It is not easy to be present for someone else when we don’t know how to be present for ourselves, especially in matters of social justice. When we don’t know how to have a deep conversation with others that believe differently than we do or have different experiences than us. When we have been traumatized so much that our voices shake or disappear and our minds literally check out on us when we try to speak up for our own needs or when we are called out. When male and white supremacy have dictated through violence, threat, guilt, shame, money and security how we manage our daily lives and how our pain and struggle benefit the systems that oppress those who are not white and/or cisgender male. When we have been conditioned through entertainment to question and laugh at those who do not meet the mold of those who support social norms of whiteness and male supremacy. When we lose our sense of who we are. It is important that we step outside of our own experience and remember that racism is a form of systemic trauma. Our own trauma can be used to inform our understanding of the multi-generational effects of the trauma of oppression on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
Understanding our own privilege, especially if we are not white cisgender men with a median income or higher can be difficult. Conversations around privilege for most white people can be downright uncomfortable, triggering even to those of us who have had ongoing trauma that included shaming, gaslighting, guilt-trips, or violence or have lived in deep poverty. But we can’t heal ourselves or our communities if we don’t do the work and walk through the triggers to see them from a position of clarity and a new perspective.
Shortly after ending an emotionally abusive relationship that took place less than a year after ending up on disability, I got serious about going back to school and rebuilding myself. One of my classes was Race, Ethnicity, and Inequality, and it was taught by an instructor that triggered me in many ways. I had to fight for this instructor to allow my learning-disability accommodations and endured a semester of him taking every opportunity in class to shut me down when I tried to speak up. Having been less than a year out of an emotionally abusive relationship and two years leaving a job that triggered my symptoms of C-PTSD to the point of disability, my ability to speak up had been severely compromised. The amount of violence, fear, and shame in my childhood from authority figures and peers and the amount of micromanagement and gaslighting from my previous supervisor made it very difficult for me to think clearly in certain situations where I was challenged while having to stand up for my own needs. This instructor triggered all of this in me, and it took over a year for me to move beyond the triggers and begin to sort out my own implicit bias and assumptions in that situation. I felt victimized, and rightly so around the issues of accommodations. But my trauma-response kept me from seeing where I had to work to understand the validity of the points the instructor was trying to make.
That class was a turning point for my personal recovery. Between having to stand up for my needs for the classroom accommodations that I needed and being shut down while I was trying to explore my own marginalization of being queer and having disabilities and how they relate to intersectionality and race issues in the US, I found new courage. I ended up filing a grievance against that professor to bring his behavior to the awareness of the school, and hopefully, to him. Within a year, I joined the board of my community radio station and faced other situations that helped me continue to learn to speak up and speak out for my own needs and the needs of others while balancing the needs of the larger group. But I still had a lot of work to do to better understand my own implicit bias and whiteness.
During this time, I had a chance to do a privilege walk in another class, and while these can be problematic in other ways, I did learn that privilege and marginalization can be measured in degrees and where I am located on this scale, and this led me to the understanding that my experience can inform my understanding of the marginalizing experiences of people who do not have the choice to hide or walk away from their identity and who have fewer opportunities available to them based on the assumptions that society makes about, and oppressions society forces upon them. That year, I came out as Non-Binary, which gave me even more opportunities to exercise my ability to speak up for my needs, and to begin to teach others about diversity. And to get in touch again with a combination of daily microaggressions and dig deeper into my own internalized privilege.
During this time, I have had many discussions around privilege, race, gender, sexuality, disability, poverty, and victimization. Many of these were extremely awkward because of my trauma history… I was still missing cues and connections about key dynamics such as emotional labor and differences in language usage and not being defensive. Growing up as I did, there were many social skills I did not learn, and this made many of these experiences painful and isolating. I also had a fair amount of privileged thinking and assumptions instilled in me that I have had to unravel (and still am). One of the key lessons for me was to learn the difference between being triggered and being defensive. Sometimes these occur together. To this day, I still struggle to find the right words for my questions, and sometimes this leads to my saying something that was inadvertently offensive. I have learned to save those questions for doing my own work in reading and attending discussion groups through organizations like SURJ. Understanding these things on an intellectual level is one thing… applying it to daily life requires a fair amount of mindfulness, self-reflection, and facing the parts of me that I don’t want to see. The parts of me that judge. The parts of me that assume. The ways in which I impose myself. The barrage of questions and lack of clarity that I unleash on others while trying to sort this stuff out. The swallowed tears and the righteous indignation that come up when I think about how many ways life has been unfair to me. These are all things that I have had to face (and still do) in order to grow. The lessons range from the “oh, that’s what _______ looks like” to the “OMFG, I can’t believe I said that” variety. I have days where I am humbled by new lessons even as I master others. And I’m grateful for this. But it has taken a lot of work to get here, and I will need to work even harder to gain a richer understanding of how the dynamics of marginalized and intersectional identities makes the experience of racism shows up for others and how I have contributed to this.
I share all of this to name and normalize the experience of humility when coming from a place of privilege. I also share this to remind ourselves (me too!) that we have a moral duty to do the work to heal our personal trauma and to heal the collective traumas of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homo- and trans- phobias, and the effects of political trauma on our personal and collective lives. I share this to offer an alternative perspective of our own personal victimization and to help us understand how we have perpetrated our own victimization on others. When it comes down to it, the bottom line is that it’s not all about us, and perpetuating the illusion that it is about us because of our own hurt feelings is a huge part of the problem.
The other huge part of the problem is understanding that if we are white, we have been socialized to be racist. We may have no ill will toward BIPOC or intention of being racist, but it is a part of us. We have to learn to recognize the behaviors and statements that perpetuate racism in ourselves and not take it personally when we are called out for these. We have to recognize that colorblindness is a form of racism. We have to recognize that good intentions do not equal good character. Good character is when we take the lessons and commit to understanding our behavior and doing better.
Our personal trauma is NOT an excuse to remain defensive and fragile. It IS a source of empathy, compassion, and strength from which we can draw to understand each other. Keep asking questions… keep digging for answers from reputable sources. Read. Have deep and awkward conversations (don’t forget to ask for consent and respect boundaries in this). Keep reading. Take classes. Join groups in places where these conversations can be held. Respect the emotional labor it takes for marginalized identities to educate people about their experience. Do this and replace fragility and ignorance with humility, deference, integrity, and grace.