Julia Vaughan Smith

Trauma from Racist Perpetration

Racial perpetration leaves the same trauma response as other forms of trauma and is as easily triggered, especially as there is racism embedded in our societies. I am noticing many more people are talking about racial trauma, and that it is coming into a wider collective awareness outside those communities for whom it is a common experience.  Deliberate exclusion of any ‘group’ is perpetration and can feel life threatening especially for a child who may be bewildered about what is happening. TV images of perpetration and exclusion reinforce these personal experiences. Those affected have of course known and lived this.  It’s the rest of us who may not have looked closely enough or listened well enough.

It reminds me a bit of when sexual abuse of children first came into the collective consciousness as being damaging; the children affected had always known and suffered the damage of course but this wasn’t recognised. Those understanding the impact for the first time were shocked and perhaps felt guilty for going along with the societal blindness.  Sexual abuse sufferers were also afraid to speak out because of this denial held in society and its institutions, so they remained silent.  The same can be true for those affected by racial perpetration, they have kept silent in wider forums; how could they trust how it would be received?

The difference between sexual abuse and racial abuse is that with the former, while listening to personal stories I could often differentiate myself from the perpetrator, who was often male. We should remember though, that mothers and other women do sexually abuse children. With racial abuse, listening to the suffering in those that carry that trauma,  I am more like the perpetrators, being a white woman, and indeed carry a societally complicit responsibility regarding the perpetration.

As coaches we need to be able to hear clearly what is being said to us. We need to be able to make it a safe environment and to be open to all that may need to be shared by the client. This requires us to be aware of our own blindness, denial or discomfort and not to project them onto the client, whatever biography they share..

Thomas Huebl (https://thomashuebl.com) talks of three levels of trauma:

  • Our personal experience, early life, dysfunctional attachment, adverse childhood conditions, racial abuse
  • That which is passed on from our ancestors; that is, transgenerational
  • Collective or systemic trauma, that which is held in society as a result of perpetration on others for example, through war, genocide, slavery, and colonialism.

The recognition of transgenerational trauma means that we understand that ‘it didn’t start with us’ other than in very exceptional circumstances. Our grandparents’ trauma, and external conditions, affected how they parented our parents, and they in turn carried their trauma in their parenting of us. This trauma will have resulted from the wide range of possible causal factors, including, racial abuse.  These causal factors include how our parents, or those parenting us, relate to us, from conception onwards, within the external conditions they are experiencing. The child might take in aspects of hypervigilance and survival responses they experience in their parents.

There is some emerging epigenetic evidence in mice about how the DNA is changed by the trauma response in one generation.  If the trauma response is somehow encoded into the DNA, as is being suggested but as yet unproven, then we inherit that.  The genetic coding sets up a sensitivity to environmental conditions. If the conditions we experience replicate that, the trauma response will activate. The implication is that some have already been ‘primed’ to be sensitised to their environment.  This is still ours to do the work on, to understand our trauma response and that while it is linked directly to our own experience, it is also linked to one or both of our parents.

Collective Trauma is a relatively recent concept. We live in a traumatising and traumatised society.  That is, that society holds the perpetrations, the fragmentation of trauma, and the survival defences against the trauma parts embedded within societal ‘norms’ and institutions. We take these in as part of our societal conditioning and exposure. We are all affected by these dynamics. Racism including anti-semitism is part of this collective trauma and affects all of us in different ways, depending on which race we are; for example,  do we know these perpetrations directly or are we carrying denial, illusion and avoidance, or are we numb or frozen to it as part of our traumatised response?  How are our institutions complicit in this collective traumatisation? How are we?

Those who perpetrate on others also stimulate the trauma response within themselves. They too become more split, cut off, frozen, numb and utilise a range of survival strategies, the strongest of which are denial and justification, together with the perpetrator:victim dynamics. These are held in society structures and attitudes. There was a personal account on Twitter yesterday, by a barrister, who was repeatedly challenged by the court officials as she made her way to the court room she was to be in. She was talked to as if she was the defendant, the cleaner, and a relative of a defendant but all seemed to be blind to the fact she was a barrister because of her skin colour. This I am sure, is repeated in all kinds of settings, every day.

The thinking is that doing our own work is an essential part of contributing to the healing of collective trauma. This means owning our own perpetration on others, taking responsibility for our part in the continuing collective trauma, or trauma within individuals.  We are then more open to the reality of the world and the shared/unshared experience.  A good reflective question to ask ourselves is “in what ways am I part of this?” in relation to specific events.  We need to sit with the question and allow things to emerge, and meet them without self-attack, but to face up to our truth.

Perhaps the best way to deal with all this is as a person, not just as a coach. To be a more effective coach we need to invest in our own inner development, alongside any other education and training. If we do our own work we are more aware of our contribution to the continuation to collective or systemic trauma.

As coaches, we can be aware of this whole field of racial trauma in our work and continue to expand our awareness, through our education, reading and listening.  We need to be mindful of parts of us that are numb or frozen to particular issues, or are in denial or become dissociated should an issue arise.


Jules Vaughan Smith