Born Black…The Stress of an Unchosen Race
When I decided to add a Trauma-Informed Approaches certificate to my arsenal of professional tools, I had no idea how open my eyes would become. I knew that extreme stress and the situations kids endure were linked to long term maladaptive coping behaviors because of trauma. I eagerly got on the ACEs site to check out the impact of my own adverse child behaviors in anticipation of my new tools. I had no worries because the majority of us have a few of these issues right? There were no surprises there for me. It was one of those “ok so tell me something new” moments.
In further studies, however, I became fixated on the impact of racial trauma and the historical impact on people of color (more specifically for me and other black people). I never really thought about what I went through from childhood all the way until I began the courses as anything but discrimination and prejudice but this now had a different name. That name was TRAUMA! Each day during the program it was like another lightbulb came on. I realized there had never been a day in my entire life where I could remember not having to think about the fact that I’m black. Let that sink in for a second. I’ve never just gotten up, went through my day, and dealt with regular life issues without having to think about my race. I’ve had days where I didn’t have to think about being a woman (though many days I do). I’ve had days, weeks, months where I haven’t thought about being short…I’m 5'2". Like many others, I’ve traveled up and down the weight scale as well, but I’ve had plenty of days where I didn’t think about that at all. Yet when it came to the color of my skin, like so many who check the same box I do, I could not name one single day since my earliest childhood memories when the construct of race wasn’t thought of. Whether it was connected to something I did, a conversation had to keep me safe by my parent, something else did, something in the news, an issue my kids had and so on it was there just like the hair on my head.
Over the years I never knew that I too, like many have dealt with what is deemed as racial trauma. This type of trauma comes from things like repeatedly experiencing the stress one feels when going into any store and being followed or intensely side-eyed about 80–90% of the time because they think you are more likely to steal no matter how well-groomed you are or how high end your outfit is as it beats down your sense of worth. Racial trauma also created stress during times when I’d voiced my opinion filled with facts but was discarded and judged not only as a woman but an angry black woman taking whatever scraps of a career I could get. Sadly, for people like me, it is too often that my being armed with the knowledge of the difference between assertive and aggressive while having no issue confidently speak my piece when needed was dismissed and caused me to be labeled. It hindered where I worked, lived, and who I could even date. It created stress when I grew older and had kids who went from being cute little brown babies to a perceived threat overnight when my sons would do simple things like go fundraising with teammates in neighborhoods other kids also went. It even created stress when I was stopped by the police and asked “who do you think you are driving in these parts?” And it caused an intense amount of bottled-up stress when I was told a joke by a co-worker where the punchline was N*gger. I needed my job so I couldn’t overreact or the tables would have turned and it would have been my fault. By the way, he got a slap on the wrist and I then had a target on my back because I was a whistleblower.
To think this is not real is to discard the experience that people who have lived through things like this repeatedly. To think it’s not real is to negate the reality of a country whose justice system was literally built systemically racist on purpose and the hundreds of years of fallout we’ve dealt with because of it. To think this is not real is to assume that the countless studies about the school to prison pipeline that targets black and Latino children are lies. To think this is not real is to deny the existence of horrific deaths and beatings, as well as the significantly higher jail sentences imposed upon blacks disproportionate to the crimes committed despite evidence to support the claims.
I didn’t choose to be black. Race is unchosen. I am part of the unchosen race and so are you! Obviously no one chooses to be black or brown at birth. Just like no one chose to be the other races they’ve are. We were born into a socially constructed racial category that we eventually must select for recordkeeping because of our skin color drilled down into that tiny little box we check on forms and census surveys. It is a construct that people use to oppress and judge others. In many cases, this same construct has been used to kill and experiment on people simply because of skin that has more melanin than others.
The racial divide is still an issue that I’m reminded of each day. It totally blows my mind that there are those who feel there is no such thing and that privilege doesn’t exist for them. The rebuttal to that…..I don't get the option to ignore race while others do. That is a luxury and that is a example of privilege.
I once asked a white colleague what was her immediate thought when I said the word “race” she said it usually refers to the conversation around black and brown people often pertaining to racism. As we furthered our discussion, she admitted she never really thought of the white race when it came to those conversations unless someone was accusing them of being racist. But the idea of race was not something she focused on in her daily living at all. She never thought her way was not the “normal” for everyone in everything from how you wash your hair to skincare and more. She also didn’t realize that EVERY SINGLE DAY I had to think about race. Did she intentionally feel differently about minorities? No, she did not. Did she mistreat people? No, she did not. Did she support openly racist behaviors? No, she did not. What she did realize, however, is that her life afforded her the opportunity to not have to make race a daily living concern in her home from the time she was a child until now because it just wasn’t relevant and she didn’t have to.
So what is the final point here? We must all begin to have a dialogue in our heads like never before if we want to create a place where compassionate humanity rules over the construct of race. We must be willing to acknowledge that no matter how long a group of people has lived in the US or anywhere there different cultural norms, dynamics, and challenges. Additionally, until EVERYONE understands their role and that of the systems created in the world based on the power phenomenon that comes with what some think is the “right race” or the “chosen race” we will all continue to eat each other alive and destroy the same humanity put here to exist together by our creator. I don’t believe that is the way it is supposed to be.
I call you today to consider YOUR race and how this constructed division impacts everyone so that you may use your power and privilege in whatever capacity that is to make the changes necessary for generations to come. Stop judging those who are angry because they have been mistreated to the point their coping methods differ from yours. Stop judging those who may imitate the very behaviors of a country that has used wars and destruction to take what they wanted from other countries or groups of people. Start caring. Start empathizing. Start making changes. And start just being humans who want a better place for EVERYONE. That won’t come without pain, sadness, and growth but is ultimately worth the work!