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Week 2, Session 2: The role of culture: systemic racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.

Hello everyone! We're back for Week 2 Session 2.

If this is the first time you’re reading a session, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

The goals for this session are:

  • Identify systematic forms of oppression 
  • Learn of their potential traumatic impact
  • Validate these experiences of trauma

And as always, we go through a grounding exercise at the start of every session! Grounding exercises are a set of strategies that help us when pain or difficult memories become overwhelming - our first “trick” to wellness! 

**Today’s grounding exercise will be…
**If you feel comfortable, close your eyes. Now think about a calming colour and as you take a deep breath in, imagine the air that is coming into your body is that colour and it’s calming every part of your body inside you. Now as you exhale, imagine a strong colour like red or orange coming out along with your stress, anxiety and fears. Do this 3 times.

Fun question: If you could immediately become very good at cooking a particular meal, what would it be?

Today we are going to continue thinking about our environment but more specifically the role of culture and institutionalised forms of oppression. 

It's very common to look at trauma and think of it as an individual “problem”. Something has happened to us and it's affecting the way we experience the world and react to it. 

But what if these experiences were shared? What if what has happened to you has been happening to others for generations? It will still have an impact on us, individually, but it places us in the middle of a much bigger issue. 

We could be experiencing the effects of oppressive systems such as racism, sexism, LGBTQIA+ phobia and other forms of discrimination. This trauma can still feel very personal and as much as it is, it is also an expression of a wider, more complex social problem and therefore can feel more complex to address and heal from. And the pervasiveness of these problems, as prejudice and discrimination affect so many different parts of our lives, means that this trauma can feel like it is taking a very central role in our day-to-day living. As the writer Toni Morrison said: The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.

So, when experiencing the different kinds of situations that this oppression causes, we could initially struggle to identify the sources of our pain and reactions. This experience can feel very disorganised and we could be experiencing signs of hyperarousal (being on alert too much) on a regular basis without even noticing it. This hyperarousal may be related to the physical dangers we experience as part of the oppression. We could go through many different examples of how we experience danger -- either to our physical selves or to our identities -- as the result of different kinds of oppression, like racism and ableism, but today we will just talk about a couple examples. 

For instance, women tend to be very aware of their surroundings when walking on the street, keeping an eye on who is in front of them and behind them, choosing to take well lighted streets and preferring roads with more people in them so they can ask for help if something happens. This is not unfounded. It is, most of the time, based on past traumatic experiences of abuse and harassment that sadly, most women experience before the age of 13. 

Another example of a traumatic experience of oppression which can lead to hypervigilance and chronic stress could be homophobia or transphobia. We unfortunately live in a homophobic, transphobic society. Being trans or gay is associated with an increased risk of being bullied or harrassed, both online and in person. Being LGBTQIA+ may also in some places make it unsafe to be in public with a same-sex partner, or to present as one's true gender. Another aspect of this trauma that it is important to recognise is the impact it can have on our relationships: 'coming out' to family can result in fractured relationships if family members are prejudiced, and as a result many members of the LGBTQIA+ community are faced with the difficult situation of feeling like that they either must hide their gender and/or sexuality from loved ones, or face potentially losing those relationships.

And here's an interesting fact about trauma through oppression. Even if we have not experienced abuse ourselves, we could be carrying the weight of these experiences in our bodies and minds regardless. This is known as intergenerational trauma. 

Intergenerational trauma generally refers to the ways in which trauma experienced in one generation affects the health and well-being of descendants of future generations. Even though we are still learning about this, we now have studies that show that children of Holocaust survivors can present with an epigenetic change in their system connected to the Traumatic Stress of their predecessors.

Epigenetic means relating to or arising from non-genetic influences on gene expression. Genes are the basic physical and functional unit of heredity and they are made up of DNA - making us who we are. Our parents pass some of their genes onto us: we receive half our genes from our mother, and half from our father. This genetic material cannot be changed - it is just passed from parent to offspring. However, the way that the genetic material that the offspring receives is ‘expressed’ - for example, which genetic sequences are ‘active’ - can be changed by certain factors: this is known as epigenetics. In the case of trauma such as surviving the Holocaust, it has been shown that the experience of trauma in the parent can epigenetically influence the expression of genes which are related to the biological trauma response in their children. This can manifest in these children of survivors having an increased likelihood of developing PTSD, altered levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and other biological functions which increase the reactivity of the stress response. 

But, as you may have been able to anticipate, intergenerational trauma doesn't only happen genetically. Following our learning from the last session, we are aware of the interactions we have with our environments and the people around us, so we are naturally inclined to also absorb our parents' and close ones’ experiences of the world on a psychosocial level too. 

Think about it this way. The systemic racism Black people have faced in the colonised world and their ancestral lands is well-documented. With the murder or modern-day lynching of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests, many are realising that these injustices are not one-off events. It is the extreme end of a continuum of every injustice and horror provoked by systemic racism and police brutality. Black parents for centuries have experienced heightened fear for their kids and will teach them ways of staying safe both consciously and unconsciously.  With time, this can constitute a trauma of its own for these kids that live in constant fear of the potential danger that surrounds them just by being who they are. So in this way, intergenerational trauma can be transmitted both through epigenetic pathways, but also through psychological pathways as well.

The reason we are bringing this to your attention is to hopefully reassure you that there are traumas that we go through as a group and these experiences are completely valid. It doesn't make things easier when working on processing your trauma. In fact, it could feel even more complex to heal from, as it is everywhere around you. 

However, there’s an upside to it. The fact that many of us are suffering from the same historical and institutional trauma means we can rely on each other. Finding and connecting with a community can be very reassuring and can nurture the healing process. It can help validate our experiences, feelings and reactions and give us back our sense of empowerment. The feeling that we can control parts of our life within the systems we live in to pursue a happy and fulfilling life.

To be able to recognise and face a traumatic reality, we need to create social environments that reassure and affirm these institutionalised systematic traumatic realities exist in the first place.

A survivor doesn't only need their immediate social context to be supportive and understanding (family and friends) but their socio-political context too, by enabling routes to justice and change. In our current world situation, this sadly still is a work in progress but we want you to know that we see this in the Chayn community.

We’ve spent this week learning about the different kinds of trauma we can experience - through oppression and through early experiences. In addition to learning (and un-learning) our traumas in a conscious, psychological way, we also want to emphasise the importance of physical healing. As we talked about last week and will address next week when we talk about PTSD, the experience of the fear response and chronic stress of hypervigilance after trauma can take its physical toll. 

So the homework for this week is… to practice embodiment. What do we mean by that? Think about an activity you enjoy that calms you or soothes you, that is physical, and that requires some level of engagement. Maybe that’s a sport that holds a personal or cultural significance. Maybe dancing? Or maybe some other kind of musical activity, like singing or playing an instrument? Maybe it’s something that connects you to your group or culture. 

Take some time to engage in that activity. How do you feel during, and after? We’re trying to build the body-mind relationship with this course -- if you’re interested, this is related to a recovery approach called somatic care -- and want you to allow yourself to love your body through care and practice, even if that is something society has told you not to do. 

Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this. 

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