Forum on Racial Trauma and Radical Healing
The St. Catherine University mission – to educate women to lead and influence – calls us to stand in solidarity against injustice, racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and violence of any kind. For institutions such as ours, it also reminds us of the important role higher education can play in dismantling and eliminating systemic racism and oppression that have plagued our society for more than 500 years, first by calling it out and then by acting.
This is why, on June 5, St. Catherine University hosted an online forum to provide a space for our community to reflect and process the tumult and social issues brought to the front of national discourse, and in particular the trauma impacting Black community members. St. Kate’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni joined St. Kate’s Executive Vice President and Provost Anita Thomas, PhD, for an hour with subject experts Sha’Kema Blackmon, PhD and Bryana French, PhD, LP. Blackmon and French led the community in an hour of listening, reflecting, and sharing in order to better understand the layers of trauma and how radical healing can support meaningful change.
Sha’Kema Blackmon, PhD, (left) is an assistant professor in Urban Education Counseling, Leadership, and Policy Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. Blackmon’s area of expertise is African American Psychology, and she has conducted research on the killing of Trayon Martin and racial trauma.
Bryana H. French, PhD, LP, (right) is an associate professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas. Her current research projects focus on radical healing for people of color and indigenous people, and she was part of the American Psychological Association’s Division on the Study of Race and Ethnicity’s 2018 presidential initiative on radical healing.
Understanding trauma and its layers
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” Even this brief, broad description hints at the complicated nature of trauma and its challenges, which, as French and Blackmon identified in the forum, are further compounded for Black people and communities by multiple layers of trauma.
Many who participated in the protests following George Floyd’s death experienced varying degrees of trauma from harsh tactics employed by police, including rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, and batons.
This trauma is “contextualized by Black history or Black cultural knowledge that you gain from your family or elsewhere,” said Blackmon. “So there's a sort of an already-existing trauma, then there's trauma that's present in front of you by way of social media or TV” and the near-constant news exposure therein.
“In addition to that,” Blackmon continued, “if you are a person of color, there's also a piece around perhaps within your own community, you may have had some similar things happen that you're familiar with — or even things that have happened maybe within your own family — where maybe the person lost their life or maybe they did not, but that's also an additional layer.”
“Resisting oppression and envisioning something better”
Considering the complex nature of trauma for many members of the Black community, the question many are asking is how to try to heal when the trauma is ongoing, French and Blackmon said.
French identified the difficulty, and necessity, of the dualist nature of progress. “In a nutshell, we're looking at these two interlocking systems of approaches to engaging in radical healing: resisting oppression and envisioning something better,” she said. “Those two have to happen simultaneously.”
Both speakers recommended taking stock of what one can directly impact, giving oneself permission to do this on a smaller scale, especially in the face of these overwhelming issues.
“When the trauma is ongoing, […] how can we find spaces of joy, connection, humor? To laugh through the tears, to honor that we need to have good sleep and rejuvenate in order to wake up the next morning to be more useful — and taking permission for that, and that that's okay,” said French.
“What is it that I can do better in my particular space to contribute to making the problem better, and that in some ways helps me to move on from some of these emotions?” Blackmon asked. “We want to have these emotions, but if we sit on some of these for a very, very long time or become so super focused on them, it can hamper us in other ways and lead to other, more serious times of stress. So for example, this [forum] is a form of coping for me, because I'm contributing at least in some small way to making it better, helping other people have an understanding of what's happening.”
Active anti-racism as a white individual
French urged white community members struggling with feelings of guilt and grief to channel these emotions into action, “to not sit in a place of shame or blame around their whiteness and white identity, as Dr. Helms, one of the leading researchers on white identity development [says], but moving out of that place of shame and blame to action and critical engagement.”
When presented with the reality of their role in upholding unjust societal and institutional structures, white people often experience shame and guilt. Many white people react to the discomfort of these feelings by retreating, denying responsibility, and/or attempting to justify themselves as an exception. Instead, French advocates, first “recognize that this does not make you a bad person. This means that you've been socialized, as we all have been.
“Honor the feelings that are coming up. [...] To feel discomfort is good. That means that you're human — that you care, you have empathy, and that you want to do and be better,” French continued. “But to sit in that shame is not useful in social justice or in any context. Instead, use that to be active. Then what? What can you do with this new sense of discomfort?”
Active anti-racism at academic institutions
Blackmon recommended asking difficult questions about academic institutions’ structure and policies, which are often claimed to be “color blind,” and making candid appraisals of their praxis.
“Maybe you're saying they're color blind, but the behavior or the outcome or the results associated with them are in fact not color blind,” Blackmon said. “It's important to look at: who are those policies impacting and who are they benefiting?”
French and Blackmon stressed the importance of education and self-education on the part of faculty and staff — taking advantage of resources such as trainings, webinars, and videos — in order to better honor the experiences of students of color, and make them feel more comfortable. “The power differential is so strong — to then have a student try to challenge a faculty member who calls on them to represent their race, or to have a conversation about something around race and racism without having fully thought it out or having the skills to do that” is an issue academic institutions need to actively work to improve, to “show up for our students of color in those ways.”
As communities, individuals, and institutions have continued to reflect and process George Floyd’s murder and the events of the following weeks, St. Catherine University owns its responsibility to the world and to social justice to engage in critical thinking, dialogue, and reflection in order to educate and graduate global citizens who actively lead and influence change in the systems that harm our society.
- In response to this call, the Deans’ Office, in partnership with the St. Catherine University Community Response Team, has organized an Integrated Learning Summer Series for St. Kate’s community members. The Summer Series will feature both St. Kate’s and external faculty members, as well as alumni, in live video sessions focusing on race in the criminal legal system, BIPOC civil rights and representation, and more. Learn more about the 2020 Integrated Learning Summer Series.
- St. Kate’s also provides resources and support dedicated to students of color through the Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS) office. During the COVID-19 pandemic, students of color can connect with each other and with staff and faculty members of color at the MIPS Virtual Couch — email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- The St. Kate’s Library and Archives has assembled a list of racial justice resources. The list includes both resources offered within the library collection, such as ebooks and films, and external resources such as local activist organizations and online discussion series.
Ways to get involved
- We Can’t Breathe: Virtual Conversations on Systemic Racism, presented by the ASDIC (Antiracism Study Dialogue Circles) and FREC (Facilitating Racial Equity Collective. Discussions July 19. Learn more and register.
- Volunteer or donate. Many organizations, such as the Midtown YWCA, which support people in areas that have been affected by the recent events in our community, have an urgent need for donations and volunteers. This link contains an interactive map of other distribution locations and volunteer sites.
- Register to vote! If you are serious about real change, your individual vote does matter. Use this link to register to vote, check your registration, vote by mail, get election reminders, pledge to register, find the nearest polling place, and fill out your 2020 census form. Take today’s action a step further by sharing this link with friends and planning time into your schedule to vote in the closest upcoming election — city, state, or national.
- Contribute to local research on housing discrimination. “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?,” in collaboration with Mapping Prejudice, seeks volunteer support in documenting racial covenants in historic Ramsey County deeds, a now-illegal practice that informed the housing inequities we see today. Read more here.
There will be further activities in the days and weeks to come. If you are planning any activities, email email@example.com.