As a biblical counselor, I have had many counselees ‘of color’ who have specifically needed help working through the trauma they have encountered by living and moving within majority white spaces. After a multitude of trauma patients who needed soul care related to racial issues, and after assessing my own trauma along the same lines, it became clear to me that both I and my counselees suffered from various degrees of “racial trauma”. Racial trauma was not something I learned about in my biblical counseling degree program, and it was not something I learned about from my family or peers. I spent months searching for data about racial trauma and Christian counseling, but I ultimately came up empty. It was at that point, that I began to tap into my historical theology background and began to reflect on the African American experience in America in a fresh new way. I studied the history of the black experience and the reality of racialization in America, and after doing so, I walked away with the building blocks for a new counseling need that was foreign to the biblical counseling community I was apart of, namely racial trauma counseling.
Dr. King and Racial Trauma
In this article, and in light of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder/assassination, I would like to take a look at some of the things King himself has said that relates to racial trauma. My argument in this article is not that Dr. King had a fully developed technical understanding of racial trauma. Rather, I would like to take a look at some of King’s words and in this article, provide a summary of some of the major racial trauma categories King seems to be aware of as plaguing the black community. I will seek to do this by looking at a portion of Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, and providing commentary. Below, you will find the excerpt I will seek to briefly analyze. After providing a summary in this article, I would like to provide follow up works breaking down in greater detail what Dr. King is telling us in this passage and how it relates to racial trauma.
…But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean… when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait…” – Martin Luther King Jr., A Letter From Birmingham Jail
PTSD and Racial Trauma
Tears streamed down my face, and my body shook as I witnessed another man who looked like me die. As I watched Philando Castille’s blood pour out of his body and his life slip away, my own past traumatic experiences with police officer’s flashed before my eyes. I kept hearing a voice inside tell me over and over, “it could’ve been you.” I watched live on social media as the police officer pointed the gun at the black woman’s body who sat next to her dying partner. It was clear that the police officer had lost all control and with a screaming black baby in the back seat, I felt like I was moments away from witnessing a double homicide and the beginning moments of life long trauma in the little girl. The woman’s life was spared, but the killing of Philando Castile broke me. For a few years now, I had witnessed the public execution of unarmed black bodies on a regular basis. I, along with many others, had to navigate living as men of color in a racialized society and a largely racially indifferent church and seminary community. As we felt like we were dying inside, we listened as friends and pastors spoke with racial insensitivity and at times antagonism towards issues concerning race as well as these traumatizing acts of violence. With the little emotional energy we had left, we sought to speak up about how these events made us feel, but many of us were quickly dismissed by our friends and white spiritual leaders as being divisive. Instead of being shepherded, many of us were told that we were threats to the unity of our church and that we needed to remain silent.
Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the psychological and spiritual affects that unjust murder had on the black community. He understood that witnessing the unlawful execution of black people perpetrated by white men in authority like police officers was traumatic. In response to white evangelical pastors telling King to simply wait for equality, King wrote, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” The black community has always lived in a constant state of fear. This fear is perpetuated by the reality that unjust black death has always been made a public spectacle. Whether it be public lynchings or police shootings, the black community is constantly reminded that their life does not matter and this reality assaults the psyche of the black community on a daily basis. The assault on the black mind is perpetuated when they belong to predominately white spaces that do not affirm their value either. Over the past few years, we have seen a generation of new racial trauma victims birthed out of majority white churches. For the black community, the church has always been a place of refuge. For centuries, the Black Church has served as a hospital for racial trauma victims. As more African Americans migrate to majority white churches, these churches are not equipped to care for these traumatized saints and the indifference and antagonism these black saints experience perpetuate and deepen, rather than sooth what I call racial trauma.
The Trauma of Perpetual Poverty
Historically, the black community in America has always lived in an airtight cage of poverty. From enslavement to ghettos and now through the agenda of mass incarceration which has robbed many black families of their sons and fathers; the black community as a collective whole is a forcibly impoverished community. This reality is largely the result of racialized systems that are in place that allow white people to flourish while black people fight to simply survive. Dr. King recognized the psychological toll that this reality had on his community, and it fueled him to fight for their equality. King saw economic equality as a key to the cage of poverty his people were in, King states, “when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Witnessing your community suffocating and without hope is a devastating thing to experience. Poverty plagues the black community, and there are racialized systems that have been in place for centuries ensuring that such poverty continues. Families have been broken as sons and fathers have been displaced due to mass incarceration. The pain and angst that comes from being a person of color in a racialized society can lead to various forms of self-medication and the “war on drugs” has seen to it that such self-medicating (racially traumatized) people are locked behind bars rather than cared for and rehabilitated. Once said people are released from prison, they enter into an even darker crevice of their cage as opportunities for work disappear as well as opportunities to be a productive citizen through acts such as voting. School systems in dense minority areas are left without proper funding, and so the hope of education being the key to exit the cage is abandoned at an early age. Living life knowing that you are stuck in poverty and there is no hope of ever flourishing is depressing and leads to deep despair as well. These feelings of hopelessness and despair are compounded as the media and political parties present such people of color as simply free loading criminals who are inconvenient burdens upon society. In light of all this, the black community and other communities of color witness the white community benefit from the same systems that have been put in place to keep them from flourishing. These realities can lead someone to question not only their humanity but their inherent value as well.
Parenting and Child Trauma
One of the most significant sections of King’s letter as it relates to racial trauma is the following, “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” ”
The day my children were born, as I held each in my hands and wept with joy, I also knew as a dad that the day would come when each one would come to realize that they were people of color. I knew this reality would come with a progressive understanding of racialization and colorism. As a father, my prayer to God was that he would preserve my children’s ignorance concerning racial realities, and that they would not grow in the knowledge of race and come to a point where they hate their skin. Parents of black children raise their children with a nagging question that eats away at their minds and spirit. That question is this, “will my children grow, learn, and come to a place where they think they are inferior to their peers because they aren’t white?” This question haunts the mind of many black parents and panic ensues every time they see their child choose a white doll over a black one. Panic ensues as these parents ask their children this question because the typical answer many of these parents receive is, “because she is prettier.” By most standards, Children of color encounter concepts of racial inferiority and colorism earlier than most people realize. These introductions to racial inferiority consist of everything from the N-word on the playground to the realization that none of the dolls in the toy store look like them. As a Christian Counselor, my experience informs me that children of color generally have their first outward racialized experience between the ages of 6 to 8 years old. Prior to that, they principally struggle with internalized colorism. When I do counseling with adults who are experiencing racial trauma, their first stories of racialization and colorism are typically around this age as well if not younger. Most parents are also oblivious to the moment this happens to their own children largely because they are too busy seeking to cope with their own racial trauma. This reality doesn’t just apply to black children, but this applies to all children of color. As King points out in the latter part of this section of his letter, when it comes to parental fears, all of this is compounded by the fear that their children will themselves become racist. Parents of color not only struggle under the yoke of racism, they also struggle under the yoke of fear that their own children grow to become racist against themselves or against their white peers who may have racialized them.
The Trauma of Dehumanization
The reality of dehumanization and racialization is hard to describe in words. For those who have never experienced the dehumanization that comes with racism, it is easy to place it in the same category as bullying or verbal abuse. I’ve often heard people who have never been racialized dismiss the issue as not a big deal, and one that should be easily overcome. Racialization does often include bullying and verbal abuse and these things themselves can be dehumanizing, but living under racism is unique in its experience and effect. We should never minimize verbal abuse, bullying, or racial trauma. We must recognize that all of these things can have deep emotional, spiritual, and psychological affects on people made in the image of God. When it comes to racialization, King describes how traumatic it can be as he writes, “when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” When you witness people who look like you murdered without recourse, and you spend your days trying to affirm your own humanity as well as that of your children, and in the midst of that you are constantly being told from every angle that you are less than what is normative (whiteness) it all takes a serious toll. You begin to wonder whether or not you are delusional and you begin to ask yourself what if the racists are right. The exhaustion that comes with trying to internally prove your own humanity while externally having it constantly brought into question or treated as if it doesn’t matter leads to deep confusion and trauma. It leads to psychological and spiritual exhaustion that can ultimately lead to an individual’s acquiescence to the idea that they truly are inferior. Dr. King recognized this potential and though he may not have classified it as racial trauma, he was intimate with the experience. Dr. King recognized that the cost of not fighting for equality was more than simply a legal battle for equality. King was fighting not only for justice and legal equality; he was fighting for the soul and mind of the black community. He knew that if the black community did not obtain equality, the psychological and spiritual trauma of the black experience would eventually take its toll.
We Cannot “Wait” to care for the Racially Traumatized
King concludes the section we are looking at with the following words, “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” This is my appeal to the church, we can’t wait. King understood how deep and devastating racial trauma was and it was this reality that fueled him in his work. Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail was a response to the majority culture church’s leadership who was encouraging him to be silent. Not only was the majority culture church’s leadership encouraging him to be silent regarding equality and justice, but they were also ultimately asking him to overlook and dismiss the trauma of the black community; trauma that they were culpable in creating and perpetuating. Dr. King would not stand by while his people suffered. He could not sit idly by while they suffered inequality and the trauma that comes with being black in a racialized society that prioritizes whiteness. King lived and ministered through a theology of love. It was his theology of love that fueled his activism as well as his resolve to speak up for the traumatized. Christians need to take the reality of racial trauma seriously. Christian ministers, counselors, and pastors must recognize the cost that has been paid to fight for the racially traumatized. King’s battle to advocate for the racially traumatized cost him his life; he was murdered for it. A multitude of other black and white Christians have given their lives and have lost their reputations and churches for this great cause. I write this appeal as someone who knows personally the cost of advocating for the racially traumatized in majority culture spaces such as churches and seminaries. The cost is worth it, and it cannot wait.
I look forward to diving deeper into King’s words from his Birmingham Jail letter. In my next article, I will take a deeper look at the history that informed King’s writing in this letter. Dr. King did not write the words we have looked at in a vacuum. King was writing as a black preacher and pastor informed by a tradition and history. I look forward to discussing the history and tradition that undergirds King’s words in this letter at a later time. I believe that the reality of racial trauma finds its origins further back than the Jim Crow era and I look forward to exploring its history with you. From there we will take a deeper look at King’s actual verbiage and analyze certain words and statements he has made in light of racial trauma categories. As we enter into black history month, and celebrate King in light of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I desire to present a perspective of King that ignites a fire in the church to begin taking racial trauma seriously.
You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast Coram Deo Podcast which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast, or just click the artwork below.
Kyle J. Howard currently serves the church as a Christian counselor. He is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received his associate degree in biblical/theological studies and a bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling. He currently lives in Atlanta & is finishing an advanced M. Divinity in Historical Theology and ultimately desires to pastor.