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Genetic trauma 

Nationally and locally, issues of race quite literally afflict our body politic.

At home here on our idyllic Central Coast, many white folks—who make up 71 percent of our community—can see racism, whether it comes in the form of frat boys putting on blackface, or, not that many years ago, Cal Poly students hanging a noose on campus. Just days ago, a local man was arrested for threatening to shoot minorities moving into his neighborhood. Police found handguns, rifles, and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his home.

While these seem to be infamous but isolated incidents, sometimes we may hear a friend or co-worker utter intentionally or unintentionally disparaging comments about people of color. Worse, we may fear the explosive harm that some racist fanatic may perpetrate on our own neighbors of color.

That's why we're often reminded of the guilt we share over slavery and the effects of structural inequality.

With these realities in mind, I recently attended a workshop sponsored by RACE Matters SLO County on "Preparing to Put in the Work: Intersectionality in Action." The purpose of the event was to initiate a community-based conversation on how to build a "beloved" community that is welcoming and incorporates inclusivity and racial justice.

I learned how transgenerational trauma, sometimes called "intergenerational suffering," magnifies the violence done by racism on both the minds and bodies of people of color. In fact, I learned a new word: epigenetics, which is the science of how traumatic events affect us at a molecular level, altering genes that are passed from one generation to the next.

In other words, black Americans carry the trauma of slavery in their genes to this day.

This concept nearly undid me. With a little research, I found recent studies on epigenetics, transgenerational trauma, and post-traumatic slave syndrome, which widened my understanding of the lasting effects of systemic racism, starting with slavery and followed by lynching, Jim Crow laws, segregation, mass incarceration, and discrimination in housing, education, and employment.

Black Americans inherit the kind of hurt that invades their lives, imputing multigenerational maladaptive behaviors that can negatively affect an individual's productivity and ability to succeed.

Transgenerational trauma can be triggered by a relatively small event, a recurring aggression, or the reporting of news that reflects racism and oppression. Leola Dublin Macmillan, a cultural scholar and co-presenter of the intersectionality workshop, recounted a trigger incident in which she was stopped by the police near Cal Poly for what we've come to call "driving while black." If she goes out for a walk in our town, she has to remember to carry identification in case she draws attention for being out of place and therefore suspicious. If you're white, do you worry about carrying an ID for such purposes? I doubt it. If you're black, reactions to your skin color likely trigger ancestral trauma and PTSD-related symptoms going back centuries.

Transgenerational trauma isn't solely the experience of black Americans, of course. In one study, children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were reportedly overrepresented by 300 percent among referrals to a Canadian psychiatry clinic. Descendants of students at American Indian boarding schools, who were removed from their families, also exhibit the signs of transgenerational trauma.

Look at the very recent news and ask yourself: What can we conclude will be the lasting, multigenerational effects of separating children as young as 4 months from their parents at the U.S. border and detaining them in appalling conditions?

What can you do about this and other ugly situations? On a governmental level, you can call your representatives, including state Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, state Sen. Bill Monning, Congressman Salud Carbajal, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. (You can find contact information for all our local representatives at slochamber.org/our-community/elected%20representatives).

What else can be done about the transgenerational trauma and socio-economic repercussions stemming from slavery? There are large and small steps we can take, none of which are merely symbolic. Gov. Gavin Newsom, for instance, signed the first bill in the nation that outlaws racial discrimination based on hairstyle. No longer can California employers or schools ban Afros, braids, cornrows, and dreadlocks.

Before we vote, we should investigate candidates' records on civil rights and consider their plans for social and racial justice. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have both introduced major proposals to address racial disparities. Harris' $100 billion investment plan would reduce the racial gap in homeownership.

On a personal level, we can help mend transgenerational trauma through simple acts of kindness, civility, and recognition. If someone you know says something racially offensive, don't harden their misconceptions by scolding them. Take them aside and ask if they've thought through the implications of their words.

And when you meet a person of color on our streets or walking the trail on Cerro San Luis, raise your eyes to theirs, smile, and say, "Hello." You'll breathe easy, and so, most likely, will they. Δ

Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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