It’s Time to End the Cycle of Racial Trauma

As Black men living in London – one American and one British – we have both been struggling for the past few days with a double dose of race-related toxicity. The opening sessions of the trial of Derek Chauvin – the white former Minneapolis police officer who casually knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he stopped breathing – have brought the visceral horror of that event flooding back. Like so many others, we have found the tearful witness statements and the new video footage of the murder almost unbearable to watch. It feels personal, terrifying – that could have been one of us suffocating under that knee, calling out for his mother.

We didn’t even know that we were turning the other cheek, and then came the second blow. The UK’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) delivered its insulting report, concluding – incredibly – that systemic racism no longer exists in Britain. The commission was set up by No.10 in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd. And so this grim wheel continues its nightmarish rotation: parts of the CRED report read like excerpts from Donald Trump’s playlist. The impact on Black British people is clear – by denying their lived experience of institutionalised racism, this report will re-traumatise many.

Tragically, for most non-white British and American citizens, racial trauma and its consequences are part of everyday life and the triggers come thick and fast: walking past statues of Confederate generals or slave owners, encounters with the police, interactions online, just watching the evening news.

This profound anxiety is rooted in a collective pain that began when the first Africans were enslaved and transported to a life of unimaginable cruelty. Abolition did not bring healing. Instead, the trauma of freed slaves and their descendants has continued to be compounded to this day, as every subsequent generation has faced ongoing racism and injustice on both sides of the Atlantic.

The American psychologist and sociologist Dr Joy DeGruy has given this historical racial trauma a name: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She points out that it is deeply embedded, community wide and multi-generational. As a result, countless Black Britons and Americans suffer symptoms similar to those of PTSD, including anger issues, lack of self-worth and purpose, loss of identity, stress and anxiety. Although often unaware of the underlying cause, we are all too conscious of this trauma’s manifestations in the form of educational exclusion, incarceration, family dysfunction and substance misuse, to name just a few. 

We all experience things differently, of course. Black people have had to be highly resilient, and many have made extraordinary contributions to their communities and to their countries. Yet, however many equal opportunities we create, it will all be to no avail if some of our citizens continue to struggle under the weight of inherited racial trauma while others are unencumbered. This is not just a Black problem. We are permanently woven into the fabric of these great nations. So it is imperative that we address this trauma – if we fail, we will all be the lesser for it.

The first step is not to gaslight people into believing that systemic racism no longer exists, but to recognise the extent to which it is still a problem.

Then we must allow ourselves to acknowledge old wounds and to grieve. It can be tempting, when you live with trauma, to avoid triggers – to turn away, perhaps even to topple things in an attempt to erase reminders of a harrowing past. But that is a grave mistake. The act of forgetting does not aid recovery; it makes it impossible. History must be faced and learned from so that we can take the best from it and leave the rest behind.

The next step is healing. We can’t reach it through anger and hurt; righteous indignation alone will get us nowhere. Instead, each of us needs to connect with others – those who look like us and those who don’t. Those who pray like us and those who don’t. Those who vote like us and those who don’t. We can learn much from other minorities with experience of trauma and marginalisation – sadly, there are many such groups. But, while we should denounce attempts at whitewashing, we must resist apportioning blame. This is about positive allyship and moving forward.

Our elected leaders have a crucial role to play. Both our governments must now engage their populations in a serious, transparent conversation about race. They should each begin by convening a Citizens’ Assembly made up of randomly selected participants who reflect their nation’s diversity and who can come together to seek common ground. This will allow robust, informed public input to help design policies that – if implemented – might actually succeed in overcoming racial trauma and disparities.

As well as educating their students about racial trauma, teachers can ensure that every child’s humanity is valued. If they are positive about diversity, actively highlighting its benefits, and encourage children to appreciate each other’s ethnicity and cultural heritage, teachers can help to liberate our young people from damaging myths about race.

Four hundred years is long enough to carry a burden based on hate. Change is in the air both in America and in Britain – together let’s seize this moment and break the cycle of racial trauma. Like so many others, we both bear its scars – we sincerely hope that future generations will not.

By Keith Magee and Bryan Bonaparte

Keith Magee is Professor of Social Justice at Newcastle University. He is also Senior Fellow in Culture and Justice at UCL, where he is co-chair of Black Britain and Beyond. He is the author of Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion, and Politics, published in January 2021.

Bryan Bonaparte is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Westminster and co-chair of Black Britain and Beyond, a social platform which brings together Black Britons and allies to explore and engage in the significance of Black Britishness.

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