The black experience of transgenerational trauma has occurred over hundreds of years, rendering a group of people subjugated and enslaved for four centuries. The devastating impact of this insidious trauma and its negative transmissions are still being re-enacted in many aspects of black life.
The history of slavery is mostly argued from the point of view that it happened a long time ago and that we must learn to forget, leave it where it is and move on. Its present-day beneficiaries feel that they need not concern themselves with their ancestors’ crimes and should be allowed to exist with no reminders of its presence, as being reminded risks both shame and guilt.
My contention is that this very disavowal is a great hurt, one that contributes to the ongoing nature and damage of transgenerational trauma, as having one’s trauma recognised is the first step towards reconciliation and healing.
The non-recognition of black people’s historical trauma by the white colonising world – and the rest of the world’s non-acknowledgement of its impact on a human race – contribute deeply to an arrested state of being and thus development for the black diaspora. The continuation of this historical wound into present-day struggles is the hallmark of intergenerational trauma.
A major legacy of transgenerational and intergenerational trauma is shame and its impact on black identity wounding. Internalising the negative impact of racial oppression takes its toll and contributes to a general malady of the self.
A particularly painful form of shame is one that, if left unaddressed, can become toxic and archaic. Unlike single-incident, shame-based situations, toxic and archaic shame stays buried within and becomes part of our self-identity. A person suffering from toxic shame will experience a chronic sense of worthlessness, low self-esteem and self-loathing – all connected to the belief that they are innately shameful or bad.
Toxic shame that stems from transgenerational trauma can be constantly aroused in the here and now, through repeated experiences of rejection and betrayal by a society that relegates minorities to the margins of humanity. It is a powerful internal enemy that acts to diminish the self and leads to either the individual or the group becoming apathetic and compliant with the status quo.
Working with toxic, archaic shame is challenging, principally because the practitioner will be working with both the individual and the collective aspects of shame trauma. For white therapists in particular, a mindfulness will be crucial, to avoid the rupture caused by re-shaming the shamed.
I suggest that shame-based individuals have difficulty in achieving healthy individuation (the process of coming into and maturing into one’s full identity), as they are locked in a damaging shame cycle. I suggest that such a cycle has four stages:
- shame is induced in individuals through interpersonal interactions that lead to the production of shame
- shame is internalised and eventually consumes our inner core
- the internalisation of shame creates a process of internally disowning parts of the self. Gershen Kaufman1 labelled this ‘splitting’
- splitting creates painful internal discrepancies that we attempt to correct, without much success, because the self-hate associated with the disowned, fragmented part creates repeated patterns and cycles, any time shame is triggered.
As practitioners, we need not only to understand these stages for ourselves but also to help clients develop a full awareness of their behavioural patterns. They can then gain an understanding of the work of letting go, reframing and using new and more effective tools for healthier living. To see how this works in practice, I wish to share an example of shame from my childhood.
On a bitterly cold winter’s day, during the first week of my father’s visit to England in 1963 – his maiden overseas trip – he took my baby sister out to the Caribbean market area of Peckham, south London.
Next in this issue
The story goes that my dad did not dress my sister adequately for this expedition, having, of course, no previous knowledge or experience of winters in a Western climate. He was apparently accosted by a group of white women, who were outraged at seeing a baby in a pram, without mittens and earmuffs.
My father meekly recalled the experience of being loudly chastised in the streets of Peckham, accused of child neglect, and marched down the street to purchase a new winter jacket, gloves and earmuffs for my baby sister. He recounted how the bunch of pushy women refused to leave the store until he had bought the items, dressed my sister in the warmer garments and listened to their rebuke to never ever do such a thing again.
While writing about this, I bristle with indignation at this missionary group of busybodies. I thought (and still believe) that the intent was honourable, maybe even loving. But the way it was done was humiliating to a black man newly arrived in England at that time.
When I recall my father’s retelling of this story, his grovelling gratitude and indebtedness to the white women infuriated me. His crawling humility was typical of his generation of black people and their relationship to the colonial ‘mother country’ – a brainwashing into thinking and believing a superior morality and authority in the English. It’s a mindset that leads the groveller to adopt an excessively subservient attitude, to the point where they become the inferior, bad and stupid one.
The mere recollection of this shame incident is potent enough to arouse again the powerful and familiar presence of ‘racial hauntings’, which occur after the actual experience of something injurious. The injury can come in the form of microaggressions, racism in any form, social injustice and the continual displacements, denials, projections and disavowed material of the white other onto black others.
The familiarity of these experiences for black people means they also open up something that is supposed to be in the past, namely the pain of brutal, historical, black/white relations, so it is experienced in the present – and it haunts the soul.
Linking this shame experience to the four-stage process of shame, it is important for therapists – especially white therapists working with black clients – to recognise that they will be working with some key elements of toxic shame. The risks of re-shaming the client are high, when trying to interrupt and break the cycle of the shame process.
At the simplest level, the mere presence of the white face or the black face of the therapist might serve as a constant trigger for the client’s shame. Therefore, the therapist’s relationship with their own racial identity – and what this represents for the client in the transference – will have to be addressed.
At the more profound level, the therapist will re-shame and burden the client, if the work falls short of an engaged, attuned curiosity, an adequate working through and holding of the client’s vulnerabilities.
Fostering an effective working alliance is key, and guards against any unconscious dynamics being acted out in the therapy. In addressing toxic shame and black identity wounding, it is even more important to make the unconscious element of the working relationship conscious, so that relational dynamics are not left unaddressed, to fester and produce more shame that invariably re-shames the shamed.
The main aim in addressing the shame trauma cycle that wounds identity is to enable the client to disentangle from the familiar destructive patterns of internalised shame, which keep the burden of heritage (the historical past) and generational hauntings (present-day racialised triggers) alive and impactful.
Wearing my therapist’s hat today, I can make sense of how my father handled the trauma. The proud black man removed himself from his humiliation and emasculation through the unconscious mechanism of disavowing. But, in the disavowal, he unconsciously handed over his shame to me for safekeeping.
Race-based shame exposes both blacks and whites, albeit in different ways. Black shame is essentially about identity trauma (hurt and loss). White shame triggers fear of identity exposure (guilt and vulnerability). When these unheeded dimensions are lived out (consciously or unconsciously) in the therapeutic encounter, it is often the case that the white therapist’s shame disavowal is handed over to the black client for safekeeping.
Shame overarches much of what is difficult in black/white relations, and I believe the ubiquitous nature of shame is a driving force that brings clients to therapy. Shame resides wherever there is psychological pain.
Were I an adult client relaying my six-year-old first shame experience to a therapist, and specifically a white therapist, I would hope for several things to take place in the therapeutic processing that would make the experience an effective and healing intercultural encounter.
Here are some guidelines for therapists to meet this adult client in her early shame.
First, pick up the intergenerational trauma dynamic, so that I can see what I was carrying for my father, where I might be burdening myself and how I might be caretaking unnecessarily. The following interventions would focus the therapist’s engagement with the client’s shame experience and help strengthen the relational dynamics:
- what kind of man was your father? What were his views about white people before he visited England?
- tell me about your relationship with him and you being his first born
- what is your role in your family and what do you feel you hold for the other family members?
- how did the rest of your family respond to your father’s encounter with the white women?
- which positive and negative characteristics of your shame heritage do you feel you hold onto, and which have you reframed?
- how does it feel to share and reflect on these painful experiences with me, your white therapist?
A full exploration using the above facilitation will signal to the client that the therapist is interested in them as a person and able to engage, hover and be curious, even when it is uncomfortable. It will also show that the therapist takes time to show genuine concern and offer encouragement for the full expression of feelings and experiences – and knows when to give primacy to important issues in the moment.
In addition, the therapist will demonstrate that they possess the intercultural stamina to go where other white therapists might fear to tread – and that they are comfortable enough in their own white skin to foster the transference at such close quarters and at a deep level.
My second guideline is to fully excavate the centrality of conflict in the shame experience. Clinically, it is paramount to give space to the ‘wounded’ shame-teller to fully exhume, retell and exhaust the shame experience at her own pace. The retelling should be allowed for however long is needed, so the client can spend time with the minutiae.
The most important person in the story is the client – not the colonial party. A therapist who cannot look the client’s obvious race-wound in the eye, who alludes to a good deed by the white women or who equates the women’s actions with strident feminists telling useless men how to get it right, would not provide the necessary holding and containment. The client would experience these interventions as deflection and avoidance. They would also highlight the therapist’s own discomfort, disinterest or even unconscious racial bias, damaging the alliance and, ultimately, the therapy.
Although adequate space is therapeutically necessary for the client to keenly feel the pain of the shame wound, the third guideline is to remember that the healing process can be achieved through being heard and understood by a holding and non-judgmental therapist.
It is important, however, that the white therapist is able to listen without appearing overburdened, overly shocked, disgusted or overzealous in their wish to repair wrongdoings on behalf of their white tribe. The chances are that the reactions will be picked up by the client as ‘damaging’ the therapist or, worse, a prohibition – something that is not welcomed in the work. In such circumstances, the client’s own shame will be heightened. The client could also be left holding an unconscious servitude, the white therapist’s shame-trigger and fragility.
Returning to my six-year-old shame experience, a therapist will fall foul of the shame disavowal dynamic by instantly jumping in and castigating the white women who shamed my father. Conversely, a therapist might feel the need to create a so-called balanced response, by trying to rationalise or prove the white women meant no harm and were being good citizens, while also giving space for the story to be told. Either of these responses on the part of the therapist is a therapeutic faux pas, which has the potential to re-shame the shamed.
The fourth guideline is that the therapist is able to show genuine curiosity and interest in exploring the psychological impact on a child who is left to hold – or who chooses to hold – a parent’s shame, and how this continues to affect the parent-child relationship dynamics in different ways.
Number five – the therapist sensitively, and in a timely manner, explores whether there has been the potential for shame resonances in my outside world. An example of this would be in my interactions with white authority, checking for triggers or the activation of pain when being told what to do by figures of white authority. The therapist would be working with the activation of racial hauntings in this regard.
Finally, the therapist recognises his or her own triggers, and deals with what is activated in the rightful place, namely clinical supervision.
I see these guidelines as forming a three-stage approach to working with the shame wound from racialised trauma.
The first stage is to allow permission for the exhaustive retelling of the manifest or immediate and fresh content of the shame. The process of replaying the minutiae of events serves to unburden the shame-teller, validate them and ground their experiences in a safe space.
The crucial first stage also carries an additional importance and significance in black/white and cross-cultural encounters. People of colour who present with racialised shame trauma have a strong need to be believed in their experiences; for the white therapist, this requires an engaged stillness to be able to empathise.
The second stage is to facilitate the processing of the manifest shame content. The processing is the active work that allows the therapist’s enquiries and other facilitative interventions to be heard and emotionally engaged with, for the purpose of making sense of the trauma impact.
The third stage moves the client slowly towards recovery from the shame wound, through the process of regaining their sense of mental balance from the dislocation of shame. I refer to this therapeutic facilitation as enabling the return to a state of ontological security – being grounded in our own skin and surroundings.
Sublimation is perhaps the single most important concept in understanding the work of healing and managing shame. Sublimation is the act of using energies that stem from this place of deep shame, rage, chronic anxiety and negativity, and redirecting them towards a creative endeavour, as in artistic creation or intellectual enquiry or pursuit.
In this phase of therapy, the practitioner facilitates movement towards the integration of the disrupted selves, by creating an encouraging and proactive environment for effective restoration, leading to hope and empowerment. The client will be stronger for having had the opportunity to create straighter lines of narrative about their experiences, instead of holding onto split, disjointed and untreated areas, where pain resided.
Through the healing powers of therapy, clients can be helped to reframe negative internalisations of their trauma, to reshape and build a more meaningful existence through vulnerability. The therapist actively encourages the client’s sublimation through their engagement in their choice of activities for healing.
Identity shame arises in many contexts: when we are not seen or appreciated for who we are; when we feel the absence or loss of the positive gaze from loved ones or the outside world; when we are denied the positive mirroring of who we truly see ourselves to be.
Identity shame is connected to historical wounding. At its deepest level, however, identity shame results from the loss of not having a rightful place in the human world.
I posit the notion that, at an unconscious level, black people are still not perceived as fully actualised human beings; the black male is not only subhuman but also dangerous and to be feared. The unspoken nature of this dimension of race means that, at a collective level, the dominant other holds this irrational belief somewhere within the collective psyche. And, as with all unheeded phenomena, an element of acting out (namely the perpetuation of racism and identity shaming) and acting in (namely the shame wound and ongoing feelings of incompleteness and feeling not ‘normal’) thrive and continue.
Shame in this context stems from the internalised conflict that arises when the self finds itself having to deal with aspects of external authority (society) and the need to protect the innermost and vulnerable parts of the self. The function of this shame is to defend against anxiety that threatens to destroy an integral image of the self. But, in so doing, it shrouds full actualisation and integration of these positive aspects of the self.
Although a universal experience, shame has different dimensions when applied to the black and white context of history, heritage and identity. Black identity shame is the burden of carrying deep-rooted wounds and ongoing struggles, which are borne in relation to the dominance of the white other.
White identity shame seems to be managed by harping back to the accomplishments of Empire or by ‘world-beating’ blustering, which have become the current default political stance. Superiority and dominance act as masks to cover the exposure and terror of white identity shame and white fragility.
Defence against white shame invariably interferes with the quality of engagement in race conversations, as the shamed person becomes self-absorbed and overly concerned with protecting themselves. These dynamics stymie race conversations and they suffer constant ruptures. A retreat to old social scripts leaves the great weight and heft of race work to be carried and held by the black other. A key takeaway message here is for the white other to own the primitive in you.
In making distinctions for shame in the black/white relational context, one can conclude that white shame is a complex affective and cognitive reaction pattern that shapes character attitude, to prevent dangerous exposure. On the other hand, black identity shame can be seen as a complex affective and cognitive reaction to black identity wounding.
Only we (black folk) can heal our own wounds. However, as with the universal experience of trauma, there exists the relational dynamic of the wounded and the violator (my preferred choice of terms). Experiences of this profound nature and level of psychological injury require repair involving both sides – the sufferer and the contributor.
Black people’s trauma has its genesis in white, colonial, historical oppression. Healing is, therefore, not a task for black people alone, but a process involving a formal act of reckoning of the impact of the wrongdoings by the oppressor. It is in the omission of the moral imperative to manage colonial legacies that the hidden white identity shame lies – and the burden of heritage for black lives.
Atonement work is necessary, not only to offer black people a profound public gesture of recognition of their historical trauma but also to enable the dominant collective to manage its own generational guilt and shame, which lies suppressed and repressed within white collective unconscious. It feels important to qualify that the atonement that I speak about is not financial compensation. A true atonement would be properly acknowledging the collective trauma of a shameful past, which should no longer be left out of conscious recognition and conveniently carried by others.
1 Kaufman G. The psychology of shame: theory and treatment of shame-based syndromes. New York: Springer Publishing Company; 2004.