The following memo was written by a group of people who participated in the Racing ACEs gathering.
It’s 2016. Local and national protests rise against an ongoing stream of state-sanctioned murders. African-American lives are being lost at a frequency and in a manner that decry ethnic cleansing. Sacred Indigenous land is being desecrated for profit. African-American, Native American, Latino American, Asian American, and poor communities are facing dislocation, police violence, and a range of traumas that compose the frayed ends of America’s historically racist national fabric.
It’s August 2016. In the middle of an election season replete with racially charged rhetoric, immersed in Black Lives Matter actions and the rich local history of social justice movements, a group of practitioners, researchers, and community advocates come together in Richmond, California.
Who we are: We are more than two-dozen carefully selected representatives engaged at the nexus of the trauma-informed and racial justice fields, forming a circle on behalf of our ancestors, our children, and ourselves. What brings us to the room, to the work? Colonialism brought us here. Imperialism brought us here. The spine of western civilization and plunder of nations brought us here. Slavery, ethnic cleansing, all things that made this country possible, that make possible the hoarding of wealth in the hands of a few, all the ramifications of those things, of race as a structure that cages us—that is what brings us here. Oscar Grant brings us here. Mike Brown brings us here. Tamar Rice and Sandra Bland bring us here. Eric Garner. Alex Nieto. Terence Crutcher Korryn Gaines Philando Castile Alton Sterling Anthony Nuñez Jessica Williams Loreal Tsingine … As kin of the murdered, we share an urgent and crucial need to speak. For them. For us.
On the agenda: An exploration of how racial justice – its values, investments, strategies and practices – can be centered at the heart of trauma-informed work. The meeting is called “Racing ACEs,” a reference to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Our work, in a fundamental sense, is to race ACEs so that we can explicate the inequitable burden of racial oppression, as well as the intersections of oppression, privilege and liberation in all their forms.
The ambivalence of ACEs: The ACE Study is a valuable tool that brings a wider audience to what clinicians, researchers, and advocates working in the field of child and adolescent trauma have said for decades – confirming that experiences of violence, neglect, and trauma are harmful to a person’s long-term health. For those of us in the room, the opportunity and obligation to leverage the study and its implications is also matched by an ambivalence. The ambivalence that fills the all too common absence of historical trauma and ongoing violence and harm aimed at people of color. This absence has an atmospheric effect that conveys and compounds harmful pathologies surrounding people of color in the midst of ongoing trauma – pathologies that lead to misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and false assignments that render us as problematic and risk-laden. When they are translated into policies, practices, and investments, these inaccurate pathologies further perpetuate and codify racial oppression and the dehumanization of people of color.
Much of our time together during Racing ACEs, then, was spent in a challenging and often painful discourse. Together in that space we held and hold each other. In congregating we braided our strengths, making cable and network of them; we reinforced ourselves, refortified our ambition by showing each other our experiences. Despite our differences we put our lives on the table in front of us and recognized, reaffirmed, the core similarities of them all: a value for these same differences and an insistence that they are not a marker of worth, that our worth is our ability to be proud, dignified, and strong in the midst of a war being waged against us.
We held our pain, sharing the weight of it so that our neighbors can stand again rather than crumple beneath it. We acknowledged that our pain is sacred – and so too our rage: rage at systems that perpetuate oppression; rage at systems that fail to recognize themselves as causing the trauma they claim to fight; rage at the incremental changes in cultural and organizational practice that we are forced to accept as ‘good enough’ when it comes to our lives and our dignity; rage that “people are dying, people are being hurt everyday, and people are being paid with our tax dollars to do it”; rage that people stripped “of family, community, safety, and other protective factors of privilege are left raw, exposed… hurting”; rage that so many of us came to and lived in the space “heavy with grief”.
This rage, all of it, is sacred, as one of the great minds among us pointed out. And our commitment to channel it productively and heal ourselves is priority.
Also of import, we recognize the need to bring together white people and people of color to dismantle the fallacy of whiteness and address issues like white supremacy, white fragility, and the role and responsibility of white people to actively rupture and repair the harms of racial oppression. For the privileged that depend on supremacy for their own well-being and preservation, this struggle is key. How do we dismantle habits of “whiteness” for ourselves and for diverse communities at large, especially those who profit from such habits? Given that some of us understand “white” to be another term for savage greed, how do we cross the divide to do this work? And how do we make it clear that the quest to end white supremacy is in itself a white responsibility? And that for the sake of our own health we must set that responsibility aside and leave it for the privileged to resolve, while we simultaneously fight for space in which to live safely while the privileged fail to make overdue progress.
Our aims and assignments:
- Racing ACEs was, to our knowledge, the first meeting of its kind, and to many it felt long overdue. Again and again participants called for “more human, and financial resources, so we can have these conversations and do this work.”
- We must foster and sustain more of these too-rare spaces — including spaces that are solely for people of color — to honor sacred pain and rage, to create joy, and to share our stories, and build power.
- Racing ACEs included a discussion of critical and practical resources for trauma-informed work. If we are truly to center on liberation we need to collectively bring a racial justice lens to specific tropes and tools within that space. This includes reexamining the ACE Study in public practice, taking into account, for example, cultural and racial humility as practiced by the privileged, as well as the tremendous and all-exhausting resilience necessitated by people of color, LGBTQ people, as well as the differently-abled who must daily navigate hostile spaces in public and in private.
- As one participant pointed out: “Until we get to a place where ‘white’ people recognize their harm, we can’t make change.” The challenge, then, is to learn what it will take to bring white people together to do white-on-white work around issues like white supremacy, white privilege and white fragility. And this particular challenge cannot and should not be the responsibility of Afrodescendants, Indigenous, Latino, Asian, or any person of color. The challenge to dismantle white privilege and harm is a challenge to be shouldered by white people whose white-on-white work must address white fragility and combat white privilege.
- As targets in a race war, the priority to speak is ours – all of ours. We must connect and build with other communities who were underrepresented in the space, including our Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, South Asian and Southwest Asian partners.
It is 2016. Today, tomorrow, and ever-forward we will hold our community—our pain, our rage, and our joy—as our key to survival, as our key to honoring ancestors who are our strength, and against whom our children will measure us for generations.
We are the living frontline of resistance.