I had to experience physical trauma before I understood there was such a thing as racial trauma. I’ll explain. On November 25, 2020, I did something stupid. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and I was in charge of cooking protein for the family gathering. It had been a tough year for everyone, and people were working hard to make a family gathering safe and possible during a pandemic. I wanted the meal to be memorable. I was working on turkey stock for homemade gravy. I put a pan under my parents’ brand new, fancy broiler to brown the turkey bones. I removed it and returned it to the stovetop. Then, without thinking, I grabbed the pan’s metal handle with my bare hand to stir it.
I heard a hiss before the pain registered. When it did, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I had just grabbed a large piece of metal that was over 500 degrees. In so doing, I covered the entire inside of my right hand in second degree burns.
The pain was excruciating, and nothing would ease it. The injury took months to heal, and all that skin would fall off and regrow. Despite my fears, it did not outwardly scar. If you look at my hands now, you can’t tell which one was injured. But my hands remember. Years later, my right hand is still very sensitive to heat. Mundane tasks like cooking breakfast for my daughter now hurt. It may remain that way for years or even as long as I live. It looks fine, outwardly, but it hurts every single day.
Trauma is a tricky thing. Whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual, we are all susceptible to trauma. We can experience deep wounds no one else can see. Even after those wounds “heal,” there can be lasting effects, sensitivities, predilections, and vulnerabilities that can last years or even a lifetime. This dynamic is hard to explain and is invisible to others.
If you were to sit in my kitchen today and see me grab my daughter’s warm oatmeal bowl and wince, you might laugh at me or tell me to stop being a wimp if you had no prior knowledge of my injury. The context and history would cause my reaction to make sense, but not all wounds to body, mind, or soul are so easily explained.
When it comes to race, wounds may involve categories or experiences that not everyone understands. Those wounded and re-wounded by subsequent experiences are left trying to explain themselves to those ill-equipped to understand the original wound, let alone why subsequent, seemingly innocuous events cause hurt. For the one wounded, it may not even seem worth the effort to explain the pain, so misunderstanding persists.
I’ll share a personal example. When I was in college, a black friend of mine was about to go on a date, and I made a quip to him about it. The comment was not at all racial in nature. It was light-hearted in the way young men tease each other about dates. He had asked out a classmate who was white. But what I didn’t realize is that this friend had a long-term relationship that ended when the white father of the young woman he was dating insisted she end the relationship because her boyfriend was black. The pain of that outright racism had left scars on my friend, and my comment had wounded him because of past trauma. I never intended to hurt him, but I did. It took him being brave and vulnerable enough to share the backstory before I understood.
Here’s my heart in writing this. I don’t want to make anyone walk on eggshells or feel like they can’t be themselves around others. I want to encourage empathy and humility. None of us know what past experiences and wounds plague our brothers and sisters around us. It may confuse us when a seemingly everyday event offends a brother or sister of a different background. Just remember that you don’t know what folks have been through, and you don’t need to fully understand it in order to empathize. If someone tells you they are hurt, it costs you nothing to believe them.
We may be tempted to dismiss our brothers and sisters when they tell you they are offended or hurt by something that seems unremarkable to us. We may even be tempted to defensiveness, thinking that we have done nothing wrong, and that any hurt perceived by others is a result of their weakness or immaturity. But this assumes we have perfect knowledge and perception of reality, which is arrogance unbecoming followers of Jesus. We do better when we acknowledge that we do not know everything and know little of their prior experience and trauma.
We don’t have to understand every aspect of someone else’s pain in order to empathize. If we’re humble, we can love those we don’t understand. We can back off instead of dig in. We can love instead of criticize. We can listen instead of argue.
Love teaches us to believe all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). That doesn’t mean we have to understand or agree with all things. We can believe pain we don’t experience. When we do, we will be better equipped to love those we do not yet understand.
- Pray for humility to recognize that we don’t know everything our brothers and sisters have experienced.
- Pray for empathy to identify with hurt we do not understand.
- Pray for courage to explain why things which seem normal might be hurtful for those who have experienced past trauma.