My therapist recently explained to me the concept of “trauma response.” Most of my life I’ve considered trauma to only describe experiences that are indisputably devastating: war, death, chronic illness. To me, anything less was not really trauma and lessened the weight of “real” trauma. I feel many people have this view, and it does more harm than good. Qualifying trauma does nothing more than erase some to elevate others. Are some incidents more traumatizing than others? Absolutely. But does this mean that those who have not been to war or touched by death are unable to know what trauma is or how it feels?
My therapist summed it up like this: Trauma is the response to learning something you thought was true does not match reality. This definition suddenly gave me words to understand different moments in my life in which reality broke away from perception. I was at once able to identify all kinds of trauma: relational, familial, personal, spiritual, and most prominently, racial.
I’ve always struggled with the idea of racial trauma — not that it exists, but that it can and has happened to me. Especially in today’s climate, I’m not sure what counts as trauma, or if my trauma is worth talking about. Though I have moments which I can point to that felt traumatic, I do not know if they belong. A quick look at the news shows us that black men are in danger of racial trauma that is also physical: hate-fueled beatings and shootings at the hands of law enforcement, at the hands of one another — and that falls in line with “real” trauma. While black women experience violence too, I would wager that much of our racial trauma is psychological, and thus less definable.
I think now of “microaggressions,” the little everyday instances that include the wider makeup of our society. In essence, someone says or does something that stops me in my tracks for just a moment. Maybe it doesn’t ruin my day entirely, or maybe it does. Either way, it always stops me short, reminds me that I am “other” and pushes that reality onto my world so that I never, ever forget it. The Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen captures such a moment in his poem, “Incident,” and his words have stayed with me over the years. Such moments are like water crashing against rock — slowly but surely wearing me down until years have passed and I have changed shape completely, almost unrecognizable to myself and my old reality.
I cannot speak for all black women, but I can speak as a black woman. I’m sure my experiences are not unique to me, and that others will read this and recall moments when they felt the same, perhaps when they were treated the same way.
For me, racial trauma looks like complete strangers touching and pulling my hair — at school, at the store, on the street — because they couldn’t believe a black girl’s real hair could be so long. It looks like disappointment from nonblack friends when I decided to cut my hair, remove the relaxer, and wear it natural. “Why would you do that to yourself? It was so pretty before,” they’d say.
It looks like being asked why I “sound white;” like being accused of wishing to be white because of the things I enjoy (The Beatles, Harry Potter, the beach — yes, the beach).
It looks like being told to my face that black girls aren’t beautiful, aren’t desirable. It looks like, on the off chance someone does find us desirable, being fetishized — told we are exotic, chocolate, coffee without cream, the jungle in the fever.
It looks like fearing for my father, my uncles, my male cousins whenever they go out into the world, hoping they won’t be the next ones on the news. It looks like wondering what man will see me and love me and find me beautiful. It looks like worrying about my future children — my future son — because they will be brown and the world will be harder for them, more dangerous. My love will be a tightrope over the gaping maw of the world and the knowledge that there is only so much I can do to protect, to save, eats me alive until the fear of creating, of being a mother, becomes too great.
I am in the midst of my trauma response. I am seeking to learn how to reconcile the world I thought I lived in with the one that is real and wondering if reconciliation is even possible. My racial trauma is locked up deep inside of me, making appearances in how I see myself, how I love myself. It is a slow burn that can grow into a blazing fire or smolder into healing, and I am not sure which route it will ultimately take.