Everyone probably has a record of some sort of family trauma in their past, whether they know about it or not. Maybe it’s a set of great-grandparents who struggled with homelessness during the Great Depression. Maybe it’s an uncle who came back from a war with untreated PTSD that manifested in physical abuse or alcoholism. Maybe it’s a Grandmother with a mental health disorder that led her to die by suicide. These are painful traumas inflicted on an entire family that can have continued effects – both concrete and ambiguous – in the generations to follow.
If you are not currently suffering from any of the ripple effects of those traumas, maybe it’s because the next generation had good support from family or friends. Maybe it’s because society took an upturn that favored the next generation. Maybe societal or political systems like The New Deal or First-Time homebuyer loans gave someone a leg up. Maybe there was counseling or religion or something that helped that trauma get treated to keep from trickling down to other generations.
Sometimes, that doesn’t happen immediately. Sometimes a father abuses his children because his father abused him. And not that it’s an excuse, but it’s a fact that often comes out of family trauma. If cycles don’t get broken with the help of supportive networks of family or or treatment or systemic structures meant to uplift, then they continue to manifest.
And for the average middle class white person living today, our chances of recovering from family trauma generations before were good. We didn’t have redlining keeping our grandfathers and great grandfathers from buying homes in thriving parts of the city creating generational wealth in the form of home-ownership. When the general economy took an upswing, our chances of finding work were better than Black Americans who were fighting racist hiring practices and unions who banned people of color. Our white matriarchs and patriarchs trying to make it in the South were not fighting against Jim Crow laws. Most white families had two parent households to support them in times where generations of black families were losing parents to the criminal justice system.
I just think the most important and nuanced conversation we miss out on a lot in terms of systemic racism is the power of generational trauma. Not only do White Americans lack the 245 years of slavery haunting their families with unspeakable trauma of abuse by white people and by society, but we also don’t have the trauma placed on our families from societal abuse in the form of redlining or Jim Crow and the ripple effects of those traumas that still continue today in the form of self-segregation or gentrification or white flight leading to the undeniable fact that black and brown children in our country are served by underperforming schools all across the country and without the support of a strong education, recovering from generational trauma is even more difficult.
And all of this just barely touches on generational poverty and how hard it is to get ahead when you are also caring for parents and grandparents who were never able to get ahead.
I just think it’s easier for us to grasp concrete failures in our systems to support people of color, but we lose sight of the indescribable effects of generational trauma and how hard it is to even trust in the country or in systems to hold you up when they’ve been holding you down for generations.