Rev. Dr. Ron Bell
Unpacking Racial Trauma
When did you know you were the race you are? I can remember the exact day that both of my sons discovered they were “black.” My oldest is 9 years old now. When he was in 1 grade, he came home extremely agitated one afternoon. After an uncomfortable encounter with a classmate he wanted to know why his skin was so different than his classmate’s. I took him outside to sit on the porch where he explained that his classmate had called him “black” but as he boldly and accurately pointed out, he was not black, his skin was brown. He could not understand why he was being labeled “black” when his skin was brown and why his skin was so different in color than the classmate making the inditement against him. My son and I set for some time on that porch. I reminded him of his grandfather, told him stories of his great grandfather and great great grandfather. I showed him pictures of our family. I showed him my hand. I explained to him “son, we share the same skin. It is your mother’s skin, your grandfather’s, your great great grandfather’s, it is your cousins and aunts and uncles’ skin. This is our family skin. It connects us. It marks us. We wear this skin with pride.” I watched his saddened confused countenance begin to shift and contort. He set up straight and smiled as he started naming his cousins and making the connection between their skin and his. I watched my son discover that day that he was “black.” His journey to blackness was in stark contrast to my younger son’s.
My youngest son was 5 when he discovered he was black. George Floyd had been murdered by Minneapolis police the day before his discovery. We were living in Saint Paul at that time. I was pastoring a church in the area and preparing to go distribute food for those in need who had been affected by the previous night’s riots. The energy in the atmosphere was tense. People were in pain; our hearts were broken for how we had been treated. The news was flooded with images of protest and riots, replays of the murder of Floyd and commentary on injustice for African Americans. That day we had coordinated with the Pan Hellenic council and Black Greek fraternities and sororities in the area to pull off the food giveaway. We expected to feed upwards of 500 to 1000 people that day. There would be hundreds of people coming to drop off food, and hundreds of other people coming to receive food. I knew I could not shelter my 5-year-old from the reality he was about to bombarded with. My wife and I set he and his brother down that morning and had the talk. We told them about George Floyd, we explained to him what the police officer did and why it was wrong. We tried as best we could to pivot the discussion to our response as community members, in serving and supporting each other. Instead my 5-year-old son kept asking over again, “what did Floyd do.” I could tell his brain was trying to make sense of what had happened, he was slowly mentally deconstructing all of those societal constructs he had come to believe in; namely “police are good and hear to help you” and “bad guys are bad and the police are there to stop them.” None of those constructs made sense anymore to him. I watched his face contort and change as he realized that the only crime George Floyd committed was looking like us, sharing that same skin that we have. That skin like his father and mother, that skin like his cousins and aunts and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents…that skin like his. I watched my son discover that day that he was “black.” His journey had begun.
Each of us is well acquainted with loss. I do not simply mean the loss of loved ones, though that grief captures each of us. Instead, I am talking about the loss of humanization. What makes us human is our capacity to live in connection with one another. That capacity is constantly being strained and altered given new historical content, self-awareness, and revelations. We are in a perpetual process of remaking and redefining our humanness in relation to other humans. I watched my two sons struggle with this concept as they discovered their “blackness.” However, in fairness it is a struggle that we all wrestle with, mainly because everyone we encounter is involved in their own process of redefining and remaking, also in relation to us. As a result of this parallel work, each of us carry trauma. A trauma that is both interrelated and individual. A racialized trauma. Racial trauma is not exclusive to African Americans. In fact, it is sewn into the fabric of this nation, it is a part of our history as a nation, our present and if we do nothing more it will be a part of our future.
Resmaa Menakem, in his groundbreaking work My Grandmothers Hands wrote “unhealed trauma acts like a rock a thrown into a pond; it causes ripples that move outward, affecting many other bodies over time.” Overtime that unhealed trauma presents as culture, it becomes baked into the fabric of our relations with each other; black and white. Overtime that unhealed racialized trauma creates invisible social boarders that effectively reinforce the mythologies that this trauma promulgated. It should be clear that when unhealed trauma metastasis as culture and gets passed down through generations, it becomes increasingly impossible to empathize for a group or individual that exist outside of one’s racialized traumatic frame. You cannot empathize with something or someone you do not recognize as equal in value to yourself. The more we subconsciously reinforce the mythologies of this trauma, the more we further isolate and distance ourselves from each other, until we become unrecognizable as human to each other. This is ultimate danger of racialized trauma. Its ability to distort and dehumanize. Therefore, each us must embrace our own racialized trauma and begin to do the work of healing.
I want my sons to grow up in a world where they are seen as human, equal and valued. I want them to see the color of their skin as nothing more than a connection to their lineage and not a potential death sentence. I want all our children to remake of this world a place of wholeness and peace, one no longer codependent on the mythologies of racialized trauma for sustainability. In order for that work to happen, each us must be bold enough to finally begin to do the work of unpacking, and facing the trauma we are carrying.