The intergenerational trauma of the oppressor: A few thoughts

 

A few months ago, I met with a very good friend of mine: a community activist, race equality campaigner and artist. She and I go some way back. Our passion for equality and community work together with our shared experience of immigration (she’s white and of Latin American origins) meant we have built a strong bond over the years. I was invited to her art studio where I met a friend of hers for the first time, a white English man of a certain age who despite his humble social origins, had successfully established his own business. I felt his warmth and openness and, he and I clicked instantly. We quickly bantered and took turn critiquing the artwork on display by proposing outrageously random interpretations. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. The three of us eventually settled at a table for a glass of wine. I cannot remember what brought the subject on but the conversation turned to immigration.

Resisting disconnection

Before I knew it, I was listening to some of the most disturbing views I had seen expressed openly in a long while. The gentleman started by recounting an event at work within his previous role as bank manager when he had been accused of racism by an Asian client for whom he had declined a mortgage. He became somewhat agitated as he described what he thought was an attempt by the client at using the ‘race card’. He put to me that people of colour tended to use the race card when things did not go ‘their way’ and subsequently spoke about an incident during which he had got into a dispute with a Jewish man who he said had taken offense at the Christmas decorations inside the bank. Ironically, he lamented what he felt was intolerance on the part of the Jewish man particularly as he, an English man in his ‘own’ country, had to tolerate Jewish decorations on the streets of London.

The talk ended with him discussing the threat of a foreign invasion through immigration, England’s unrecognizable face and the fight the country was required to lead in order to preserve its culture and identity. I was so troubled by this plainly prejudiced tabloid-like rant; which emerged with no prior warning; that my heart started to palpitate. Nevertheless, I felt the strong impulse to stop the conversation had to be resisted.  As he went on (and on); I painfully managed to stay with the anxiety and outrage the tirade had triggered in me. I shifted my focus outward by attending to the emotions and feelings he was displaying which to some degree paralleled what I was experiencing. This slowed my heartbeat down. Helplessness and anger became apparent, but in the main, it was fear and anxiety which dominated. These feelings were palpable and appeared authentic to me. It struck me that it seemed they had been bottled up for some time and; for whatever reason; our very brief relationship had provided an outlet for them.

Empathy and compassion

Why he had felt the need for this cathartic release still evades me. One thing is for sure though, he was addressing me rather than my friend and I almost intuitively refrained from intervening, elucidating and/or challenging him. By not doing so, I bore witness to an experience that is often dismissed. When I shared with him some of my experiences of our conversation, he appeared genuinely taken aback. I noted glimpses of shame as he withdrew into a more socially acceptable and politically correct stance. He apologized profusely and more importantly, became reflective rather than defensive. He said he had not wanted to cause any offense to me; which incidentally I believed; and that he had felt it was ‘okay’ to discuss these things with me. I was surprised by the relatively high level of empathy and compassion I was able feel toward this man.

Although I despised his attitude toward foreigners and immigration and could hardly tolerate his apparent bigotry physically or psychologically, I could not but be touched by his display of emotions regardless of how misguided and irrational he came across. This interaction provided me with an invaluable learning opportunity which I would probably have missed had I taken the moral or intellectual high ground. I have (typically) dissected this exchange in my head and theorized over it hundreds of times using different frames of reference. My aim here is not to offer a commentary on his overflowing raw (male and white) privilege, to condemn his views or to expose the fallacy of his points but rather to try and propose a theoretical interpretation.

Neuroticism and paranoia?

Many may see neuroticism and paranoia in the seemingly disproportionate concerns over identity/cultural losses and the reported fear of being overpowered by some alien enemy. Rationally of course such fears cannot be sustained. Some may argue that the media coverage and political attention immigration receives, would invariably create such unfounded anxieties. It would in my opinion, be difficult to generate such anxieties if something of a nucleus of a pre-existing fear was inexistent. There needs to be something to be tapped into, something onto which political and media agendas and rethoric may be hooked onto.

Fears of invasion precede the invention of the mass media and have been widely documented across centuries and ‘western’ cultures. Undeniably then, such fears have existed for some time independently of media and political influences. Several theories may be advanced to frame such anxieties which may have multiple origins. Here, they will be considered in relation to our imperialist past. Indeed, when one considers processes of imperialism such as colonisation and slavery, fears related to loss of identity, invasion, and imposed enculturation lose their neurotic/paranoid aspects and instead seem to acquire a ‘déjà vu’ quality. Intergenerational trauma may thus offer an interesting framework to consider this resonance.

The Intergenerational Trauma of the oppressor

Intergenerational trauma may be defined as the cumulative and collective transmission of historical oppression and of its negative consequences across generations. It is believed to manifest itself emotionally and psychologically in members of different cultural groups who have not directly been exposed to the traumatic stressor in question. Most of the studies on the phenomenon have concentrated on the offspring of survivors of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the concept has been used to illuminate the experiences of various racialized and indigenous groups. Here naturally, I am not concerned with the intergenerational trauma of the oppressed but with that of the oppressor.

The trauma the latter suffered as a result of active and passive participation in oppression is less documented and less theorized upon, all the same, there is evidence that terror existed on both sides of the power divide. In view of the abuse oppressed groups endured, rebellion and the possibility of “payback” are bound to have instilled great fears. Many oppressors were indeed hunted by the belief that they would suffer the very fate they had imposed upon oppressed groups, if overthrown. This belief terrorized the hearts of generations and of course led to unspeakably brutal repressions throughout history. As an example, when the collapse of the apartheid system became imminent, many Whites in South Africa violently fought for its maintenance fearing its end would lead to retaliatory genocide by Black South Africans on White populations.

The extreme defensiveness and hostility many feel towards foreigners have been postulated to be manifestations of the guilt evoked by the crimes committed against indigenous and racialized groups. If intergenerational trauma as a conceptual tool can be useful to cast light upon the experiences of those who have historically been at the receiving end of oppression, may it also help make sense of the apparent paranoia and neuroticism evoked by immigration in those who have tended to fulfil the oppressor role? I am not aware that the concept has previously been considered for this purpose. Nonetheless, the hypothesized residual trauma could help account for the appeal of political parties which play on such angst.

On Nigel Farage…

There is really nothing new about the rise in popularity of Nigel Farage. There have been plenty of Farages throughout history particularly during times of economic crises.  The knee jerk muting of the experiences of those we have come to characterize as bigots, with the whip of political correctness, seems unprecedented. However well intentioned, such silencing may lead to feelings of victimisation and alienation and thus result in the entrenchment of prejudice in addition to distracting from more silent forms of racism. If we can truly engage with all experiences then perhaps meaningful dialogues on race, racism and immigration can start to take place both politically and therapeutically (I have previously written on some of the difficulties of creating such exchanges, here). Learning to attend to the suffering of the ‘oppressor’ may consequently provide tools to combat bigotry and prejudice.

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Want to learn more?

Please see…

Connolly, A. (2011). Healing the wounds of our fathers: intergenerational trauma, memory, symbolization and narrative. The Society of Analytical Psychology, 56, 607-226.

Portney, C. (2003). Intergenerational trauma for the clinician. Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/intergenerational-transmission-trauma-introduction-clinician.

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