Trigger warnings: racism, colonization, white supremacy, murder, enslavement, violence
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intergenerational trauma. The way our experiences affect our interpersonal functioning, our physical, mental, emotional well-being. The way this happens among groups of people – families, those with shared identities, and generational cohorts. And the way the charge of unresolved trauma leaves an adaptive blueprint that then gets passed down.
This charge lives in the body – ready to protect us even if the reactions may not seem to fit or apply to the current context.
It may seem completely wild, but sometimes we are literally carrying our ancestors unresolved traumas.
Unresolved trauma of losing one’s entire community and land due to massacre and colonization.
The unresolved trauma of being taken from one’s homeland, transported across the Atlantic Ocean and enslaved so that some White men can succeed at capitalism.
And what about the little White children witnessing their parents and community murder Black and Brown people in the name of White supremacy?
We know that it is traumatic for children to witness violence. We know that this leaves a mark on their intra- and interpersonal functioning. And we know that the body is online for all of this. That is also unresolved trauma that is then passed down.
So here we are with a legacy of unresolved trauma. Literally erupting. And it’s erupting because we haven’t actually ended or resolved these traumas. The trauma lives on.
Dealing with the Intergenerational Trauma
Our work then, to facilitate healing and to move forward, is to find a way to put the past in the past. Not in a way that is dismissive – that furthers the harm already caused. To actually diffuse the charge carried forward, we must take a more integrative approach.
As an individual therapist, when intergenerational trauma shows up in the room, we first try to name it. We tune in to register that the reaction one is having is not rooted wholly in the present. We work together to identify the ancestor and the context that is the birthplace of this primal reaction.
Gingerly, we get creative and experiential to cultivate a healing experience. We seek to re-contextualize that activation and foster a reparative experience. And we do this while honoring the reality of what actually happened.
In this space, there can be so much to process and create. Relief, grief, new layers of challenge to work with can emerge. It’s diligent work to disentangle ourselves from the adaptive strategies to the unresolved traumas carried by multiple generations.
Working through all of these layers allows space and agency for reclamation. Reclamation of oneself, one’s life, one’s orientation to one’s family, one’s orientation to one’s culture.
That’s what happens on an individual level. So what about on a societal level?
It’s not so different.
Carving a Pathway to a New Culture
First, we need to be willing to see the history of what actually happened. Not the biased, defensive, edited history that we were given. The real, nasty history.
We need to realize that many of our reactions are rooted in intergenerational trauma carried into the present. Especially right now as we are bluntly faced with the racial trauma we have neglected to witness, let alone respond to appropriately. It’s time to see how our avoidance and discomfort is rooted in white supremacy. To sidestep this work is to carry this trauma forward.
For what I am about to say, you should know that I am half White and half Mexican American; in other words, 100% Chicana. I am still learning and growing in Antiracist work. I commit to failing forward.
To White people, give the avoidance, denial, gaslighting, defensiveness and violence back to your ancestors. See where your reactions are actually stemming from. Start to slow down and put this charge back where it belongs.
To Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, I am sad and angry to say that the trauma is not over yet. I will make no illusions about that. We are still coping. We are still fighting for accountability and resolution. Not all spaces are safe yet. So what I want most for you right now (alongside REAL change) is to find even the smallest moments of safety to rest, grieve, and reclaim the love you and your people SO deserved then and deserve now.
When we can put these reactions back into the context they originated in, we gain space to create a new culture. One that includes basic dignity, respect and value for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. One that seeks to end and repair harm done to BIPOC.
Change Begins Now
In closing, I leave you with a quote from Gloria Anzaldúa from her book, Borderlands/La Frontera: A New Mestiza, that inspired this post:
“I feel perfectly free to rebel and to rail against my culture…I will not glorify those aspects of my culture which have injured me and which have injured me in the name of protecting me.
“So don’t give me your tenets and your laws. Don’t give me your lukewarm gods. What I want is an accounting with all three cultures – white, Mexican, [Indigenous]. I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of my entrails. And if going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture – una cultura mestiza – with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar in my own feminist architecture.” – Gloria Anzaldúa
Gloria Anzaldúa was not the first to speak of this idea. However, if she, a Queer Chicana Feminist, writing this in the 1980s can have the courage to look squarely at her Chicana experience and be discerning about the ways her own culture creates injury, so can we. If she can commit to defining a new culture that integrates heritage with social justice and inclusion, then so can we. If she could do this within the atmosphere of a culture that has been marginalized, then seriously, we can redefine what it means to have White skin. This is what it looks like to be real about and work on intergenerational trauma. Let’s get to work.