Healing Racial Trauma
An interview with Sheila Wise Rowe on finding resilience amidst racial trauma.
Posted May 25, 2020
Racial trauma builds upon people of color in daunting and burdensome ways. In her book, Healing Racial Trauma, Sheila Wise Rowe reveals that there are many paths toward understanding and processing these painful stories that build resilience.
Sheila Wise Rowe, a graduate of Tufts University and Cambridge College holds a Master's in counseling psychology. For 25 years she’s counseled and taught counseling in Boston. Sheila worked with homeless families in South Africa for a decade. She is a member of the Community Ethics Committee of Harvard Medical School, a policy-review resource for its teaching hospitals. Sheila is the director of The Rehoboth House, co-founder of The Cyrene Movement and author of Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience. Sheila's essays are in The Boston Sunday Globe newspaper, blogs, and journals. Sheila speaks at organizations, colleges, churches, and seminaries.
Jamie Aten: Why did you set out to write your book?
Sheila Wise Rowe: I have counseled countless Black, Indigenous, and other clients of color, and they have all disclosed past and current experiences of racism. However, many were in denial about their wounds from generational, personal, physical, and vicarious racism, microaggression, and gaslighting. These racist incidents, ongoing slights and huge travesties of justice accumulated over time and resulted in compounded racial trauma. The symptoms include fear, aggression, depression, anxiety, low self-image, shame, hypervigilance, pessimism, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, substance abuse, flashbacks, and relational dysfunction. Racial trauma also affects the body causing heart disease, hyperactivity, and headaches. Recent studies reveal an uptick in racism and xenophobia, yet little focus is on racial trauma.
Since 2016 I have seen an increase in people of color showing signs of racial trauma. In my book Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience, I share life stories, interspersed with ideas from scholarly texts, scripture, and literature. My aim is for people of color to understand racial trauma, pursue healing, and build resilience to confront ongoing racism. While white people may hear echoes of their trauma, I hope they will grow in empathy and solidarity with people of color as they heal and help fight against personal and systemic racism.
JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?
SWR: Each chapter is devoted to a symptom of racial trauma and its impact on a particular person of color. Readers discover insights and tools from each person’s story. Reflection questions and prayer prompts at the end of each chapter also help people of color to see that their stories and histories are important. Moreover, this covers their entire story, including oppression, trauma, healing, and resilience. Their healing journey begins as they openly share what happened and how they feel about it. As they share, they may uncover things that have helped their people to survive and thrive across the generations. Their stories counter the false narrative that their people are less than others. They are more than resilient, they are miracles. They can find healing as they intentionally engage in addressing soul repair, reversing transgenerational trauma, telling their whole story, the positive and negative, working through forgiveness, pursuing true reconciliation, and engaging in soul care.
JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?
SWR: Because racism is relentless, they monitor contact with racially toxic people or environments online or in person. Resilience builds as they process their feelings of fear, sadness, and anger. There is a benefit to having a soul care plan that is holistic, involving their spiritual, emotional, physical, relational, and vocational lives. Good soul care involves knowing when and how to rest, destress, expose injustice, and advocate for their needs and those of others. Staying connected to their community, they learn and engage in ways that build resilience across generations. For many, church, meditating on scriptures, gospel music, listening prayer helped them to live resiliently. Working with a therapist and talking, using journaling and art to work through pain while staying present to moments of joy. They can check in with their bodies if there is tension, stress, or pain. Stress is released by resting, deep breathing, and physical activities. At home, work, and online, they can foster healthy relationships and communities that are a sanctuary offering protection from the ravages of racism. They can get involved in empowering activism. Despite how racism tries to hijack their future, they can intentionally choose to look for beauty and take a step toward their future.
JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?
SWR: As readers prioritize time and honest conversation, they may recognize that their friend or loved one is carrying hurt that they are not seeing. Readers can ask the friend or loved one what they need. Readers can be a confidential, prayerful, supportive presence, and they can create space where they and their friends can openly share their pain without being shamed. They can seek to love and honor the friend to counteract the disrespect and dehumanizing that comes from ongoing racism. They can encourage their friends to seek professional or pastoral counseling, conferences, or retreats for emotional wellness. Because pain and racial trauma are in and around us all, it is crucial to find ways to have fun, laugh, and experience joy together.
JA: What are you currently working on these days?
SWR: My book was recently released, so I spend much of my time sharing about healing racial trauma on the radio, online, and in print. I am also speaking at colleges, seminaries, churches, and community events. I continue to write articles for various media and ponder ideas for my next book.
JA: Anything else you would like to share?
SWR: Lastly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, and theologian wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” I would add that people of color have been victims of systemic racism, but they have a lot to teach white folks about resilience, resourcefulness, and living faithfully while under duress. As people of color and white folks speak up and engage in small and large acts that pursue love, peace, and justice, they drive a spoke in the wheel. They can help alleviate fear, ensure safety, address racism and injustice, and help dismantle the systems and ideologies that keep them apart. I have faith that it is possible.