast majority of the work toward healing racism in this country has not taken seriously enough the early tasks of simply saying clearly what has happened and is happening. This need not make us wonder because the telling and the hearing of this history is often in itself traumatic.

I once attended a session in which a local historian presented his research about how the segregation of my city had come to be. He detailed a slow, steady, intentional process that had first separated neighborhoods by color and then, in the name of urban renewal, destroyed the thriving black neighborhoods that had resulted. He also highlighted the violent suppression of voting rights that had made that process possible. In one horrifying slide, he displayed a float in a civic parade depicting a man in black face attempting to vote while a white man held a gun to his head.

After the presentation, we were asked to sort ourselves into small groups to discuss what we had just heard. My group was split evenly between white and black participants. One by one, the black members of the group shared stories of how the facts shared in the presentation had played out in their own families and in their own lives. A woman in her 20s told us that, after her grandparents had lost the home and the business they had owned in the city’s “renewal” process, her family had never recovered financially. She was struggling to find money for college as a direct result of the city’s past policies.

Her story was typical. Every black member of the group had directly experienced the painful and debilitating reality the historian had outlined. Yet each time someone shared anything that even hinted at pain or anger, one of the white members of the group spoke up to dismiss, deny or diminish the story. “I would never act with that kind of prejudice.” “It’s not like that anymore.” “I am not like that, and none of my friends are like that.” I was impressed that the African-American members of the group kept trying but chagrined as it became obvious that nothing they shared was really going to be heard.

I was angry and confused. These white people were clearly good-hearted folks trying to do the right thing. They’d given up a beautiful summer evening and driven into an unfamiliar part of town to have a conversation about race. Clearly, they recognized a problem and were trying to respond. Yet when the conversation they desired actually showed a sign of beginning, they shut it down immediately and seemingly without any awareness of doing so. I’d now call that a trauma response. Overwhelmed, they resorted to suppression and denial.

As I have become more interested in trauma, I have also become more interested in resilience — in recognizing it as a trait possessed by every person and every society, in identifying it and helping people see it in themselves, and in strengthening it in myself and others. Resilience is key to not merely enduring trauma but to letting it change us in positive ways. I no longer offer anti-racism training without also offering experiences of recognizing and strengthening our personal and corporate resilience.

I believe with every fiber of my being that the Gospel is good news. There is good news even today in this most fraught time in our national story: If we are being called out, we are also being called in.

This is work that we can and must do. We can strengthen our collective resilience and use that strength to surface and address our shared trauma. Houses of faith are among the best places to do this interrelated work.

My favorite seminary professor, Rabbi Steve Sager, taught us that every time of death is a plastic time — that is, a time when things can be reshaped, sometimes into something so new as to be unrecognizable. If we are experiencing a death of the vision of the United States — who we are and where we stand in 2017 — then, in this moment, opportunity exists to be melted down and reshaped.

The late Maya Angelou reminds us: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”


The Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski is executive director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.