by Lorrie Goldin, LCSW, Impulse Staff Writer
VOICE, VOICELESSNESS, AND LISTENING: THE TRAUMA OF RACIAL OPPRESSION
Dr. Kenneth Hardy's recent presentation, "Race and Trauma in Contemporary Society," sponsored by The Psychotherapy Institute, came at an opportune time. Baltimore was reeling from Freddie Gray's death, and six police officers had just been criminally charged. "Trauma pulverizes our regulatory mechanism," Hardy remarked.
Hardy spoke of the sociocultural trauma that comes from racial oppression -- wounds inflicted directly by the oppressor and those that occur when the subjugated internalize characteristics of the subjugator. These can manifest as disrespect and hatred of, as well as violence against, the self and others.
Hardy paid special attention to voicelessness -- a survival mechanism whose price is the soul.
The flip side of voicelessness is rage. When voice emerges -- the first order of reclaiming the soul -- it has a degree of rawness that can become explosive. This needs to be welcomed instead of pathologized (regulation can come later). In an echo of MLK's famous remark, "A riot is the language of the unheard," Hardy considers "rage implosions to be the working out of voicelessness as a trauma wound." Emerging voice is jeopardized by placing far too much emphasis on how things are said rather than embracing their being said at all.
This last point is especially pertinent in an age when CBT, communication skills, anger management, and even mindfulness have influenced the field. We are often asked for and feel compelled to supply "tools" to sand and file away sharp edges, to mold affect and expression into more palatable forms. This may well serve constructive ends such as self-soothing, positive self-talk, conflict de-escalation, and increased chances of being heard. Yet concern about palatability can easily prioritize the comfort of the listener over the experience of the speaker, and drive the emergent voice underground.
Listening is our work and our duty. It's odd, then, how easily we get away from it. This is a risk for any therapist, but especially for white therapists working with clients of color, who are so well schooled in voicelessness and deference to whiteness.
As Hardy observed, "We don't talk about race because we don't know how to talk about race. We don't know how to talk about race because we don't talk about race." His presentation was a skillful invitation to open up meaningful and ongoing conversation.