Jim Davis and Justin Holcomb welcome Sheila Wise Rowe, author and executive director of The Rehoboth House, to discuss racial trauma and the many ways it can present itself cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, and physically. Rowe describes how Christians should engage others who have experienced racial trauma, in an effort to close the trauma gap and bring healing. The group discusses:
- An introduction to Sheila Wise Rowe (1:06)
- Defining trauma (1:50)
- Causes of trauma (6:21)
- Helping those unfamiliar with trauma to understand (8:06)
- The effects of trauma (11:19)
- Secondary trauma (14:06)
- The effects of secondary trauma (15:44)
- Defining racial trauma and its effects (19:52)
- Microaggression (28:57)
- Gaslighting (31:15)
- Feeling racial trauma (33:05)
- Learning to listen (36:22)
- Unknowingly exacerbating racial trauma (42:29)
- Empathy (45:44)
- Lamenting racial trauma (47:44)
- Healing racial trauma (50:20)
- Dealing with skeptics (56:10)
Explore more from TGC on the topic of race.
1. What do you think of when you think of trauma? What are examples of trauma?
2. What is a trauma gap? Why does it exist? Why must the church seek to understand the trauma of others, especially those who have experienced racial trauma?
3. What is vicarious trauma? What are examples of vicarious trauma? How can that play out repeatedly through media and lived experiences?
4. How can we seek to understand and relate to others trauma? What might this look like? How does the gospel speak to trauma and, specifically, racial trauma?
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Sheila Wise Rowe: There has to be just a basic commitment to say, “I haven’t experienced racial trauma, but I have this person in front of me or there’s this community and they have, and so how do I let scripture inform how I engage with even people you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with or have anything in common with or that you don’t even really understand.”
Matt Kenyon: You’re listening to ASINHVN, a Christian conversation on race and justice. This episode is all about understanding racial trauma. We’re joined by Sheila Wise Rowe, an experienced counselor with a deep understanding of trauma and how Christians ought to engage those suffering from it. Jim Davis is your host. Justin Holcomb is the guest co-host on this episode. Mike Graham is the executive producer. My name is Matt Kenyon and I’m the technical producer. Without further ado, please enjoy this episode of ASINHVN with Sheila Wise Rowe.
Jim Davis: Welcome to ASINHVN Season 2. My name is Jim Davis. I am joined by my co-host this week, Dr. Justin Holcomb and we get the opportunity to sit down and talk about trauma with Sheila Wise Rowe. Sheila has a master’s degree in counseling. You serve as the executive director of the Rehoboth House. You have written numerous periodicals and recently released a new book called Healing Racial Trauma. Actually, our final episode in the season, it was soon Soong-Chan Rah who wrote the foreword to your book on healing racial trauma. We knew that we needed to do an episode on racial trauma, and your name just kept coming up, So we’re really thankful to have you on the podcast today.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Great. Thank you for having me.
Jim Davis: One of the most interesting dynamics in pastoral ministries that we encounter regularly is a phenomenon that I believe is coined by our producer, Mike Graham, the trauma gap, the trauma gap, really simply this large, relational, emotive, psychological, and even spiritual chasm between people who have experienced trauma and those who have not experienced trauma. The phenomenon is, as you can imagine, exacerbated even further when the kind of trauma that we’re observing has a racial component to it.
Jim Davis: On so on one side, you have a member of the dominant culture who has not experienced any trauma, and then you have a member of the sub-dominant culture who has experienced racialized trauma. Ultimately, this episode, our hope, is to unpack how we can help close that gap, that trauma gap, especially when it comes to racial trauma. Before we do that, we’re going to have to zoom out and unpack three really big topics and those would be trauma, secondary trauma and racial trauma. With that kind of goal and framework in front of us, would you mind giving us a definition of trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Well, even trauma in just kind of a global sense and not typically racial trauma, is really whenever an incident occurs that is really overwhelming. There are different types of trauma. Typically, people will put in two categories of big T Trauma and Little t Trauma. Big T Trauma, they tend to be these events that are commonly connected to PTSD, or post traumatic stress. That’s when there’s a there’s a life threatening or altering event that happens to us personally, or something that we’ve witnessed. Then you have Little t Trauma, which is where it’s on a smaller scale, it may be non-life threatening, it may be harassment, or maybe the loss of a relationship.
Those two categories, what we see is that, these incidents occur, there is stress related to it. There’s also grief, there’s loss, there can be a range of feelings that are connected to these incidents and they play out differently. What we’re seeing with just the repeated Little t Traumas is that, if they’re just continuing, it’s compounded, and it’s exacerbated and it actually can be more detrimental than having this one traumatic event, like a Big T Trauma, like you got into a car accident. It was traumatic, but it was a once off kind of an issue. With these Little t Traumas, it’s particularly when you have it as in the case of racial trauma, or it can be just over and over and over and over again. It causes even more damage.
I also wanted to say, trauma also can just be on various level. It can be acute. As I said, it could be an incident, it can be chronic, where it’s multiple incidents, and it could be complex where it’s just varied and there’s multiple layers of trauma. I would say that racial trauma actually fits more in the complex trauma category. That’s just kind of an overarching picture of trauma. I think many people associate trauma with oftentimes physical, like as an incident of the car accident, there’s some kind of physical trauma. Then with emotional trauma, many people associated with incidents of like child abuse, and the trauma that a child experiences early on from abuse and abandonment. I think that if you take that broad spectrum, I would say, we talk a lot about trauma-informed care, it has this notion that everybody has experienced trauma on some level and that’s true.
In particular areas, the damage that trauma does, particularly to young people, but also in the area of racial trauma, it is the death and the weight of that that’s different than other kinds of trauma.
Justin Holcomb: That’s a very helpful definition and unpacking. I have two kind of getting started of talking about trauma category two questions. The first can be fairly brief, that people can experience trauma from a variety of experiences. I’m making a list right here. I heard about car accidents, abuse, I mean, experiencing physical, sexual or psychological abuse or witnessing abuse, the death of a loved one, neglect, what are some racial traumas? One that you mentioned, migrations, one that I’ve heard of. Are there other ways, other experiences that are typical for someone to experience trauma? Again, imagine we’re talking to someone who they know the word trauma, but they don’t usually think about that category. What are other experiences that could cause trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Well, I think that one of them is emotional abuse. You see that in domestic violence situations, where it’s an emotionally abusive component of it that can be equally as traumatic. That certainly would fall into more of the kind of complex trauma and also chronic in that it really attacks the person’s sense of self and worth. It does real deep damage, emotionally, and I would even say, it can even extend spiritually, in terms of a person’s sense of right about the book about moral injury, this sense of, there should have been some level of justice, and even where was God in the midst of that?
Justin Holcomb: You made a helpful distinction between Big T Trauma, Little t Trauma. You said many people have experienced Small t Trauma, so could you speak to a moment to those they wouldn’t think that they’ve experienced trauma or they wouldn’t categorize it as trauma or maybe they haven’t experienced trauma of any kind? What should they understand about people who have experienced trauma? Again, we want to be gracious, but someone either they haven’t experienced trauma, they don’t think they’ve experienced trauma, what do they need to be aware of or sensitive to about those that have and what would you want them to know?
Sheila Wise Rowe: I think that one of the mistakes that I often see is that, people who haven’t experienced trauma, then become the experts as to why a person should feel traumatized or not feel traumatized and they fail to really see that. It’s not about the incident and kind of grading the incident like that, was what I consider a terrible thing. Yes, that makes sense. But rather, how did this incident affect the person? How did that affect their lives? How did it affect their relationships with other people, with God? What was the effect of that? Because we all experience things differently and we have different emotional responses.
If people actually come into a situation or a conversation with that in mind, that it is not about my personal evaluation of whether that was with trauma or not, but how was that for the person? I think that that changes things in terms of the ability to really listen to people when they say that something was traumatizing to them if I am not in my mind already settled that that is a trauma or it’s not a trauma, but for that person that has experienced it and it has an impact on their lives.
Jim Davis: A follow up on that, which was very helpful was that, the effects of trauma can be physiological effects on the body, health, psychological and spiritual. I think you talked about all of those and I think it’d be safe to say, and tell me if I’m right on this, that you’re saying, if the effects of trauma are so varied, perhaps we should wade into hearing someone else talking about trauma, with humility because they’re experiencing the effects in at least one if not four. They’re probably more than those two. I mean, you at the top of your head, you brought those up, so is it right that the effects of trauma are varied, which would then cause us to be humble about how we think about someone else’s experience of trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Exactly. I think that you have been hit on the head, is that oftentimes we think of one era and we just think, “Oh, okay, well, I think the trauma, I think, physical, when in fact it could be, as you said, all of them, or one of them and so absolutely humility is important.
Jim Davis: Well, I feel like I’m learning a lot on this. You talked about the cause and there are effects. Both of you’ve talked about that they’re serious effects. What are some of those effects? What are some of the ways in which trauma presents itself in people?
Sheila Wise Rowe: It really varies. If it’s a once off incident, sometimes we have enough inner resources and support outside to be able to really process that trauma and to just continue to move forward in a way that’s really resilient and we’re bouncing back. If we don’t have those resources, whether it’s internally or externally, and we’re not processing what has occurred and so, whether it’s a Big T Trauma or a Little t Trauma, what we can do is pushing the feelings down, or not dealing with them at all, or being in denial about the impact is that, we can start to experience anxiety, confusion, and maybe even some level of dissociating from our feeling and cutting that off, makes sleep issues.
In serious cases, you start seeing self-care kind of going downhill, and it’s also affecting how we work, and it may attack how we see ourselves and maybe some shame about, “How did this happen, how did I allow it to happen?” Issues around, “Who can I trust? so they can be a hyper vigilance. That’s there. There can be a leaning towards trying to self-medicate by addictions, using alcohol, drugs or eating issues. Then, it starts to affect our physical health as well. As I’m going through all of these trump, there’s definitely a crossover in terms of the symptoms of racial trauma as well.
We start seeing things in our bodies physically and it may be that headaches, migraines, just ways in which our body is saying, “Please pay attention to the trauma that’s lodged here” if there’s pain. There are ways in which our body may be telling us that there are issues that need to be addressed. We start seeing physical symptoms. We may see it in high blood pressure or we may see it in headaches. There will be ways in which we’re experiencing hives even. There are ways in which our bodies present a warning sign for us to pay attention and to attend to it. These are some of the ways in which we see it manifest.
Jim Davis: All right, well, let’s transition now from trauma to to secondary trauma. Could you give us a working definition for secondary trauma, and maybe some examples of secondary trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Secondary trauma is, and I wrote about it in the book around vicarious trauma, and I would kind of frame it that way. Basically, it’s not that you yourself experienced it personally in that incident, but it’s either that you have witnessed it, it may be that it’s someone close to you, but it’s in the witnessing it and seeing that in someone close to you, or even if it’s not someone close to you. Some of vicarious trauma that we’re experiencing now, we experienced from the videos. Whether it was George Floyd, the video of his killing and other incidents that we are watching that is triggering and causing trauma.
Oftentimes, the trauma that is being stirred up is that we’re being triggered in the maybe past trauma that we haven’t dealt with. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be our own personal trauma, it could be trauma that was in our family or in our community. Watching a video or hearing a story about something causes trauma in the hearing of it, because it’s kicking up some unresolved trauma in us.
Jim Davis: Following the same kind of past that we did with trauma, how can secondary trauma present itself in people?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Well, I think that what we’re seeing, if we just look at what’s going on right now is, there’s a lot of anxiety. I would say the major ones are anxiety. There’s hyper vigilance, like we hear from people about sleep disturbance, pessimism, it kicks up a lot of feeling anger. There’s another one rage. They present themselves in terms of emotionally like people just having that heightened sense of just a little uncertainty.
Justin Holcomb: You already mentioned the video of George Floyd and we’re going to talk about that and more on secondary trauma with regard to racial trauma. But, in kind of going back to the broad category, what are some things that can activate or trigger secondary trauma? You did talk about experiencing or seeing abuse, but just again, we’re talking like Trauma 101 getting people having categories for what are some of the things that can trigger secondary trauma and you already gave the one example of the video of George Floyd. What are more in addition to that?
Sheila Wise Rowe: It can range from and so you what you might find, I’ll give an example of a woman who was sexually abused as a child and something as innocent as her daughter, who becomes the same age of when she was abused, can be something that triggers back into your trauma because it’s very much rooted in. With unresolved trauma, there’s a fear that here My daughter is now in the same age that I was when this happened and so there’s a fear of, “Is the same thing going to happen to her?” That’s one example of how that can happen that isn’t something so graphic as, okay, you saw a video and that was striking. It can be anything, even as innocently as driving by, someone being pulled over. That is enough to do it.
Vicarious trauma in terms of your sense of just safety is something that would seemingly, if you looked at it, it looks like, “Okay, that’s an innocent scenario.” Yet, because it’s reminiscent of something from the past or something that we’ve heard of, it becomes triggering.
Justin Holcomb: I would be really careful in technical because you have given us a term of vicarious trauma, now do you use vicarious trauma in secondary as synonymous or those are different because-
Sheila Wise Rowe: I kind of use them synonymously it really is like an overlap.
Justin Holcomb: Going back again, just word choice at this point, many people in the question that I asked about triggering, I also use the word activating just because I’ve heard therapists use the language. Is there a better word? This is important because every word matters and the categories matter. You’ve given us the category of vicarious as something we want to pay attention to. That’s helpful for us and for the audience.
Justin Holcomb: Going back to the triggering and activating, does it matter to you? Is there a word you prefer? Why would it matter if it does?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Well, you know what? I use triggering and I’m trying to stay away from psycobabble. With phsyco, you have to grow old. Even in my approach to the book, I’m trying to use terms and I define them, but I’m focusing on how the audience… The audience generally are familiar with trigger, that there’s something that… yeah. That’s kind of why I’m using that term.
Jim Davis: That’s really helpful. All right, so let’s transition now to our third and last type of trauma for our purposes here. Can you give us a definition for racial trauma and what are ways in which racial trauma manifests itself?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Well, these definitions of symptoms that we see with Big T Trauma and Small t Trauma, we see those similar kinds of responses in racial trauma. Emotional trauma really is the physical, psychological symptoms that, whether it’s black, indigenous or other people of color experience after a racist incident. That includes a vicarious incident. Typically, if there’s a threat, our body is responding with fight or flight, and wanting to address that threat. With racial trauma, in many ways, it can be relentless to the point that we really don’t have a chance to really address that and so we’re in this kind of a trauma loop where it’s not attended to and it just becomes accumulated.
Sheila Wise Rowe: As a result of it, our brains and our bodies really can’t stand down and so it’s like every new additional one just triggers an additional physical and emotional response, which just feeds the racial trauma, so we’re in this loop. There was a study of racial trauma in African-Americans and it talked about just the effects of racial trauma. There are many ways that, as I said, it’s similar to the other forms of trauma, so we see fear, we see aggression. Again, this is all responses to a racist incident that hasn’t occurred. we haven’t really dealt with it.
Sheila Wise Rowe: What we see manifest is that fear, that aggression, depression. Anxiety is another one, lowest low self-esteem. We see shame, hyper vigilance, pessimism, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, substance abuse, flashbacks and also just difficulties in our relationships. Similar to other forms of trauma, it’s manifesting in the body. What you see with a lot of people of color is just increased in heart disease. With kids, you may see just the attention deficit or hyperactivity, poor concentration or just a few of those things. Racism causes racial trauma, which then manifests in these ways, emotionally, relationally as well as physically.
Justin Holcomb: That’s tremendously helpful. I apologize. From the get go, I kind of bundled the questions. I am curious, in your book, how do you define racial trauma? If you were to give it a quick definition, what did you do in your book?
Sheila Wise Rowe: You know what? Really it’s what I said in terms of the ways in which we have these experiences. I go into the book with a list of just ways in which we’re affected by racism that I think people don’t get. I think oftentimes they just think, “Okay, racism is just about hating black people or hating people color.” That’s a piece of it, but racism is historical, it’s interpersonal, it’s systemic. We see it in public space issues around monuments and flag, all that. We see environmental racism, in terms of where do people get to live, what’s the quality of the water, what’s the quality of the air. We see internalized racism.
These are experiences that black, indigenous and other people of color are experiencing on a regular basis, so not just one issue. As a result of that, we experience racial trauma that is not just about me as an individual right now and it’s 2020, but I also am dealing with historical trauma as an American descendant of slaves, those who were enslaved in America, in Virginia particularly. There’s that history transgenerationally, and that is trauma that my parents experienced, that is passed down whether it’s through stories and even in terms of epigenetics, which looks at the effects and the weakening of the DNA in terms of health issues, particularly because of trauma that we’ve experienced. There’s this personal trauma, there’s vicarious trauma.
Microaggressions, I think, is another one that people tend to not see as a trauma or a big deal. It’s like, “So what?” The police followed you behind your car. In many of these killings that we’ve seen, people have been pulled over like 20, 40, 60, 80 times for nothing, being tailed in when going shopping. It can seem like “Well, so what?” A senior guard followed you.” But if you every time you go to the store, you’re viewed as a suspect, that wears on one.
Gaslighting is another one. That’s just sense of, that our experiences are not to be believed and that does damage. In terms of racial trauma, it is multi-layered, it is complex, it is compounded. At the end of the day, we start to see this wearing on us and we are exhausted where we experience exhaustion or fatigue. There are ways in which some of us are just shut down. We’re just silent. We’re not dealing with it at all. Some of what we’re seeing in terms of some of the writing, it’s about rage coming up and just people that just haven’t had enough of it. There’s fear, grieving and the need to lament. Some are carrying shame. These are all things that I’ve focused on in the book. Addiction is another one.
I’ll use one example in terms of epigenetics in some of the studies that I did. It actually came out of studies with Holocaust survivors and indigenous populations, on which they looked at those whose parents were particularly from Jewish folk, the parents or grandparents who we’re in concentration camps. And that there are ways in which it wasn’t just about the story being told, and that affecting a person emotionally, but they were seeing physical symptoms that were very much linked to some of the trauma that their ancestors experienced. When they started to look at some of the DNA, there were places of weakening of it physically. We see that with black women, in the large number of cases. Part of this is, it’s racism in the medical establishment in terms of how black women who are pregnant are treated. This was across the board. The studies that were done, it wasn’t even based on, “Okay, these are poor black women.” It didn’t matter.
I share in the book about Serena Williams and her giving birth. She’s a tennis star worth millions, but after the birth of her child, she was not listened to. She had an issue with clots in her lungs and they weren’t listening to her. That’s one issue is around the racism, but the fact that on a DNA level and the weakening of that, it’s just we carry so much stress in our bodies that there needs to be more attention paid in terms of that whole prenatal period because the numbers of deaths of black mothers as they’re giving birth or their children, their babies, is astronomical and it’s out of proportion. It’s not based on race and the results are not based on class or income levels.
Jim Davis: All right. This is fascinating to me, and I want to make sure that I’m hearing you clearly. You’re saying that trauma can have an impact on DNA and that means that potentially, I would imagine, that it can be passed down through generations. Is that what you’re saying?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. You know what? You actually see this if you think about it, when you go to the doctor and they want a family history and they want to know, “Okay, Is there cancer in your family? Does anybody have diabetes?” It’s a similar thing. In that way, there’s that kind of a connection, that there are ways in which trauma can be passed down.
Justin Holcomb: Before we move on to the next category, are doctors now asking if there’s trauma in your past? Because that makes sense to me when you said it because I’m 46, I go to the doctor, and they asked about heart disease and all the other stuff. I don’t remember them asking me about trauma. Okay, making sure I’m not just to the party and not paying attention to it. Well, thank you that is very important. Okay. Now you also used the term microaggression with regard to racial trauma. Can you unpack that a little bit also please?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Yes. Microaggressions can be, as I talked about, being tailed at the mall, the security guard following you or people asking, “Why are you here?” It’s like, “Well, I live here. I live in the neighborhood.” They’re just little ways in which there are messages communicated like, “You don’t belong. You are suspect. There is something wrong with your presence being here.” And/or any another, and it can be anything from commenting on people’s hair, commenting on people’s skin color or asking them Why are they here? Why are you asking anybody else why they’re here. We’re seeing this with these incidents whether it’s the guy who’s the bird watching person in New York City, in Central Park and him being harassed by a woman and/or the people who were barbecuing or jogging. It’s really kind of relentless.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Those are microaggressions that easily escalate to something more and often, it’s escalated when people then bring in law enforcement for really minor things. Or these two Latinos who were at a coffee shop or café and ordering and speaking Spanish and there’s this lawyer or a white lawyer who attacks them for speaking Spanish. It can range from something minor to that where he’s literally in their face yelling and screaming at them. That’s microaggressions.
Jim Davis: That’s very helpful. The last one, which stood out to me as something to unpack and just be direct and clear about is gaslighting. Because you hear about the term and you think about it in relationships, like in an individual relationship, and you’re talking about it with regard to racial trauma at a very large level. How does gaslighting play into racial trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Right. A lot of it is that, in a similar way, that gaslighting came from that movie Gaslight. It was 1940s film, where the husband is trying to convince his wife that she’s crazy and that he moves pictures off the walls, he says things privately than in public images. All this is about him trying to get the jewels that are hidden up in the attic of what used to be his aunt’s house. The way it translates is that, people of color are saying, “This is what we are experiencing in America and we’re told that is not the case. That’s not true.” Or someone’s saying, “Well, this is their experience, maybe with coworkers. Oh, that’s not what they meant.”
There is not a way that people are listened to. It is simply, we’re going to continue to maintain the status quo, maintain just the balance of power because we’re going to set the narrative of what really is true and we’re not going to listen to the people on the ground who are experiencing things in a certain way that those in power could not possibly experience because they don’t live there. It’s not listening to the person, but also just torsion of reality.
Justin Holcomb: This is really helpful. Thank you. Now I want to go back because you defined racial trauma, talked about experiences, ways in which it manifests. The kind of simple question and you already gave us a lot of your answer in your book, but no, how does racial trauma feel? What does it feel like? And some of the words, I want to be careful, that we picked up in your book and that you said during this interview, fatigue, silence, rage, fear, shame, addiction, hyper vigilance, concentration, so someone’s going to hear. That’s a lot. That’s overwhelming. What does racial trauma feel like? Now, of course, trauma is going to be experienced different ways by different people with that caveat, but what are the main ways that people feel racial trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: I do kind of put it in four different categories. Obviously, that’s not the only way, but I’ve talked about flee, fold, fight and forfeit. Just fleeing that place of denial, so it can feel like I’m going to deny it. There’s a way in which it’s kind of in an agreement to Gaslight, like, “Okay, we’re going to deny that that actually did happen.” These are all coping mechanisms. It’s a way to kind of survive in the midst of it.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Folding is more of a shame-based thing. It’s more of a, “I could have done something differently. I didn’t. Is something inherently wrong with me?” There’s a kind of a folding inward versus a more kind of active kind of coming against. What we’re experiencing or really fully examining it, there’s a folding and that kind of a shame like I shouldn’t have to be experiencing this. I shouldn’t be feeling this way.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Then there’s fight, which there are ways in which we do have to fight, But then there’s another way when it is really, just rage is ignited and it’s just unchecked and the end goal of it is just smash, burn, destruction.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Forfeit, which is one where just the sense of, “I’m experiencing this racial trauma and my way of doing this is that I’m going to side with the ones who are oppressing me. I’m going to forfeit my sense of self, my identity as a person, a member of my community and I’m going to then become the poster child for it.” We see a lot of this. We see a lot. We see people who are black folk, brown folk who then are kind of posted up like, “Look, this is the person who was saying systemic racism doesn’t exist, that racial trauma doesn’t exist.” That’s often in response to actual having had racial trauma. It’s just the kind of forfeit that and do some kind of defensive other like, “Okay, I’m not like that person. Even though I’m the same color as that person, I’m not like them. I’m the exception.”
Jim Davis: What are ways that we can and should engage each other differently to to avoid this?
Sheila Wise Rowe: I think one one huge thing is actually listening to people. I think that that’s a hard thing.
Jim Davis: Yeah, this is a thing that has come up over and over again in the season, listening. Okay, sorry to interrupt, but you hear it every single episode. I just have to point that out.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Yeah. Yeah. The thing is that, I think that just in general, people don’t listen. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not even reasonable. It’s like we don’t listen. We don’t listen to the other person’s story, their side of things with an empathetic ear, just to be able to understand, or feel like what another person might be experiencing from their frame of reference, not mine, or to even try to place ourselves in that person’s position like What might that be like? Actually listening, not listening to figure out how you’re going to argue or to give your answer, but to listen is a huge, huge, huge thing. If that’s not a big thing, it’s not a big thing to ask for. It’s to actually listen and a lot of times people step into stuff because they’re not listening.
Justin Holcomb: That was code step into stuff. I love it. I liked your code. Now, on the end, the idea of listening, I mean, it has been overwhelming. My wife and I, we work with survivors of abuse. Across the board, all of the research says that people who have experienced abuse and trauma, or trauma from abuse, what they want from people is to be listened to and believed. Being able to tell people, “Hey, you don’t need to have.”
It’s great for those people like Sheila who have a master’s in counseling, the therapists, they can read about this, and you can be a psychologist, but your friends and family members don’t require that from you. They need you to look them in the eye, and not interrupt them when they’re talking and Listen, and then ask follow-up questions if you need to, but just a highlight how easy, well, in one sense, how simple to listen and believe people.
Apparently, it’s not as easy as we all thought. It’s a lot harder. That’s why the answer from every time this question has been asked is to listen. Just again, highlight. I don’t want to stop your answer to Jim’s question, but I just wanted to jump in and highlight it again, because it’s so important and we’re hoping that this becomes the theme that people pay attention to when they’re listening.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Yeah, I think that, because people come at things with their own narrative about what that means and will say a lot of that around the whole Black Lives Matter. The pushback is, “Don’t you know that Black Lives Matter? It is oh, oh, ah. It’s like, okay, if the vast majority of people are saying, “Black Lives Matters” if you’re a black person, it’s not a slogan. It’s like, “This is truth.” Does that mean that I’m co-signing on the Black Lives Matter Organization? Many people are not doing that. That’s not it. It really is about, “This is a proclamation that just needs to happen. It needs to be said.”
If someone is saying to you, “I’m not co-signing on to the Black Lives Matter Organization as an official nonprofit organization.” That’s not what that means to me. It means to me, I’m just affirming that black lives matter. Can you hear that? Can you hear that without, “No, no, no, that can’t be.” Or because we’re dealing with social justice that, “Oh, this is a Marxist critical race theory.” If someone is saying, “what my lived experience on the ground is that, I need my community, my city, my town, the country to know that my black life matters and I’m saying that and that’s what that is.” It’s my pure experience on the ground and nothing more than that for me. Will that be listened to? Can you listen to that and accept that without coming at it with that person coming at it with their definition of what that means.
Working with sexual abuse survivors, which I’ve done for many, many years, you’re right, that sense of wanting to be listened to, wanting to be believed, and we want to be believed. Really?
Justin Holcomb: I mean, because they have a story, they have an experience and they want someone to acknowledge that what they experienced was horrible, wrong, a crime, a sin. I mean, just acknowledging it. You used the word, when you said, we come to our questions with narratives and when we assume that my interpretation of a narrative is the way it is, that’s the fancy word for that’s will to power that we get to determine what it is for everyone else. It’s so helpful to hear you talking about racial trauma, talking about the same thing about the power of listening and not assuming that your narrative and maybe looking at your fellow human, and saying maybe, maybe listening to them without a hermeneutic of suspicion of them trying to take away your power. I mean, exactly what you said, if a black man or woman cannot say, “My black life matters,” without having to qualify that, that’s likely because someone have privileges assuming that they’re trying to steal power from them or blame them and there’s a whole host of assumptions playing into that.
Justin Holcomb: When you start talking about narrative interpretation, I mean, it’s so helpful to hear you talking in those categories. It just translates for me really well, so thank you.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Yeah. Okay.
Jim Davis: Sheila, you’re really getting to the core of what we want to do on this podcast. Our purpose is to unite people, to bridge gaps based unashamedly on Christian foundation. With that in mind, I want to talk more about how we can do better. What are some ways in which people might unintentionally exacerbate the racial trauma of others? You’ve talked about this a little bit already in terms of microaggressions, but especially people in the church, what are ways we can unintentionally exacerbate racial trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: You know what? I think that a huge piece is, how are we really welcoming people in? Are we making space for everybody? Are we making space for just the wide representation of the body of Christ? I think about the scripture that says, “Does the eye say to the toe, I don’t need you. Does the toes say… you know what I mean? The hand, I don’t need you.” Is there a gradation between what’s the better part of the body? Or is it, as the body of Christ every single part of the body is important and integral in terms of… Really, just ushering in the kingdom, we need every single piece to be exhibited and how are we reflecting just that revelations vision, ultimately, words, every tongue, tribe nation before the throne? How are we locking people out? Are people coming to our churches, and we just kind of want everybody to kind of fold into this white normativity like, “This is the way that we do things.”
Where people of color feel like, “Can I bring who I am? As a black person, as a Latina, as an indigenous person, can I bring that into this space and share that part of me and it’d be received openly?” Having lived in France and having lived in South Africa, I have seen how American Christianity has oozed its way all around the world. You even have in countries particularly like in South Africa, where a lot of the books, the music slants more to an American white evangelicals, to even white charismatic slant versus where’s the worship? Because the worship that comes directly from South Africa and other parts of the world, that’s going to be hard. That’s every time [tribanation 00:45:21]. Okay, I’m going to have to get off the soapbox now, but that’s a [inaudible 00:45:24].
Jim Davis: No, this is really helpful. I myself, I lived in Italy for five years. I’ve seen exactly what you’re talking about. Something that we cover on the show is, we want your color, but not your culture. That’s what I hear you saying also in the church.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Jim Davis: Following that up, what does it look like for someone who has never experienced any kind of trauma at all, to relate empathetically to those who have experienced racial trauma specifically?
Sheila Wise Rowe: I think that there has to be just a basic commitment to say, “Beyond the listening, what is it that the Lord will want me to do?” What it’s drawn from Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do right, seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case for the widow.” Micah 6:8, the Lord has told you what is good. What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. That as a backdrop, it’s one of, “I haven’t experienced racial trauma, but I have this person in front of me or I have this community and they have.” How do I let scripture inform how I engage with a community that is in pain, or even just an individual who’s in pain, who’s experienced trauma? I don’t want to be tribal, what would Jesus do? What did you actually read about Jesus? How was his engagement with those who were marginalized, and those who were oppressed, or those who are in pain, or those who were grieving?
That is our model of how we are to respond, and it isn’t about our personal opinions, or what political party we ascribe to, but our standard really is Jesus and how did he engage people and how does he want to engage people through us right now? That requires humility, that requires wanting to serve and wanting to love people, even people you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with, or have anything in common with, or that you don’t even really understand.
Justin Holcomb: Now, you just brought the Bible into this, so let’s keep going. I like it. I like it and Bible verses. This is great. Now, there’s a biblical concept of lament that is available in the Scripture. We have a book called Lamentations. We have Psalms of lament. How does the biblical concept of lament inform how we would walk with survivors of trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: You know what? I think that the little thing of, when you actually listen to someone’s story, and you listen to their pain, there are ways in which we can support people. In the Psalms, there’s just great examples, the Psalms of lament, where David is brutally honest with God about what it is that he’s seeing. He’s actually brutally honest with God about what he wants God to do. Not pretty, in many cases, in terms of what He wants him to do his enemies, enemies’ children, and he’s like, “Whoa.”
It’s not like that God was shocked of that that was in David, but it was an opportunity for David to take that ugliness out and bring it into the light, bring his disappointment, “I don’t know what you’re doing God” into the light. I believe that God honors that. He wants a real relationship with us where we’re not saying, “I’m going to hold on to this, I’m going to harbor and nurture this unforgiveness and bitterness, but we’re saying, as David did, we’re bringing that to the Lord and that we can accompany people as they do that.
Just as someone who’s counseled people who are in deep pain, and that’s part of what it is, it’s the Ministry of presence. We’re with them, we journey with them as they bring this stuff to the surface in a way in which we’re not saying to them, “You shouldn’t be thinking that way. You shouldn’t talk to God that way.” We are we’re present with them as they journey through that pain and they unearth it. We’re speaking life into their situation, into them, praying with them, praying prayers of the lament, allowing them to grieve. In that way, lament can be a personal thing that I as an individual who’s experienced racial trauma, I can have lament prayers and pray honestly to God and just wait on his presence and him bringing peace, but we can also accompany people as they do that.
Jim Davis: Well, I really appreciate you mentioning your personal journey and you cover some of this in your book. But in your personal journey, your book, by the way, even but you don’t want to say this is in healing racial trauma. In your book, you cover this, but in your personal journey, your clinical practice, what are some important principles regarding healing racial trauma?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Well, the reality is that, this is ongoing. We’re going to continue to face it. In that way, we have to really be intentional about soul care and just as a way of preventative that will shore it up so that when an incident occurs, there’s a lot more resilience, a lot more strength to handle that. Soul care really involves spiritually, emotionally, physically, relationally and even our work or vocation lives. We’re intentional about, what are we doing to provide places of respite where we can let our hair down, we can de-stress, where we can really know, when is it time to get up again and to go back into the fight and to really advocate for not just our needs, but the needs of others, and those in our community and the country and the world? We have to have that sense of balance of when are we to do this because at a certain point, if we just keep pouring out, pouring out, burnout is basically going to happen. It’s assured.
Sheila Wise Rowe: There are ways in which spiritually it means, how is my relationship with God? That’s the starting point. Are there places where I need to do some lamenting prayer because I’m actually holding a lot of maybe resentment about God because I don’t think he’s moving fast enough? What am I holding that I need to let go of spiritually? I mean, am I having times of quiet, of not just praying to God, but listening. Listening prayer is really important. God is always speaking and so how is He speaking through the scripture to me personally, to my situation? How is he speaking through other people at church, during service, in worship music? Worship music is really important and just really being able to just kind of soak in that presence, I just think of the scripture where it says, “The Lord inhabits the praises of his people,” and just that that sense in terms of worship.
Then as a therapist, I’ve encouraged people also in terms of writing down things, writing their feelings, using whether it’s journaling or art to really work through pain, but also to work through the good things that are happening, because I think that’s the other piece that we have to stay one focus on, on the Lord. There are things that He’s doing. I don’t know everything. There are things that He’s doing that I don’t see, but he’s at work on my behalf. Then there are things that I do see that I can minimize because the trauma is so big. Even what? Yesterday or it’s the day before, Jacob… What’s his last name?
Jim Davis: Blake, Jacob Blake, yeah.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Yes, exactly. That was just another one. It’s like, “Seriously, I just can’t. It’s just too much.” It’s holding that reality like, “Now, there’s another incident. What am I to do with that, Lord? How would you want me to respond to that at the same time of holding the reality of, I am a wife, I have two adult children. I live in a community, I’m a part of a church? What are the ways in which there is life there’s beauty, there’s hope?
Then, yet there is this horrific tragedy and incident, what is the Lord calling me to do with that? I just think that holding that tension is really, really important. Otherwise, it’s just easy to just be overwhelmed by stress and just overcome by pain. One way is just really looking at, how’s my body doing in the midst of this? Am I holding my breath? Am I starting to see it manifest in other ways, elevated blood pressure, those are all symptoms that are saying, “Okay, something’s off, you need to stand down a bit and rest, get off social media, take a break?” That’s really important.
How are my relationships? Whether it’s within my family or in my community, are those relationships being affected? If so, that means I need to stop and I need to pay attention. I think, no, I would say in all of that, in terms of soul care, it really is about paying attention. Similar to actually stopping and listening, it’s listening to our bodies, listening to our minds, what’s going on spiritually, being present rather than checking out because it’s easy to bend on Netflix, or it’s easy to eat, to grab whatever, just to kind of Medicaid, but to stay present and not just to just stay present, to be present because in other worlds we can decide to do that.
The Lord is present with me. He said He will never leave me nor forsake me, so he’s with me and I need to know, “Okay, you’re with me, what are you doing, what are you saying in that?
Jim Davis: Actually, I can already tell you, as we get to the end of this, I’m looking forward to going back and re-listening. You’ve covered so many really helpful places. My wife’s getting her counseling degree. I can’t wait for her to listen to this and for us to process some of this together and even with our children. As we finish this, if there’s someone who’s listening and has listened this far and is still skeptical that there is such a thing as racial trauma, what would you want to say to them?
Sheila Wise Rowe: Skeptical? Hmm. Well, I mean, I think I’ve never wanted to beat a dead horse, but around listening to them. I would say, “You know what? Read the Bible. Please, just read it.” I mean, I think even about the book of Acts, and just the early church, and really how the church grappled with equity, and the widows who were being treated unfairly and they were grappling with justice and how to serve and conflict and reconciliation between individuals and groups.
Sheila Wise Rowe: As a believer, that really is our final authority. I would say, if you don’t want to believe the people who are saying it, then I would say, “Look for some other examples. Look through Scripture. Look at how Jesus treated people.” There are lots of other books out there. Some of them are autobiographies. Maybe that might turn them. Ultimately, there’s some people who don’t really want to be convinced and I think that you can’t focus on those. There are too many people who really are hurting and on the ground who are bleeding and so to try to convince somebody who does not want to be convinced, that is a job that some people take that on as their calling. Their calling is to convince people don’t want to be convinced. I have to be honest, that’s not my call.
Justin Holcomb: Going back to what you just said, Sheila, the Bible refers to people as stubborn and stiff-necked, so someone who doesn’t want to be convinced is stubborn and stiff-necked. Romans 1 uses the language of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness and so people who don’t want to fall and you said that. Let’s read the Bible and see how the Bible’s dealt with this and it’s all throughout it. Let’s use one more, an unrepentant believer in Christ, who is being called to repentance of their obvious and blatant sin, and racism would count on this. If they do not repent, what does Paul say? “Hand them over to Satan? I mean, let them deal with the reality of their sin.”
Justin Holcomb: The Bible uses way more offensive terms and categories and ways of responding. Then, we’ve even been talking about work, we’re not nearly as intense as the Bible is on this. I just want to join in and chime in on that one.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Yeah, I think, Jesus was just like, “You know what? Just shake the dust off your feet and keep it moving.” They never wanted to receive it. They’ll receive it, whether it’s good news, or whether it’s a challenge or whatever. My hope and prayer is that it’s not my job to try to convince them. It’s absolutely true. What Jim said, it’s ultimately the Holy Spirit that’s going to have to really convict and move somebody. I’ve heard of stories where people have shared about family members who they thought there was no way that person is ever going to change. Then something occurs, and it’s conviction of the Holy Spirit or it’s an experience and suddenly there’s a shift and they’re like, “Wow.” They’re just absolutely shocked that they actually ever even thought that way before, but now there’s been a change of heart. That’s my one thing that with God, even with the thief who was on the cross, to the 11th hour, there’s still an opportunity for somebody to repent.
Jim Davis: It’s never too late. Maybe this episode, maybe your book, Healing Racial Trauma will be the thing the Holy Spirit uses in people’s lives. Thank you so much for your work, for the ways that you are devoting your life to healing and thank you for your time here today. We really do appreciate it.
Sheila Wise Rowe: Thank you for having me.
Sheila Wise Rowe: (singing).