A dear colleague of color recently reposted an article about racism on her Facebook feed that got a lot of buzz. Written by a person of color, the gist of the article was this: people of color aren’t responsible for fixing racism or educating White people – it’s White people’s responsibility to educate themselves and fix the problem they created, without further burdening people of color.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment, but this time I paused before adding my “amen!” to the comments. As a 30-year veteran of the “diversity” field, I completely understand and agree with this point of view. And as a new practitioner of trauma-informed resilience and stress management, I saw something missing.
Even compared to other mammals, humans are a highly social species. As such, some of the most severe traumas we suffer are relational. Environmental disasters, famine, disease – and quarantine related to disease – wreak havoc on our nervous systems. In fact, epigenetics is revealing how even our great-grandparents’ experiences encode themselves in our DNA to help us survive similar tragedies. However, the people I coach and work with around chronic stress aren’t dealing with PTSD from a tsunami or chronic anxiety from a serious food shortage. Besides the uncertainty and scarcity triggered by COVID-19, they’re mostly dealing with harm inflicted by other humans. The ten ACEs criteria, which have proven over decades to reliably predict chronic disease, addiction, mental illness and other life struggles, are all about harm and neglect individuals experienced as children at the hands of their caregivers.
I myself have an ACEs score of 3 (which is high) as well as complex PTSD and developmental trauma due not only to deficits in my family of origin, but mistreatment by other humans as an adult. One thing I’ve learned in my decades-long quest to heal and grow is that there’s only so much healing one can do in isolation. I can journal, meditate, envision my future, set boundaries with toxic people, see a therapist, roleplay crucial conversations and discharge trauma and chronic anxiety from my nervous system with body-based techniques like EMDR, EFT or The Resilience Toolkit. But it’s not until I’m in relationship with another human (even virtually) that I know whether any of that stuff worked. It’s not until I find myself in a triggering situation that I can practice new skills. It’s not until I’ve logged enough positive experiences that my non-cranial nervous system can start to relax, trust and be open again.
I believe it’s the same for racism and bigotry. Both are collective, relational traumas that can only be healed in relationship. While it’s absolutely fair and just that White people shoulder the burden of educating ourselves and fixing this problem we created, the fact is that we can’t do it alone. We can journal, meditate, attend seminars, watch films, roleplay crucial conversations and build our emotional resilience all on our own. But it’s not until we’re interacting with a person of color, or faced with a decision that will impact hundreds in our organization, that we get to apply new skills and test our growth. And as with any learning process, we will make mistakes. A learning culture is a culture that is tolerant of mistakes – one that effectively discerns between dealbreaking errors, and errors that are cringeworthy but teachable moments.
I fear that the imperative to avoid lawsuits and create a reputation as being inclusive and “good” has put a chilling effect on too many workplaces and relationships. That’s not to say that leaders should ignore the law or individuals should tolerate outrageously mean behavior, it’s to say that we often overreact to mistakes out of fear. We leave ourselves and others too little leeway to be ignorant, awkward or misguided. We too often focus on avoiding offense instead of ending oppression; the former is a hopelessly neverending goal, while the latter is difficult but doable.
I agree with the article’s author. It’s not fair. People of color shouldn’t have to educate White people or help fix racism. But until more White people develop the awareness, skills and resilience to avoid bigoted behaviors, repair relational ruptures, make more equitable decisions and tolerate racial discomfort, we need feedback from people of color to course correct. Hopefully as more of us learn and trust is rebuilt, we will eventually be able to take full responsibility for paying a debt that we alone incurred.