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Generational Trauma and the Perpetual Victimhood Mindset

It is challenging to discuss the subject of generational trauma experienced by Black people without turning it into a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation since there is so much scholarly information available, including Dr. Joy DeGruy's seminal book entitled, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.” In addition, recent studies discussing a growing consensus that transgenerational health disparities affecting Black people persist due to continued interpersonal and structurally institutional discrimination in the United States,[1] and studies of epigenetics on the effects of Racism on Black people, show how Black people may biologically inherit harmful generational trauma from Racism and white supremacism.

Generational Trauma is described as:

“…the transference of traumatic experiences or stressors from one generation to the next. One of many types of traumas, it can happen through direct experience, witnessing violence, or living in an environment where violence is a constant threat.[2]

Dr. Reshawna Chapple, writing for Talk Space, explained Generational Trauma this way:

“This form of psychological trauma can lead to physical and mental health problems as well as social and emotional difficulties. For example, children who grow up in homes with domestic violence and experience childhood trauma may develop anxiety or depression as adults. They may also have trouble trusting people or forming intimate relationships — this cycle of unresolved trauma can affect generations to come.

Chapple also wrote:

“Generational trauma can be passed down through DNA to family members. Some people may be predisposed to it, but it’s important to remember that not everyone who experiences intergenerational trauma has symptoms related to their experience. Many factors are at play regarding inherited trauma, including resilience, support systems, and resource access.”[2]

Racialized generational trauma has been linked back to The Enslavement through the present day. In the face of such mounting evidence, it appears many Black people have difficulty acknowledging generational trauma associated with history. While it is easy enough to grasp why white people generally disavow any link to The Enslavement on their generational issues, including the horrendously idiotic notion based on the assignment of the color white to their skin and the implication of their superiority over the people they oppressed because of it, it seems not many Black people want to own any distressing distinction associated with ancestral enslavement. Perhaps it is part of a traumatic response brought on by a genuine attempt to get beyond the stigma of being in bondage as animals, the end of a cycle of perceived inferiority or victimhood. This essay aims to dispel any confusion about victimhood related to racialized generational trauma.

The terms victim, victimhood, and victimization are used pejoratively even though there are plenty of reasons why the entire culture of whiteness is enough to consider oneself a victim. Indeed, in the U.S. today, it is considered a weakness to have ever been a victim of practically anything since a victim is commonly associated with being a loser.

According to Psychology Today, people want to imagine a just world, so they may blame others for experiencing harm in it.[3] In the history of atrocities perpetrated by those whose implied whiteness was based on skin pigment, there is certainly enough blame to go around. Feeling like a victim can be correlated with being powerless and helpless. This would explain why so many people, including Black people, might lean towards avoiding it.

In an article entitled, Unraveling the Mindset of Victimhood for Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufman explained it is a normal psychological response to trauma to recognize one’s victimhood. Experiencing trauma tends to shatter expectations of the world as an impartial and moral place, yet, recognizing one’s victimhood is a normal response to trauma that can reestablish a person’s confidence in their perception of the world as generally fair.[4]

Kaufman’s article describes people whose mindset is tilted towards an attitude of victimhood in such a way that it appears to place the descendants of The Enslavement, Black people in general, and teachers of American Antebellum and Post Reconstruction history squarely into the crosshairs of unending victimhood without any justification, albeit unintentionally. Described as the Perpetual Victimhood Mindset, it suggests that anyone who focuses on grievances possesses “an ongoing feeling that the self is a victim, which is generalized across many kinds of relationships. As a result, victimization becomes a central part of the individual’s identity.”[4] He explained that people with this perpetual victimhood mindset “tend to have an ‘external locus of control’; they believe that one’s life is entirely under the control of forces outside one’s self, such as fate, luck, or the mercy of other people.”[4]Reflecting on Kaufman’s statement, he also attempted to clarify while there is no equivalence between having experienced trauma and possessing the perpetual victimhood mindset:

“… a victimhood mindset can develop without experiencing severe trauma or victimization. Vice versa, experiencing severe trauma or victimization doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is going to develop a victimhood mindset.”[4]

To illustrate a person or persons with a perpetual victimhood mindset, Kaufman’s article provided four statements used to determine such a prospect on a sliding scale of 1-5 from not applicable to very applicable. Psychiatrists acknowledged that people with a score of 4 or 5 on all of the statements may have a tendency for interpersonal victimhood or a victimhood mindset.[4] What stood out, especially within the context of Racism and white supremacism was the statement:

“…they believe that one’s life is entirely under the control of forces outside one’s self, such as fate, luck, or the mercy of other people”[4]

From the outset, the statement is grossly misleading because it assumes no rationality for the lived experiences within the culture of Blackness and the generational trauma of those historical atrocities. Taken on its face, it assumes being under the control of forces outside one’s self and at the mercy of other people is not sensible. It also suggests that there are no institutional, or structural barriers in place even today let alone throughout the history of this country that would justify the belief in the control of forces outside one’s self and being at the mercy of other people. However, it is clear to those who experience the everyday discrimination and denial of systemic Racism as well as the constant stigma of invalidation and perceived inferiority, that Black life at this time and throughout history has been under the control of forces outside of themselves and at the mercy of whiteness in the form of white people with the power to subjugate them.

Scholars like Dr. DeGruy and others are not claiming victimhood by positioning facts with what Dr. DeGruy calls a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora and giving such generational trauma the name, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.[5] However, they are keenly aware of the victimization caused by generations of living inside the bowels of Enslavement, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and the failed attempt at racial color blindness. Understanding the trauma imposed on Black people by the experience of The Enslavement, the fall of Reconstruction, and the Nadir of American Race Relations transmitted across generations down to the present day, along with the stress of contemporary racial prejudice through racial micro and macro-aggressive behaviors of white people who for their own reasons attempt to hide the harm and to claim their own victimization because of Black people, is key to realizing there is no such place for any suggestion of invalidity in the case of Black people in America. Therefore, it is safe to acknowledge that Black people in America as a collective do not possess a perpetual victimhood mindset because many Black people do not contemplate the effects of generational trauma or The Enslavement on their everyday lives, nor do most Black people perceive themselves as perpetual victims without cause, but rather, consider themselves resilient people who were and continue to be victimized by a culture of whiteness that is tangible, experienced, and confirmed.

In conclusion, being victimized by Racism and white supremacism through the generations, while cause for generational trauma, does not translate into a perpetual victimhood mindset because the rationale for such trauma and victimhood is not contrived, but real, and because Black people as a group do not see themselves as victims, even as they are consistently victimized. Quite the contrary, generational racialized trauma still manages to translate into triumph, not loss, resilience not weakness, success, not failure, and power, not powerlessness for Black people who are still thriving at this juncture in history despite all attempts to hide and distort the facts which support the reality of Black lived experiences.


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