Monday, August 31, 2015

Trauma and Dehumanization

Many people find it hard to accept the claim that African Americans are routinely dehumanized in the United States. Say dehumanization, and I suppose people are thinking slavery and Nazis. What I've continually tried to get at is something more subtle: that dehumanization is embedded in the banality of life. It’s difficult for people to grapple with how ordinary it is. Here’s one little example that I don’t think I’ve shared before. The littleness and ordinariness of it is precisely the point. 

When Alicia and I were living in Ohio we worked at an agency that provided a variety of services for at-risk children. I was at an agency training one day, surrounded by social workers, houseparents, and other professionals. The topic was trauma. Like many agencies, we wanted to get on the “trauma-informed care” bandwagon. I think trauma-informed care is wonderful and vital, but it does not come easily or cheaply to many organizational cultures that are wedded to much more punitive approaches. 

Jamylah Bolden, 9 years old. Killed by a stray bullet in Ferguson on August 18.
On this particular day we broke up into small groups to talk about trauma. There had recently been a school shooting in a suburb of Cleveland, so our group discussed that.  After the shooting a variety of support services were quickly made available for the students, including grief counselors. This was, of course, as it should be. I made the point that many poor children of color are exposed to high levels of trauma, including gun violence, but seem less likely to receive similar support services. One of the women in my group picked up on my comment and with a friendly nod tried to agree with me: “Yeah,” she said, “They’re used to it.” 

I wish I could remember precisely her ensuing sentences. You decide whether you trust me to report her words faithfully. She thought it was entirely appropriate that extra resources would descend on the suburban school but not the city block. What she meant, in effect, is that trauma is literally more traumatic for middle class White children. That, somehow, poor Black children became accustomed to trauma so they could deal with it better. C'mon, haven't you heard? Black kids are tough! 

That, my friends, is dehumanization. 

Ferguson residents march for Jamylah.
Her words are a symptom of a society in which the trauma of poor children, and most especially poor Black and Native children, is routinized. Trauma among White children that calls forth a crisis-level response is perceived as a baseline among poor children of color. Sure, no one's happy about it, but what are you going to do? It's an intractable problem right?

Now, I could have interrogated this woman, showed her the plain meaning of her own words, and I believe she would have been horrified. She would not consciously accept the views I am ascribing to her. And that, too, is precisely the point. We’re not talking about people in smoke-filled rooms scheming about how to make life difficult for people of color. We’re talking about our implicit assumptions in a society that deliberately built racial inequality (and thus trauma) into the contours of everyday life. It is literally true that some of us suffer in environments of trauma so that others of us can live in peace. When we naturalize that arrangement instead of seeing it as the contingent social creation that it is, we are left with no option but dehumanization. 

When there was a shooting on our block earlier this year, the fear in the kids' eyes was real. They were not used to it. Growing up in the city, being Black, did not lessen their need to run to their parents to be told everything was going to be ok. They were not prepared for it; they were not tough. They were little kids who should not have had to experience that trauma. It makes me angry.

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