Racism is Trauma Too
Let me tell you a story.
Imagine you’ve been raped. Violently and repeatedly. The next day, you still have to go to work — per company policy, there is no time off allowed to heal or process rape-related trauma. Your manager, your team, they all know you’ve been raped, but they ask you to do your job anyway.
Now, imagine that your job is to help educate others about the negative impacts of rape. I know, right? Your job is to partner with subject matter experts and leaders to help them communicate about why rape is bad — how it hurts others, how we can make it stop, how it will never go away unless we all do our part, that rape will not be tolerated here and we will hold those who commit it accountable for their actions.
So, in order to do your job effectively, you must write compelling, persuasive messages. But the only way to do that is to remember what it felt like to be raped. And to do that, you must relive your trauma.
But you believe in the cause — you believe that change is possible, and you want to be a part of that change. So you dig deep into your trauma and you write with passion, hopeful that your work will enable others to bring about the change you wish to see.
And what you write for others to say is what you hope they would have said to you if they had to write it for themselves. It’s what you needed to hear from them so that you could heal. But as they speak your words to the cheering crowd, a slithering thread of disgust courses through you because you wonder, Do they mean what they’re saying right now, or did I just enable the beginning of a lie?
Still, you look for evidence that your words will spark change. That the strategies to eradicate rape culture will work. That people will live by their creeds. That this place is different. For a moment, you’ve become part of the solution, a cog in the wheel of change.
But then, you start hearing whispers. First, it’s one or two occurrences, but eventually it becomes habitual. People who look a certain way are being raped — right in your own company, in your own department — and the perpetrators are not being held accountable. Perhaps this place isn’t different after all. And when the victims speak up, they are either questioned (Are you sure that’s what happened?), judged (I’m sure it was warranted), invalidated (Yes, but that wasn’t the intent), or devalued (But they feel so badly about what they’ve done!).
With empathy, you try to speak up on behalf of the victims. Because you know that if you don’t speak up, you too are just as guilty of rape, even if you never touched the victim. Because you believe that your job matters — that you’re being the change you wish to see. But when you do speak on their behalf, you are silenced, labeled a trouble-maker, disruptive, angry. In fact, it’s permanently documented in your annual performance review.
Yes, the expression of your trauma, your stand for justice, is permanently recorded in your employment history as an infraction.
But you still have a job to do. So, you stifle your trauma. Self-disgust turns to apathy. Every day, you continue to partner with subject matter experts and leaders to help them communicate why rape is bad. And every day, another victim is raped. Every week, every month, every year, the same.
One day, someone else is raped. Just like you were. But this time, it’s different. This time, it’s a public broadcast. And this time, the whole world riots. No one can explain why it’s different — it just is. Suddenly, the perpetrators and those who chose to remain silent acknowledge your pain. Victims are baffled, wondering, Why do you now choose to see our trauma? What took you so long? Why didn’t you believe us before? And how do we know that things will be different this time?
In your company, meetings are scheduled to discuss rape trauma. Finally, rape victims have the chance to be seen, heard, to become the center of their own stories. Finally, they have a chance to explain how others have hurt them while sharing the same spaces every day at work.
All over the company, victims share their stories, but not about instances that occurred at work. No, these are stories from the past, too distant to be relevant or impactful. As a result, the perpetrators and those who chose to remain silent are instantly absolved of their transgressions.
It’s a good thing this sort of thing doesn’t happen at our company, they think, but I feel so horrible about what happened to these poor victims. In fact, I feel so guilty that I’ve never been a rape victim. I’m ashamed. I’m a horrible person. I’m going to apologize to everyone I know. I’m so sad that this is all I can focus on.
Others say, We have to protect our perpetrators and those who remained silent, because now they may lose their rights. What if they have guilt trauma in the future? Will they have the right to feel guilty?
And so, the story shifts from the victims’ pain to the perpetrators’ guilt. And the victims wonder, Will things really ever change?
In the meantime, leaders must react with even more strategies to eradicate the company’s rape culture. Now, they turn to you once again to help them communicate these messages (because clearly, the problem isn’t the strategy, it’s the messaging). But now, you feel like you’re no longer part of the solution, but part of a lie. Now, you feel like a hypocrite. Apathy turns to shame.
You wonder if the other rape victims silently seethe when they see you. You wonder if you’ve lost their respect. You wish there was a secret hand signal, some kind of code to let them know that you are still on their side, that you are just as cynical as they are, that you too, wonder how things are going to be different this time. You wish you could tell them that most days, you don’t believe in the cause, that you’re still angry that some perpetrators still walk the halls freely.
You want to tell them that you share the belief that a solution is possible — when all are held accountable, change can happen, and we all win.
Now, imagine if this story were really about rape. Even though rape is also a crime where victims are often blamed, or not believed, or have to relive their trauma, you’d be appalled by this story. That’s because for even rape trauma, victims are afforded the appropriate medical and mental health care and are warned of possible triggers so they can avoid them. Victims are the centers of their own stories and the perpetrators do not receive sympathy. But most importantly, the perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.
But not for victims of race.
I’m reeling from a mix of emotions. As someone who didn’t grow up in the U.S., I admittedly have less baggage and scars than my black/African American friends and colleagues, but I’m still traumatized by the constant, systemic racism I see and experience so often, both in my personal life and at work. As a communications practitioner, I am conflicted about my work supporting communications for diversity and inclusion when I continue to see a lack of accountability for racist behavior in my own company.
In the midst of my conflict and trauma, I’m grieving the loss of a man I never knew simply because I watched his murder at the hands of a police officer. In the midst of my grief, I’m warmed to receive notes of support from my non-black colleagues and friends, but I want you to know that it’s not my responsibility to comfort and soothe your unease. And while I’m hopeful and grateful that many are willing to start having difficult conversations, I’m tired from the burden of having to educate others, and I’m cynical that no action will be taken as a result of those conversations.
My pain is new to you, but it isn’t new to me. And this isn’t your story — it’s mine. In a way, it is my redemption for all the other stories I’ve told on others’ behalf that I didn’t believe.
This is my story.