Insidious Trauma And The Rich And Famous

“What do you call a credentialed, highly educated and accomplished black person?

Dear Visible Man,
One of the things that troubles me about the coverage of the recent Oprah story by African American pundits and media is that the coverage focused more on what Oprah can do with the $38,000.00 that she was planning to spend on the handbag rather than the incident itself.  Why do we, as African Americans diminish the impact of racism on people like her just because she has made it into the top 1%? Is Oprah not supposed to be hurt over a racist encounter because the incident involved her desire to purchase an expensive handbag?
Please excuse my language but consider the old cruel riddle: “what do you call a credentialed, highly educated and accomplished black person . . . a nigger.” This “joke” is something that my middle class family members always used to remind each other that despite our achievements, we will never get away from the perceptions that some have about us despite our accomplishments.
The Oprah incident illustrates this point.  Additionally, the response to the Oprah controversy by our own community and media outlets tells me that it’s fine for less wealthy black people to acknowledge and display frustration with  this reality but those of us who have means and are on public display must be forgiving, understanding and graceful in these circumstances and never acknowledge or mention the injustice of it all.  And I think that’s wrong.
Patti, Bellevue, WA
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Dear Patti,
You have raised some very interesting points.  (For those who may be unaware of the situation Patti is referring to, the Associated Press on August 10, 2013, reported that “Oprah Winfrey the billionaire media mogul was denied the opportunity to view a purse she was interested in purchasing while visiting a boutique in Geneva, Switzerland.”  The Associated Press reported that the sales clerk refused to show Oprah a $38,000.00 handbag, telling her that she could not afford it.)
The article goes on to state that apologies were quickly offered and that the incident was a “huge misunderstanding and a communication problem.”  It appears based on the following social media buzz that there are some who feel that Oprah should have been graceful and without complaint, should have smiled and thought nothing about the incident.  The reasoning being the due to her billionaire status she should have nothing to complain about.  She isn’t one of the little people who deal with such blatant racism (oops, my mistake, “huge misunderstandings and a communication problems”) on a daily basis.
Why should Oprah complain?  When the common African-American gets psychologically stabbed as a result of such outrageous behavior, he/she has the right to be traumatized but not Oprah, because of her wealth, she must rise above this minor infraction.
WRONG.  Oprah is no different than the rest of us who get up every day, go to work, pay our taxes and take care of our families.   She was doing what many of us do from time to time . . . she was shopping.  She saw a handbag that she no doubt felt would go well with an outfit or two and asked the sales clerk to remove it from its glass casing so she could see it just like you or I or any other customer would have done.
This is where everything went wrong.  This is where Oprah the billionaire media mogul became invisible.  The sales clerk refused.  Oprah became someone unworthy, someone who could not afford it, someone with poor credit, someone to fear, someone who is a threat and someone who may commit grand theft and run out of the store with a stolen $38,000.00 handbag in tow.This sad story made international headlines because this racist and psychologically impactful event happened to the world’s wealthiest African-American woman.  The truer and saddest part of the story remains untold, that being that this tragic incident is being repeated thousands of times a day to African-Americans throughout the United States.  Yet there are no international or even national headlines about those incidents.  Why?  Because we have learned to “accept” and normalize this traumatizing and impactful behavior.

So Oprah is to “model” for us the desired behavior that we should display in response to this type of “huge misunderstanding and communication problem.”  Oprah is not supposed to verbalize her outrage or emotional pain that results from this form of psychological trauma.  If Oprah can show that she, indeed is the better person by ignoring such a minor incident, then who are we, the little people to complain when such incidents occur in our lives on a daily basis?

The specific psychological trauma that impacted Oprah that day is the same trauma that impacts thousands of African-Americans every day and is called “insidious trauma”.  It refers to the indirect exposure between stigmatized groups (ethnic minorities) and societal institutions.  Insidious trauma arises when there is a culmination of negative experiences affecting members of a stigmatized group that are directly traumatic.
Racism operates as a form of insidious trauma by constantly denigrating the value and lives of those of African descent without regard for their intelligence, skills and capacities. An example of this insidious trauma manifests itself through “racial profiling.”  Racial profiling can be defined as the identification of suspicious behavior attributed to a specific racial group.
Racial profiling has resulted in numerous African-Americans being held to a “different” or more intense standard of scrutiny. This would include:
·       Being viewed with negative assumptions
·       Being followed or under undue suspicion in places of commerce
·       Having to show identification while making purchases with a credit card while others are not
·       Being inexplicably questioned while engaging in simple everyday acts
All of the above examples of increased scrutiny can and do result in psychological trauma.  The emotional distress can be insurmountable due to the energies required for the maintenance of vigilance by the individual as to not knowing when to expect the next incident when he/she will have to endure the indignation of such unwarranted scrutiny.
Oprah’s detractors suggest that in stating her indignation of such treatment she failed to provide the “proper model” of how to react to such undeserved scrutiny.   For others who understand her plight, it is a clear indication if not confirmation that regardless of the skills, education or success of the individual, there will always be stereotypes that will trump the individual’s accomplishments.  Those such as the sales clerk in Oprah’s situation and the apologists who can more identify with the sales clerk’s mistake can easily opine and readily believe that it was simply a “huge misunderstanding and a communication problem.” This is because this perspective is encased within their internalized fears.
On the other hand, those who are on the receiving end of these incidents have experienced this repeatedly and therefore see the trend as it is applied to them and cannot excuse it away so simply.  For example, the referenced riddle asking “what do you call a [whatever credentialed], highly educated and accomplished black person” is merely an attempt by African-American parents to create safeguards for their children to ward off the emotional distress and psychological abuse created by the insidious trauma of racism that based on their own experience, the parents know their children will certainly face the same.   It is the old adage that if one is able to laugh at the trauma, either it won’t hurt or if so, not as much.  Yet this adage does not hold true.
Pain, be it psychological or physical is PAIN.  Racism hurts. Insidious trauma has lasting effects on the individual’s psyche.  It strikes without mercy.  It impacts the young, the old, the wealthy, the middle class and the educated.  One can run and yet one cannot hide.
The psychological self remembers what the mind seeks desperately to forget.The Visible Man

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