I was a victim of racial violence in junior high

I know that I am not a racist, but years later I still react automatically.

Published September 14, 2005 4:56PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When I was starting junior high, my family moved to a medium-sized city in the Midwest. My parents bought a house in the best school district in the city and sent me and my brother to the public school around the corner.

At my public school, there was something called voluntary desegregation, which entailed packing poor (black) kids from the decaying inner city onto buses and sending them to the rich (white) school districts so they could get a better education than what was offered in the inner-city schools. The program was well intentioned and, with better implementation, could have been excellent. However, the administration hadn't thought to give teachers extra resources or training to help these kids, who faced some different challenges than the teachers were used to, nor did they think to give teachers, parents or kids any sensitivity training. Therefore, the cultural climate at the school was at best tense and at worst a disaster. There were black tables and white tables in the lunchroom, black and white hallways, black and white corners of the gym. The black kids and the white kids sat separately in the classrooms. All of this was student imposed and unspoken. This was my first experience with diversity.

The abuse started about halfway through sixth grade. I had not been able to make friends with any of my black classmates -- I was friendly, albeit somewhat socially awkward, but my overtures were rejected -- and one day, a black girl decided she hated me, as 13-year-old girls are wont to do. She and her friends, both male and female, began to beat me up, kick me, punch me, rip up my homework and deny it all to the teacher. I was once thrown down a flight of stairs and narrowly escaped breaking my neck. I appealed to the school, as did my parents, but the administration refused to punish the perpetrators, claiming that it would be taken as racism. I, however, would be punished for defending myself in any way. The administration followed through on this; my parents enrolled me in self-defense classes, and when I blocked a punch at one point, I was given an in-school suspension. My abusers were never punished.

To this day, I don't know why I in particular was targeted; who knows why kids target one another? In any case, this went on for two years, until the ringleader of the girls left the school -- I never found out why -- and the others slowly stopped beating me up, preferring to ignore me. By the time high school rolled around, I was no longer abused, except for the occasional "fucking cracker" comment, but the racial climate was such that the black kids and the white kids almost never spoke to or socialized with one another. Even the classes were mostly segregated, with my honors and advanced-placement classes being almost exclusively white and the remedial classes being almost exclusively black.

Looking back now, as a grad student in my early 20s, I can understand, to a certain extent, the sources of these tensions. I've studied my American history and read my Fanon, and I feel mostly compassion for my long-ago attackers. But I am furious at my old school district, not only for denying me the protection I needed but for allowing a more insidious sort of segregation to persist inside its walls and for denying many of the kids from the inner city the educational support they were due. But when you're 13 and vulnerable, and you can't figure out why people hate you so much that they want to hurt you, and nothing you can do will get them to stop, and no one will help you, you don't think in terms of civil rights and class divisions and historic injustices. You just see a group of people who hate you for no reason that you can fathom, and you're terrified of them.

And that's the problem. Part of me remains that scared 13-year-old. To this day, when I see a group of young black people standing together in a group, my heart starts to race and I have to force myself not to avoid them. If I'm standing on a train platform with a group of black youths, I am irrationally scared that they're going to push me in front of a train. My earliest experience with black people was incredibly traumatic, and I'm still feeling the aftershocks from that trauma. The fear has faded somewhat over the years, but every so often it flares back into life, and it makes me sick and angry with myself and ashamed.

I hate feeling like a racist, because racism goes against my deepest-held beliefs and values. I truly believe that race is a constructed concept and that all men and women are created equal, and my group of close friends is now very diverse and includes a lovely black woman. I'm getting an M.A. in post-colonial literature and theory. Intellectually and in practice, I am as far from being racist as one can get. But my fight-or-flight response is stubborn in its memory and it reacts to dark skin like a phobia.

Can you help me?

White Mask

Dear White Mask,

I do not think you are a racist. Rather, I think you are a victim of racial violence. And, not surprisingly, you seem to have a kind of phobia related to these racist attacks. You are not to blame for your phobia any more than you are to blame for getting infections or having accidents befall you. Such things arise out of the environment you live in and your body's attempts at survival. Simply put, a phobia does not make you a racist.

If this habitual reaction troubles you, and I understand that it does, I suggest you seek treatment. One treatment that might work is this relatively new thing called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which was first used, I believe, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and is now used for a variety of troubling phenomena. I've heard from many people that it has been helpful.

Generally speaking, you might also look into the many things that have been written about emotional intelligence; the term "emotional hijacking" comes to mind -- those situations in which, regardless of what we know to be true, our nervous systems react in a certain way. Such reactions are of course very troubling, because they do not accord with what we believe to be true. I think the message we should take away from such things is that no matter how much progress we make intellectually, we still respond to each other as animals; we remember slights and attacks as animals remember them.

Remember this: Those children had no right to beat you up. You did not deserve that. It is healthy to want to regain the power that was stripped from you. You describe very eloquently the evil of such attacks; they strip you of personhood; they strip you of value and consequence; they strip you of humanity. It is a deeply traumatic and humiliating experience; if you were not traumatized by it one might wonder whether you were in some sense in denial.

So why is it troubling to feel anger toward our attackers in such situations? In what way can one's attackers not be responsible for what they are doing? Is it because they themselves are perceived to also be victims?

What other awful dilemma does this resemble?

Is it like the dilemma of being abused by one's parents, in which one cannot destroy one's attacker because the attacker is also responsible for one's survival? Or, in this case, one cannot destroy one's attacker because one believes that one's attacker is in some sense righteous and that one is, in some sense, deserving of attack? That is also the abused child's dilemma, no? -- that one must be bad because one is being attacked and one's attacker is tautologically good?

Is that it? Or is it also that resisting one's attacker, who is infinitely stronger, invites more devastating attacks, so that passive acquiescence seems to offer survival? That is the tragic calculation a slave makes when he refuses to attempt escape, and it is the lifelong habit of passivity that victims of violence sometimes adopt.

And what of the situation in which one's attacker is in some sense a symbol of oneself, who also feels powerless and like a victim? That is, if one feels powerless, and is attacked by someone whom one also characterizes as powerless, then one may be paralyzed by empathy and identification. But this characterization is patently false. How can one's attacker possibly be powerless? It is a contradiction. If one's attacker were literally powerless, he could not be attacking. One's attacker may be powerless in certain abstract ways, but in the moment of the attack there is only one thing going on: You are getting attacked. You can either fight back or run. It is very simple in an animal sort of way. And yet we complicate it. We complicate it because of course it is rife with contradiction. And it may be this complication that makes the abuse more difficult to get over.

So the solution seems to be to try to separate the two phenomena, one intellectual and one physical. That is not easy for humans or animals.

I had a conversation the other day with a woman at the dog park who was walking a mongrel who had been tortured. She described some of the horrific treatment that the dog had received before being rescued. It was physically revolting just to hear it; I will not repeat it here. The dog was actually doing quite well now, but one of its few remaining problems was that it was terrified of white vans. Every time it saw a white van, it trembled. It didn't matter who was in the white van. It might have been the dog's owner, its rescuer, driving the white van. Still it trembled.

Now, if the dog wanted to overcome the terror of white vans, it's possible it could. It could show itself pictures of white vans and try to lessen the autonomic response. Humans can do this. We can attenuate our responses to stimuli through repetition, if we are sufficiently determined.

Regardless of what you believe in your heart and know to be true intellectually, your body will occasionally respond in unwanted ways to stimuli that recall past trauma. Luckily, there are treatments for such things.

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