A Child’s Story
Around 6 years old, I was in a new school in Florida. We had moved from New York to “start over”. The only thing that stood out about my first day, was loneliness. I was a new student who looked different. During recess I tried to play with the other kids, but it was clear none of them wanted to play with me. I was told to sit on the bench and wait for them to call me over. And no one did. I sat on a bench the entire recess and cried as children played around me. The teacher never approached nor did my classmates. I, for this group, essentially did not exist.
The majority of students in this school, as well as the teacher, were white with a few black and Hispanic students. Could some of these students have been mixed? Yes. However, I was the only student who “looked mixed”. I had lightly tanned skin and very thick, frizzy hair and students were unsure which group I belonged in so I was not allowed in any. Over time I was dubbed a “mutt” by all the students in my class.
That day, while crying on the bench I realized they didn’t care. It didn’t matter to them that I was crying and alone. I knew it was because of how I looked. I also decided that would be the last time that I cried in front of them. I’d cry when I got home, but not in front of them again. I didn’t know the word for what I was experiencing, but I knew what it was.
There is increasing studies to determine whether trauma from previous generations can be inherited. This has been called intergenerational trauma, transgenerational trauma, historic trauma or collective trauma. Whatever you choose to call it, it refers to either a particular trauma a person or group of people experience that alters them; thereby ensuring that future generations will also feel the effects of this trauma on a genetic level. Examples of this would be survivors of the Holocaust and their offspring, survivors of slavery, Jim Crow and their children as well as Indigenous survivors and their future generations, not to mention current generations who are still suffering injustices.
It considers the possibility that certain physical or mental predispositions are caused through trauma sustained by a previous generation. Conditions such as hypertension, depression, suicide, anxiety could be passed down because of the oppression and trauma inflicted on older generations within a family, religious or ethnic group.
Epigenetics: A Study
Taken further, the study of epigenetics is how genes that are passed down can be modified and turned on/off based upon trauma. There was a study of the DNA of Holocaust survivors as well as their children and it was found that not only did the survivors have low levels of cortisol — also known as the stress hormone which can affect memory, weight, blood pressure, how your body responds to and bounces back from stress and trauma — their children also had low levels of cortisol.
While some have argued that this study doesn’t take into account environmental, cultural or health factors and the number of people in the study was far too few to accurately determine a causal relation, it is unable to entirely refute the findings. Particularly because epigenetic studies how gene modification is read and increases or decreases susceptibility to physical, mental traits for the individual.
Not A Bubble
While a worthy discussion can and should be continued about this trauma, the mistake many seem to make in debunking these findings is their all or none statements. If our grandparents’ traumas predispose us to a slew of mental and physical health problems, the fact that many groups continue to experience forms of trauma stemming from the same causes, allows these predispositions to “switch on”.
Hypertension is a higher risk for African Americans rather than white people. While overall health and diet do play a role, we can still arguably equate this with transgenerational trauma or epigenetics. First, if diet does play a role, in 2017 the median income for a African American family was around $40,000 annual, which is not conducive to a healthy diet. Secondly, the reason African Americans still make less than their white counterparts is from continued oppression. So, it could be inherited trauma coupled with similar tyranny and poor health. They can all be the cause.
Indigenous people have the highest number of suicides, particularly in their teen years and twenties. Their numbers overall are 21.39 per 100,000. Since around 90% of Indigenous (what they continue to call Native American) women experience some form of sexual violence, and Indigenous people as a whole continue to be disenfranchised and overlooked; is it possible that inherited trauma along with continued exposure is (combined) doing untold damage to them? It’s incredibly hard to find statistical information because their numbers are typically not included in a lot of studies further cementing their overlooked status. For minorities, it’s not only the fact that our family was oppressed, but that we continue to see this oppression in our day to day, that increases the possible negative physical and mental affects. It’s not only the horror stories we heard about, but the ones we live.
Racism and Empathy
Racism is a destructive, brutalizing force, but let’s look at the individual racist. Each racist, white supremacist, white privileged person has a pronounced lack of empathy for minorities. They live in a “my” world. My comfort, my needs, my money, my, my, my.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s broken down into cognitive empathy and affective empathy.
Cognitive empathy is recognizing how another individual is feeling. This part is not true empathy. After all, manipulative people can easily gather and use this information for their own ends, including white people. Most people, short of specific mental disorders, will have this ability to recognize what someone is feeling. Where white people tend to fall short is in affective empathy.
Affective empathy or emotional empathy is the ability to share, on an emotional level what another person is feeling. This at times can lead to what some consider to be a third category called compassionate empathy that moves one to help the person who is hurting. While white people will understand a minority is mad or upset, they are incapable of moving past cognitive empathy. They don’t feel what we do. That’s where the abused phrase, “I don’t see what the big deal is” comes from. Their inability to feel our pain, emotionally, ensures they will not assist compassionately to change the issue.
Could this lack of empathy many white people share, like our inherited trauma, also be passed down? A recent study by a Cambridge team of 46,000 23andMe customers, shows genetics may play a role in the level of empathy a person experiences. While genetics do not solely determine white people’s behaviors; societal, familial, and cultural factors help direct them to a minority target. The study also showed that people with lower empathy are at a higher risk for autism.
There’s also a connection between materialism; that drive for power, status and money also leading to an absence of empathy. So could genetic inheritance, combined with their upbringing, witnessing society’s and government’s treatment of minorities as though they are lesser, predispose and even trigger a lack of empathy among white people for minorities?
Surveys seem to show white people do, over all age demographics, lack empathy. A 2017 survey showed only 37% of college-educated white people believed that poverty was a major issue.
Another study monitored the “mirror-neuron-system” which is a part of the brain that reacts when a person sees another performing the same action that they have performed. In this study they had all white participants watch people of various ethnicities pick up a glass and drink water. Usually, the person’s brain will fire as if they are drinking the water themselves; however, when they saw a minority perform this task there was significantly less firing in the brain, almost as if there was no video being shown to them, because they could not see themselves in it. This goes back to white people being unable to feel affective empathy.
While it can’t be definitively proven that a lack of empathy is passed down, if genetics do play a part and if racism, at its core, is a lack of empathy there is an increased possibility.
Hopefully, as further studies are conducted on epigenetics and transgenerational trauma they will explore how white people, who have cut a swath of destruction and oppression across the world, may also be impacted by the atrocities of their ancestors.