Editor's note:

This arti­cle by Sheila Wise Rowe, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 2018 on her web­site, has blos­somed into her book, Heal­ing Racial Trau­ma. In this arti­cle, her book, and a Ren­o­varé Pod­cast inter­view, she pro­vides an overview of racial trau­ma and help­ful steps forward.

—Renovaré Team

When my fam­i­ly and I moved back home to Amer­i­ca from South Africa, we were not pre­pared for what would greet us upon our return. The dead of win­ter in Boston with its frigid tem­per­a­tures, gray skies, and snow were the least of them. We also noticed that the social cli­mate had changed. Yes, our fam­i­ly and friends warm­ly wel­comed us, but there was a cold­ness and cal­lous­ness that per­me­at­ed the mood of the country.

Six months on it has tak­en a bit of time to adjust. At times I’ve won­dered with all the anger and ven­om spew­ing out on TV and social media if true racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is even pos­si­ble. A week after the shoot­ings of African Amer­i­can men and police offi­cers in St. Paul, Dal­las, and Baton Rouge, I felt as if I was con­stant­ly on the verge of tears. At times my emo­tions vac­il­lat­ed between sad­ness, anger, indif­fer­ence, and bone tired­ness. One evening, I sat qui­et­ly and asked the Lord to help me to under­stand what was going on in my heart. The Lord brought to mind a class I taught in South Africa enti­tled, Trau­ma Aware­ness, Heal­ing, and Reconciliation.”

My stu­dents were peace builders who came from Cana­da and across the African con­ti­nent. They were advo­cates for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, social jus­tice, and peace. They served on the front line in their home coun­tries of north­ern Nige­ria, Swazi­land, Rwan­da, Zam­bia, Mozam­bique, Kenya, Cana­da, Ango­la, Ugan­da, and South Africa. Some worked with the fam­i­lies of the kid­napped Chi­bok school­girls, trau­ma­tized Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim stu­dents and fam­i­lies affect­ed by the mas­sacre at Garis­sa Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege, oth­ers were involved in eth­nic and racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and out­reach to traf­ficked women and youth min­istry. The inten­si­ty of spend­ing that week togeth­er, learn­ing and shar­ing our sto­ries, was profound.

Post-Trau­mat­ic Stress

One after­noon I taught on the top­ic of Post-Trau­mat­ic Stress Dis­or­der (PTSD). The Mayo Clin­ic reports:

Diag­no­sis of PTSD requires expo­sure to an event that involved or held the threat of death, vio­lence, or seri­ous injury. Your expo­sure can hap­pen in one or more of these ways: You expe­ri­enced or wit­nessed the trau­mat­ic event, or you learned some­one close to you expe­ri­enced or was threat­ened by the trau­mat­ic event. Symp­toms may include flash­backs, night­mares, phys­i­cal symp­toms, and severe anx­i­ety, as well as uncon­trol­lable thoughts about the event.”

To illus­trate this, I shared the sto­ry of how a woman who had worked in one of the Twin Tow­ers had sur­vived 9 – 11. As she ran from the tow­ers, ash gen­tly clung to her hair and cloth­ing. On the way toward her apart­ment, she passed peo­ple sit­ting at café tables and sip­ping their cap­puc­ci­nos, unaware that the tow­ers were falling. She arrived home safe­ly and told her fam­i­ly she was fine. But as time passed it became appar­ent that all was not well. One morn­ing she watched a TV spe­cial on the tragedy. She sat there trans­fixed and when the day passed unac­count­ed for, she then real­ized that it was time to come out of denial and process her grief and trauma.

After I told her sto­ry, my stu­dents began to open up. They shared how they also car­ried post-trau­mat­ic stress from the past, and although they had made the choice to for­give their abusers, their post-trau­mat­ic stress per­sist­ed. For my stu­dents, the symp­toms came in dif­fer­ent forms. For some, it was fear of impend­ing dis­as­ter, a fear of inti­ma­cy, or a refusal to vis­it the part of town where the trau­ma occurred. For oth­er stu­dents, it was sus­pi­cion of the oth­er” or reluc­tance to tell their sto­ry for fear they wouldn’t be believed. Many of my stu­dents rec­og­nized they had unprocessed and unhealed trauma.

That day, Chris­tians and Mus­lims shared their sto­ries, sto­ries that had nev­er been shared before. They lis­tened to one anoth­er, cried, and after­ward prayed for one anoth­er. For some, there was a degree of clo­sure, yet for oth­ers, there would still be more work to do.

Race-Based Trau­mat­ic Stress

Lit­tle did I know upon return­ing to Amer­i­ca that it would be evi­dent that many peo­ple of col­or were sim­i­lar­ly hurt­ing and in need of heal­ing from race-based trau­ma. I real­ized that I too need­ed heal­ing. As I sat there in silence and remem­bered how that woman ran from the twin tow­ers, I felt that, like her, so many of us have spent our lives run­ning as if from a house on fire. We have seen lives and liveli­hoods lost as if they did not mat­ter. We have endured trau­mat­ic his­to­ries and the almost dai­ly assaults on our dig­ni­ty, like being tailed at the mall or when some­one yells the N‑word from a car as they speed past.

These lobbed grenades cre­ate such dam­age because they come when we least expect it and send a mes­sage that we do not belong. We are told there must be some rea­son why we deserved this, It doesn’t mat­ter if we have an advanced degree, are a teenag­er in a hood­ie, a mem­ber of the Sen­ate, a jan­i­tor, or a celebri­ty. At some point, most of us have been pro­filed, and to sur­vive we have sup­pressed or act­ed out our feel­ings. Many of us have just dust­ed our­selves off and tak­en a seat at a café table sip­ping our cap­puc­ci­nos, teach­ing our­selves to min­i­mize or deny the wounds and believe the lie that every­thing is okay.

Schol­ars believe that day-to-day has­sles can com­pro­mise psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being … day-to-day stress can affect men­tal health when a large num­ber of minor events add up and wear down a per­son, thus mak­ing her or him vul­ner­a­ble to poor health. In the con­text of racism, dai­ly has­sles are described as micro-aggres­sions.’” —Robert T. Carter, The Coun­sel­ing Psy­chol­o­gist, 2007

Lin­da Gol­er Blount not­ed in The Root, Research has shown that stress and trau­ma from racial­ly moti­vat­ed events cre­ate reac­tions in Black women [and men] that are sim­i­lar to post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der. … These reac­tions include depres­sion, lack of sleep, anger and an inabil­i­ty to get thoughts about what hap­pened out of one’s mind.”

Soul Care

I had begun to expe­ri­ence some of the symp­toms of race-based trau­mat­ic stress, and now I had to con­front how I real­ly felt. The words of Jere­mi­ah 6:14 came to mind; They have treat­ed the wound of my peo­ple care­less­ly, say­ing, Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (NSRV). It wasn’t just that oth­ers did not take my wounds seri­ous­ly; I did not take them seri­ous­ly either. As my tears fell, I chose to no longer make a false peace but to address the sever­i­ty of my wounds. I real­ized that despite all my head knowl­edge about trau­ma, I need­ed heal­ing and also tools for soul-care.

Cleb­sch and Jaek­le, authors of Pas­toral Care in His­tor­i­cal Per­spec­tives, write that soul-care involves four pri­ma­ry ele­ments: heal­ing, sus­tain­ing rela­tion­ships, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, and guid­ance. I will add a fifth ele­ment of action.

The Pur­suit of Healing

To over­come race-based trau­mat­ic stress and move toward whole­ness, we must pur­sue heal­ing. It starts with a com­mit­ment to deep­en our rela­tion­ship with the Lord through his Word, prayer, and worship.

This is an urgent need because this jour­ney is a hard one, but we do not go it alone. We need to see what we have been car­ry­ing for so many years and no longer min­i­mize how recent events in our coun­try have re-trau­ma­tized many of us. Our true emo­tions of sad­ness, anger, indif­fer­ence, or weari­ness must be brought into the light. We must also acknowl­edge the emo­tion­al, phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al toll that race-based trau­mat­ic stress has had on us, our fam­i­lies, and our com­mu­ni­ties. Some of us will need to seek psy­cho­log­i­cal help from a pro­fes­sion­al to work through the trau­ma, and there is no shame in that. All of us can bring our feel­ings to the Lord and allow the Com­forter to come and treat our wounds.

Sus­tain­ing Relationships

As we grow deep­er in our knowl­edge that God loves and cares for us, we can invite oth­ers to sus­tain, strength­en, and sup­port us as we heal and tran­scend our tri­als and trau­ma. We all need oth­er peo­ple, dear friends, and allies with whom we can process things and pray with. John Welshons, author of Awak­en­ing from Grief, writes, Our job is to be a pres­ence, rather than a sav­ior, a com­pan­ion, rather than a leader, a friend, rather than a teacher.” 

We need oth­ers who will choose com­pas­sion­ate lis­ten­ing instead of mere­ly mouthing words. This will help us to pur­sue true for­give­ness and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion as we live in the ten­sion of hav­ing dear friends who are white while also hav­ing some of our deep­est pain occur­ring at the hands of white people.

Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

A 2016 Face­book post from Natasha How­ell tells of her encounter with a white police offi­cer in a con­ve­nience store. Natasha writes that as she got clos­er, the offi­cer asked her how she was doing: I replied, Okay, and you?’ He looked at me with a strange look and asked me How are you real­ly doing?’” to which she respond­ed, I’m tired!” His reply was, Me too.”

Then he said, I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now is it?” He then walked up and hugged her, and she began to cry in his arms. In that one moment in the absence of accu­sa­tion, spout­ing sta­tis­tics or recrim­i­na­tions, the bar­ri­ers came down, and they both acknowl­edged: I see you, and I see your pain.

As the tears flowed, heal­ing began. That sto­ry gives me hope that even in the midst of hurt­ing we need one anoth­er to make steps toward heal­ing, for­give­ness, and reconciliation. 

I remem­ber the brav­ery of those who lost loved ones at Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church in Charleston, South Car­oli­na. The pub­lic for­give­ness of those fam­i­ly mem­bers was extra­or­di­nary. It was not an affir­ma­tion that the bru­tal racist mur­ders dur­ing a Bible study were okay. It was a dec­la­ra­tion that judg­ment belongs to our God, and a defi­ant act of refus­ing to allow their free­dom to be bound by despair, anger, and bit­ter­ness. They chose by God’s grace to walk in love and for­give­ness while still striv­ing for jus­tice. I too have made the same choice.

Guid­ance

Once we for­give, there comes a greater free­dom to be able to give and receive guid­ance. Racism and con­se­quent race-based trau­mat­ic stress will not stop just because we have had some degree of heal­ing. In light of this, we have to be dili­gent about the choic­es we make in our thoughts and actions. We can seek guid­ance from the Lord and trust­ed oth­ers about when and how to destress, to expose injus­tice, and to engage in action which advo­cates for our needs and those of others.

Action

I believe that things can change because of the many friends and allies of dif­fer­ent races and eth­nic­i­ties who see and hear our hearts and also roll up their sleeves to make a dif­fer­ence. Togeth­er we must strive toward social action which is hope­ful, impact­ful, and life-affirm­ing: Final­ly, all of you, be like-mind­ed, be sym­pa­thet­ic, love one anoth­er, be com­pas­sion­ate and hum­ble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the con­trary, repay evil with bless­ing, because to this you were called so that you may inher­it a bless­ing.” (1 Peter 3:8 – 9 NIV). For those we don’t agree with, we still need to cre­ate spaces in per­son and across social media for one anoth­er to expe­ri­ence God’s heal­ing, love, com­pas­sion, and grace.

Related Podcast

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Jan­u­ary 2018 on Sheila Wise Rowe’s web­site. Used with permission.

Originally published January 2018

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