How to Recognize the Trauma Behind the Response to Racism

Author’s Note: I am Canadian, originally from Winnipeg, and I lived in Toronto for 15 years as an adult. I’ve been living in Chicago since 2011 and I work in the areas of conflict resolution, restorative justice, and diversity and inclusion. I see myself as an ally, and I write this from the perspective of a cisgender person of colour who grew up in a multiracial family with Indo-Caribbean and German Mennonite roots. I‘m fair-skinned – and I mention this only to acknowledge the unfortunate reality that my skin colour sometimes gives me access to benefits and privileges a person with a darker complexion may not be afforded. Lastly, I write this from the perspective of a mother – because as a collective, our hearts shatter when our babies, whether they are 9 or 46 years old, call out our name and we are not able to protect them.


Racism, Trauma, and the Social Contract Connection

We are living in a time heavily punctuated by crisis and trauma. There is great unrest across the United States in response to systemic racism, White supremacy, and police brutality toward Black bodies.

With the recognition that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) experience systemic racism in Canada, the U.S., and countries around the world, this blog focuses on systemic racism affecting Black people. That said, it includes suggestions and questions that are also relevant for other racialized groups.

Intergenerational Trauma

The most recent flashpoint was the racially motivated and horrific death of George Floyd at the hands of police. George Floyd’s unnecessary and callous murder has been the lightning rod that inspired community outrage and protests across the United States, underlaid with the reverberating chant that #blacklivesmatter.

Many cities in Canada – a country where Indigenous peoples in particular continue to be affected by intergenerational trauma and discrimination – joined the protests in solidarity. Similar to Black people in America, Indigenous peoples are afflicted with higher infant mortality rates and a gross overrepresentation in the justice system.

Those most affected by systemic racism are exhausted by the burdens they carry on a daily basis. What are those burdens? Well, there are the important things like access to healthcare; job hiring discrimination; the school-to-prison pipeline; a lack of representation in positions of leadership in the workplace, on the political front, or in the government (to name a few). But I’m talking about the psychological and physiological symptoms like health, stress, rage, anger, hurt, resentment, pain, and fear.

What exactly can or should one do when their mother, father, sisters, and brothers consistently experience trauma that spans generations and things just don’t seem to change?

Reflection: What are your experiences with intergenerational trauma, either personally or in communities you are close to?  If this is a new idea, consider learning more about intergenerational trauma and how it affects racialized groups in your community. You can find more of our blogs about trauma here.

Those most affected by systemic racism are exhausted by the burdens they carry on a daily basis.

The Incident

May 25th, 2020, George Floyd is murdered by police officers. He pleads for his life and repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe!” Officer Derek Chauvin is pressing on Floyd’s neck with his knee and continues to do so for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, even after Floyd goes limp. The officer’s stance is disturbingly casual – he has his hands in his pockets and ignores the agitated bystanders who are asking him to stop. “He can’t breathe!” they say, “Someone should check his pulse!” Chauvin only removes his knee when an EMS responder tells him to move it. Subsequently, Floyd goes into cardiac arrest and he is pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. The four officers are fired the next day, and within a week, former officer Chauvin is charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

When video footage surfaced, there was an immediate outcry. The following day, people in Minneapolis, and then all across the nation, united to protest against the gross injustice of his death. There were (and continue to be) a wonderful abundance of inspiring speeches, vigils, demonstrations, and calls for action and justice!

Most of us vehemently condemn acts of violence such as what happened to George Floyd. It is common to freeze, withdraw, express anger or grief, feel overwhelmed, and/or simply not know what to do, what to say, or how to feel. Some of us get engaged, while others tune out because they don’t a see a connection or relevance to their own lives or communities . . . only for another news cycle to begin and the incident is all but forgotten.

This feels a little different somehow. I could be wrong, but it seems like this incident and the public outcry is actually being heard by more people. I’ve noticed that many organizations and people who appeared to pay little attention in the past are notably engaged. More people are asking, “What can I do?” and this gives me some hope. Time will tell in terms of what tangible actions individuals, communities, institutions, and the government will take over the next days, weeks, and months.

Reflection: What can you do? What are some practical things you can do to dismantle racism within your sphere of influence?

Something to Consider

When people react with horror and surprise to racist and violent incidents, they may not be aware that their reaction might not translate well for those most directly affected.

I confess that even though I am not surprised on a macro level, and I know that hateful incidents are part of a pattern of systemic racism, my immediate, unfiltered reaction to a horrific incident is often a combination of surprise and outrage (e.g., “I can’t believe that this just happened!!”). I need to check myself because I’ve learned that the expression of surprise can unintentionally have the impact of invalidating another’s experience or give the impression that I believe these incidents are, in fact, isolated. For this reason, I’m working to restrain that gut reaction!

Black people aren’t surprised. They are not surprised about #TamirRice, #TrayvonMartin #AiyanaJones #EricGarner, #SandraBland, #AhmaudArbery, #BreonnaTaylor, #GeorgeFloyd, and countless others. BIPOC in Canada are not surprised about #MissingandMurderedIndigenousWomen, #ColtenBoushi, #ChantalMoore, #MachaurMadut, #RegisKorchinskiPaquet, and so on. For those who recognize the impact of systemic and structural racism, there is no surprise.

What can I do? Reflect on my actions, learn from mistakes, read more, learn more, acknowledge more, invite feedback, and listen to what BIPOC say they need and want. These are good things that anyone can and should be doing!

What are some practical things you can do to dismantle racism within your sphere of influence?

What About Rioting & Looting?

I live in Chicago and on May 31st, 2020, our city was under curfew. Although protests were (and are) largely peaceful, the city had also been contending with riots, violence, and looting since May 29th. The downtown area was effectively cut off and secured. An unintended result was that the violence and looting moved into the surrounding neighbourhoods, including mine, where the Walgreens up the street was looted. There were 65,000 911 calls that day, compared to the typical 15,000 calls. Not only this, the National Guard was called in to help. Hours of hearing sirens in the night, near and far, had suddenly become the norm.

As images of looting and violence barraged our screens and news feeds, there was the expected clamour of disgust and disapproval. People often conflate protests with riots, and the metaphorical baby is thrown out with the bathwater. I also hear familiar narratives: “I support peaceful protests but not rioting;” rioters being characterized by some as “thugs” and/or those who are “ruining the protests by distracting the public from the issues at hand” or “wrecking businesses” at a particularly vulnerable time in our history (i.e., the pandemic). Whatever the narrative, store owners and businesses, their patrons, and communities are rightly upset about the damage and looting they are experiencing.

What can you do? Consider grabbing a broom and helping with the prevention, cleanup, and repairs. Also attend to the needs of those who have been harmed, if not literally, then figuratively.

White society has failed to adhere to the social contract, and it is evident when BIPOC are treated like second class citizens or worse.

Recognizing the Trauma Behind the Response

Over time, my perspective about riots has changed in subtle and not so subtle ways. In his iconic “The Other America” speech, Martin Luther King Jr., a proponent of nonviolent resistance, had this to say:

“Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We need to recognize the trauma behind the response. My question is, what exactly are a traumatized people supposed to do when their rights and freedoms are trampled on for decades upon decades? How many times can they see their Black sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, suffer or die because of the colour of their skin? Try to imagine the layers of trauma experienced through the generations and how this comes to life in each person – physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. It is for this reason that I have more empathy and maybe a better understanding of “why” people riot. As MLK said, “social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” Clearly, we have failed in this.

Social Contracts Go Both Ways

I’ve been thinking about social contract theory – the idea that to maintain a civil society, citizens adhere to a social contract. For example, if someone assaults another person, they are breaking the social contract and will be punished or separated from society. In theory, we all agree to uphold this social contract – we don’t murder, we don’t assault, we don’t steal. It makes complete sense that people are outraged about rioters because they are flagrantly breaking the social contract!

But social contracts go both ways.

To be sure, I do not condone violence. However, if we get so caught up in our anger about damage to things and stolen possessions, we fail to recognize that White people and racist institutions and systems have consistently, often without repercussions, been breaking that social contract with Black people for 400 years and counting – over and over and over, again and again.

White society has failed to adhere to the social contract, and it is evident when BIPOC are treated like second class citizens or worse. George Floyd’s murder is an ugly reminder that the legacy of racism and White privilege is alive and well. Life and death issues are on the line, and we should all be gravely concerned.

Signs of Hope

After a week and a half of protests, the three other officers have been charged and Chauvin’s charges were upgraded to second-degree murder. Protests are still going strong, but the rioting appears to be largely quelled with this news.

Earlier this week, I went for a walk with a White friend of mine. I would describe her as a community builder, relationship grower, and connector – definitely a person who cares about people and justice. We were talking about Floyd’s death and the protests. I said, “Things seem a little different this time – I hope I’m right.” She agreed and told me that a real shift had taken place in her. She shared that, while she has always been outraged about incidents like this in the past, she had honestly understood them as isolated incidents. Something changed over the weekend, she said. She had a profound realization that incidents like these are not exceptions. This has motivated her to learn more about racism and look for tangible ways she can make a difference. My heart smiled.

Will this time be different? Let’s make it so: #blacklivesmatter

9 Things Allies Can Do:

  1. Update that reading list. There are so many good books out there. I recommend:
  2. Learn about intergenerational trauma. Check out these books:
  3. Learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline – do a little googling and check out these recommended books.
  4. Think before you speak – your words can harm even when that isn’t your intention. Just because you have good intentions, doesn’t mean that your words can’t have a negative impact on someone.
  5. Interrupt biased language, behaviour, and discriminatory jokes.
  6. Acknowledge the privileges you have and consider how racism affects you and the people around you or in your community.
  7. Get involved! Join a protest, go to a community meeting, talk to your political representatives, write letters, etc.
  8. Donate (or volunteer) at organizations that address racism. For example:
  9. Be responsible for your own education. Don’t rely on BIPOC to do the emotional labour of educating you.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, so do some research – there are lots of great ideas out there!

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Shadell Permanand

LL.M – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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