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Intergenerational Trauma and Racism: How We All Play a Role – and How to Be an Ally

Last Updated: February 2021

In honor of Black History Month, we are speaking about the prevalence of systemic racism and trauma in our society and how we can all do our part to be an ally to the BIPOC community.

Learn more from our conversation with Ayana Gilham, Director of In-Home Services at Embark at Atlanta North, and Co-Founder of Embark’s Diversity and Inclusion Yields Change (DIYC) Committee.

The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in the BIPOC Community

Intergenerational transmission trauma and allyship, police brutality and racism regarding Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are pressing topics across the United States today.

Many people are examining their roles (unintended or otherwise) in this national conversation, trying to piece together how to make sense of this challenging time and enable the next generation to do better than those previous.

These conversations started before Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and others, but they have now taken hold in a powerful way.

My name is Ayana Gilham and I am the Director of In-Home Services at Embark at Atlanta North. I understand first-hand how trauma from racism is passed down from one generation to the next. Not only do I research intergenerational transmission of trauma and how it manifests in our current generation, but I have experienced this transmission myself as a woman of color.

When people hear “trauma,” they assume physical or sexual abuse. A lot of people don’t think about the emotional, financial or psychological side. Excessive stress can be traumatic as well – it breaks you down. I can recall hours and hours of my childhood spent trying to help my mother alleviate stress by rubbing her back.

Today, my sister and I carry our stress in exactly the same place – it’s what’s known as a “physiological transmission” or epigenetic trauma. Today, I watch for the same patterns with my son. As parents, we have to be cognizant of what we project on our children.

Intergenerational trauma can also be transmitted through the projection of fear from generation to generation. For example, my grandfather had a brutal experience with the police, and because of this experience, he never trusted the police again. Therefore, his distrust and fear of the police were projected onto my father, who then projected such distrust and fear onto my brother. In the past, when I’ve asked my brother why he did not trust the police, he said he did not know, only that our father simply told him not to trust them.

Unfortunately, due to this transmission, my brother has lived in fear of the police since he was a teenager. And of course, this distrust and fear have been exacerbated by the nefarious police killings of black men.

This stress is having real effects on our mental health: anxiety, depression and substance use are on the rise. There is a correlation between substance abuse, use and trauma.

In the midst of searching to find something to help dissipate the pain, it feels good.

Whether your family is directly dealing with the intergenerational transmission of trauma, or you’re seeing its effects in your friends and loved ones, or even if your children have questions about current events…

Here are some of my top recommendations to start to grasp this complex and important issue:

1. Create a Safe Place for Conversations about Intergenerational Trauma and Racism

When it comes to creating a safe space to address and discuss intergenerational trauma and racism, I have a “recipe” for us all to use: 

Creating a safe space is an action, not a word. You need to start with curiosity, empathy, humility, transparency. You should also give a sprinkle or two, if not a whole pinch, of vulnerability. 

We want people to be open, so we have to be willing to be open as well.

The “roux” of this soup is patience and tolerance because sometimes it’s hard to sit across from someone whose views are different. You want them to hear you, you want them to understand, and on the opposite side, they want that, as well. But if we are both fighting to be heard and understood, who is doing the understanding?

So, when you sit down with family or friends to talk about these issues, or even if they come up spontaneously, remember my “Safe Space Soup” for creating moments that are supportive and understanding, even when topics get tough.

2. Establish Cultural Humility

After trying these, you may feel called out or criticized, and it’s important to approach this space with curiosity and humbleness, instead of defensiveness. I encourage people to learn and practice cultural humility: a lifelong process of self-critique and self-reflection whereby the individual not only learns about another’s culture, but one starts with an examination of her/his own beliefs and cultural identities (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998).

It’s also okay if these exercises feel uncomfortable: these are important feelings to spend time with and understand. Creating spaces where people feel comfortable to challenge and educate is important. I had to sit in and hold that space for a while to fully grasp the concept of the damage that I was doing, when, in reality, my intention was to say, “I see you all as the same, everyone is equal.” But it was more harmful than helpful.

However, if we had not had the conversation, I would’ve still been going along in my life saying, “I don’t see color.” And the issue would not have been addressed – because no one had challenged my perspective on it. For me, it is not enough being a woman of color, I have to do my own work, and learn about my own history as well.

This understanding leads to action. Start to ask yourself: How do you use your privilege to help others? These are some of the conversations we’re having with our clients. They’re angry, They’re upset, they want to do something.

Start by learning and seeking resources, like this excellent collection by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Listen to podcasts, read or watch videos. There are a plethora of resources available.

Then, start to add more. Can you make phone calls? Can you make posters? Can you write letters? Who can you talk to affect change?

3. Practice Active and Compassionate Listening

When our loved ones are hurting, we have a tendency to jump in with our own ideas of how to fix or help the situation. But we never ask them what it is that they need. We give them what we think they need.

Instead, when you see a family member or friend suffering, ask “What do you need from me? How can I help?” Let them know you’re available to talk, and moreover, listen. Listening drives the next important piece, which is huge when it comes to processing trauma: validation.

When we talk about validating, it’s not right for us to say, “That didn’t happen,” or “Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand that?’”

Remember: It’s their experience. When a family member or friend shares a painful situation with you, try replying with something simple, like, “It sounds as though you’re feeling [insert feeling word].”

This type of listening and validating is important for anyone undergoing stress, especially our BIPOC family, friends and neighbors.

Validation goes a long way in speaking to a person of color. Even if it sounds like a small thing, to them, it could be huge.

Perhaps they’re experiencing racism, now, for the first time.

4. Understand Our Implicit Bias

“Privilege is invisible to those who have it,” says American sociologist, Michael Kimmel. No matter how open-minded we might feel, we all have our own implicit biases that blind us to the suffering of others or contribute to it. Recognizing and understanding these is one of the first steps. 

For example, have you ever said “I don’t see color” to demonstrate your open-mindedness and support for BIPOC? This is actually what’s called a “microaggression” – a small way in which the BIPOC experience is diminished or erased.

Even I used to say this phrase until training on these microaggressions brought the issue to the forefront. Even as a woman of color, I have to be aware and cognizant of what my implicit biases and microaggressions are.

This example isn’t to point fingers or shame, but rather to help bring the many ways racist beliefs have been ingrained into our society to the forefront.

Much like addressing addiction, we have to first identify and understand there’s a problem before we can fix it.

As an exercise, try these quick activities with yourself, your family, or your friends:

Ways to Find Healing From Intergenerational Trauma

As a society, we have much, much farther to go when it comes to addressing these important topics. But starting from a place of compassion, humility, and open-mindedness is a start. There may be uncomfortable moments along the way, but that’s where the real growth happens.

And if you see someone suffering, remember to listen and validate. This stress, and its effects of intergenerational trauma and racism, are real.

Don’t forget to listen to your body as well. When it comes to anxiety and stress, there are physiological responses that will tell us there’s a problem – eye twitches, foot shakes, headaches etc. We’re being alerted that something is wrong. So listen to others, and yourself.

Once you start to address these issues, don’t be afraid of what you find. Before we can extend the olive branch to help others – we have to first consider the issues within ourselves.

If you’re looking for a place to be heard and validated, we would love to help. Learn more about Embark Behavioral Health and the types of mental health programs and treatments available to you and your family.

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Nick Skowronski