• Rebecca Bryan

Race as an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience)

I have a young friend who is 17 and just got his drivers' license. Remember when you first started driving? I remember being simultaneously thrilled with the taste of freedom and hyper-focused on everything I had to remember - about the car, about light signals, signage, other cars on the road - actually just taking myself back to that time makes my brain tired! But one thing I didn't worry about much was being seen driving by the police, at least as long as I was going the speed limit 😉.


My young friend worries about this a lot. Because he is African American. And despite the fact that he is one of the sharpest dressing, classiest friends I have, he knows that if he drives outside of our town (where he is well known), he is at increased risk of being pulled over. This is an example of the daily toll of growing up as a person of color in the U.S.


I've been immersing myself in literature and podcasts (Seeing White by Scene on Radio) about the history of racism in our country, as well as the impact on health, in preparation for a lecture I'm giving next month. I am White and have only recently - say in the past 3 years - become conversant in the language of race. I remain stunned at times at how little I knew for so long. What I was and wasn't taught at school, kindergarten through my doctoral program. Working at UrbanPromise in Camden made me acutely aware of my Whiteness, and also how common it is for people of color to speak of race - because for them it really is a part of daily life. A part of daily life that amps up baseline stress levels, and takes a toll on health and wellness.


I knew I had a responsibility to increase my level of fluency when speaking about race and racism during a holiday gathering a few years ago, someone said to me, "Blacks just need to get over it," referring to the "Black Lives Matter" campaign. This comment infuriated me, as I was privy to the barriers created by intergenerational racism and poverty I was witnessing at work. And yet I didn't have a ready response that Christmas...so here's what I have now:


Even though the Genome Project, which mapped out the human genetic sequence, has demonstrated that all humans carry 99.9% of the same genes, race is for real. As a social construct. It first came into being in the 1400s, when the Portuguese began enslaving Africans. In the U.S. we have our own unique creation of race for the purposes of power and financial gain. Our history spans 400 years of racism: from 1619-1865 it was chattel slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws 1877-1970, which included the KKK in the 1920s (4 million members!) and red-lining to prevent home ownership...right through to today with the march in Charlottesville and innocent Black men being murdered and incarcerated way out of proportion to White men. Think of how our schools and places of worship remain largely segregated. Think of how, when you walk around Manhattan, the tourists are mostly White while the people who serve you are mostly people of color.


Now apply ACEs knowledge to this. Talk about trauma! Unresolved, untreated trauma for 400 years, that had to become imbedded because, as I keep writing, our lived experience becomes our biology. People of color, particularly African Americans, carry a legacy of trauma in their bones. And our institutionalized racism continues to re-enforce it, from our segregated school systems to our unconscious bias. Even though we all have the same genes. According to this excellent dissertation on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome by S. R. Hicks, people of color struggle with self-esteem, with anger, and with measuring up against White standards. Children of color are more likely to be bullied, are more likely to grow up in poverty with the associated toxic stress of never having enough. And this has well-documented effects on overall health and well-being: experiences of racism correlates in African Americans with higher blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions.


We know now, too, thanks to studies of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their offspring, that genetic expression altered by trauma is passed down to the next generation. In studies on rats, genetic changes have been demonstrated to be passed down 3 generations. While there has yet to be research demonstrating intergenerational genetic changes from the legacy of slavery, can we doubt that it exists? Race is an ACE.


To say, "Blacks need to get over it," is the epitome of White privilege! We need to speak honestly about our racist history as a country - so we can begin to heal. It is not enough to consider ourselves individually as not racist. We need to name and address structures that sustain institutional racism, so that we can align society with what science has proven true: we are one, very human, race.


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