Where do white survivors fit into critiques of white women? On unpopular trauma traits, and how we move past them in our racial justice work

Two fifty-eight am.

That’s roughly the time I wake up in the middle of every night, awakened by my thoughts.

Sometimes awakened by my body and wisdom or stress it’s holding.

Last night it was all of the above, stress, wisdom and thoughts that woke me.

Stirring questions of racial justice for white survivors.

I flew from Detroit to Baltimore this morning, processing my fifth time attending the Facing Race Conference.

I was asked a lot throughout the weekend why I keep coming back, and I draw a thread between that question posed to me, and my questions around how white survivors meaningfully engage in racial justice practices, and meaningful multiracial relationships with other survivors.

Questions about how we don’t distract ourselves in the experiences that we share to the detriment of the ones that we don’t. And yet, remembering that trauma shapes you in fundamental ways.

Many of those ways are relevant to how we structure our engagement, for better or worse, and what blind spots we’re stuck in.

What I know for myself is this: I keep coming back to racial justice spaces because it is the nexus of my accountability as an advocate. It aligns me with my values, my frameworks, and tools that help focus my skillset and self-awareness. And, my racial justice practices are informed and shaped by my trauma lens.

I invest in Facing Race as a convening because it is a space that enables me to use both of those truths. I’ll get back to what I mean by that exactly, because in keeping with a trauma lens thinking isn’t sequential in how it comes to you. Certainly not in the middle of the night, at least for me.

On Tuesday this week I attended an election watching party with other community members, watching pods of people huddle and react over the course of several hours. I instead was pacing, needing to come in and out of the stimulation of the screens and monitors, feeling too fully the physicality of each body passing its energy to the bodies around it, watching body language highlight the more unspoken stress.

This was the first election in six years where I haven’t had a defined direct service role in relationship to survivors, and that’s relevant for many reasons. Most basically because how I read the room is informed by my background in crisis response, and specifically supporting folks in various moments of crisis.

That part of my orientation to community engagement is in my body, and it’s highlighted on night’s like elections. Elections like in 2016 where I spoke to person after person in crisis, feeling our collective grief emerge before forming any analysis around what it meant. That posture — one of listening, one of holding, one of tracking in order to hold, seeing supports in an environment, was what I returned to on Tuesday. It’s also what I returned to throughout this past weekend, absorbing and remaining present.

What I heard most frequently were questions and vulnerable reflections.

I heard, “My resistance has faded, but I need to visualize the how.”

I heard, “Some part of me craves nuance and access to my imagination.”

I heard, “Let’s be strategic, and let’s follow through with evaluation.”

I heard, “How we build power, how we describe the stakes, how we participate needs to look different.”

I heard, “I’m selective in relating to allies”, and “who is the we”, and “I crave belonging”.

Many of us who are engaged in racial justice work, or social justice work, or movement work, are familiar with the failings and valid critiques of white women. And still I ask again, where in that critique do white survivors appear? How do we look at the questions and reflections being raised while bringing consciousness to both racial justice and trauma? What additional unpacking and reflection is needed right now? What approaches can we take that yield more engagement and sincerity?

There are many ways I fail as an accomplice to folks of color and survivors of color.

There are many tools I haven’t encountered, questions without answers, places where trust is lacking.

But what I know viscerally is that my accountability to both survivors and communities of color is connected to why I come back to racial justice convenings.

Practicing being explicit about whiteness while building awareness about trauma’s impact is where my accountability comes from in my thoughts, my wisdom, and my actions and decisions.

In this moment where racial justice work is confronting how it has not been accountable to the needs of survivors, and where our responses to sexual violence are embedded in white supremacy, white survivors need more conversation and skill building on how to stay engaged accountably.

I am far from an expert, but here are some understandings and practices I’ve developed over the last ten years. Practices that link my whiteness to my trauma, making room for accountability as a value.

Allow and acknowledge triggers, but enable titration.

Something that triggers us disconnects us from our thinking brain, and we need to be connected to our thinking brain to receive new information. Titration refers to the process of integrating new information within an amount of stress we can handle, so that our whole brain is involved, and our nervous system.

Don’t shame, but have consequences.

Shame doesn’t mobilize, it shuts us down and makes our thinking more rigid. It’s not a sustainable feeling to drive reflection and partnership, but we do need to be able to hear and respect boundaries and critique. Draw boundaries, follow through, and expect to have to self-correct and change habits.

Be real about dissociation.

Dissociation is a tool for disconnecting from the present, but it means we are often not present. Name that as something that shapes our self-assessment and reads of situations.

Forget equivalencies and drawing comparisons.

We are not invited to make unique experiences shared automatically, and we have to allow distinct individual and community experiences to be understood as distinct. There are limits to using yourself as an example, and possibilities to cause harm in oversimplifying.

Don’t stop for tears.

If crying becomes the thing that centers you in a space, it is creating a power dynamic. Your emotions need to be processed, but not at the expense of controlling or overtaking or shutting down a space.

Observe and come back.

The most useful thing you can do is notice what is happening in you, especially as it relates to getting triggered or emotional. If anything provides a strong reaction, flag it and come back to it.

Don’t have discussions in unbuilt containers.

Talking is not intrinsically better than not talking. Talking in a space that can hold the discussion is connected to how people engage, if they engage again, and who is harmed and centered.

Inner experience is yours to define.

There is no substitute for doing your own inner work. Only you can narrate your inner experience. You can’t borrow someone else’s self-work, and you can’t bypass the need to engage in your own, constantly.

Impact speaks for itself. Let harm drive responsive follow up.

Harm is not an opinion, and it doesn’t care what was meant. Address impact as an absolute, and then get to reflection, relationship repair, and accountability.

Give and get feedback in public.

Our implicit biases need to be engaged with in the moment so we can make connections appropriately, just like how kids need redirection in the moment when they are learning a new behavior. The pull asides have a place, but the normalcy of getting critiqued and responding to feedback is important.

Avoidance will enter; when not if.

Avoidance is one of a number of the universal responses we have to trauma, so we won’t escape it. What we can strive for is self-awareness, public commitments, and chances to retreat and reengage.

Feelings are physical.

To understand the significance of triggers, we have to think about the brain and the body. Simply put, what is triggering is also physiologically experienced. Give the body what it needs so it can supplement our head’s attempts to think our way out of oppression without including our embodied selves and needs. The body always has the last word, so try to listen before it yells. You can gauge presence by observing physical responses, and tending to them.

Principle of accumulation.

Nothing goes away; instead it accumulates. Make this principle work for you by practicing what you want to accumulate, like consent language, and communication, and deeper relational ties. Conversely, know that a small problem unaddressed will get larger, creating larger tolls and anxieties.

Make expectations explicit.

Whether this is one on one, in a group, with a stranger, in a public convening, get on the same page. Have agreements that are known to all and referred back to. Difficult conversations need structure.

Narrate whenever possible.

Because inner experiences are unique, we often perceive situations distinctly, but assume we experienced things the same way. Offering commentary on your experience, what you’re seeing in the room, what you’re hearing, creates documentation about dynamics at play that offer more information to the whole when they are voiced and incorporated. Narration supports group reflection and action.

When frontal lobe goes so will accountability.

Think titration again, or oscillating from being triggered to getting grounded. The frontal lobe is the part of our brain needed to encode and change internalized beliefs. Having conversations that trigger us, but don’t enable changed internalizations, only teach us that we’re triggered by that discussion.

Identify with whiteness consciously instead of unconsciously.

When we do not acknowledge whiteness as a racial identity, we do two things. We support is as a normal default, and we allow it to be defined singularly by white supremacy and its ideology. Naming whiteness in the room helps us move toward intentional practices rather than implicit associations.

Neutral is a myth.

There is no topic, word or behavior that doesn’t include the possibility of being triggering. Don’t assume that anything is casual, light hearted, or disconnected from someone’s personal experiences.

Working without consent doesn’t work.

Often work around racial justice isn’t something we choose to engage in, an experience or environmental requirement brings us to it. But work that is this personal has to be wanted to be sustainable. Calling out the role of developing buy in and supports in place matters for group dynamics. Provide frequent chances to give and take back consent, set conditions, add in boundaries, acknowledge harm, etc.

Emotional capacity supports intellectual capacity — you can’t think it if you can’t feel it. (on coping)

Coping is loosely simplified as any tool you use to function/deal. Thus, there is a wrap around set of skills to practice that teach us how to manage intolerable stress, and make choices in how we respond. This skillset must work in tandem with intellectually rigorous concepts that require us to hold a lot of information at once, while also experiencing increasing stress in response to it.

Straddling conflicting power dynamics; accounting for role, meanings, and histories.

Whatever multiple identities you carry, you also operate in specific professional and relational roles with additional power dynamics associated with them. Your role, your history, your multiple relationships, all of them must be negotiated simultaneously. Articulate factors specifically so you can become more astute at seeing their associated power dynamics in context.

Not seeing or being seen; seeing while being seen.

Being vulnerable and collaborative, being accountable to others, acknowledging hard truths about ourselves, requires disciplines that promote mutuality. You have to learn to apply more than one skill at a time, in this case, the ability to see your own experiences and someone else’s and engage with both compassionately.

Not talking or listening; listening so you can honor and support, and talking so you can build self-knowledge.

Being silent in a space, and overtaking it, are two sides of the same coin. A well facilitated space engages these abilities in everyone present so that multiple experiences can be validated, and the unique needs of communities and individuals can be engaged with, respected, and not sacrificed for efficiency.

From hyper vigilance to reorientation.

Another universal response to trauma is hyper vigilance, or not being able to tell what is important, so labeling everything as important as a defensive measure. This over engaged quality of thinking has to be channeled into something more productive, and something that allows the body to settle in a space. Orienting is how your body uses its five sense to recognize what a space looks like, feels like, what’s on the walls, where water or doors are. Both give you information that helps you make decisions about how to engage, but reorientation moves us from a trauma response to a collective, centering ritual.

Stress is a number amount; tune into the amount not just the sources.

The most important classification of stress is total amount. How much stress can you handle before you become triggered or in crisis? Learning to read that threshold, and try to operate within less stressful extremes, increases our presence in the moment and long term.

Coping over analysis; on why we repeat the same behavior.

Tools for coping don’t need to be consciously selected, they have more to do with what’s available to us. How we think about a concept, the analysis we draw, can’t ask us to give away a tool we are depending on to cope. In order to change frequent behaviors — like voting against your self-interest, or approaching trauma as color blind, we have to differentiate coping from wanted behaviors and values.

On losing your support system before building a new one.

Gaining consciousness around racial justice can disconnect you from other white survivors, family, etc., and often it will, at least in waves. You will have to make decisions about what risks and costs you can take and tolerate, and it will take time to develop new and different support systems.

You cannot be blank slated or exceptionalized.

Let go of your desire to outrun whiteness and its associations, and don’t kid yourself on how you’re different or less problematic. Don’t be distracted by logic that discourages accountability instead of encouraging it.

The lie of safe people.

People are not safe as a category. People are more or less accountable to harm they cause and how they impact others. Relationships can’t build resiliency or explicit commitments to accountability within this framework of labeling people as safe.

Urgent versus important.

This one I credit to my mom. It is not to say that stakes are not high, and it is not to negate action. It is only to say that what is important can’t only be dictated by what feels urgent, because that is a byproduct of crisis thinking, and a response to unmanageable stress. Know the difference between how we safety plan, and how we build practices for relating to each other with accountability.

What trauma teaches us is that it is not just consciousness that releases us from our internalized beliefs, it’s a complete exposing followed by repetitive attempts to unlearn harmful lessons we’ve experienced.

It’s also not only our knowledge, or our will, or our intentions and goals. Replacing internalized beliefs with new alternatives is the labor of the brain and nervous system, one small area at a time. It can only happen one area at a time because anything too large will retraumatize us and reinforce the internalization we’re holding. That means specific factors support us in managing our triggers.

What trauma also teaches us is that internalizations can be illuminated so we can engage with them and draw new conclusions. Applying that framework to racism and implicit bias offers us pathways for constructing transferable lessons in new and deliberate ways. It shows us what it takes to disrupt thoughts and behaviors practically, and it uses broad stroke examples that translate to actions.

You don’t get better at any of this. You’ll just engage in the work — the practices and relationships, more or less often. Frequency and explicitness are what will grow our capacity, and growing capacity is what will allow for the possibility of real, multiracial, multiethnic, multiple identity, multiple trauma survivor solidarity. We’re not there yet, and our accountability has been unimpressive — only in naming that out loud can be begin to get anywhere new or safer. I believe that our healing begins there, at the place where we see in the crisis the pattern and that once we see we can account for. Accounting for what we bring is the start of becoming accountable. We have to encourage each other to start doing this self-work, and witness the chance we have to share power and control from a place of consent. Consent to starting and the process will change you, but trauma is nothing if not change, and healing from trauma even more-so. For your sake and all of our sake, choose growth. Choose visibility. Choose to practice something that is hard and effortful. Choose to not sacrifice the healing of the whole, of survivors whose experiences you can’t relate to, of people who don’t yet take harm seriously. Choose responsibility, and relationships built from something stable. White supremacy is no more stable or stabilizing than trauma, no less internalized or consuming, no less influential in how it molds automatic responses to stress and threat. We have to take a step back and see ourselves, to see ourselves being seen and critiqued for the ways we’ve enabled harm or kept it invisible. Confess the harm so we all can start to heal and build from here. Confess the learning you need support engaging in so we can start to invest in the tools we require. Tools that I dream about at 2:58 am when I’m awake, imagining what’s possible.

I don’t know what keeps you up at night, or keeps you asleep so you’re not in your thoughts, and I believe this work to be painful and lonely. But maybe, it could be made less lonely.

Maybe we have to start with trauma and whiteness, not one or the other.

Maybe your body has been telling you this piece of wisdom the whole time.

I know mine has.

And I know bodies don’t lie. They speak the truth until we’re ready to listen and respond.

In this moment, my accountability is focused on helping us all get more ready to respond.