The day I felt my ancestral trauma

Photo by Gerson Repreza on Unsplash

I woke up to the news of the killing of George Floyd with an unfamiliar feeling. 

It was more than just anger and frustration at the police brutality and systemic racism that had just stolen another life from us. But I could not pinpoint it. I could not put it in words. 

I felt a heavy weight in my chest for days. I attributed it to stress and anxiety from work, COVID-19, and self-isolation living abroad and away from family, feeling like I’ve had little control over things these days. 

But yesterday I realized that this was real pain. In fact, I was experiencing ancestral trauma.

I embraced my identity as an Afro-Latina a few years ago. It started–as for many young women like me–by claiming my natural curly hair after years of wearing it straight. This change led me to unfold and discover other manifestations of my Blackness.

In the Dominican Republic, where I am from, I grew up in a society built on silencing our Blackness; where Blackness or afro-descent origins are racist taboos–the whiter, the better. A society where it’s common for Dominicans to say: “We are not Black, we are Dominicans”, ”Find somebody to refine the race when you marry.” “Why don’t you comb your hair, wearing that pajón?” 

Many others before me have better explained these racist practices, which are so deeply embedded in our subconscious and our social imaginaries, that more often than not we don’t even notice them for what they really are: painful.

As a human rights lawyer and intersectional feminist, I’m constantly working to identify discriminatory patterns and policies, analysing root causes and convincing others to find solutions to achieve the right to equality. I think through this lens most days and even nights, working late on projects. Although I breathe and live these issues in my daily work, I had never taken a moment to reflect on how I breathe and live them personally, as an Afro-Latina. 

Maybe because I have always been scared, too. 

Race is a very complex matter, but race in the US is even more complex, in my experience. Influenced by history and cultural contexts, racist practices and policies can manifest themselves differently in different places, even if, in essence, they are all the same–an expression of racism. 

Until now, I had seen police brutality against Black and Brown individuals in the U.S. as an issue from abroad. A result of racist policies that must be publicly condemned, challenged and reformed. I now realize that although effective for my work, this has also been a strategy to distance myself–perhaps from the impending pain. 

I could look at it from afar as a problem that I could solve without thinking how it impacts me. And then move on to the next injustice. But George’s words stuck in my brain for days: “I can’t breathe.” And all the while, I was feeling deeply “meh” (my word to identify my pain before calling it for what it really is).

Yesterday, I almost demanded my therapist to explain this to me. I mean, where was my usual anger and frustration that typically drove me to confront injustice? It was absent. All I had was this near-paralyzing “meh” feeling and I refused to sit with it and do nothing for days. I needed a solution, ASAP, so I could continue on with my life (typical type-8 enneagram attitude).

My therapist simply said: “It’s probably because you are experiencing ancestral trauma.” 

Ancestral trauma? I had seen the term in several publications shared with me by Black friends and activists in the US. But I had never considered it to be something related to me. I mean, yes, I know vicarious trauma, which is expected from working in the human rights sector. But ancestral trauma? Why? How?

My therapist explained to me that in certain circumstances, vicarious and ancestral trauma can arise from the same trigger. Ancestral trauma is like an unhealed wound that opens up everytime one experiences a phenomenon that awakens a deep pain inside you. They said to me: 

“It’s like you are seeing something with your eyes, but it’s really all your ancestors are seeing the same thing using your eyes. And that can be deeply painful, because maybe you, or somebody close to you, has not lived or felt something like this before–but your ancestors may have witnessed or even lived it before you.”

I had thought this was some esoteric belief. Valid – but it did not apply to me. But then I thought about all my dark-skinned relatives, tracing them all the way to slavery, in what at the time was the colony of Santo Domingo. I thought about how, in my family, we don’t truly speak about racism. I thought about how my partner and I are probably generationally related, as he comes from the same region where slaves were taken from and carried to my now country. 

I thought about how so many elements of our Dominican culture, from rhythm to traditions to food and even words, are rooted in the resistance of our Black ancestors–refusing to be erased by a system designed to extinguish them. 

And now it makes some sense. 

It is my responsibility to look at this pain directly in the eyes. To sit with my pain–instead of ignoring it–and try and listen to what it is trying to teach me. What can this pain tell me about how I am embracing myself fully? What can it tell me about how to expand my resources and support for my community, a Pan-African community, even if I am not from the US?

What is it telling me about my experience as a cisgendered woman, from the Caribbean, who is working to peel back the layers of pre-conceived notions of race and gender, from both inside of herself and the world she inhabits?

I do not know where this will lead me, but it’s time to use my pain for change. Knowing how racism systematically impacts the pan-african community is no longer enough for me. 

The road to dismantling racism is long, hard and painful, but we must face it head on in order for change to come. For that reason, it’s time to break my silence. 

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