Why are white people silent about racial trauma?

White Silence, part two

I last wrote that white people are silent about racial trauma, because we care but we are inept. To the extent we have become aware, we know we are complicit. Some of us feel ashamed and that freezes us.  We haven’t processed or practiced, what we might say. I still think this is true, about some of us.

However, some white people are silent because they truly don’t care.

I have a black friend, 60 something, who lost a cousin to gun violence. Talking to him today had me in tears. How can we not care? I know sometimes it’s “news” and not a friend. I know we experience compassion fatigue.

Looking for insight, I’m reading a great book in pre-publication called Living in the Tension: The Quest for a Spiritualized Racial Justice by a white blogger named Shelly Tochluk, and I’ll review the advance copy and write about it in more detail when it is available for sale.

Shelly apples on the work of some psychologists who study trauma, and she applies it to racial trauma for insight. Shelly argues that there are four positions people take around racial trauma.

  • the victim… obviously this is not us
  • the perpetrator… so if I didn’t actually shoot the gun, that’s not us either
  • a witness
  • a bystander

Her learning from the psychologists is that bystanders become disassociated from the pain they witness in trauma, and fundamentally do not care.

-bystanders have “strong divisions between self and other… allowing people to feel distance from the racism and damage occurring within the US society.” (Tension, 59). They are disconnected from the beloved community God is creating.

-bystanders are disconnected from themselves, unable to see negative aspects of themselves and projecting them on others: “I am good and they are bad”

-bystanders close down and numb their own feelings

-bystanders obsessively rehearse violence… in films, video games, the news.  Some people see racial violence and barely register. “The normalization of violence and subsequent lack of reactivity, allows a bystander to remain passive and fail to take action to create a safer community for all (p. 61).

I think much of this means that as bystanders, we may become disconnected from our own capacity for empathy.  I asked some white folk if any of this resonated, and they found it familiar. Sometimes they do feel disassociated from other people’s experiences of racism and their racial pain.

What’s the solution? We can choose to move from being a bystander to becoming a witness. We can cultivate compassion.  We can offer our empathy online or in person. We can call our friend and cry. We can join a street protest. We can take action to create a better society…. again, and again, and again.

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