Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Anti-oppressive Work is Trauma-Work

A Call for a New Perspective When Teaching Multiculturalism in Classrooms

Clinical Impact Statement: This manuscript provides specific guidance for educators and trainees who instruct courses on multiculturalism. Guidance offered are drawn from trauma-informed practices to support student engagement in exploration of oppression, identity, and other related topics.

Look at me

But please

Don’t look at me

In this op-ed, I propose a novel perspective for engaging in anti-oppressive work within classrooms. But first, I provide a framework to better explain why this approach may be necessary for disentangling and de-threading the oppressive fabric that exists in every single one of us.

In order to do anti-oppressive work, we need to recognize the oppressive systems that we are in. Scholars have highlighted the traumatic impacts of oppression on historically marginalized communities (e.g., Bryant-Davis, 2005; Carter, 2007; Crenshaw, 1991; Paradies, 2006; Smith et al., 2007; Utsey, 1998) as well as those from privileged groups (e.g., Goodman, 2001). Societal trauma, or the ways in which people are oppressed (Bryant-Davis et al., 2009), can occur on interpersonal, institutional, and systemic levels (e.g., Gomez, 2015). Examples of societal trauma include historical trauma, discrimination, and societal status (Bryant-Davis et al., 2010; Lindquist et al., 2013; Littleton & Ullman, 2013; Klest et al., 2013). Societal trauma occurs within the very systems that we depend on to survive. Due to this high level of dependency, harm that is perpetrated systemically, including by those who represent those systems, may be considered a betrayal.

Building off Betrayal Trauma Theory (Freyd, 1996) that asserts betrayal as the disregard of trust and safety between a person and another entity they are dependent on (i.e., person, family, institution; Delker et al., 2018; Freyd, 1997; Smith & Freyd, 2014), I argue that there is a level of trust that members of a society have in the systems in place for access to resources, opportunities, and other means of living. This phenomenon is different from institutional betrayal (Smith & Freyd, 2014) that speaks to specific institutions and the ways that they did not protect and instead reinforced and perpetuated betrayal among survivors of trauma (e.g., military sexual trauma), regardless of their social identity (e.g., race, gender, ability, nationality). This is also different from Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory (Gomez, 2012, 2015a, 2015b) that speaks to the violation of (intra)cultural trust, a uniquely harmful form of betrayal, which occurs within marginalized communities. Instead, I speak of a betrayal that refers to the society at large, systems to access human needs, systems of oppression, and the ways that members of society perpetuate betrayal. Thus, societal trauma can be conceptualized as a form of high betrayal (i.e., violation within a high-dependency dynamic; Freyd, 1996) to those with bodies, minds, tongues, energies, birthplace, and connections of difference. 

When we situate education on multiculturalism in a frame of betrayal, we can liken the process of anti-oppressive work to healing members of an abusive home. The ways in which abuse is enacted may look different across household members, with some receiving more frequent and direct forms of abuse. If we look at the example of a child being beaten in the home, there may be another child who gets beaten with a different weapon, another child who may be frozen in terror and not beaten, another person who is hiding while listening, another person who is screamed at, another person who is neglected, another person who ignores what is happening, another person who unsuccessfully tries to stop the abuse, another person forced to co-perpetrate, and another person who sides with the perpetrator. Alas, we have the perpetrator themselves. Any methods that are used to survive the abuse within that household are just that: methods of survival and protection.

How might this relate to anti-oppressive work? I argue that to do anti-oppressive work within each of us is to embark on a path of healing trauma. We must take an honest look at how we, personally, have enacted methods to protect ourselves within an abusive oppressive system. If we are the ones being targeted, then we might have experienced helplessness, shame, dissociated from the abuse, ignored the abuse (betrayal blindness; Freyd, 1996), or even pleased and appeased the perpetrator to continue surviving (i.e., fawn response, Walker, 2013). We may also experience a sense of betrayal from those who didn’t protect us (Freyd, 1996). If we are the ones to hide while listening in terror, or to distant and disengage from anti-oppressive conversations while sitting in heightened distress, then we might be afraid of what the system will do to us if we get too close to the abuse that is happening (e.g., will I get hurt?). If we are neglected, we may feel that our voice and experiences don’t matter and may become reactive or angry. If we side with the perpetrator, we may be attempting to position ourselves with higher power so that we can reap the benefits of safety, consistency, and ability to have the environment catered to our needs. And if we perpetrate, we may be searching for ways to gain power over another body while in a system that heavily rewards, celebrates, and protects those with more power. 

We see in the literature that trauma, indeed, exists within our bodies (van der Kolk, 2015; Menakem, 2017). Thus, discussions around multiculturalism in classrooms are likely activating the very bodies that exist in that room. Therefore, it is vital to take an approach to education that is trauma informed. What might this look like? First, tend to stabilization. In Judith Herman’s seminal work, Trauma and Recovery (1992), she proposes that all trauma work must start with and continue to focus on building a sense of safety and stability. Tending to the foundational elements of consent, emotion-regulation skills, psychoeducation, etc. may help one to start moving towards a sense of safety within their body. A similar approach can be taken in the classroom by, first, naming that the topics going to be discussed in class are linked to societal trauma. Introduce psychoeducation on the impact of trauma on our bodies. Introduce concepts like window of tolerance, hyper- vs hypo-arousal symptoms, and invite students to reflect on and identify what that looks like for them. This prepares students to come into their bodies, be present, and engage with the material. This also empowers students to engage in methods inside and outside of the classroom (we continue to exist within oppressive systems even after leaving the classroom, after all) to help widen their window of tolerance (what I conceptualize as a frame for building tolerance) so that they can truly integrate the material. Most of all, students are explicitly informed and are consenting to engage in the process. 

Second, pace curriculum. Instead of addressing each system of oppression per class by, for example, moving through all of the historical elements of racial trauma for 1 hour, then current literature on racial trauma for 1 hour, then class discussion for 1 hour (while positioning students of color to educate); highlight key forms and examples of systemic trauma specific to the system of oppression being referred to (while underscoring intersectionality as a multiplicity; Hames-Garcia, 2011), some literature (or other forms of), then prompt students to go within to find their own examples. Facilitate the recursive process of going within and going out with the personal and the material. Instead of asking students with bodies of difference to share societal trauma that lives in their bodies (which can be retraumatizing), provide opportunities for students to pose meaningful inquiry of people in their own lives whom they care for (or watch interviews with people they admire) who may also hold that form of trauma in them. Show forms of literature, film, dance, and other expressive arts that can convey the emotive elements of the topics being discussed to not only bring life to the topic, but to also help students access empathy. 

Lastly, don’t forget to acknowledge the very real experiences of societal trauma within the classroom. We are the very bodies that we are learning about. So, care for our bodies. Don’t highlight or tokenize those with difference in the classroom. Don’t use our bodies as educational tools for others. Don’t demonize our very real and effective methods of surviving an abusive system. But don’t ignore us. Don’t perpetuate betrayal in the classroom. Do your own work as we do ours. Be mindful of the gaze you take and encourage others to take when discussing bodies of difference. Look at me, but please, don’t look at me.

I’ll leave you with the famous lick, the personal is political. The feminist and multicultural literature tells us that what we experience on a personal level is greatly informed by the sociopolitical nature of the power-over culture we navigate (Brown, 1990). Thus, to do anti-oppressive work, especially in the classroom, we must engage that personal work in a way that is respectful to the trauma that cohabits our bodies. 

Cite This Article

Trevino, A. (2022). Anti-oppressive work is trauma-work: A call for a new perspective when teaching multiculturalism in classrooms. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 57(2), X-X.

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