I think we need to have a real talk about trauma. Until very recently, I didn’t get it. Maybe you don’t, either.
Tuesday morning, I watched TV news personality Gayle King courageously and vulnerably express her dismay as a colleague reported the story of a white woman calling 911 and falsely accusing a black man of threatening her while he videoed the incident. In truth, he had politely asked her to leash her dog. A Tale of Two Coopers, it’s been called.
“As the daughter of a black man and the mother of a black man, this is really too much for me today,” said King.
This story followed the news of a black man in Minneapolis dying from police violence—George Floyd. Both happened just days after the story of another black man, Ahmaud Arbery, being murdered by white men in Georgia, his murder almost overlooked and justified by a corrupt justice system.
Ms. King put her feelings in context: “I’m still so upset by that last story where the man is handcuffed underneath a car, where people are pleading … and we’re watching a man die. We go from that story now to this story where she falsely accuses a black man. I don’t even know what to do or how to handle this at this particular time.”
Thank you, Ms. King. Thank you.
I have been following you closely for years. I am consistently struck by your objectivity and your humanity even in the hardest of times, like Tuesday. That day, I felt your fatigue and your grief.
I also realized I have a lot to work to do when it comes to partnering with people when trauma is part of the story.
As a white man growing up in the aftermath of the Viet Nam war, I am learning that “trauma” isn’t just what happens to soldiers. It is happening all around me, whether or not I feel it myself.
I watched these stories with disgust and anger at the people and the system that led to the incidents. I’m also able to detach from them, personally. I don’t have to worry about my sons, my father or my brother being targeted, falsely accused or murdered because of the color of their skin. Worrying about the real possibility that own family could be murdered is almost incomprehensible to me.
I avoid trauma by hiding behind the shield of my whiteness, comforted with the knowledge that MY people are safe. As horrible as these events are, I do not have to feel the trauma, the grief or the loss that African Americans feel because of the aggregated effect of hundreds and thousands of men and women murdered for the color of their skin, just like Ahmaud and George.
More, I don’t have to wrap my head around the fact that these acts have been taking place for the past 500 years in this country.
It is beyond my imagination how Gayle King or any African American can hold hope, optimism and love in these times given the compounded injustices of the past or present.
If I am brave enough to listen, there is trauma all around me to learn from: I hear my adult children talk about experiencing trauma through repeated acts of aggression, intimidation and hate by students at school or with peers in social situations. I feel it in the voices of co-workers who refer to the trauma they felt while when they were minimized and repeatedly taken advantage of at work. I see it in friends and colleagues who left the U.S. to live in safer societies where their black or brown husbands are less likely to be killed by the police.
My self-protection strategy has been protecting me from feeling trauma, mine or someone else’s—and also shielding me from full partnership. I can’t fix or heal their trauma any more than I can assuage my own rage and deep sadness I feel about the murders of black lives due to systemic and structural racism.
Instead, I can learn to begin to see the trauma of those around me. It’s is a small step towards empathy and true partnership.