As I walked through the doors of my first integrated school in the fall of 1954, I felt naked, alone, literally horrified, ashamed. The teacher and all the students were white; the students seemed healthy, well-fed and full of laughter.
I had arrived in South Bend, Indiana from a plantation in the most racially violent state in the US — Mississippi — where at age 7, I saw my pregnant mother violently pushed to the ground by a tobacco-chewing white row-walker, producing invisible scars that won’t heal. As my mother lay crying, holding her belly, he spat at her head and had she not moved, he would have spat in her face. She cried all night.
When the homeroom teacher called me to his desk, there was dead silence; all eyes were on me. Petrified. I’d never been that close to a white man; when he started talking to me, I understood almost nothing he said.
He finally said, “You don’t understand me, do you?” Silence. “And why don’t you look at me?” Some students stared; others giggled. “What are you?” He asked, looking through steel-rim glasses. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant; I struggled with “American.” In Mississippi, making eye contact with a white person would have cost me a beating, or something much worse. The homeroom teacher didn’t know that; nor did he know of the scars inside me.
He demoted me from ninth grade to the seventh. And though I wasn’t even qualified for the seventh, I believe he worked to meet me where I was.
Nancy Rappaport, a Harvard University psychiatrist, draws a parallel between my experience and students today.
“It’s been more than five decades since that experience, but today, many students continue to enter our schools with a history of trauma, hiding invisible scars or intergenerational trauma, potentially affecting their behavior, and impeding their academic achievement. Intergenerational trauma explains behavior that school personnel often fail to understand. Traumatized students need help, but these kids don’t have the context to ask for help,” Rappaport says.
If teachers were knowledgeable about the sources of their students’ traumatic experiences, it could change lives. Professor Michelle Sotero of the University of Nevada says intergenerational trauma comes in three phases:
Phase 1: The dominant culture performs mass trauma on a people via “colonialism, slavery, war, or genocide.”
Phase II: The affected population shows physical and psychological symptoms in response to trauma.
Phase III: The initial population passes these responses of trauma to subsequent generations, who in turn display similar symptoms because it is in our DNA.
Consider native Americans and African Americans. Annette Pember, a Native American scholar, writes that “trauma may be woven into the DNA of native Americans.” Many are descendants of survivors of massacres such as Wounded Knee, or people expelled from their homelands on The Trail of Tears. Others had parents or grandparents who were taken from their families and forced to attend schools designed to deprive them of their culture, language and identity.
Blacks experience PTSS (Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome) from being lynched, beaten, castrated, burned alive, and events such as The Tulsa Riots and The Devil’s Punch Bowl where thousands died.
Many people of color continue to experience the trauma of contemporary discrimination, economic inequality, and lingering segregation. Hispanics in general, Mexican Americans in particular, suffered similarly as blacks. Chinese and Japanese Americans, too, have experienced the wrath of discrimination, that left invisible scars.
To overcome this legacy and achieve educational equity, children need to be seen and understood. And all too often, they aren’t, because their teachers and school systems are unaware of the way our nation’s history has created intergenerational trauma that remains unhealed.
Ask yourself, teacher, administrator: Do I understand my students? Do I have a sense of what it took for them to get here?
To succeed with equity, we need to know the children’s truth. And meet them where they are.
David Whitfield is founder of the veteran-owned Intercultural Leadership Executive Coaching, and a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.