Top critical review
TREATING RACISM AS TRAUMA - BUT DOES IT WORK?
Reviewed in the United States on December 1, 2020
Main thesis of book:
All humans have been traumatized by violence (witnessing, perpetrating, receiving, etc) over many centuries, and carry trauma in our bodies (and lizard brains), that gets in the way of self-control. This is a no-fault analysis, which is one of the rather novel and refreshing aspects of the book. We can’t "logic" our way out of racism, nor blame our way out of this. We have to tune into our bodies, do healing exercises, and learn to calm our bodies, so that we can be open and less afraid of each other across racial lines, and can open ourselves to information about our violent, racist history and institutional racism. Most particularly, the traumatized oppressors (white people) can’t expect the oppressed (black people) to do the work for them, or rescue them - white people have to do their own work, and establish their own leaders, rituals, and cultural practices to achieve this end. Only then can we come together as one human family.
What I liked:
• I particularly appreciated the “no fault” approach, because whether or not all white people carry trauma in their bodies from our historical experience of violence, I think it is a better approach for opening people to change - as opposed to stern accusations and blame.
• His first chapter or two on trauma, and how we carry it in our bodies over many years and generations, quite powerful and convincing (for a whole variety of traumas). However, I am dubious about his belief that trauma is imprinted in our genes in real time, and passed on to children. I am open to more information.
• His frequent recommendations to look to elders as part of a healing program. (We put a lot of elders in office in high places, but tend to consider this a “down side” (Biden, Pelosi, etc) .I notice that our society gives license to cruel and nasty jokes about older people all the time - even on my favorite shows. Ageism seems to be the one place where there is free license to be abusive and cruel, even by “progressives”. Catch SNL portrayal of Biden by Jim Carrey.
• While many exercises seemed pretty standard breath and related techniques, I did find some of the Body and Breath Exercises starting on page 141 imaginative and when tried , surprisingly fun and helpful, especially humming and buzzing.
What was less convincing and/or not so well-done:
• Above all, this is an incredibly repetitious book. It could be written in half the pages or less. While this is a common problem, I found this book to be about the worst case of repetition I have come across in a long, long time. You can skim vast portions of the book.
• His exercises for calming the body and learning to notice trauma (with exceptions noted above) seemed repetitious and would be familiar to many readers.
• His recommends certain “cures” such as EMDR and Reiki (last chapter of book) which have been discredited by many.
• A couple of times in the book he violates what I found best in his approach. He lets his guard down, and out pop comments like this (p. 271): This gives them (white people trying to help other whites change for the better) an opportunity to say to America’s overt white supremacists: “You’re a bunch of spoiled children. You think your whiteness makes you special. You aren’t. You think your whiteness entitles you to privileges and respect. It doesn’t. Grow up, start caring for your fellow human beings, and earn the respect you crave.” Anyone who has worked with the traumatized knows this is not usually an effective approach. The author should know better. What really encourages people to change?
• The author is essentially a-political in his analysis: Check out page 104, where he lays his cards on the table succinctly: “There is only one way through this stalemate. White Americans must accept, explore, and mend their centuries-old trauma around the oppression and victimization of white bodies by other, more powerful white bodies.” The more I think about this, the less convinced I am - especially given these past four Trump years. I am not sure we can wait for all these white people to "do the work", which may be forever. And I suspect (unproven!) that changing the economic conditions of oppressed peoples (black, NA, women, LBGTQ, Asian, folks with disabilities, poor/uneducated whites etc) - providing good jobs, quality education, housing, and health care - might get us there a lot sooner. And these are political acts, not rubbing one’s tummy and settling oneself down. It’s a long-standing debate: do you change people (more or less one by one) or do you change systems, and people will thrive and bloom in good ways.
• Here’s my most important concern: The author was a trainer for the Minneapolis police and wrote this book prior to the Floyd George killing. I don’t expect training to deliver 100%, but it calls attention to a really serious problem with all the kind of training programs going on around the country on racism: what works? What really changes people? Versus what makes a lot of money for the trainers or satisfies some business requirement? As with DiAngelo (White Fragility), (whom he praises, and who praises him on the book cover) - he benefits from a continuing, growing pool of customers. I hate to be a cynic, but this is a long-standing problem in the mental health field. I am big on “deliverables.” What REALLY inspires people to change? Prove to me that the training changes behaviors! I notice that with all the many chapters and many words in this book, there is no chapter on measurable results from his work.
You will be happy to hear that this about sums up my thoughts on this book. I would be more likely to recommend it for people who have been traumatized by something in their lives (abuse etc.) than for people working on racism issue, and because of the first two or three chapters. The book that had the biggest impact on me regarding my own racism and institutional racism and how to effect change has been MLK, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community - still so relevant - the last book he ever wrote. And The Fire Next Time by Baldwin.