Correcting Avoidance & Denial: Healing The Effects of Racism

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

 My Dear Readers,

In my work as a clinical traumatologist and forensic evaluator, my key objectives are to observe, listen and provide assessments and evaluations of and to the individual, couple or group.  This week, I want to focus on the similarities of the black and white racial groups.  Both groups, whether consciously or unconsciously, engage directly with each other when racial tensions are involved. The behaviors that are most likely to arise in these situations are known within the area of clinical psychology as avoidance and denial.

  • Avoidance is the act of keeping away from or preventing something from happening to oneself. Dodging, shunning and turning away are acts of avoidance.
  • Denial is the failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion or to admit it that it exists. It can also be the refusal to accept the fact that an event occurred or the reliability of information about it.

What are the issues that white and black people avoid or deny?

Both groups avoid and deny the psychological impact of historical memories as well as the traumatic experiences of the previous 400 years, most notably, slavery, segregation, and the legacies of discrimination and state-sponsored racism.

Racism is comprised of the historical memories held by the majority group (whites) and passed down through their generations.   The possibility and effects of being impacted by racism are the traumatic experiences held by the minority group (blacks) and passed down through their generations.  Both groups, whether consciously or unconsciously, avoid and/or deny the existence of the tension that lies internally within themselves.

The tension goes up and down over time; it can be fiery and explosive one minute, or dormant and simmering until the next incident of discriminatory treatment or oppressive action occurs.  One thing is certain: the tensions never, ever go away.   Why?  Because neither group is able or willing to begin the process of examining feelings of racism, which may be facilitated or reinforced within each societal, community, or family group, and are maintained deeply within the psyche of the individual.

There have been legal and political atrocities perpetrated by white populations and governments throughout the world.  Leaders of the British, Vatican, German and South African governments have issued formal apologies for their official actions, and in each case, these actions have had a healing effect on their countries.

In 2009, the United States Congress apologized to African-Americans for its role of upholding slavery.  However, this was done with the caveat that the apology could not be used as a legal rationale for slavery reparations.  In 1998, President Bill Clinton apologized for the slave trade, but didn’t atone for a government that institutionalized white supremacy during the first eighty years of its existence.

Some time ago, Tim Egan, a noted white columnist, recipient of the National Book Award and alumni of the University of Washington, suggested in his article “Giving Obama His Due” that President Obama should “apologize for the land of the free being, at one time, the largest slaveholder on earth.”  The same columnist goes on to state:

“The first black man to live in the White House, long hesitant about being bold on the color divide, could make one.  The Confederate flag that still flies over the grounds of the Statehouse in South Carolina, cradle of the Civil War, is a reminder that the hatred behind the proclaimed right to own another human being has never left our shores.  An apology would not kill that hatred, but it would ripple positively in ways that may be felt for years.”

The columnist fails to identify what those ways would be.   Although this white columnist has good intentions, he fails to understand that the Confederate flag represents different themes for the two racial groups.  Where it may represent historical memories of slavery and hatred for whites, this flag is also a symbol of traumatic experiences of the past which continues to either reflect or support the trauma of racism, oppression, and discrimination which is being experienced by African-Americans today in 2016.

The historical memories of white people and the traumatic experiences of black people are not psychologically comparable.   We must want to take a breath, pause to consider the impact on the self-esteem and self-identity of African-Americans to have an African-American president, the first black man to reside in the White House, be the one to issue an official proclamation, apologizing for the enslavement of black people in the US.

Tim Egan’s article reinforces the notion that while whites may see a president who happens to be African-American, most blacks view him as a black man first and his role as President immediately following.  Such an action would no doubt traumatize today’s black populations, but also generations to come.

Trauma.  Over the last 400 years, generations upon generations of African-Americans have been traumatized by horrendous acts of racism, oppression, and discriminatory treatment.  As a result, African-Americans today continue to be impacted, but are instead responding to a more destructive trauma known as “complex trauma PTSD.”  This form of trauma has the ability to cloak itself, creating psychological wounds which not only impacts emotional and mental functioning, but can cause physical issues for the individual as well.

Unlike a physical ailment or disease, complex trauma is unseen.  Its ability to cloak allows those impacted to deny its presence, which adds to the suffering of the individual and the crippling of the community.

Historical memories and traumatic experience share the same vacuum, thereby forever enjoining both black and white people.  For example, let’s say that there are two individuals, one white, and the other black.  They are riding in a car together, and on their journey, they see a Confederate flag being flown.  They begin the conversation, and the following occurs:

  • The white individual attempts to avoid or minimize the psychological impact of the historical memories by changing to a more comfortable topic. To protect the psychological self, he must seek to deny any benefit to him or his family from the slavery era, including reviewing his family history for owning slaves, or being reflective on his current financial or economic status.  He must be able to say to himself, I have not been weakened by this experience…I am a good person.
  • The black individual attempts to avoid or minimize the psychological impact of traumatic experience by maximizing the historical significance of the slave era, but still denying its psychological impact on him as an individual. He must be able to say to self…I have not been weakened by the experience…I am a whole, functioning person.

Racism and trauma are not obvious or plain concepts.

  • What does a racist look like?
  • How can a person who looks good and financially successful be suffering from complex trauma?
  • Why do we refuse to acknowledge a person who is a racist cannot be a good person or a person responding to traumatic experiences can look good and still be psychologically overwhelmed?

Concluding Words-Dr. Kane

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 “What are you as an individual doing for the psychological self?  Are you willing to explore within to achieve psychological and emotional wellness?  Are you willing to seek transformation from the life you have to the life you want?”

-Dr. Micheal Kane

Individuals are not born with feelings of racism and trauma.  Racism is learned behavior and like traumatic experiences, can be transmitted from one generation to another.  You can respond to them in positive ways, but this cannot and will not be achieved on the societal level.  This cannot be achieved simply through communications between the two groups.

The transformation of racism trauma to psychological and emotional wellness can only be achieved by the individual’s willingness and commitment to the psychological self.


  • Cease looking to government to resolve strongly rooted feelings that lay within the psychological self
  • Understand that governmental or legislative action is external and cannot reach into the psychological self
  • With the assistance of mental health professionals encourage the development of small process groups to initiate, support and reinforce openness in what are clearly difficult subjects
  • Seek psychotherapy ie individual, couple/martial, group therapies in furthering psychological and emotional wellness.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole picture.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

Let us focus on the journey, not the destination. 

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…

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