Review: Healing Racial Trauma

Healing Racial Trauma, Sheila Wise Rowe (Foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A counseling psychologist describes the experience of racial trauma in story, drawing upon her own and other clinical experiences, and explores the resources for resilience to face continuing racial struggle.

As a White male, I’ve heard the terminology of racial trauma but have not experienced it in my own person. But I work with Black colleagues who have. One looking up to see a policeman’s gun trained on her for the “crime” of watering a neighbor’s flowers while the neighbor was away. Another and his wife stopped in front of their home after a trip to the grocery store, forced to lay on the pavement while their car was searched, for evidence from a robbery even though they offered to produce a receipt from the grocery confirming their whereabouts when the robbery happened. Their crime? “Fitting the description.” Or Asian-American friends who have faced racial slurs urging them to go “home” when this is the country of their birth and citizenship. Often Blacks and people of color can tell a litany of stories running not only through their lives but the lives of their parents and grandparents. When I see the story of a racial injustice, I may be incensed. When a person of color sees the same story, it opens old wounds and is one more in a series of assaults on their sense of dignity.

Sheila Wise Rowe, a counseling psychologist who grew up in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston helps us understand both from her own experience and those of others the deep wounds of racial trauma, wounds beneath the skin, that many Blacks and people of color struggle with. She begins with types of racism and types of racial trauma. The latter was particularly illuminating as she named:

  • Historical racial trauma: The trauma shared by a group that has faced in its past a traumatizing event such as the forced removal of First Nation tribes that continues to affect these people in the forms of alcoholism, addiction, and elevated rates of suicide.
  • Transgenerational racial trauma: The bodily effects of trauma passed from one generation to the next, possibly manifesting in diabetes, heart disease. An axiom of trauma is that “the body remembers” and this idea suggests that trauma is even remembered across generations. It also can mean the passing of trauma in the stories we tell.
  • Personal racial trauma: The personal experience of abuse for one’s race. Rowe in the book describes the verbal and physical attacks she endured when being bused to white schools.
  • Physical trauma: Attacks upon one’s body that are racially motivated. One thinks of what John Lewis and so many endured at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
  • Vicarious trauma: The wounds opened when one hears reports of violence against others of one’s race. One thinks of the example of mothers and wives who hear reports of a police involved shooting and think of their own husbands and sons.
  • Microaggressions: The small, everyday, thoughtless assaults on dignity. “You’re so articulate.” “Can I touch your hair?”
  • Racial gaslighting: The ways individuals and institutions in power try to recast reality turning an incident of racial injustice into something the victim of injustice must have done wrong and that racism is just something imagined that must be gotten over.

In the chapters that follow Rowe describes the effects of the ongoing experience of racial trauma. She describes the fatigue of racism’s relentlessness, especially pronounced for many Blacks in the summer of 2020 in the cycle of incidents with police, protests, and recriminations. Silence is the swallowing and suppressing of pain, anger, and rage, and the self-destructiveness that occurs when all this is turned inward. Rage is the bitter root that festers until unleashed in destructive acts. Fear is often used to subdue a population, as in lynching. Shame happens when the stories of racial inferiority are internalized and they become the stories that prevent one’s true story from being told. Addiction is a misguided response to relieve the pain of trauma.

Rowe addresses these with stories and charts the beginnings of the way out, starting with lament, that cries out to God, that gathers up the hurt and offers it to God. Lament tells the truth without spiritualizing or sugarcoating. She stresses the Christ-centered nature of the healing work that is needed in walking toward freedom, a work that allows Christ to enter in and walk with. It is both internal and external work. Rowe believes that this can lead to a growth in resilience. Racism isn’t going to disappear overnight. Rather, one must develop the resources in Christ who heals our wounds, who helps us practice self-care as his beloved, and calls us into creative engagement with our unique gifts and voices.

For people of color, this may be (and has been from accounts of colleagues) a book that both names what is often felt without words and offers hope and healing. It is an important book for Whites to read as well. It begins with naming the forms of trauma. Then, Rowe’s descriptions of herself as a little girl being bused invited me to imagine what it was like to be on the bus, the walk the gantlet of hateful crowds to enter her school. The other stories, including Nick, her husband’s, invite the same imagining, not as a substitute for what no one should experience, but as at least a very beginning of understanding viscerally as well as cognitively, something of racial trauma. To learn to just sit with and listen to these experiences may open the door to being an ally in Christ’s healing process.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.