It’s no secret that African-Americans have been marginalized by society. Though slavery ended with the Civil War, true equality still has not happened. This sad truth has very deep roots.
Numerous studies have found that many descendants of slaves suffer from what is known as intergenerational trauma. Very simply, trauma experienced by their ancestors has been passed down, through the generations, to them. This phenomenon is also found among the descendants of Holocaust survivors, Native Americans and other groups whose ancestors have been subjected to systemic abuse, dehumanization and genocide.
The transatlantic slave trade is one of the most destructive periods in human history and the study of ramifications to the descendants of slaves has barely scratched the surface. Researchers have found, though, that the psychological and sociological impacts on the descendants to be significant.
How is it possible to experience someone else’s trauma?
Epigenetics and Vicarious Trauma
Researchers have found that an individual’s genetic makeup can change due to experiencing trauma. Many of these changes take place within one’s DNA and brain chemistry, which are then passed down one’s lineage.
This refers to the study of epigenetics, which is described by the National Institutes of Health National, Human Genome Research Institute as, “an emerging field of science that studies heritable changes caused by the activation and deactivation of genes without any change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism. The word epigenetics is of Greek origin and literally means over and above (epi) the genome.” In simple English, this means that structure changes can occur in genes which can be transmitted to offspring.
From these biological changes, come environmental changes.
Environmental components additionally play into transference, including parenting styles, family environment, attachment, learning and modeling, and vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, is the indirect exposure to trauma through a firsthand account or narrative of the event.
This is an emerging science and new information is being discovered all of the time.
Ancestral Trauma, Today
It is definitely not a simple concept; however, if you think about the ever-present racism in our society, along with systemic inequalities, it puts things in perspective.
A lot of the issues that create trauma, such as fear, hopelessness, discrimination, and socio-economic inequality, are not exclusive to any specific period in time and still exist today. While civil rights have officially improved, in the real world, discrimination and exploitation of African-Americans are still very real and present. The impacts of these events continue to be ever-reaching.
Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed our country rise up to protest racial inequality. Watching the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis evoked strong, visceral feelings for many people, and not just African-Americans.
For many, this murder has became another.
Another moment of fear and victimization.
Another moment of being reminded of inequality.
Another loss to grieve.
Having these open dialogues about slavery and the systemic injustices that our country is rooted in, allows these traumatic events to be acknowledged and honored by the larger community and country, which can help contribute to healing.
We start these dialogues by listening.
Research additionally shows overcoming trauma is possible and is more likely to occur if communities are supported and empowered to identify the problems that exist and work towards solutions that emphasize restoring, reaffirming, and renewing pride in cultural identity.
We start working towards these solutions by building cultural awareness.
Trauma has the ability to define our behaviors, the way we experience life, and our identity. When we ignore the pain, it continues to define us.
It’s time to stop ignoring it.