Obstacles to Being an Ally

Where Body, Spirit, Healing & Social Justice Meet
April 22, 2010
from Victim Body to Creative Body
May 14, 2010

Recently I realized that the most significant obstacles that stop me from owning my privilege and stepping passionately into allyship with racial, economic and gender justice issues are connected to the personal and social trauma I have experienced and been shaped by.

What do I mean by “trauma”? According to Peter Levine, trauma is “the often debilitating symptoms that many people suffer in the aftermath of perceived life-threatening or overwhelming experiences.”  From Staci Haines and Denise Benson, teachers of Generative Somatics (www.somaticsandtrauma.org)  I have learned that trauma particularly wounds our sense of safety and connection. When I use the term personal trauma, I am referring to trauma that occurs within intimate relationships, such as attachment trauma, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, etc.

Social trauma is a term I learned from Staci Haines, and is another way of describing systemic oppression, such as racism, classism, ableism, adultism, transphobia, homophobia, sizeism, anti-semitism, etc. in addition to  the traumatizing impact that oppression has on target groups and communities, oppression is experienced very intimately by individuals. In that respect, all trauma is “personal” trauma.

Unfairness and scarcity associated with social trauma is often at the root of personal trauma as well. For example, my own attachment trauma was caused by my mother ‘s inability to give me the love and attention I needed as an infant. This inability was caused in part by the personal and social traumas of sexism, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and poverty that she and my female ancestors suffered from.

And what is underneath that? The lingering effects of poverty, passed down from grandmother to mother to child as scarcity; prevented my mother from receiving attentive loving parenting when she was a child, sexism limited her ability as a young woman to choose a fulfilling vocation, and domestic violence used up all of her attention and energy in basic survival. So oppression is passed down through generations.

The impacts of these social traumas trickled down to me, manifesting as more attachment trauma, child sexual abuse, and sexism.

It was so difficult for my ancestors to not succumb to numbness and denial, just to shut out the misery, just to survive. For them and for me, denial has been a key means of surviving oppression. Sometimes our sanity—our very lives–have depended on not feeling, not seeing what is happening to/in our bodies and around us.

It is such a struggle for me to wake from this numbness and maintain awareness of the even heavier burden of unfairness and scarcity that social trauma inflicts on people of color, poor and working class people, and people with disabilities.

As Mab Segrest points out in her essay, Of Soul and White Folks (Born To Belonging), generations of white people practicing numbness and other survival patterns have ill-equipped myself and other white women to see and feel and challenge racism.

So these survival patterns have terrible side effects. But these survival patterns do not die easily.

And so, on these pages I want to share with you, dear reader, what I have learned about what it takes to unravel these once-essential, now-redundant survival patterns, and begin to practice authentic allyship. And I use the word “practice” deliberately, cuz thank goodness!–we don’t have to be perfect. “Practice” also means we need to keep at it, day by day, the same way we take the time to work out, brush our teeth, or practice playing an instrument.

Finding compassion for what my ancestors and I did to survive social trauma—the same things that beings all over the planet do to survive trauma: fight, flee, freeze, appease, dissociate—helps me to forgive myself and my people—white people–for being so oblivious to the suffering we inflict on people of color. This compassion also helps me soften that denial, and allows my heart to awaken to its connection with all beings. I have found that compassion and awareness is essential for me to begin and sustain the daily practice of allyship with racial, economic and gender justice struggles.

1 Comment

  1. Christian says:

    Since talking with you last month, I have found that your approach to personal and social trauma has been the main way that I look at these issues in myself and the people around me. Its good to be reminded that there are larger goals at stake, too. So glad that you are there helping people on the micro and macro levels!