The downtown street was dark and unfamiliar. There were deep shadows punctuated by yellow streetlamps. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but the sidewalk was mostly empty save for a rather large man ahead of me. The clip of my heels echoed in the silence, and I began to think that leaving my hotel room had been a bad idea. But I wasn’t the only one who was alerted by the sound of my shoes in the dark. The linebacker ahead of me changed his pace, moving with urgency towards the lit buildings ahead. Instead of backing off as I should have done and determined not to be left behind in the dark, I also moved with urgency towards the lit buildings. Eventually, my short, quick steps caught up to the big, black man. Turning towards me as I passed, he said, “You scared me.”
That incident took place a number of years ago while I was attending an innovation workshop in Houston, Texas. Seeking a more diverse perspective, I had made the six-hour drive to the city rather than attending an earlier training closer to the rural areas we served. I still have much to learn from my friends and neighbors of color, but back then, I was just waking up to the realities of racism in America. I was highly ignorant of the implications of living in a world forcefully constructed by black hands to serve white purposes. Whatever facts I had heard or read about disparity had barely begun to soak in.
I did not understand that black women were 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy associated complications and 3-4 times more likely to be disabled while giving birth (Beim) than I am, or that black babies are twice as likely to die as my own (Stallings), or that black men are nearly 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than my husband, who is also of European descent (Bronson).
Researchers who study generational trauma believe that the effects of severe psychological trauma can be passed on to future generations through epigenetics (Henriques). This means that babies can grow up in nurturing, healthy environments, but still have mental and physical health challenges if a parent or grandparent endured extreme trauma. Some scientists believe that, if the environment remains stable, that the epigenic effect will eventually heal, and the expression will cease to manifest in future generations.
But what happens when trauma is rebranded and complexified from generation to generation? What happens when a society that declares “liberty and equality for all” continues to operate within the parameters of an antiquated and perverse system that relies on the ongoing exploitation and abuse of bodies of color? Over time—even over generations, those bodies’ regulatory systems, or “allostatic load” become dysregulated, and “weathering” occurs (Greenberg). The physical expression of generational trauma is manifested in today’s health. Today’s young people of color are experiencing a panic attack that began over 400 years ago.
Today, I am grateful for the variety of perspectives and backgrounds that now enrich my relationships. Because of those relationships, I have a better (but still evolving) understanding of how to walk with my friends and neighbors of color, wherever they lead.
How do we interrupt this generational panic attack? Creatively. Innovatively. With Intentionality and in the spirit of Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.”
By Naphtali Renshaw
Beim, Piraye. “The Disparities in Healthcare for Black Women.” 6 June 2020. ENDOMETRIOSIS FOUNDATION OF AMERICA. September 2021. <https://www.endofound.org/the-disparities-in-healthcare-for-black-women>.
Bronson, Jennifer, Ph.D., and E. Ann Carson, Ph.D. “Prisoners in 2017.” U.S. Department of Justice, 2019. September 2021. <https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/p17.pdf>.
Greenberg, Alissa. “How the stress of racism can harm your health—and what that has to do with Covid-19.” 14 July 2020. PBS. September 2021. <https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/racism-stress-covid-allostatic-load/>.
Henriques, Martha. “Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations?” 26 March 2019. British Broadcasting Company. September 2021. <https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190326-what-is-epigenetics>.
Stallings, Ericka. “The Article That Could Help Save Black Women’s Lives.” October 2018. Oprah.com. September 2021. <https://www.oprah.com/health_wellness/the-article-that-could-help-save-black-womens-lives#ixzz5VRnkBHiz>.