“When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” — Audre Lorde
The idea of white guilt has been heavy on my heart for a long while now. It is now seeping out of my pores and onto the paper because it can no longer be safely housed inside my head. This is how many of these posts come to fruition. This post is different than any other post because it requires me to lay myself bare in ways I only do with the safest people and you know who you are (thank you to you, thank you, thank you).
A training opportunity was posed to me last week regarding the theory of “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” As a therapist, I was automatically interested, as this was not a syndrome I had any reference to or for. I sat down to watch the lecture and felt my body squirm in the chair. The presenter, Dr. Joy DeGruy outlined with exceptional academic precision the premise and empirical evidence supporting the theory. As a researcher and clinician, I can attest to the fact that her theory is sound and based on solid evidence.
WHAT IS P.T.S.S.?
P.T.S.S. is a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora. It is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.
- M: Multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression;
- A: Absence of opportunity to heal or access the benefits available in the society; leads to
- P: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.
How is it that this theory escaped my nearly 13 years in academia and several years post training? Well, I’m white. If that sentence makes you uncomfortable, I encourage you to explore that with yourself. In fact, it should make you uncomfortable. Pain is the catalyst for change. The problem with white guilt and white privilege is that we often deny it exists because it feels bad. It feels gross to think that power and privilege result in poison water, violent death, poverty, mass incarceration, drug wars, poor education, lack of employment and so on and so on and so on.
I can hear so many of you reading this post and saying “slavery was so long ago, get over it,” “I’m not racist,” and “all lives matter.” And, all of those statements might be true. However, we are products of our environments and many of our environments are saturated with insidious messages of prejudice and discrimination. We don’t always know that we are actively perpetuating stereotypes or prejudice because it is the acceptable way to interact within our social groups.
We don’t know until someone points it out and again that hurts and we feel shame. In those moments, it is easier to get defensive and/or deny the problem than it is to sit with the ickiness of our preconceived notions and change our opinions. Overall, we feel entitled to never feeling bad or shame and this is evidenced by the high rates of substance abuse (aka, avoiding my feelings). We’re also conditioned to think we are the good guy and it is the other that is flawed. Again, it feels bad to acknowledge that we might be party to discrimination: But, I’m the good guy!
But, what really makes you the good guy (or gal, or non-specific) is to listen. To consider that maybe the other has a point. That maybe hundreds of years of oppression that continue today negatively influence particular groups of people. Maybe the lessons you learned in your social group were wrong. Maybe instead of getting defensive you pause and consider our common humanity.
Maybe, fear leads to anger and anger leads to rage. Maybe the best thing you can do for someone in an oppressed group is listen and extend love and compassion: AND BELIEVE WHAT THEY TELL YOU ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCE. Let’s stop denying another person’s pain, fears, sadness, and anger.
I know that when I hurt and I share that hurt with someone and they dismiss me, it feels awful. I can’t imagine how that would feel on a global scale over the course of hundreds of years. I know that when I tell my partner I’m scared, I need him to say: What can I do?And, most of the time I just need him to be with me. Maybe that is what is desperately lacking across the racial divide? Maybe, we need to listen, validate and share time and space.
Yes, I feel guilty, icky, sad, ashamed, defensive and disappointed but I can sit with those gross feelings and validate how you feel. Yes, I wish that the influence of slavery was over and we were a post racial country. It would feel a lot better for me if we all had a fair chance. But, we don’t – we just do not. So, when you tell me how you feel, even if it hurts me to believe you-I believe you. Because it’s not about me, it’s about you.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” – Harriet Tubman
“I have observed this in my experience of slavery, that whenever my condition was improved, instead of increasing my contentment; it only increased my desire to be free, and set me thinking of plans to gain my freedom.” — Frederick Douglass