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Whiteness as cultural complex trauma

Whiteness as cultural complex trauma
This is a 'classic article' from my legacy website.

Please note that while I still consider my current work to have evolved out concepts and frameworks that I present in this piece and others, I have greatly departed, in both thinking and tone, from the kind of dualist social/racial justice discourse I embedded this piece of work within.

I consider my current work to be fully dedicated to embracing the nondual nature of the cosmos, never hardening into essentials of good or bad, right or wrong.

Cultural complex trauma

Resourcing the immense amount of emergent learning from members of the Authentic Allyship Coaching Group and the work of my many colleagues*, I want to conceptualize Whiteness, a set of internalized unconscious behavioral patterns that violently upholds White supremacy, as something born from what we might call cultural complex trauma, a product of painful disconnection from ancestry.

And I believe it has a profound neurophysiological impact on us.

Please remember, I am not at all proposing cultural complex trauma as a mental illness that one person has, and another person doesn't.

Cultural complex trauma is something we all carry, as colonized, colonizers, and settlers.

I use the term complex trauma because it refers to trauma that is developed because of repeated exposure to pain, often from those with more positional power e.g. childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment by caregivers. The idea of cultural complex trauma extends this into ancestral wounds of being disconnected from our parental cultures.

I wanted to start using this term because it gives us a way to name a possible mechanism for pain that is operating at the depths of all of our beings and giving that a bit more of a tangible container so we can really grapple with its reality.

Cultural complex trauma + white privilege = Whiteness

Trauma in it of itself isn't what causes oppressive violence.

But when it is coupled with privilege, it allows for a privileged person's nervous system to feel safe enough to react with a 'fight' response when threatened by IBPOC.

It is very important to note that exploring Whiteness as cultural complex trauma is NOT about centering the pain of White people and their healing in social justice work. I do healing work with White people but I know that it is not for everyone to do.

As a person of color, I fully recognize that IBPOC experience cultural complex trauma as internalized racism/colonialism and suffer immensely because of a lack of privilege.

But what I am focused on is understanding WHY racialized violence is inflicted, which necessarily means looking at how white people are hurt.

*I wish I could name all of my colleagues, IBPOC and white, but the list would be very very long. I recognize that collective learning happens in a cloud, rather than a static library of references. I honor everyone who has contributed to this idea through critiquing, giving feedback, and supporting me in various forms.

Is ancestral trauma real?

If the question is whether ancestral trauma is proven, well, as far as I know, the answer is: kind of.

As I understand, most scientific research talks about epigenetics and intergenerational trauma as possible ways ancestral trauma is transmitted. It's a challenging conversation because when we really get into ancestral trauma it takes our world view toward a much more 'magical' kind of place.

That said, one of the major issues with colonized approaches to knowledge is a lack of trust for the internal sensate experience. This mechanism also supports institutionalized white privilege in academia and keeps marginalized wisdom from the center.

So for me, it's simple.

The fact that so many people are doing ancestral trauma work right now is enough to consider the possibility that our body carries memories of ancestral pain from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And of course, if we are willing to validate the possibility of ancestral trauma, or even just recognize that it is a very healing way to work with someone regardless of its being 'real', it stands to bear that we work in a model where there would be complex trauma that would be associated with it.

Some ideas of how ancestral trauma impacts our neurophysiology

My understanding is that ancestral trauma deeply affects our sense of safety and belonging by harming our Hara.

Hara is a Japanese word that holds the intestines and the surrounding area as the seat of the true self. The Japanese have traditionally understood Hara as the central place of thinking and feeling in the body.

Modern neuroscience is only catching up now to recognize that the intestines are in fact a neural network, or rather, a brain.

My hypothesis at the moment is that ancestral trauma is mostly held in the gut-brain. Our intestines contain an incredible amount of microbes that are inherited over many generations and literally carry information of what lands we are from.

And the health of our intestines is based on how attuned we are to the subtle changes to our intestinal environment impacted by gut flora.

So why is this such a big deal to our nervous system?

Well, the gut-brain is the major producer of serotonin in our body, up to 90% of it. Serotonin helps us re-calibrate the sensitivity of our neural security camera, the amygdala.

If ancestral trauma impacts our gut health, this means it also has a profound effect on our nervous system's feeling of threat in the environment. Given that white supremacy is a kind of hypervigilance, it stands that gut health would have a huge impact on someone's reactivity towards IBPOC.

(You can read more about Hara as a concept and how our disconnection affects our well being at this blog, "Head, Heart and Hara" by Peter Willberg, here.)

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Insecure cultural attachment

I believe the concept of cultural complex trauma to be very useful because it leads us to look at we might call insecure cultural attachment: that is disconnection or unhealthy connection to parental cultures.

Just like regular insecure parent-child attachment, insecure cultural attachment significantly lowers our resiliency in recovering from traumatic stress as it deeply impacts our ability to self-soothe. Not having access to one's culture means having a weak sense of belonging in the world and also less access to cultural resiliency tools, such as dance, martial arts and other spiritual practices.

(Me and Tad Hargrave talk about this concept in this video.)

Here are some of the violent behavioral patterns seen in Whiteness informed by insecure cultural attachment, taking after regular attachment theory:

  • Anxious cultural attachment - Shows up as cultural appropriation (an over-dependence on another person's culture) or as white supremacy (an over-dependence on a fabricated 'white' culture that is meant to replace the role of the older ancestral cultures).
  • Avoidant cultural attachment - Shows up as a hypervigilant need to segregate from other racial and cultural groups.
  • Ambivalent cultural attachment - Shows up as a back and forth between ‘loving’ and ‘hating’ other racial and cultural groups. This explains how a person can over-attach to other cultures through cultural appropriation while enacting violence towards those same cultures.

For more reading, this website by Estelle Simard of The Institute for Culturally Restorative Practices speaks to cultural attachment injuries as experienced by indigenous communities.

Here is an excerpt from her writing on cultural attachment:

"Cultural attachment is a philosophy, which encapsulates how an individual bonds to his or her culture. Cultural attachment creates a direct spiritual force, where the bond begins, develops, and evolves for the individual. In Anishinaabemowin, cultural attachment is expressed as wiidamaagowiziwinan. This means the deep connection between the individual and their spiritual connection to their Creator through his or her access to cultural structure. Cultural attachment is a life-giving philosophy, as it instills life force energy into an individual.

Cultural attachment has remained in Aboriginal worldview because as Aboriginal people there exists the genetic memory of the ancestors, this is called gichi Anishinaabe aadizokaan(an) / gagiikwewewin(an). This genetic memory is the spirit of Aboriginal people. Cultural attachment is built on the principle that cultural memory is carried in an Aboriginal’s DNA. This cultural memory becomes active or alive, and inspires connection to the spirit. Many people feared that historical effect and colonization has eroded the cultural memory of the Aboriginal people, but they cannot be further from the truth. The truth is that cultural memory, connection to that memory, and its subsequent cultural attachment has never left the people, it has only waited to be awakened."

Symptoms and signs of cultural complex trauma

Here are some phenomena that I think of as symptoms/signs of cultural complex trauma.

  • A disconnection to the body, showing up as poor proprioception of the lower body (e.g. The common pejorative quote: "White people can't dance")
  • Difficulties in self-soothing, especially around subjects related to racism and colonialism (e.g. white fragility)
  • Hyper-rationalism
  • Poor body image (e.g. glorification of the hyper-muscular white body)
  • Racialized/cultural self-hatred
  • Puritanism/perfectionism
  • Racial/cultural narcissism (e.g. white supremacy)
  • Racial/cultural savior complex (e.g. white man’s burden)
  • Racialized-violence

How is cultural complex trauma different from regular post-traumatic stress patterns?

The main difference is how privilege completely changes our experiences of what I call cultural complex trauma.

White people, tend to experience very intense insecure cultural attachment, but also tend to be much more socioeconomically privileged, making them more likely to be numb to their ancestral wounds. White privilege is an institutionalized dissociative mechanism that protects white people from processing pain and healing.

On the other hand, IBPOC, who are much less privileged, tend to experience a lot more institutionalized violence and would be more sensitive to the impact of cultural complex trauma on their well being.

The concept of cultural complex trauma doesn't at all mean that white people suffer more pain and need to be attended to as a priority, even if they have very insecure cultural attachment. It is clear that IBPOC experience the acute pain of cultural complex trauma more intensely.

How cultural complex trauma is inflicted through colonization

There are many avenues by which colonization hurt IBPOC.

But as a somatic therapist, I would like to focus on how colonization harms the nervous system of IBPOC by destroying their embodiment cultures.

You can see this work on how colonization impacts lifestyle.

Most non-European people didn’t wear pants before colonization, and if they did, they were not tight. Most cultures wore robes and ‘skirts’, no matter the gender.

We also generally didn’t sit on chairs. We squatted or sat on the ground.

Many of our cultures didn’t glorify tight muscular abs.

We didn’t march like rigid European soldiers did. We walked using a slight skating motion from side-to-side and a subtle ripple up the spine (a movement principle you can observe cross-culturally in everything from dance to martial arts).

On the whole, our bodies moved completely differently before colonization/Westernization. We had a much greater sense of the lower body and abdomen.

We have been white-ified through changes to our living environment including the adoption of Western military discipline and education.

When we begin to understand trauma and anatomy we start to understand how much impact this has had.

Whiteness shows up in the body as an energetic imbalance caused by a loss of spinal fluidity and awareness of the lower body. Emotional energy becomes concentrated in the upper body, particularly gathering in the mind.

This means that colonized lifestyle constricts the flow of energy to the gut-brain (enteric nervous system), which as mentioned above, has a big impact on the sensitivity of the amygdala.

I explore the concept of Whiteness as an embodiment in the video below.


(Here is an excellent book by Hideo Takaoka on embodiment and personality)

White fragility through the lens of cultural complex trauma

I think one of the most interesting things about using a concept such as cultural complex trauma and cultural attachment is how it offers insights into what is commonly referred to as white Fragility.

As we see all over the internet, white people tend to have low emotional resiliency in relationship, especially around conversations about race, even though they experience vast amounts of White privilege.

My thoughts are that this is because of their insecure cultural attachment. Conversations about race trigger deep cultural attachment wounds for white people.

With many white people, navigating matters around racism and helping them understand their patterns better is like disarming a minefield. It takes sensitivity and discipline.

Accountability for white people in recognizing their cultural complex trauma

There are definitely arguments over whether framing Whiteness as a mental health issue is harmful or not to IBPOC. I want to take a perspective that a trauma-based understanding of Whiteness could bring more accountability.

What I want to do is invite a world, where a white man might go see their therapist and be reflected back that they might be suffering from Whiteness and invited to work on healing Whiteness internally and dismantling white supremacy externally.

That is a world I want to live in and practice in.

If you are a white person and this is something that resonates with you, please take this into your soul. Let it call you to a greater accountability and commitment to show up for racism cessation work.


Does the idea of insecure cultural attachment mean white people suffer more from cultural complex trauma?

NO. Cultural complex trauma as I am talking about is NOT the same as the kind of experiences we might commonly consider CPTSD or PTSD. The reason is that the amount you suffer from cultural complex trauma is greatly impacted by how much privilege you have to numb your pain.

But what about white privilege? How can white people be traumatized by privilege?

White people aren't traumatized from having privilege. Rather, they become numbed to their pain through privilege. Oppressive systems are there to systemically protect them from processing discomfort.

Does this mean if I am IBPOC I need to be nicer to white people?

NO. White people must experience discomfort, within their window of tolerance, to heal cultural complex trauma.

Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.