On Racial Battle Fatigue and Nice White People

Battle fatigue is an outdated term for the mental impact many soldiers experience after military combat. We’ve made up new terms throughout the years and now this type of “fatigue” is generally referred to as post-traumatic stress. The impact is real. Humans are not wired to thrive under extreme stress for long periods of time and when people get stuck in traumatic situations, bodies and minds are bound to suffer.

The terrorist attack/hate crime in Charleston, SC, this past week brought on yet another wave of vicarious trauma to millions of black Americans. People of color have been systematically traumatized by direct and vicarious (indirect) physical and mental violence for centuries in this country and with every new act of brutality, old racial wounds reopen. The mental impact hits not just the families and friends of those targeted, but millions of people who are reminded once again of the ongoing oppression and lack of safety in their own communities.

20150519_144125So while some are going through emotional pain and personal reactions to crimes that hit too close to home, the rest better pick up the slack and confront the racism that allows this to happen over and over again. And by “the rest”, I mean white people and people with enough energy left to fight racism in America. Racism is not relevant only to black Americans. It is a massive, insidious, systematic, social problem and each and every one of us is tangled up in it.

Talking won’t fix racism. Direct social and political action is needed and white folks must realize that this is where most of our collective energy needs to be channeled. Talking, however can challenge personal biases that contribute to the larger problem.

So here is where it gets sticky. Nice people don’t want to rock the boat. In fact, nice white people who witness other nice white people act or speak in racist ways, “let it go” all the time because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. As ironic as it is, research suggests that highly agreeable people are more likely than less agreeable ones to engage in behaviors that harm others – if they are expected to do so. In other words, agreeable, nice folks may be less likely to stand up for others if doing so means going against social expectations. And speaking against racism in a social setting where you are not “supposed” to be confrontational flies right in the face of social expectations.

Niceness isn’t bad in itself, but if being nice means sitting politely while people of color are being oppressed, kept in poverty, excluded from positions of power, ridiculed, assaulted, shot, and killed, then what? It’s like bullying. If you’re a bully, you cause harm. If you witness someone else being bullied and choose to do nothing, you allow harm to be caused.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo wrote a great satirical summary of the “rules of engagement” when confronting white people on their racism. These rules are a part of the unspoken social contract that states that we must not talk about uncomfortable things like racial oppression if we can possibly avoid it. This social contract makes it close to impossible to give any kind of racism feedback to a white person, without being seen as completely rude and inappropriate (check out another great article here on White Fragility). As Dr. DiAngelo pointed out, these rules rest on two basic misunderstandings:

  1. “that racists are bad people”, and
  2. “that racism is conscious dislike”.

So, if I challenge a friend on a racist remark, chances are that friend will feel highly uncomfortable, confused, and offended, as if I were suggesting that he/she is a bad person who consciously dislikes people of color. Most of the time that is not the case and we have to stop acting as if we are allergic to feedback.

An English guy in the 18th century once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If we are ever to get out of the racism swamp, we MUST challenge each other to do better and stop perpetuating this mess. And this means allowing our fellow humans to hold up a mirror for us so we can see our own shortcomings. It will be uncomfortable – but that’s how we grow.


Sexual Assault – Are You Sure?

Imagine a friend you really care about was robbed while walking home from the grocery store. And imagine your friend came to you and told you what happened right afterwards. Whether the attack had consisted of a wallet being snatched or a violent assault, I bet you would have a strong reaction of anger and empathy while listening to the story. You might even insist on going to the police and reporting the incident in the hope that justice might be served.

A different scenario often plays out in cases of sexual assault. Survivors are met with skepticism and their motives for telling their stories are questioned – not always, but all too often.

If you were to respond in that way to your friend who got robbed, you might say something like: “Are you sure about this? People don’t get robbed in broad daylight on Tuesdays. I’m sure the guy just thought you wanted to give him your wallet…”

And then, if you were to accept the robbery did indeed happen, you might try a little victim-blaming: “What made you think it would be a good idea to walk home from the store? And let your bag just hang on your shoulder like that? Seems like you were asking for it…”

I hope we can agree this would be ridiculous. Similar examples have been used before to highlight the outlandish reactions survivors of sexual assault often get when they have gathered enough courage to share their stories.

What were you wearing?

How much alcohol did you have?

Why did you go to his house?

Why didn’t you fight back?

And you didn’t even call the police when you got home?

On top of that, too few of us realize that a common reaction to overwhelming threat is to freeze. Not fight back or run away, but to freeze up. Going through an assault while feeling paralyzed with terror and then being disbelieved because of one’s automatic reactions is a deeply wounding experience. Survivors may even be regarded as untruthful due to being unemotional while telling their stories, which is ironic considering that emotional numbness is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress.

Rates of fabrication in sexual assault cases happen to be similar as for other felonies. Anecdotal stories and the common lack of “real” evidence are used to argue that reports of sexual assault are “often” false, while overwhelming numbers of survivors who seek help at clinics, emergency rooms, and mental health centers are ignored. The reality is that most survivors never even make a report to begin with. And many survivors never seek help.

IMG_2997Then, there is the devastating lack of justice worldwide when it comes to sexual assaults: Poor and/or lacking investigations, lack of evidence, no witnesses, rare arrests, and infrequent convictions. LGBT people often encounter additional prejudice and discrimination when reporting sexual violence, and non-affluent survivors may not even be able to afford getting a lawyer to start their case.

An uncomfortable truth is that a majority of sexual assaults are carried out by a person the survivor already knows – not a stranger in a dark alley. So I get upset more than surprised when hearing about survivors being re-traumatized by disbelief, invalidation, and victim-blaming. After all, facing the disturbing prevalence of sexual violence and demanding justice for survivors would mean looking closely at what is going on in our communities, our own social circles, and in our very own families. And that might lead us to face things we’d rather not see.

The aftermath of sexual assault can have no less impact than the traumatic event itself. Invalidation can lead survivors to feel extremely isolated and alone, doubt their own experiences, and even question their sanity.

So if you ever receive the honor of being trusted with information about sexual assault, please handle with care.

[Check out RAINN for more information]