Silencing, trauma and whiteness

‘I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the clear majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us […] your voice is snatched away
(Eddo-Lodge, 2017)

As a black woman, I have recurrently found myself in situations where as the only person of colour, speaking of my experience of the world led to hostility; occasionally to violence; more frequently, to disorientating silencing attempts. Often, this silencing has felt more distressing than the discriminatory acts I was trying to share. Similarly, in therapy  people  of colour have approached me, ashamed, often terrified; describing what seems like a wall of impenetrable defensiveness bolstered by gagging manoeuvres; their voices meet when articulating racism. Eddo-Lodge (2017) captures something of this collective experience. My resolve here is to avoid reproducing this silence and, to aid its psychological understanding. Using the concept of the social uncounscious (Foulkes, 1948); I posit this: 1) the social unconscious is a major vehicle for this silencing, 2) that silencing is a remnant of intergenerational racial trauma and 3) that silencing both reproduces and is borne out of historical power configurations.

The social uncounscious 

The social unconscious at its most fundamental, refers to internalised social configurations and; to the properties of the social world that evade our conscious awareness (Hopper, 2003). It essentially posits that our behaviour is not only shaped by unconscious drives in the Freudian sense, but that interpersonal and social forces equally exert powerful influence; this notion is central to Foulkes’ thesis (Hopper and Weinberg, 2011; Dalal, 2003) and the discipline of group analysis.

Despite emphasising that groups lend themselves particularly well to the exploration of the social unconscious, Foulkes (whom the concept is usually attributed to) did not theorise it much beyond this, nor did he provide guidance on how the concept may be employed to formulate group relations and processes in society or therapy (Hopper and Weinberg, 2011).

Others have provided further elaboration. Hopper (2003) posits that the social unconscious is central to the formation of the collective identity of societies and other social systems. Weinberg (2008: 150) conceptualises it as ‘the co-constructed shared unconscious of members of a particular social system such as community, society, nation or culture’. Of particular note, Nitzgen (2002) proposes that the social unconscious offers a tool to consider collective defences against shared anxieties that have been caused by historical trauma.

Trauma and its transmission

The American Psychological Association (APA), 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…’ APA (2018)

The above definition focuses on individualised trauma responses and is thus of limited use to consider collective trauma. Definitions of historical trauma (or of inter/trans-generational trauma — terms  used interchangeably) address these limitations. One such definition sees historical trauma as ‘the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma’ Brave Heart (1999).

This definition though is not without problems for example, how should ‘massive group trauma’ be operationalised? And, is it even a necessary or desirable criterion? Still, it is much more useful to the study of social groups and of culture as it highlights the intergenerational transmission potential of trauma and; its collective consequences.

Integenerational trauma

Empirical evidence suggests that trauma may be passed down generations not only epigenetically (Kellermann, 2013) but also through unconscious mechanisms. Ritter (2014), in her investigation of the phenomenon in Holocaust survivors; found that projective identification was a core mechanism by which trauma was transmitted; parents often projected Holocaust-related feelings and anxieties into children which became introjected and, led to children behaving as though they had themselves experienced concentration camps.

Contrary to Eurocentric notions of individualism, human beings and groups  may continue to be shaped by phenomena and experiences distant by time and place. The social unconscious allows us to make sense of this transmission. Indeed, the role of history in the structuring of the social world and, in the transmission of trauma has long been recognised (Stobo, 2005).

The social unconscious and intergenerational racial trauma

Stobo (2005) proposes that silence serves to regulate and maintain a psychic equilibrium and; that the space between black and white people holds the fear of something which cannot be spoken. Specifically, shared histories of imperialism, colonialism and enslavement. She suggests that what is feared and difficult to articulate interpersonally, is a discovery or acknowledgement of racism. This unexpressed conflict manifests as disturbance which is located within people of colour in whom difference is fixed.

One way to develop her thesis is to shift the focus from difficulty with articulation, to group difficulties with hearing thus containing and; link these to an intersubjective intergenerational trauma framework. Something I have repeatedly attempted to do. Our attention in relation to intergenerational trauma, often exclusively focuses on the victims of atrocities and their descendants. For example, Alleyne (2004) posits the existence of an ‘internal oppressor’ in black people, a post-traumatic ‘syndrome’ centred on the activation of memory imprints from the legacy of our painful historical past, re-opened in the present, with the occurrence of oppression.

Similarly, Fletchman-Smith (2011) has highlighted how particular cruelties central to slavery such as separating infants from their mothers and; loving parents from one another, continue to affect attachment (and Oedipal patterns) in people of Caribbean backgrounds. Nevertheless, trauma simply did not end at the boundaries of slaves’ quarters. Nor does it remain neatly confined within former colonies/colonial subjects or their descendants. Terror has historically existed on both sides of the power divide. Writing so by no means implies equivalence in suffering.

It is a fact that slave masters were terrorised of slaves. Similarly, the collapse of Apartheid led to collective phobias of retaliatory genocide in white groups. These anxieties continue to reverberate today. Of particular relevance here, some evidence suggests that those who commit violent crimes have a much higher incidence of ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD) irrespective of trauma histories prior to offending (Crisford, Dare & Evangeli, 2008). In other words, subjecting others to trauma often traumatises.

Silence and power

Silence is often denial. It is the wilful or unconscious desire to avoid distressing material. Denial is a common psychological defense against trauma. And, like many responses to trauma, it is not limited to individual survivors; their family members or to direct witnesses. Social/cultural groups also share trauma and cultural wounds; those are believed to form the building blocks of the social unconscious (Volkan, 2001).

Evidence of racial denial at societal level may be found in the abysmal success rates of race discrimination complaints in court and in other public institutions (Renter, 2003) and/or in the discursive devices used to describe those who speak of racism e.g. having a chip on the shoulder, playing the race card. Shame is employed to force people of colour into silence. Silencing is thus a potent form of social control.

Silencing serves the avoidance of shame-based feelings in the racially dominant group which are projected onto people of colour who may introject them. It is no coincidence, that it is through shaming that silencing often operates. But, if what human beings struggle to contain of their experience; what is overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable, falls out of social discourses to burden next generations (Fromm; 2014), silencing through interpersonal or discursive means, may well foster the transmission of intergenerational or historical racial trauma.

Silencing as historical reproduction

When people of colour are silenced; echoes of the past loom very near. Colonial systems and arrangements resound. Strongly. Contemporary reactions and interactions operate at differing levels of consciousness and; are often rooted in the social unconscious (Stobo; 2005).

Legacies evoked here include the belief that black pain is non-existent or inconsequential; the social expectation that black people must show white people socio-economic and thus psychological servitude; that we must centre white feelings/experience or protect white people’s psychological comfort (DiAngelo, 2001). Ultimately historical sacrificial demands are placed upon the black body, all over again.

Individuals tend to recreate past situations, particularly those within which they have been traumatised. Social groups are equally compelled to unconsciously transfer past social configurations onto present situations and thus create equivalences — group transferences (Hopper, 2003). Silencing it is thus proposed, recreate our oppressive, colonial and imperial history.

Concluding thoughts

Racial silencing, both originates from and, transmits whiteness related trauma. The distress black people (or indeed people of colour) feel when shut down, may not simply come about because white individuals unconsciously (or otherwise) compelled to demand silence, represent or even embody figures from our personal, proximal past. Perhaps too, silencing and responses to it, betray identification with the original silencer/coloniser and/or silenced/colonised and thus; the reproduction or co-reconstruction of this shared intersubjective traumatic history.

If so, relevant social configurations, may not only reignite past cultural or historical wounds and their corresponding affective states or motives; believed to be buried in the social unconscious (Volkan, 2001), they may well recreate a more distal and brutal past, which may become acted out and re-enacted, interpersonally and socially.

Silencing as a discursive act links the (social) unconscious to the socio-political. If the ultimate power is the power to define; silencing  does not only strip us of our voice; it strips us of power and; thus keeps us in subservience. Silencing consequently, may not only harm specific individuals, but entire social/marginalised groups by reproducing the unequal social order psychologically, epistemically and thus structurally and…by helping ensure, history simply never becomes history.

Thank you for reading.

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References:

Alleyne, A. (2004). Black identity and workplace oppression. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 4 (1): 4–8.

American Psychological Association (2018). Trauma. Available from: http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/ [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Brave Heart, M.Y.H. (1999). Gender differences in the historical trauma response among the Lakota. Journal of Health and Social Policy, 10 (4):1-21.

Crisford, H., Dare, H., & Evangeli, M. (2008). Offence-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology and guilt in mentally disordered violent and sexual offenders. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 19(1), 86-107.

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) pp 54-70.

Eddo-Lodge (2017). Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. London: Bloomsberg.

Foulkes, S. H. (1948). Introduction to Group Analytic Psychotherapy, London: Karnac.

Fletchman Smith (2011). Transcending the Legacies of Slavery: A Psychoanalytic View. Karnac: London.

Fromm, E. (2014). Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. Karnac: London.

Hopper, E. (2003). The Social Unconscious: Selected Papers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Hopper, E., & Weinberg, H. (Eds.) (2011). The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Societies. Volume 1: Mainly Theory. Karnac: London.

Kellermann (2013). Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: can nightmares be inherited? Isr J Psychiatry Relation Sci. 50 (1): 33-9.

Nitzgen, (2002). From Context to Content: Retrieving the Social in Group Analytic Practice. Group Analysis 35(3): 411-423.

Renton, D. 24 January 2013. Culture of disbelief? Why race discrimination claims fail in the Employment Tribunal. Available from; http://www.irr.org.uk/news/culture-of-disbelief-why-race-discrimination-claims-fail-in-the-employment-tribunal/ [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Ritter (2014). Silence as the Voice of Trauma. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74 (2): 176–194.

Stobo, B. (2005). Location of disturbance with a focus on race, difference and culture. Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the Masters in Group Analysis, Birkbeck College: London.

Volkan, V.D. (2001). Transgenerational transmissions and chosen traumas: An aspect of large-group identity. Group Analysis, 34: 79-97.

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5 comments

  1. “I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the clear majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us […] your voice is snatched away”
    That is very well said. I went through this process many years ago. I’ve seen black people try to get white people to see their point of view. But they never seem to “get it”. Or do they? I have come to the belief that most white people understand the system of white supremacy better than they let on. They like to stay on “code” when it comes to racism. I think they know racism is real and it’s how they maintain their power. Some of them don’t like overt racism like calling people racial slurs. They feel it’s not polite. But they have no problem with blacks in poverty,getting arrested and killed by police. Or being racially profiled by police either. They just like to play dumb in my opinion. But they know full well that if racism was gone they wouldn’t have an unfair advantage in life. They don’t want a level playing field. Like Malcolm X said…..a white man’s heaven is a black man’s Hell.

  2. May I please post this on Facebook? I have developed an online support network of black and other women of colour as well as white people who want to understand.

  3. I’m currently studying Personality Theory in my MSc – with a particular focus on the Big Five Factor Model (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) and I wondered what your thoughts were on personality traits when it comes to our experiences and reactions to racism.

    According to McCrae (2002), “personality transcends environmental influences” (p.308), and personality traits are inherited, but not affected by our environment. Therefore, arguing that a traumatic event would not change your personality. I’m finding this difficult to digest to be honest.

    However, McCrae also poses the example that “Asian adolescents, raised in cultures that make great social and educational demands on their children, reach levels of Conscientiousness found in adults at a much earlier age than their American counterparts” (p.311), which in relation to your Holocaust trauma example, would appear to prove that Conscientiousness is strongly inherited amongst our people. While, white people haven’t had to live such traumatic lives, which is why they score low on Conscientiousness. According to personality theory, this particular trait actually increases after age 18 for white people, but when you think about the way they respond to our experiences, I’m doubtful that it increases much, if any really!

    Thanks in advance, and great, thought-provoking piece 🙂

    Cece xoxo

    Reference

    McCrae, R.R., (2002). The Maturation of Personality Psychology: Adult Psychology Development and Psychological Well-Being. Journal of Research in Personality 36, 307-317.

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