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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Racism: Is There a Future Different From the Present?

Racism: Is There a Future That is Potentially Different from the Present?
Dr. Victoria Marie, o.s.c.
(adapted thesis excerpt)

The Anglican Archdiocese of New Westminster, which includes Vancouver, conducted a study a few years ago to determine what was needed most in terms of drug treatment facilities for the Downtown Eastside. In addition to finding that treatment and recovery resources were insufficient, the task force found “the client group in greatest need of recovery facilities is single aboriginal women aged 18 to 25 years” (Downtown Eastside Working Group, 1998, n.p.). Despite this lack of treatment resources, there are several Alcoholics Anonymous groups whose members are First Nations women and men with long-term sobriety. Therefore, one of the issues that has plagued me since the completion of data collection for my thesis is why almost all of those who agreed to participate in my study were white. One reason is that some potential participants of colour were tired of being researched, that is, of being treated as tokens or representatives of their particular group. This led me to ask is it possible that there are obstacles to recovery for certain groups. If, as McIntosh and McKeganey (2001, p. 57) suggest, “a desire to restore a spoiled identity and a sense of a future that is potentially different from the present” are key factors in successful identity transformation and recovery from addiction, racism is an impediment to both of these factors. For example, in discussing the impact of minority status on success in school, Ogbu (1992) argues that one reason for the poor school performance of “involuntary minorities” is their distrust of “White people (or their minority representatives) who control [schools and] other societal institutions” (p. 291). Ogbu defines voluntary minorities as those who immigrated in search of a better life. Involuntary minorities are those groups who were colonized or those who are the descendents of slaves. These groups include Native Americans/First Nations and African Canadians/Americans, those who have no other homeland. He suggests that voluntary minority group members are more successful in school than those from involuntary minority groups.

One between-group difference is the percentage of strategies any given minority group has that enhance school success. Those groups with a high percentage of success enhancing strategies have more choices that lead to success. Those groups with a lower percentage have fewer choices that lead to success (p. 292).

Involuntary minority groups have had to deal with institutional racism as an historically entrenched reality. The psychological effects of systemic racism are intergenerational. Apprey (1998) uses the term “transgenerational haunting” to describe how the negative psychological effects of institutional racism change as they pass from one generation to the next.

Under the rubric of transgenerational haunting, we come to the transfer of destructive aggression from one generation to the next. In such a transfer we may witness a shift from suicide in one generation, murder in the next, followed by, let us say incest or physical abuse in a subsequent generation, and so on and so forth. It is as if the injured group has accepted the message that they do not deserve to live and therefore must die in one form or another. At the very least that injured group may exist in a reduced form such as living— but living a most unproductive life. Here the motor of ambush toward one's death remains the same but the license plate, that is, the form of reducing oneself to nothingness, changes from one generation to the next (n.p.).

In addition to the legacy just described, there are what Gooding (2003) terms microaggressions, which describe the day-to-day racism people face, “the kind of thing that happens when you step into a lift and the [white] woman inside pulls her bag slightly closer to her” (p. 5). There’s nothing the Black person can do. “It happens every day—it’s these acts that change the way you view yourself and the world around you” (p. 5). It is interesting to note that in the original Gooding uses simply the word ‘woman’ as if accepting the unstated ‘white’ as normative. The next section affirms my contention that these microaggressions cause traumatic and cumulative stress. I omit the term ‘post’ because for members of visible minorities, the traumatic experiences recur continually and are therefore never ‘post’.

Several researchers agree that people are traumatized when they face uncontrollable life events and are helpless to affect the outcome of those events (Lindemann 1944 in Dayton, 2000, p. 5). Individuals may be traumatized by the experience of growing up in a home where addiction, chronic physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or neglect are present. Middleton-Moz (1989) posits that children who have faced cumulative traumas

might never remember what really happened, yet the buried feelings and emotional reactions to these experiences may direct the course of their lives. As adults these individuals may suffer from panic attacks, bulimia, chronic depression, antisocial behavior, compulsive behavioral problems and addictions (p. 4).

She acknowledges that pathology is not inescapable but cautions,

Some children of trauma may eventually become leaders of corporations, doctors, psychologists, artists or poets. The pain and sensitivity of past experiences may help them create gifts to the world, yet many will treat themselves with disdain and neglect through workaholism, extreme perfectionism (p. 5).

Racism and discrimination are sources of cumulative trauma. Middleton-Moz (1989) tells the story of an Inuit boy, Danny, who was with his parents in a department store, “running his hand gently across the face a blond white-skinned doll” while within earshot the father of a white boy chastises his son, saying ‘Damn it, son.… Get up off that floor; you look like a drunk, squattin’ Indian!’ In response, Danny’s parents look away and silently lead him from the store” (p. 4). She states that the lesson Danny may learn from instances like this could lead to the internalization of self-hate. According to Milora (2000) “a negative sense of self derives, at least in part, from one imagining being perceived in a less-than-positive light by others. Cultural racism assaults victims with real experiences of being perceived as less-than-human” (p. 44, italics in original). The accumulation of racist incidents over time is devastating to a child’s self-concept. Middleton-Moz explains:

The trauma in this case is the continual erosion of self-esteem faced by ethnic and cultural minorities in a world where they are seen as lesser than others. The belief may develop early in these children’s lives that their families lack power in the majority culture. Cultural and ethnic self-hate leads to a sense, deep in the core of the self, that “there is nothing I can do to make up for the lacking in myself and the awareness that I am deeply and profoundly unlovable.

This shame is frequently multigenerational. The child not only receives continual cues of his lack of power and lovability from the real world outside the family but may also feel it deeply from his parents whenever they have contact with the broader community (p. 10).

Researchers agree that trauma victims try to control their inner turmoil and their struggles with the outside world by self medicating with drugs, alcohol, over-eating or other addictive behaviours (Davis, 1997; Dayton, 2000; Fullilove and Lown, 1992; Kaslow, Thompson, Price, Young, Bender, Wyckoff, Twomey, Goldin, and Parker, 2002; Middleton-Moz, 1989; Miliora, 2000; Price and Simmel, 2002). Dayton (2000) asserts that unresolved childhood trauma may result in the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in adulthood, “which can and often do lead to addiction” (Dayton, 2000, p. xxi).

When the self-medicating substance wears off, the person is again overwhelmed by the pain, which now has further isolation, shame and unresolved pain added to it. Hence, the need for a substance to assuage a stormy inner world becomes even more pressing. Thus, the trauma victim enters a vicious circle: emotional and psychological pain—self-medication with drugs, alcohol, food, sex, etc.—sobering up—reemerging of unresolved pain—more medication, and so on (Dayton, 2000, p. 18 emphasis in original).

Culture provides a sense of coherence for a people (Lowery 1998). Culture does this because it offers the group a way to answer life’s questions on a daily basis, provides a sense of place in the world, and gives a worldview appropriate to the group’s structure.

Contact with white men brought viruses and diseases that the Yup'ik shamans had never encountered and the people could not overcome. The "Yup'ik world turned upside down" in the face of the "Great Death"--an influenza epidemic originating in Nome in 1900 (Napoleon, pp. 10-11in Lowery 1998). It spread throughout Alaska, killing 60 percent of the Eskimo and Athabascan people; it claimed whole families and whole villages; it spawned a generation of orphans--the great-grandparents and grandparents of the people living today. "The world the survivors woke to was without anchor. The angalkuq [shamans], their medicines, and their beliefs had all passed away overnight. They woke up in shock, listless, confused, bewildered, heartbroken, and afraid" (Napoleon, 1991, p. 11 in Lowery 1998).

According to Lowery (1998), alcoholism among Native Americans is primarily a crisis of spirit. “The sense of coherence of an entire people was shattered at the turn of the century. There was no lawfulness, no cultural explanation, no magic, and no predictability. The world truly went upside down” (p. 4). Lowery suggests the generic substance abuse treatment of the dominant society is insufficient to heal, “the devastation to the spirit that American Indians addicted to drugs and alcohol suffer” (p. 5). She suggests that although Aboriginal populations are often seen as powerless, they are not. Rather, it is that the powers they possess are not valued in the dominant society. Lowery states,

Their cultural teachings of interdependence—obligation and caretaking, the sharing of power, the recognition of the spirit in all things, the responsibility given by the Creator to preserve Mother Earth, and acknowledgment of those who have come before them and those who will come after them—are all part of who American Indians are. These teaching[s] provide the strength from which Indian peoples come (p. 5).

Lowery (1998) argues that we must acknowledge the interconnectedness of all living things and “that human beings are only a part of this total ecology” (p. 5). We must acknowledge that alcoholism is a crisis of the spirit, which requires a healing of the spirit, of the mind, and of the body within a larger framework of existence (p. 5).

While Lowery doesn’t state or may not even intend to suggest this, I would argue that part of the larger framework of existence must entail the self-examination by the members of society of European descent. There must be a willingness on the part of this segment of society to stop their assault on the culture and spirits of the neighbours of non-European descent. Is there a future that is different from the present?


Apprey, M., Ph.D. (1998). Reinventing the Self in the Face of Received Transgenerational Hatred in the African American Community, 2003, from

Davis, R. E. (1997). Trauma and addiction experiences of African American women. Western Journal of Nursing Research (Reprinted with permission by Gale Group, pp. 1-18), 19(4), 442.

Dayton, T. (2000). Trauma and Addiction: Ending the Cycle of Pain Through Emotional Literacy. Deerfield Beach (Florida): Health Communications, Inc.

Downtown Eastside Working Group. (1998). In Support of Recovery - An Anglican Response to Addiction. Vancouver: Anglican Church of Canada - Diocese of New Westminster - Stewards-in-Action Ministries.

Fullilove, M. T., & Lown, A. (1992). Crack 'hos and skeezers: Traumatic experiences of women crack users. Journal of Sex Research, 29(2), 275.

Gooding, L. (2003). The 'drip, drip, drip' effect of racism takes its toll. Mental Health Practice, 7(3), 5.

Kaslow, N. J., Thompson, M. P., Price, A. M., Young, S., Bender, M., Wyckoff, S., et al. (2002). Risk and Protective Factors for Suicidal Behavior in Abused African American Women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70(2), 311-319.

Lowery, C. T. (1998). American Indian perspective on addiction and recovery. Health & Social Work, 23(2), 127.

McIntosh, J., & McKeganey, N. (2001). Identity and Recovery from Dependent Drug Use: the addict's perspective. Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 8(1), 47-59.

Middleton-Moz, J. (1989). Children of Trauma. Seattle: Health Communications, Inc.

Miliora, M. T. (2000). Beyond Empathic Failures: Cultural Racism As Narcissistic Trauma and Disenfranchisement of Grandiosity. Clinical Social Work Journal, 28(1), 43-54.

Ogbu, J. U. (1992). Adaptation to Minority Status and Impact on School Success. Theory Into Practice, 31(4), 287.

Price, A., & Simmel, C. (2002). Partners' Influence on Women's Addiction and Recovery: The Connection Between Substance Abuse, Trauma, and Intimate Relationships. Berkeley, CA: National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center, School of Social Welfare, University of California at Berkeley.

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