Opening Our Eyes to Racial Trauma
A Review of
Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience
Sheila Wise Rowe
Paperback: IVP Books, 2020
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Reviewed by Ryan Meek
John of Patmos wrote of the end times, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9, NRSV). This scene is the culmination of the Kingdom of God which Jesus of Nazareth coached us to pray to bring to earth. How can we bring a scene like this to a place so wrought with the sins of racism and xenophobia? In Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience, Sheila Wise Rowe believes the answer begins in trauma care, works toward resilience, and finds new life through the Resurrection.
Sheila Wise Rowe tackles racial trauma by relaying individual stories set in very different contexts while drawing on her experience as a black woman in America and her professional career as an abuse and trauma counselor. These stories show the reader that people of color can face similar trauma in unique ways. We meet survivors of Japanese internment in America, Apartheid in South Africa, and their families. We find how trauma is passed down, generationally, from the genocidal treatment of the First Nations, and 400 years of slavery, its different inceptions in the United States, to the descendants of these atrocities living today. For people of color, this book offers affirmation through solidarity and tools to “help heal racial trauma and to persevere on the road to resilience” (5). Ms. Rowe also encourages her white audience to remain open to the challenges these stories present to become better friends and allies to people of color (5).
– A Reading Guide
Healing Racial Trauma begins with a look into the wounds caused by racial trauma, but first, we need a working definition of racism. Rowe defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, antagonism, or the systematic oppression of people and communities of color…declar[ing] the lie that one racial group is superior to all others” (5). Racism does not need to be a public and vulgar spectacle to cause trauma to its victims, it is baked into the fabric of our systems, culture, and religious communities whether it is acknowledged or not. The wounds of racial trauma come from personal interactions with others, systemic racism – a communal failure to provide equity in our public systems –, and the public space (6). The wounds of racial trauma can be felt physically, mentally, and vicariously. Some wounds can be almost imperceptible to both the perpetrator and the victim, such as the racism that comes in the forms of microaggressions and racial gaslighting. These wounds cause moral injuries which happen when “White brothers and sisters in Christ wittingly behave like the world…Rather than exhibiting the love of Christ, they follow a culture that categorizes people; turns a blind eye to slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration” (16).
How do people of color begin the healing process and how do white allies come alongside their oppressed brothers and sisters? For people of color and white allies, the first step is the acknowledgment that trauma is happening. Rowe follows the chapter on wounds with a chapter on each of the symptoms of racial trauma: fatigue, silence, rage, fear, lament, shame, and addiction. White brothers and sisters would do well to listen to the stories recounted, the damage caused, and apply that knowledge to walk with the people of color in their lives.
Rowe uses some of her own experiences to describe the fatigue that racial trauma causes. In particular, “racial battle fatigue” describes the stresses of navigating life in a white-dominated culture as “mentally, emotionally and physically draining for people of color” (23). Rowe tells the story of how her son, Jonathan, was befriended by some white neighbors who wanted to reenact the American Revolution with replica uniforms and rifles for a homeschool class. Rowe declined to allow this due to the longstanding trauma her family experienced years before when her brother was arrested in possession of an unloaded BB gun. The arrest had nothing to do with her brother’s possession of a BB gun, it had to do with the fact that he fit the description of a black suspect in a nearby crime. The trauma Rowe experienced during her brother’s unjust arrest and detention lived on in her psyche and manifested years later when thinking of her child holding anything resembling a gun, no matter how benign that could have been. She goes on to offer help to overcome racial battle fatigue, “Racism is relentless…We can combat racial battle fatigue and also lighten our loads by taking care of our health,” avoiding specific triggers to “save our energy for the battles that lie ahead” (38).
For each of the symptoms of racial trauma, Rowe guides her readers to identify symptoms, seek the hope that God will build resilience through trauma, and look towards the belief that Resurrection (or a new beginning) is on the other side of trauma. Rowe realized while visiting the Legacy Museum in Montgomery Alabama (The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is a product of the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative which is built upon a historical site of slave warehousing and trading). She writes, “We are more than resilient – we are miracles. In the midst of our tragedy and trauma we work, thrive, and struggle, and the Lord continuously saves and brings grace, new life, beauty, and justice” (155).
As a white man in America, I cannot speak to the application of the racial trauma care described within on a practical level. I cannot speak to the trauma that is caused by unjust arrests and the systemic problem our black brothers and sisters experience when they or their loved ones ‘fit the description.’ However, I can positively say that this work has further opened my eyes to the racism that people of color deal with daily and how their lives are affected by this sin. Looking back to certain situations, this work could have helped me better respond to situations in which I witnessed racism against my black and brown friends. As a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I would highly recommend Healing Racial Trauma to any of my white brothers and sisters who take seriously God’s call to care for the oppressed.
Ryan Meek is active in his church in Greenwood, Indiana, teaching Bible studies and blended family courses with his wife, Heather. He holds a bachelor's in Biblical Studies and currently attends Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.
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