Observe or Deny

Examples Of Cultural Level Historical Trauma

When lumping entire groups of people into large groups, there will ALWAYS be exceptions, and those exceptions will ALWAYS be magnified, and pressed into service as refutations of the theory at hand, whatever that theory may be. So let me say this: I will concede the truth of these observations do not extend to every single person who is a part of the groups I’m using as examples below. However, the majority of people living within similar cultural norms express them in similar ways. AND, just as there will be splashes of water that fall outside the usual flow of a river, there will be outliers- by definition. So there will be outliers and exceptions to these observations. But just as some splashes of water do not negate the existence of a river, these outliers do not negate the general arc of the cultural norms and the general dynamics I am describing.

Consider the struggles of Native Americans and African Americans in this country. One clear connection between the two groups is this: widespread and generational trauma has happened on a huge scale. Genocide and being enslaved will obviously reverberate for generations to come.

These histories don’t magically stop being relevant to a 20 year old Native American struggling to find her place today.  That 20 year old had a great grandfather who was shot in the head as a young man because of his culture, a great grandmother raped and beaten before marrying, they had kids, those children were forcibly removed from their already traumatized parents, sent off to boarding school not allowed to speak their native tongues. They in turn raised kids who were subject to open discrimination and victim blamed by a culture that openly looked down on them, they could not get good jobs. Those parents raised this 20 year old.  Her tale is similar to those of the entire culture of Navajos in their area.

You tell me how that 20 year old is going to have the same kind of psychology as a 20 year old who is a legacy accepted kid at Brown, whose great-grandfather was, yes discriminated against as an Irish immigrant, but instead of being shot at, was able to get work. His daughter and her husband were not forcibly removed from their families, instead, they were able to own and grow a small business, although yes, grandfather was affected by experiences in WWII.  His son got into Brown rather than being openly discriminated against, and now works as a comptroller for some business.  Now the kid decides to go to Brown after considering a couple of other schools.  In all seriousness, are these 20 year olds going to have the same expectations, the same understandings of the American dream?

Now let’s take another 20 year old.  Her great grandfather was black in 1917, enough said, I think. (All African Americans living today all had relatives who were alive in the context of 1917 and most likely had similar experiences). He had kids, one of whom was shot in WWII and openly discriminated against after coming home. (again, the open discrimination is a true fact for the grandparents of almost all African Americans living today). That’s her grandfather. He had to piece together low wage jobs to feed his family.  He beat his wife in front of the kids sometimes. Her dad (who witnessed the domestic violence) was also openly discriminated against as a young man and had a lot of anger towards everyone.  He has a criminal record for assaulting his ex wife (the mother of the 20 year old) and isn’t around much. The 20 year old’s mom worked full time when she was young. They were still poor. Are the mindsets and assumptions of this 20 year old going to be the same as young adult whose cultural legacies did not involve as much hardship from poverty (caused by discrimination) and trauma?

For people who allow themselves to see this painful pattern, connecting the dots back to trauma as one* of the causal factors for the current difficulties both groups still struggle with is a no brainer. We can see the toll past trauma directed toward the whole group still remains relevant to individuals in the group decades later.

I want to revisit the wording used in the sentence above. “Allowing ourselves to see these dynamics” was chosen for a couple of reasons. It is very painful to clearly observe the effects of trauma. And without prompting and/or education, allowing ourselves to see patterns that are painful may not happen.  We may be unaware of the patterns. But once pointed out, allowing ourselves to face painful matters is not easy. Again an entire cluster of symptoms of avoidance are part of a PTSD diagnosis. Our brethren who insist there is no racism, there is no sexism and even if there is, “it’s not a big deal” are caught in the grips of playing the parts of deniers of reality. Clinical levels of denial can and do happen in PTSD. 

Polarizing Viewpoints

Social scientists and many many laypeople struggle to comprehend how others cannot see what is so clear to us. How is it that facts are refuted and trivialized as “ideology” or “someone’s agenda”?

It may be useful to view the polarizing differences in our senses of reality as -in part- due to trauma based responses.

In topics that touch on perceived power and control of one group vis a vis another, consider how cultural level TBRs could be triggered at a group level by those who feel their power is threatened.  Topics such as racism, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia, ageism, reproductive rights, religious freedom, and freedom from religious oppression, etc are ALL closely related to power and control.

Power and control are central to our cultural assumptions of what is important and senses of safety.

(Having) Power and control are recognized at some level by all of us personally -at psychological levels- as ways to ensure our safety, as ways to ensure our survival and possibly a good standard of living.

(Having) Power and control are also highly valued culturally.  We think it’s good culturally to have power and control.  So this idea is reinforced by many of our foundational cultural assumptions.

Unless we are completely ignorant, we are aware that there are people given more power and control by virtue of them simply belonging to certain groups.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize (for one small example) that 45 out of 45 US presidents have been male, and that all but one of those have been caucasian.  It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to note that 95% of CEOs in the US are male.  But yet somehow some would argue that those things don’t matter, that they are in the past and actually it’s males who are oppressed in many ways because some men get screwed over in child custody cases (attempts to divert attention away from certain salient facts to other less central facts -to the overall argument- is called a straw man argument, boys and girls).

To be clear, some men do get screwed over in child custody cases.  I’ll get right on that once we get rid of the more important patriarchal dynamics that have left us with 5% of CEOs being women and 100% male presidents, women being paid less for the same work, the ridiculous reliance of military methods to achieve social peace, and, oh and the rate of assault in general.  Because believe it or not, addressing those things first WILL most likely solve your bad experiences of being treated differently in child custody cases.  But the reverse is not true.  Addressing your stuff first will not ever rid us of these other issues. Never.

So unless you are completely ignorant, it is also easy to see that when people bring up topics about continued inequities in power due to sexism or racism, some people will become quite vocal that it’s not that big of a deal, and will try to silence folks trying to come to grips with the problems.  It’s funny how usually it’s those are the ones who already have the power. But when we bring up -that- issue, people become even more entrenched and truly cannot see how they are protecting their own interests.  It’s amazing, really.

We are all complicit in this, our cultural immersion in these dynamics makes it difficult to see them clearly.  If all our arguments were somehow related to something less threatening to us, say pink daisies, it might be easier to see.  Let’s try it.

So imagine we are studying a rather large group of people who live together.  About half the people were given cards at birth that say “Congratulations! You are a Pink Daisy.”  Half the people are given cards that say “Congratulations! You are a Yellow Daisy.”   These people all live together.  100% of their Presidents have had Pink Daisy cards.  95% of their CEOs are Pink Daisies. People who have Pink Daisy cards get paid more for doing the same work. Now imagine you are one of the people who were given a Yellow Daisy card.  Just imagine it for a minute.  Seriously.  Imagine growing up with a Yellow Daisy card and watching as people with Pink Daisy cards get chosen for leadership roles over you, they get more attention in classrooms, they are praised more often than you for their efforts and achievements. (all true social facts by the way).  How do you like this arrangement? The people who were given the Yellow Daisy card often bring up that they do not like the arrangement of Pink Daisies getting an unfair amount of leadership roles, and more money for doing the same work, but they often aren’t listened to by people with Pink Daisy cards.  Based on these two facts alone (and there are dozens even hundreds more experiences of inequity) do you think Yellow Daisies are going to have much confidence in general?   Easier to see the issue, yes?

These are facts, not an ideological statement.

Let’s back up a bit.  Same someone is concerned about how they don’t get along with people.  They come into counseling with very little understanding of why this might be happening, only that it is a problem that other people are jerks and they keep getting into trouble.  It can take months for a person to finally understand that their history of being beaten by their relative as a small child is really connected to how difficult it is for them to relate respectfully, much less trust others.  And the bad news is that even fully realizing this understanding will NOT necessarily free the person from autonomous responses that happen when a situation (that to others is a only a small part of an overall safe interaction) triggers a fight or flight response.

This same person may then take many more months to really believe that he really does not need 11 outside cameras around his home in order to be safe.

Clearly some of the major discrepancies in reality do reach clinical levels of denial.

And yes, a few are probably cynically profiting from those differences. Gun manufacturers seem to have perfected the art of energizing normal citizens into gun nuts who simply refuse to see how more deadly weapons being in the environment correlate strongly with more violence (which is a social fact, not ideology). But those who sincerely agree with extreme interpretations of the 2nd Amendment may be responding only to their very real sense (of fear) about the world being a dangerous place. Those who deny climate change may be doing so to avoid the (overwhelmingly painful and horrifying) alternative that the earth really may be in peril, and that they are contributing to it. None of us want to admit that we personally continue to pollute the environment, but we all do.

*I in no way wish to diminish the impact that current institutionalized and individual acts of injustices play in the struggles for equal opportunity for these groups. These factors are real, serious, and complex. I am only attempting to highlight the often overlooked toll that past group level trauma still currently has on a group level for members of the group.