• Antonieta Contreras

Can Historical Trauma Be Healed Collectively?

Anti-Racism protests are necessary for progress and they also have a psychological benefit


This past weekend there were hundreds of cyclists gathered In Time Square, shouting and chanting while waiting to start their march. All of them were facing north and responding to the cue “No Justice?” with “No peace”, or to the call “Black lives?” with “Ma-tter!” or “Whose streets?” with an out loud “Our Streets!” My family and I have been participating in the marches and it is encouraging to see that they are not slowing down as the summer rolls on.

In the middle of this particular march a young woman –twenty perhaps — came from the other side of the barricade, running south in her skateboard facing all the cyclists and shouting from the bottom of her chest, “Reparations!” During a minute or two there was no response, but then, the crowd began responding “RE-PA-RA-TIONS” and she kept shouting — with her fist up, and her face full of passion — “Reparations! “Re-pa-ra-tions!” Reparations! “Re-pa-ra-tions!” Reparations!” “Re-pa-ra-tions!” Her call sounded more like a demand than an inquiry. The tone was profound.

It was a very intense moment! I felt chills running all over my body, and a big knot in my throat. Seeing the response from the crowd moved me in several different ways. I’ve had the notion of “resentment” on my brain these days — I see it in couples’ therapy, in my own response to the news, and I could see the role it played in the demands at the protest. Recently I wrote “How Resentment May Be Spoiling Your Sexual Life” and “Your Emotional Brain on Resentment;” after witnessing this moment I felt compelled to investigate if resentment can be inherited the same way that historical trauma does and whether the current communal social uprising could actually be a positive outpouring of the widespread emotion.

Judith Herman, a great scholar and one of the most important advocates for the recognition of trauma as a mental issue said: “The social signals of subordinate status (bowed head, lowered eyes) are ritualized expressions of shame.” I would add that besides shame, the extreme forms of social subordination from slavery that kept this generation’s ancestors — as Herman said “in a permanently dishonored status” — have also created high levels of resentment that has been carried through generations.

Trauma can be healed on each individual, but I wonder if the collective trauma developed from the experience of systemic racism, oppression, and the fear of getting killed just because of your race, could be healed collectively.

Inherited Trauma

Before digging into how trauma can be inherited, it’d be useful to remember where our understanding of “trauma” comes from. Studies of traumatization and its consequences were repressed and deserted for centuries. After the Vietnam War, the appealing evidence of the pervasive psychological wounds among veterans forced the system to give it some attention; yet, we have not achieved much more than the inclusion of one disorder (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD) as the “official” acknowledgment of the damage that some acts cause (1980). Unfortunately, the PTSD diagnosis only includes people exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence — and it excludes the gamut of situations that cause damage to people, like those who suffer from violence, oppression, racism, poverty, sexism and many other isms.

In spite of not having more diagnoses –and coverage for its treatment — many members of the mental health community have continued going deeper to understand all the ramifications and significance of the phenomena called Psychological/Emotional Trauma, and advocating for an extended recognition of it. At this point, the number of books, research, articles, conferences, etc., on the matter, shows that psychological trauma is irrefutable. However, trauma as a sequela in the autonomic nervous system and the repercussions in the whole human system and society, from personality to physical pain to identity, encompass so much that it has taken a while to conceptualize, and it’s still precarious; the discernment of it needs to continue developing.

Intergenerational racial trauma is one of those manifestations. It is the exposure through generations to the danger related to real or perceived experience of racial discrimination, threats of harm and injury, humiliating and shaming events, and witnessing harm to other people of color due to real or perceived racism (APA, 2019). Research of it has not been greatly funded but the current social movement can put it on the map.

Some of the mental health trauma advocates are scientists that have come up with different approaches to explain the validity of the trauma phenomena and its relevance as a mental and psychological pervasive issue. One of the most important branches of science that has studied whether trauma can be inherited is epigenetics.

The term ‘epigenetics’ was first coined in 1942 by Conrad H. Waddington, a British developmental biologist, embryologist, and geneticist at Cambridge University. By integrating environmental factors into biology, epigenetics offered a new way to explore the explanation for transgenerational transmission of trauma. It explains that trauma doesn’t change the gene’s physicality, but it does modify “its charge.” DNA is highly electrically charged; it is the electrostatic force that not only holds molecules — of proteins, nucleic acids, and so on — together, but gives the molecule structure and strength. Trauma changes that characteristic and people inherit the information of their parents’ trauma in their genetic “expression” which will regulate –or dysregulate — many of the functions of the new person’s development, behavior, and outlook.

Historical Trauma

The trauma resulting from racism today in the Black community is severe because it is the consequence of the cumulative effects of racism throughout a person’s life and his/her family members and ancestors for the last almost 500 years.

Robert T. Carter, a faculty member of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences proposed (2007) that “Race-based Traumatic Stress Injury (RBTSI)” be recognized as an “emotional or physical pain, or the threat of emotional or physical pain, stemming from racism in the form of harassment, discrimination or discriminatory harassment (aversive hostility)” and explains that while the event that causes symptoms to manifest “may be less serious than other events, the additive factor causes the person to feel they cannot take any more.”

The fact that this generation of African American descents never personally experienced slavery does not reduce their carried traumatization; it is an inherent part of the Black experience and the constant fight for survival that has fused as a collective identity.

I have seen it throughout my years as a therapist; one of my former clients used to suffer from psychological seizures (or psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES)) when she saw images of — and sometimes just by imagining — people being lynched, even though she personally has never witnessed one. But historical trauma is not only individual, it’s collective, and it should have a way to heal collectively. Maybe by giving an outlet to anger and resentment on a public level, the healing experience could be shared.

Inherited Resentment

Resentment has been called a tertiary emotion because it appears after anger and rage. Anger, as one of the most universal emotions, manifests as a protection from abuse, to alert us about the need for action. Resentment, in contrast, arises out of powerlessness and experiences of dehumanization, inferiorization, stigmatization, subjugation, violence, or events that create a dichotomy between the need to raise and objection and the impotence to do so. In resentment, the anger gets “contained,” so it can be used as a protection for when the person (one day) becomes capable of fighting back.

I’m using the word “resentment” to name an emotional strategy that appears as a consequence of feeling overpowered and aggravated. It’s a consequence not only of the aggravation but also of the frustration of not being able to contest your aggressor. This emotional impotence is due to the fear of the possible consequences of “fighting back” –from incarceration to alienation to death. Black Lives Matter could be seen as in line with this type of frustration, propelling the movement (2013) “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes” (BLM) after the death of Trayvon Martin’s and so many others killed by the police without consequences.

In terms of whether resentment can be passed on, besides epigenetics, there are a couple of theories about how memory and emotions can be inherited. One theory called “teems” (Trauma Encoded Emotional Memory), (Vendramin, 2015) suggests that powerful, traumatic emotions generated by stressful environmental circumstances — such as predatory attacks, sexual encounters, accidents, and capture — can be genetically encoded into the “noncoding” DNA which can be inherited to offspring, providing them with an emotional memory of the traumatic event as an adaptation –for protection.

If we see resentment as a protective strategy, anger, in that case, plays the role of the reminder about traumatic offenses that get accumulated and re-experienced over and over again, as in PTSD. It also reminds the “resentful” of his/her impotence, creating self-harm because the anger is also directed at the self. If the offenses continue happening for generations, the same way that trauma gets inherited, resentment could get inherited too.

Resentment — which we now see is accumulated anger plus impotence — by nature needs to reach a moment where it can finally be acted out. That’s the reason it got created in the first place — because there was hope that the moment would come when the person was going to be able to stop the abuse. But before the person can actively manifest the anger, and stop the offenses from happening, ideas of revenge, retaliation, aggression, or protest grow in the mind of the abused. The day the anger comes out and expresses the endured injustices, the healing may start. It can easily take the form of public protests.

Reparations!

The voice of the young woman still resonates in me: “Reparations!”

In order to heal from intergenerational or historical trauma, it’s necessary to create space for its manifestations without judgment or repression. It has been proposed by several academics that the way to heal it is, first, recognizing the trauma, and second, opening the conversation within the communities to allow space for expressing emotional needs.

Purely from a psychological and emotional stance, the social movement that is taking place as we speak can provide the means for amendments (as for the forms of reparations called on at the march, I leave that debate to experts in the field, although of course there should be no debate about it).

Instead of thinking in the stereotype of how the way to heal resentment is by forgiving, there is another way: by calling “R E P A R A T I O N S” out loud and repeatedly, a person can expunge the feeling of resentment they carry and thus undergo healing.

The actual psychological benefits from the protests and marches currently taking place are:

  • The voice of the accumulated pain from marginalization is being expressed, and, by everyone hearing it, the experience of being seen could bring a sense of equality.

  • The offenses are being acknowledged, and the anti-racist movement brings hope that the brutality and offenses will stop. It could be empowering.

  • Systemic racism is being exposed, and the demands for it to be reversed could start the process of repairing that is so sorely needed. Systemic racism has been practiced by everyone, possibly out of conscious awareness; by exposing it, people have no choice but to reject it, or to be clearly accomplices of it.

  • White privilege is being addressed, and “allies” — by showing their support — are resigning to continue benefiting from it passively. That could create union and justice.

  • Marches are creating awareness and interest. The 10 NYT bestseller non-fiction books this week are about racism. The shown interest is validating and encouraging.

  • People from all races, creeds, and genders have gathered to express discontent; understanding that we share similar emotional needs facilitates the feeling that everyone is equal. Demanding accountability is a way to show it. Demanding that racism stops is making racism the responsibility of everyone.

  • Anger expressed as a request to defund the police, to stop ignoring Black lives, and to bring justice to the memory of those unjustifiably killed is the action that resentment needed in order to be released. Channeling negative emotions through a social movement is healing.

As I write this article, I’m reading that the police officer who fatally shot Breonna Taylor in March, was officially fired. He also needs to be arrested and tried, which I hope will be next.

Changes are happening. I’m hearing expressions that have not been as freely expressed before, or that I haven’t had the motivation to hear, and it makes me feel like applauding. The Merriam-Webster is changing its definition of racism; more articles written by members of the Black community are rising to the top of everyone’s feeds; Therapists are joining Diversity, Equity and Inclusion groups to work on their biases.

In my heart, I feel that the healing has started.

Silence is Violence! Let's keep shouting!

“I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates

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  • Antonieta Contreras
  • Antonieta Contreras

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