On Identity and Collective Trauma

How did the frontier establish our understanding of education and racial identity in the US?

What does it mean to be white in this country?  Whiteness is socially constructed through the identification that the color of one’s skin separates one person from another: creating the gap of identification with another group because of their skin color.  Why do we believe this?  It allows us to absolve ourselves of hurt through the affluence and privilege of individuality.  It allows us to remove ourselves from the fear, pain and isolation of progress.  It does not address our own internal process.  This is where the collective distance lives in our society.  It is not ‘out there’ through the identification of the other’s race, creed, gender identity… it’s not the clothing you wear or the bakery you frequent…it is not the industry of bumper stickers that identify one’s area code or favorite basketball team.  These are all external concepts of identity.

The internal process of individuality has been established through our history.  Through a therapeutic lens, it is a trauma history.  This trauma interrupts our thinking, like there is a wall between ourselves and our knowledge.  It is the same in society.

In the United States, this history is embodied through European technological advancement.  The quest for knowledge through the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, as it is today, is the consequence of the never-ending quest for human knowledge.  There is also an internal knowledge, that we must remind ourselves of, in order to work in greater harmony with the external process.  In order to refrain from fear impacting our relationships and daily lives, we have to look inwards at the constructs of fear that exist in each of us.

We must look into the history to understand the difficulties that remain for racial and ethnic minority groups.  In the case of education, the STEM acronym is quite possibly the most revered concept for the future of the country, possibly humanity as a whole.  It is also something to understand, how, regardless of capability and position, the racial prejudices and internalized fear manifest for co-workers and people in general, on a regular basis.

What does this have to do with the origins of the United States?

Frederick Turner’s frontier thesis explains how education was established across the US and provides a Eurocentric, racist discourse under the guise of democratic ideals.  After the paper, Turner earned his PhD at Johns Hopkins University and became a Harvard history professor.

In Turner’s mind, the first frontier was where the wild Europeans could take the leading role in Manifest Destiny.  These people could explore what would become the Western United States, commit genocide on Native Americans, exhaust their resources and kill or be killed.  What followed?  The 2nd wave of the frontier led tamer, but curiosity-minded European immigrants to follow the 1st wave and establish settlements.  In these settlements, the proselytizing of individuals led to the establishment of community havens through schools (education) and churches (religion).  Here, the democratic ideal was romanticized and controlled.  These immigrants in transition are susceptible to further traumatization.  The grounding nature of community through education and religion must have been an alluring distraction from the uncertainty of life on the prairie and the wild west.  It also promoted the “democratic” ideal.  “Democratic” meaning, what rich, landowning, white men, believed to be right.  This democratic ideal is a capitalistic ideal.

The 3rd wave of colonial expansion is the final tipping point.  Those people who spent their time building a settlement, laying roads and tilling soil, are approached by a high tide of expansion, the “men of capital.”  Turner points out, “writers have discussed the subjects of tariff, land, and internal improvement, as subsidiary to the slavery question.”  Turner, however was not one of these ‘writers.’  He saw it as an instant.  A moment in time to be forgotten.  It cannot been forgotten.  Turner glazed over the fact that the establishment of the country’s economic system was based on slavery.  Those men of capital do not exist without slavery.  This process of expansion does not exist without education.

So where does the modern education push of STEM categories, fit in?  In the Bayer Facts of Science Education XIV Survey discovered that African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and women were not “identified, encouraged or nurtured” to pursue STEM areas early on in their academic careers.  According to the survey of over 1,000 people of the global majority, the biggest contributing factors are a lack of quality science and math programs in poorer school districts, stereotypes about women and minority groups, financial issues due to the costs of education and the absence of outreach towards these groups.”
ALL of these reasons are the result of institutionalized racial bias.  Redlining neighborhoods led to devaluation of certain areas and hence, taxes for education costs.  Racial stereotypes propagated through our media and movies can lead to internalized feelings about race and extends to other minority groups and women.  Does this discourage investment in higher education by marginalized groups?  What is the message in the melting pot of education?

The foundation of the education system is based on an economic system of privilege and class that is woven by the fabric of racism.  Westward expansion was supported by the capital provided by slave owning white men.

The only way to understand our current of behavior is to recognize that the system we live in is the result of internal complicity of racism.  It is not overt racism like the KKK, but internalized in all of us.  The shame that follows this recognition is indicative of trauma.  In response to this James Chu wrote, in Rebuilding Shattered Lives, that the “healthy model of internal reactions” is not yet established.  After the initial discomfort of understanding this on a deep internal level, the healthy model can grow and benefit all of us for the greater good.  Individual patients of trauma must learn a new kind of position, one that is removed from disempowerment.

Trauma is repressed and internalized everyday by individuals in the global majority.  It is trauma that we as a society forget to recognize a history embedded in racism.  This collective amnesia creates a cyclical profile of trauma.  We still act this out as evident in our education ideals.  It has its roots in the history of our country and the foundation of democracy.  Racial othering is perpetuated through the foundational ideals of the country.

This is not something to run from, it is something to embrace and understand how it has effected, and still affects, all of us.  The structure of racism is a part of me, but it is not me, but it is.  It takes depth and internal work to get into the frustration and the anger.

Usually, we are taught that anger is an emotion to avoid.  Anger, however, can be an influencital tool to stand in defiance of cowardice.  When used effectively, it is a powerful tool that can recognize what we want to avoid.  Anger projected onto others is bad, while one’s understanding of what makes them angry, and the foundation of that anger, can be a good thing.  As a society we have the tendency to repress and misidentify these emotional foundations.  Anger can turn frustration into inspiration.

Trauma requires acknowledgment.  Recognition of trauma is the first step towards a healthier reality.  If the trauma continues to fog our mirror, we operate with blinders.  Collective trauma, is no different.  It is through this understanding of our history of collective trauma that we can see the movement forward to liberation.

Keep Thinking.  Stay Woke.  Break Dissonance.  Be Conscious.


Bayer Facts of Science Education XIV: Female and Minority Chemists and Chemical Engineers Speak about Diversity and Underrepresentation in STEM. (2010, March 1). Retrieved from http://www.igert.org/system/content_item_assets/files/579/Bayer_Facts_of_Science_Education_Executive_Summary.pdf?1269877505

Chu, J. (2011). Rebuilding shattered lives treating complex PTSD and dissociative disorders (2nd ed.). Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

Turner, F. (1966). The significance of the frontier in American history. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.


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