Trauma, resilience, racism: thoughts on moving forward
Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski
September 27, 2018
Let’s begin with resilience.
Take a moment to remember your peak experiences—those times that stand out because you felt particularly happy, free, successful, inspired or creative. Now think about times when you’ve overcome adversity—ways you’ve shown strength, handled stress, and coped or even triumphed when things were difficult.
Finally, bring to your memory times when your mind has been opened. When have you changed the way you’ve been accustomed to think about someone or something? When has your world gotten bigger and offered more possibilities because you were able to shift or expand your pattern of thinking? If you have a moment, make a list of 10 or so such experiences, then picture each one and hold it in your mind, savoring each of these aspects of your lived experience.
You’ve just completed a tool called “Remembering Success,” inspired by Desert Storm veteran Steve Robinson and included in the remarkable book “The Power and Price of Survival: Understanding Resilience, Stress, and Trauma” by Pamela Woll.[i] You’ve reminded yourself of your own resilience. If you’re really interested in moving forward from the trauma of racism, you’re going to need it.
The night before I sat down to write this piece, I went online to buy gifts for two sets of friends who’ve recently been blessed with new babies. Gift cards seemed like the most practical option, but I wanted to dress them up a bit and select a card designed especially to celebrate new births. The well-known site offered four design options for a new baby gift card. Three of the design options featured pictures of a white baby. Two were photos of actual babies; the third was a drawing of a baby who was clearly white. I chose the fourth option, the only one that seemed at all workable: a generic baby nursery with a crib and mobiles but no baby. My happiness for my friends was muted a bit by my anger and dismay.
How could this be? Why would a huge, multinational corporation whose goal is to sell as many products to as many people as possible show no babies of color? No black babies. No brown babies. No babies who look like their first words might be Spanish, Chinese or Arabic. No babies who look like my friend, an ecstatic first-time father. No babies who look like the excited mothers. No babies who look like the majority of new babies in the world. I might write this off as one inattentive—if ineffective—marketing department, were it not for the fact that this invisibility is so commonplace.
The side of a building in my town was recently covered with a new mural. All the many faces in the painting are white. While Christmas shopping for three young friends who are immigrants from Sierra Leone, I was chagrined to realize that almost of the toys I picked up pictured only white children playing.
If you believe that this occurrence is uncommon, spend the next week paying attention to how often people of color are portrayed in positive ways—such as welcoming babies or playing games—in the sorts of public spaces that we encounter every day. Certainly, wonderful examples of positive portrayals exist in some spaces. But how often do you notice complete invisibility in others?
It’s painful for me as a white person to recognize this reality. It’s even more painful to know that, until relatively recently, I hadn’t noticed it. It’s painful to begin to think through the tangled national history that brought us to this place.
I don’t pretend to know the pain that people of color feel as they encounter this reality day by day. I do know that I am haunted by my friend Lisa Sharon Harper’s story of her futile attempt in a Christmas store to buy a black ballerina ornament for her niece who loves to dance.
Her story ends, “As [the store manager] showed me all five black ornaments in a store dedicated to ornaments, tears filled my eyes and began to spill over. We are not wanted in this world. We are erased—from the public through police brutality and mass incarceration. And…even…from popular conceptions of Christmas and heaven. There are no black angels there.”[ii]
Are these stories of invisibility the most traumatic ones I could tell? By no means. But they are part of a web of trauma that envelops us all.
Are these stories of invisibility the most traumatic ones I could tell? By no means. But they are part of a web of trauma that envelops us all.[iii]
I have choices as to what to do with all that pain—my pain, Lisa’s pain, that same pain in the lives of millions of Americans of all races past and present. I can dismiss, deny, diminish or discount it. Or I can hold it and let it change me and my behavior.
Many positive examples exist of individuals, churches and groups moving beyond dismissal and denial to taking concrete steps toward healing our collective trauma.
On June 17, 2017, Vashon High School presented Mary Matsuda Gruenewald with a yearbook and a diploma for the school’s Class of 1943—the class in which she would have graduated if she and her family had not been incarcerated, along with more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The principal of the school heard her story of trauma and decided to recognize and respond to it. To see her beaming face in the dark green cap and gown and to hear her words, “A person has to feel loved in order to heal” is to know that the simple, symbolic gesture was one such concrete step.[iv]
Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio, worked for a year to educate themselves and their community to abolish the celebration of Columbus Day and enact, instead, Indigenous Peoples’ Day.[v] Their work was inspired by an encounter with Three Eagle Cloud, an elderly native man who has been protesting the honoring of Columbus his whole life.
When Mary Hammond, the church’s pastor, stopped to hear his story and ask the meaning of the large wooden structure he’d assembled with 13 nooses hanging from it, he shared that his people had died by genocide at the hands of Columbus and the Europeans he ushered into the Caribbean. He further shared that if his people didn’t convert to Christianity, they were hanged. The 13 nooses symbolized Jesus and the 12 Apostles. He also shared that he was tired and that he was participating in his last protest. Because Hammond and her church members were willing to listen to his story and hold that trauma, they were transformed. Their successful action carries forward the healing work that Three Eagle Cloud was ready to lay down.
I’m deeply encouraged by these stories and many more like them that represent the small yet powerful ways that we can contribute to acknowledging and releasing our shared story of trauma.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. Your resilience is real! Grab hold of it, find ways to recognize and increase it, help others to recognize and increase their own resilience, and open yourself to the stories of trauma all around you. If you let those stories change and shape you, you can help to write a new story of healing.
The Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski is executive director of BPFN-Bautistas por la Paz. She will present the workshop “Trauma, Resilience and Racism: Thoughts on Ways of Moving Forward” at ABHMS’ “Space for Grace: Thy Will Be Done,” November 14-16, 2018, in Philadelphia. REGISTER TODAY for this national conference that seeks to explore critical issues of mission engagement, discipleship and church transformation facing Christians today.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[ii] There are No Black Angels in Heaven, Lisa Sharon Harper, The Washington Post, November 24, 2015.
[iii] Living in a Nation of Historic, Continuing Racialized Trauma, LeDayne McLeese Polaski, The Christian Citizen online, November 6, 2017.
[iv] A High School Graduation Decades in the Making, Aileen Imperial, Crosscut.com, September 27, 2017.
[v] Why We Worked for Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Oberlin, Cindi and Jeriel Byron-Dixon, Baptist Peacemaker, Volume 38, Number 1, January-March 2018.
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