General CBF

The Trauma of Racism

By LeDayne Polaski 

“Racial reconciliation is not the right term for America . . . We’ve never been ‘conciled,’. . . The right term is racial redemption.”– Harry Riggs

Racial Reconciliation. Surely almost everyone longs for it. Many have worked for it, some tirelessly and at great sacrifice. Why does it so often elude us? Why are our efforts so often fruitless and frustrating?

I believe it is because we are trapped in a system of unresolved trauma.

As a person passionate about the possibilities of peacemaking, I have been studying trauma and its ongoing impact for years, convinced that most of the personal and communal conflicts we experience stem from experiences of trauma that are unacknowledged and unaddressed.

The impact of trauma has received sustained scholarly and pastoral attention that reveals that unresolved trauma leads to an endless cycle of violence –  of acting in against ourselves and/or acting out against each other. [i] Practitioners often portray this as a figure eight – with people and societies moving ceaselessly through cycles of harm.

Our national history is replete with racialized trauma we’ve experienced and inflicted individually and collectively. Our corporate trauma is rarely even acknowledged, much less addressed in meaningful ways; so it is not surprising that we can see so clearly the ways we ceaselessly move through cycles of harm.

But there are ways out.

The deep study of trauma – and the practices of real-world peacemaking that inform it —  reveal specific, concrete, effective ways of moving beyond trauma – ways that have been  researched and lived out in the lives of people and societies. They begin with creating safety and support and then move to a phase of acknowledgement which includes mourning, grieving, naming and confronting fears, accepting loss, memorializing, reflecting on root causes, and acknowledging others’ stories. Only after the active work of acknowledgement does it become possible to begin the long process of reconnection.[ii]

I would suggest that the vast majority of the work toward healing racism in this country has not taken seriously enough the early tasks of simply saying clearly what has happened and is happening.

As I have become more interested in trauma, I have also become more interested in resilience – in recognizing it as a trait possessed by every person and every society, in identifying it and helping people see it in themselves, and in strengthening it in myself and others. Resilience is key to being able to not merely endure trauma, but to let it change us in positive ways. I no longer offer anti-racism training without also offering experiences of recognizing and strengthening our personal and corporate resilience.

I believe with every fiber of my being that the Gospel is good news. There is good news even today in this most fraught time in our national story: If we are being called out, we are also being called in.

In Dallas, at CBF’s General Assembly, we’ll examine the impact of trauma during the workshop entitiled “The Trauma of Racism: Breaking Cycles of Violence and Building Resilience.” We will also explore the path to breaking free from the resulting cycles of harm and some ways to strengthen our collective resilience and use that strength to surface and address our shared trauma.

The late Maya Angelou reminds us: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

  • Hear more from LeDayne Polaski, Executive Director of Bautistas por La Paz as she facilitates her workshop, “The Trauma of Racism: Breaking Cycles of Violence and Building Resilience” on Friday, June 15th at 1:30 PM in Dallas at CBF’s General Assembly.

[i] There are many sources for this research – I rely primarily on Eastern Mennonite University’s Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) training.

[ii] Breaking Cycles of Violence and Building Resilience from Eastern Mennonite University’s STAR program. This piece is based on a model developed by Olga Botcharova.

One thought on “The Trauma of Racism

  1. Thank you for sharing this article on historical trauma! I have been working diligently since 1992 to bring increased awareness of the impact of trauma to the Body of Christ. I believe that God loves people and wants to heal us from the wounds of trauma so that we can be a safe healing place and a representation of Christ’s love for the world. With the information from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study we are more able to share the impact in a research-based manner. I have even developed a Christian-integrated recovery model and published a book and workbook to help people begin their journey in recovery. Keep up the good fight for healing from trauma!

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