My discovery of racism was quite a brutal one. I was perhaps 4 or 5 and had been playing with my sister and some of the kids from the neighbourhood in front of our Parisian banlieue tower block as was customary for poorer families during school holidays or week-ends. There was quite a few of us; 15 perhaps even more. Children of all backgrounds having fun, skipping, running around and laughing the summer afternoon away, still quite oblivious to the dire social deprivation we were accustomed to and, the hostility our existence in France, created. A White man erupted from a ground floor flat in the tower effing and puffing, clearly aggravated by the noise we were collectively making. After his rant, he ran directly toward my elder sister and pushed her from behind.
She must have been 6 or 7 at the most. He pushed her so violently that, she was propelled forward, fell and scraped the ground for a few meters. Once immobile, much of the skin at the back of her arms had gone. A bunch of children quickly ran to our second floor flat to alert my parents. A few seconds later my mother appeared downstairs to find my sister, me and other children in tears and, my sister covered in blood. Within moments she was at the assailant’s door furious and demanding an explanation. She was greeted by a barrage of racist abuse. Once that rant was over, the man proceeded to punch her in the face. So forcefully her skin turned blue-black, one of her eye became red with blood and half her face swelled up instantly. There was something so deeply dehumanising and ungendering in the violence and hatred contained in that punch.
This was not a half-hearted attack. It was a determined, completely unrestrained, chest out, full force knock-out hit. The kind of punch a charged man throws at another man he believes is his equal in power. The kind of heavy weight punch no woman should ever bear. It was full of misogynoir and unequivocally stated, you are not a human being, let alone a woman and, I want you down. Expectedly, all children by this point were crying hysterically. Utter terror. White terror. I am not sure whether it was the sight of my mother’s transformed and grotesque looking face or, the hatred in the White man’s eyes which scared me the most.
As a child my mother was the pillar of our family and community. She emanated the kind of grace and dignity you sometimes see in tall statuesque-like African women. Often, our home was the refuge for abused and other vulnerable women seeking her protection from patriarchal violence. But in that instant she had been rendered powerless, meaningless and disposable, she had no protection.
Trauma, violence and silence
And so it was more than a beautiful woman who was publicly violated. It was the entire community and with that, our sense of safety and meaning. She was hit on the head. We were all punched in the stomach. Things after the punch have blurred in my memory. But I can still see my mother standing after the assault. Standing tall. Defiant and in dignified silence. Not a single tear was shed by her. Not a word in retort. If resistance ever was a picture, it might well be it. Although I do not remember this; I am told the White man was arrested minutes later knife in hand, threatening to kill her in front of a full audience of distraught children. Imagine the scene. The loudness, the chaos. The screams, the distress. It sharply contrasts with the deafening silence that engulfed us all after the events. A silence that is typical but the significance of which, I only grasped as an adult.
I have repeatedly encountered it in therapy when working with those who have experienced racism, sexual or gender related violence, and other forms of traumatic events. As a child it felt as though speaking about white violence would mean wounding by reminding everyone. We were and still are a close-knit family and community, but that proximity did not facilitate the uttering of words. If anything I think, it made it harder to speak as we all wanted to spare one another distress. So we were all left to process this trauma together but alone as life took its course, the aggressor was jailed and my mother’s face and head very slowly recovered.
When I spoke to Black people about their experience of racism as children, as part of my thesis on racial trauma not so dissimilar stories were shared. Equally overtly violent direct or vicarious experiences such as witnessing one’s father being chased by an angry racist mob or being beaten up or spat at. As well as more verbally violent experiences such as being racially abused or denigrated by other children, or by adults, often teachers. From seeing one’s parents being mocked for their accent, dress, or hearing them being repeatedly asked to go back home, to the more subtle Othering and aversive behaviours which nonetheless tell you in no uncertain terms, you do not belong. The full panoply of racism had already been experienced by participants as children, including the denial, minimisation or invalidation of their experiences for the few who had attempted to verbalise them.
Racism and the conspiracy of silence
That very same all encompassing and familiar silence seemed to envelop most participants ‘experiences of racial injustice and racism. It came from various sources at individual, familial and structural levels. And always had ‘reasons’. Children in the main had kept silent about their racist experiences, sometimes out of shame, often, wanting to protect their parents by sparing them hurt and pain. Parents sought to protect children too by refraining themselves from naming, sometimes out of conviction speaking would damage children. That it would make children less able to function within white supremacy, causes them to lose innocence or confidence.
Social structures, schools, universities, the police … had all too often, been complicit in this ‘conspiracy of silence’. It has been forcefully enforced by punishing those who sought to speak. By discrediting them or dismissing their complaints. Of course there are good reasons here too. ‘Allegations’ of racism rarely meet that evidential threshold. They tend to be caused by misunderstandings after all. Complaints are ill-formulated or not communicated in the right way or in a nice enough tone. Those rare voices who manage to jump through all those silencing hoops, and threaten to make themselves heard, eventually get smothered via non-disclosure agreements and gagging clauses or orders. The rule of silence becomes the rule of law.
Racism always has a reason often, several reasons. There always have been and will always be ‘reasonable’ reasons for upholding silences in the face of racism, violence and trauma. Sometimes they can appear protective. Rarely though, do they protect those harmed or serve the interests of those at the lower end of the power divide. Silence allows abuse to flourish. It reproduces and amplifies the damage of trauma. What is unnamed and unspoken is obviously not heard. Not seen. Not fully witnessed or recognised. Silence thus prolongs harm and extends the initial violence internally and externally by seeking to hide or disappear the violence.
And of course silences serve multiple functions. They can be about denial, dissociation or splitting off from intolerable pain. They can speak something of our overwhelmed capacity to process the experiential and translate it into units of meaning. They can speak of our anxiety about speaking into being and existence, what is feared. They can help us evade what is simply too ugly to contemplate, contain and hold. Silences can also tell us something about the intergenerational colonial or ancestral coping strategies which may have been learnt and passed down from our foremothers when their cries of despair, exhaustion and agony, fell into abysses of indifference, and their only way to survive was to keep quiet and keep going.
Structurally silence is performative. It fills a gap and, helps to ensure those cracks on the walls of appearances diversity and inclusion are filled so that institutions can continue to stand solid, as violence is reproduced, invibilised then denied. Psychologically too, silence leaves a void. A gap where compassion could have been. So, words do matter. And as children much more than as adults, we need words to formulate and mentalise. The failure to formulate traumatic experiences plays a fundamental role in the intergenerational transmission of trauma and wounds. After mass or group trauma, unspoken and incomprehensible part images of the trauma become intertwined with the identity and self-concept of subsequent generations.
Silence, containment and meaning
In my research it became apparent that those participants who as children were spoken about racism, responded with much less anxiety and distress when they encountered racism and racial injustice. These conversations we may propose, allowed the child then the adult, to make sense of their experience and retain a sense of epistemic confidence, particularly when their subjective reality was denied in situations of epistemic injustice. Further, parental conversations made it easier not to take in or introject racist projections and, to thus externalise feelings of shame, otherness, inferiority and/or deficiency.
Without words, traumatic experiences and representations are fragmented and devoid of meaning, and can contribute to a sense of overwhelm, epistemic homelessness and dread when confronted with racial injustice. In fact, all those research participants who struggled with meaning making had eventually taken ‘corrective’ steps to build their epistemic confidence as adults, such as engaging for instance, in Black feminist/epistemic scholarship which they reported had markedly reduced their psychological distress.
These findings are consistent with Bion’s (1960) theory of containment.
The above in summary proposes that an infant’s capacity to develop abstract thinking and to understand the world, is dependent upon their caregiver’s sensitively responding to their distress. By calmly taking in the distress (or projections) the infant cannot cope with and ‘metabolising’ this raw data, the mother teaches the child to 1) to internalise calmness 2) regulate emotions 3) process their emotions thus, derive meaning from the world of senses – linking the affective to the cognitive and epistemic. The core idea being that maternal emotional receptivity particularly when the infant is distressed is core to the infant developing conceptual thinking. Specifically, containment allows what Bion calls the ‘Alpha function’ that is to say, the process of turning unordered, meaningless, overwhelming data from the senses or chaos (what he calls the ‘Beta elements’) into conceptual meaning (‘Alpha elements’).
In other words we can say a child whose experience of racism was not contained, who thus was not supported in metabolising related ‘beta elements’ would be expected to become an adult with more difficulties in performing the ‘Alpha function’ when confronted with racism and racial injustice, in the absence of corrective actions. Bion’s containment theory, despite its arguably rather colonial imagery, offers a framework to consider issues of intergenerational wounds and, the transmission of racial trauma. As long as current power relations and racialised configurations remain of course, traumatised and distressed parents and, marginalised parents can be expected to need support to adequately perform the Alpha function when it comes to live racism related trauma, particularly where they are more intersectionally vulnerable.
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