The recent police killings of Black people, the subsequent protests and the removal of Confederate statues and other symbols have focused attention this summer on systemic racism. What has received less attention is the deep and ongoing trauma that racism has laid in.
Junice Rockman, a neuropsychotherapist with the Central Texas private practice JRocktherapy, says trauma can lead to insomnia, memory loss, flashbacks, hypervigilance, denial or avoidance. The brain will then "pack away" that trauma until we are ready to deal with it or it gets triggered.
Recent events have laid bare that trauma and racism, though the systems that helped create and sustain them have been in place for centuries. Rockman says confronting and dismantling racism starts with understanding that the system has impacted everyone in different ways.
"We were all born into this system whether we were recipients of the oppression primarily, or we were the oppressors primarily," she says, "or if we were not even present during some of those specific historical events."
She says thinking of a larger system like the United States in terms similar to a family system can help break down the work that needs to be done. And, Rockman says, blame is not an effective part of that work.
"If we blame, blame, blame," she says, "it evokes so much shame in the person who is the abuser or who has been the primary oppressor that they're going to go into denial and defense until the very end."
Instead, Rockman suggests shifting the talk to how to "actually change the system so that [abuse is] no longer tolerated and permitted" through appropriate accountability, boundaries, actions and recourse.
Rockman also says that system is long overdue for a reality check.
"I think we need to reexamine the fairy tale that we have in our minds of how the system was set up," she says. "And really be able to acknowledge that it was not set up to be shared, fair or equal, for all parties involved at that time."
Listen to the interview or read the transcript below to hear more from Junice Rockman about confronting and dismantling racism and its trauma through a system–centered approach and what she believes is the true underlying cause of racism.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman: We were all born into this system – whether we were recipients of the oppression primarily, or we were the oppressors primarily, or if we were not even present during some of those specific historical events. Oftentimes patterns of shame, patterns of guilt, patterns of violence, patterns of power and control – those things are passed on.
So, who we are is in part biological, it’s psychological and it’s social. The effects of systematic oppression, racism and colonization around the globe – they’ve affected everyone. We have all collectively been traumatized. And so as a system, as humanity, I think that we have to all come together to not only fix it, but to deal so that we can heal.
KUT: How does all of that then affect conversations that people are trying to have about race and racism?
Rockman: Instead of trying to curate or micromanage other people's experience – or just going completely silent because silence can be harmful and even abusive – it's OK to actually sit down and have a dialog and to actually listen and to speak, to understand, not to be understood.
And then if a person doesn't have any, as I call them, empathy reps or neural reps to make a neural connection to what you're talking about, there's going to be some distance there. There's going to be some disconnection. If we could be patient with that process, I think as long as we are working together for a proactive change and not just change. but consequences and accountability.
And then also – to reexamine because I’ve heard so many people say the system isn't working. I think we need to reexamine the fairy tale that we have in our minds of how the system was set up and really be able to acknowledge that it was not set up to be shared, fair or equal, for all parties involved at that time. However, it doesn't mean that we have to be operating from that same foundation. We can acknowledge it. Maybe it is working because it was set up to be unfair. However, how do we now reestablish and redefine what that looks like?
When you're in your trauma brain you're talking about highly inflammatory and sensitive content. Your natural, innate, organic response is going to want to be defensive, but also to be illogical. So, give yourself some time to breathe, to listen to what the other person is saying. If you have to, write a couple of things down on a sticky note to keep yourself grounded in the moment.
And try and tackle one point at a time. Because if you just throw the whole thing at one person back and forth then no one's being heard. And all that's happening is walls of defense are being erected, so then connection gets lost. The goal is connection.
KUT: The description of our country as sort of a family system, if you will – to change a system like that or to improve a system like that don't you need all the parts cooperating and being willing to change that dynamic to move toward healing?
Rockman: Thankfully, no. We don't need all of the members of that family to be on the same page. What typically happens in systems work, though, is that we do need enough people who are allying one piece or one segment at a time.
I've done work with survivors of domestic violence or other kinds of abuses of power. Abuse –whether it's economic abuse or sexual abuse or physical abuse or whatever it is – abuse is never about that actual thing that’s being abused. It's never about money. It's never about sex. It's never about physical strength. It's always about power and control.
So, when we're doing family systems work and we want to start changing patterns and cycles of abuse, one of the things we need to do is take responsibility and move from blame shifting. Because if we blame, blame, blame, it evokes so much shame in the person who is the abuser or who has been the primary oppressor that they're going to go into denial and defense until the very end.
So, what we want to talk more about is how can we actually change the system so that it's no longer tolerated and permitted. What kind of accountability, boundaries and actions do we need to take so that people who are acting out these kinds of abuses of power know that they cannot continue in the same way without some sort of recourse?
And then as long as we have enough allied people going in the same direction that we can actually start to change the culture of that family. And what happens is the old system, the old culture and the old actions that used to get a pass – they begin to die out because it's outnumbered and so systematic change with tangible results starts to happen.
KUT: When you're talking about blame: how can people who are not willing to see a different point of view, who are racist – how can that be done effectively and avoid the blame cycle?
Rockman: This might be a radical statement so here we go. I really believe that racism itself is just a coping mechanism for fear, because I believe at the root of everything we do in life, every action, every reaction, every response is either fear or love. And it's a fear of loss of power and control. So, if we can get to what that person is afraid of, we can talk to them about it from that perspective as a human being and let our own defenses down.
I've had grown men sit across and just weep because they feel so much shame, but they don't know what to do with it. So, oftentimes we're raised with these ideas. This is how you keep power, control. And so when they see somebody that looks a certain way, that threat–detection system is triggered. That's how we begin to heal it. We begin to heal the brain and we begin to heal what that person fears the most.
And that takes a whole lot of patience, wisdom and understanding. But if you can show them enough of that oftentimes they're willing to open up and talk about it. Just like any recovery process, that person has to want to recover. But more often than not I see that more people want to recover even as it relates to race and racism.
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