This is a series of posts designed to help people approach diversity and inclusion. These are questions and scenarios we’ve actually heard or seen in the wild. This is part of our corporate programming for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For more information, click here.
Q: As a woman who has been sexually assaulted, I feel afraid, for example, when I am alone on an elevator with a strange man. How is this different from my grandfather, who was mugged on several occasions by Black men, being afraid of Black men?
A: You ask if there is a difference between the fear felt by two individuals, who have each been assaulted when meeting up with others who remind them of their assailant(s). My reflexive, simple answer is: No, there is no inherent difference.
But the question calls for us to reflect on the complex relationship between oppression and fear. Simple answers tend to minimize or excuse one or the other, resulting in unintended injury to the victims of both. So, let us take a close and careful look.
I was drawn to answer this question for two reasons: the first is professional and the second is personal.
I am a psychotherapist specializing in trauma among victims of crime so the intersect of trauma with “race“, gender, and oppression are natural points of interest. Personally, I can relate to your grandfather’s situation because I too am a white man, grandfatherly in age, who has been assaulted several times in my life by young African American males.
As an ally to oppressed communities, I am challenged to acknowledge many difficult truths about myself. One of those truths is my responsibility to heal from and to monitor my responses to some difficult lived experiences.
In one instance, as a ten-year-old boy, while drinking from a water fountain in a movie theatre, I was kicked in the stomach by a boy my age. We had never seen each other before, but I noticed he was Black and that somehow explained, in my young mind, what he had just done to me. Another incident occurred years later when, in my first job as a social worker I was chased through streets between city projects by a group of African American teenagers who, eventually, surrounded me, held me at knifepoint, and stole my wallet.
After each event, I cried and shook with myriad emotions when I recounted the assaults.
Trauma is a reaction to the threat of death or serious injury. Autonomy is an essential component of our sense of wholeness and of personal control over our bodies. When our sense of autonomy is undermined, as it is during the perpetration of a crime or other acts of violence, victims tend to experience, to varying degrees and duration, a profound violation.
I remember feeling angry, confused, and embarrassed by how I reacted and failed to react when I was assaulted.
After a potentially traumatizing event, the body and mind tend to establish a self-protective system of responses to guard against the recurrence of such injury. Anxiety, depressive-withdrawal, and aggression are common strategies the trauma response utilizes in its attempt to keep us safe.
As part of that response, we generalize from our immediate experience of harm. If I am assaulted by a man who is over six feet tall, wearing a fedora, I am likely to become vigilant when I see someone with those characteristics even if I know my assailant is locked up in jail. The fear response is not rational. The brain prioritizes safety and overrides cognitive function when there is a threat. In effect, the nervous system pushes reasoning aside and says: “Better safe than sorry.”
When a victim of a crime feels fearful in the presence of someone who, for whatever reason, reminds them of their offender, their reaction is a subjective response and not an act of hatred or based in privilege. That response is stressful for the victim and can be uncomfortable, insulting or even threatening to the person or persons who are reminiscent of the offender in the eyes of the victim.
In this sense, the woman and the man in the elevator are both victims of the sexual assailant, as the grandfather and the Black men he encounters on the street are all victims of the muggers. All types of violence tend to radiate out harm, negatively affecting people far removed from the initial aggression.
Vigilance, or being alert to possible threats, is not the problem.
Hypervigilance, on the other hand, which is a common symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), can be debilitating. Being on high alert for danger is exhausting, as the nervous system ceaselessly scans the environment, often triggering reactions to stimuli bearing only a mild resemblance to actual threat, making maximal use of the brain’s capacity to generalize from experience while depressing more discerning functions. Hence, victims often react not to the specifics of the person before them, but to general characteristics that match those of past assailants.
It is important to distinguish between generalizations that are fear-responses to victimization and generalizations that are the building blocks of objectification, depersonalization and all forms of hate-based prejudice and oppression. It is also crucial to recognize where and how these two types of generalizations intersect.
Racism is often depicted as originating with victimization at the hands of an oppressed group. The loss of a job is blamed on “reverse racism,” or the “deterioration” of a neighborhood said to be due to “racial” change. This false logic is used to justify racist feelings or behavior.
Recruitment strategies of many hate groups rely heavily on the fear in a dominant population of losing an assumed advantage. Dominant populations often feel threatened when inequities are corrected, and advantages (assumed to have been rightfully earned) are jeopardized by just efforts to increase equal access.
A central distinction between a trauma-based fear response and a hate-based belief system is that a trauma response is reflexive. It is not, essentially, an interpretation about others or the world; it is primarily a management of one’s relationship to the past. This internal response may lead to distorted thinking and perception of others, but these distortions are motivated by a rush to safety.
A victim’s healing process involves an increased awareness that the fear response is their own, and an increased capacity to identify and correct cognitive distortions.
After being assaulted, I became more fearful of Black people. That fear can no more be divorced from racism, economic, political, and psychological oppression than misogyny can be separated from the sexual assault of a woman by a man. These injustices form the context and even a motive for the crimes. Tragically they also provide the context for a victim’s response.
But it is crucial that we not confuse fear with injustice, because it is within a safe environment that a victim becomes capable of healing. It was my guardedness that allowed me a safe return to my senses. My senses told me that my assailants were individuals, not representatives of an entire portion of my community.
It is also imperative to note that, no matter the victimization that preceded our actions or its impact on how we feel, we are still responsible for what we do. A person who is abused at work and goes home so frustrated that they kick the dog is in no way innocent of their abusiveness. Boss and employee each must answer for their own abusiveness.
If the grandfather or I translate our fear into a negative belief system about Black people that significantly promotes racism, it is indefensible as a trauma-response; although, I would add, that our victimization at the hands of muggers remains worthy of empathy and support.
Grandad might also benefit, as I have, from an understanding of the role racism has often played in the shaping of the muggers’ behaviors. Interpersonal and systemic victimization play a pivotal role in creating unsafe environments for us all.
It should not be overlooked that the woman who is sexually assaulted by a man is both systemically victimized by misogyny and then personally assaulted by her assailant. My victimizations, as a white man, have been personal assaults, but I have not been the target of systemic oppression. The female questioner who encounters the man in the elevator is confronted with a quantitatively and qualitatively greater threat than the grandfather. Therefore, the reflexive answer equating the two is not only overly simplistic but is also potentially harmful.
As a person who has experienced fear-based responses, I understand when oppressed people have similar reactions to systemic assaults and the other forms of violence they confront regularly.
Allies need to remember that those reactions are fundamental to human psychology and physiology; they are not particular to a gender, class, culture, or orientation.
Hence, recognizing these fear-based reactions wherever they arise, allies should strive not to treat them as the same-as acts of oppression, whether recognized in oppressed or non-oppressed populations. Puritanical attempts to undermine or negatively judge our biological defenses can do harm to ourselves, others and an otherwise sound anti-oppression argument.
Non-judgmental empathy is always the best response to hearing of another’s suffering.
Allies must focus on how we respond to fear in ourselves and in others. When we respond with empathy, compassion and kindness, my experience tells me, we cannot go wrong.
The Good Men Project now offers Diversity & Inclusion programs for corporations, organizations, and educational institutions.
Want to set up a live video call, speak to the CEO and team, and learn about our content?
Email [email protected]
This post is republished on Medium.