We have to be able to identify how racial trauma has impacted the way we behave, the way we move, the things that we feel, the way we see ourselves. Until we can identify those pieces, whether racism is here or not, we're going to be left with those unresolved wounds
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Simone Donaldson is a Consultant, Therapist, and founder of Agapé Lens Consulting and Therapy, with over 12 years devoted to mental health, racialized communities, and youth. She offers consultations to private, non-profit, and public sectors, to help guide and implement equity, cultural humility, anti-black racism, mental health, and wellness education, through program development, workshops, leadership coaching, staff development, and speaking engagements. She also prioritizes Black youth 12-24 for psychotherapy and counseling, through a warm, honest, and mindfully present approach. Simones' practice is grounded in trauma-informed principles, an Afrocentric lens, attachment, holistic, and strength-based practices. She believes true healing manifests when we become our most authentic self, allowing us to thrive and live out our purpose.
SWY: Can you tell me about yourself and the work you do in the community?
SD: I've been in the field for over 12 years, it's kind of weird to say that sometimes. But, it's very true. I've been in here for a minute. And I love love, love the work I do. Throughout my career, I've always had an anti-black racist, Afrocentric kind of lens. Then there were other pieces that became, throughout time, so integral to the work that I do. I love working with youth, it's always been a passion of mine. So I do prioritize youth within my practice for therapy, black youth, specifically that are 12 to 24 years old. I do see adults as well, but I do prioritize that age group. When I do youth work, it's preventative work. So for me, I just love them up anyways, and I like to be silly, I like that I could just be a different kind of person with them. It's just that I love my youth. I love my adults too, I'm also an adult, but the reality is, it's different with the kids, I like to be creative with them in different ways. I would like to ensure, hopefully, when they come to see me, what they’re experiencing isn't transferred to years and years into adulthood.
I also love teaching, right? So that's why I love the consulting work I do. I'm very passionate about it. And so I often combine both mental health and anti-black racism within the work that I do. The work I do will always have that lens. Sometimes I'll talk about things separately, but I always tried to be very inclusive and make sure that the black bodies are in the room, in my discussion.
Mental health, for me, has also been a passion. I've had family who have struggled with mental health concerns, friends, and it just was always an interest of mine. I've also had my own mental health concerns, in terms of self-esteem issues and things like that. So it always just seemed like the right path to go down. And I would never trade it for anything in the world. So that's why I love to teach, I love to provide therapy, leadership coaching, program development, and the list goes on.
SWY: Can you explain the intersectionality between race and trauma?
SD: When we understand trauma, it’s a direct or indirect experience that threatens our lives. And as a result, we begin altering the way in which we behave, the things that we do, consciously and unconsciously. And often that leads us to move into a place of protection. We become protective of our thoughts, the people that we are around, in ways that actually aren't really healthy, but maybe more so create a barrier for us. Sometimes it's healthy as well. But oftentimes, it's exaggerated. So the protection is more a barrier to be able to experience life in a different way. And so we move in this world in what I like to call, as well as many call, survival mode. And also, the thing about trauma is we often feel it in our bodies first. People think that it's in our minds first and our thoughts or emotions. But often our body is what's triggered first because our adrenal glands are activated, and then our mind and our bodies are in this constant loop of experiencing the trauma. So that's why you'll have people experience things like flashbacks.
When we think about race, we know it as a social construct, which has birthed racism. And racism tells us that the lens through which the dominant culture sees things is the appropriate way to see things. So the inferior race then believes it’s weird, doesn't belong, something's wrong with them. And when we use this racist lens, as a way of being in this world, we're attacking people's way of being their true selves. So there's a constant attack, a constant feeling of fear and feeling unsafe. What we begin to think, is that anywhere that we go, we won't be accepted. If I speak the wrong way, I'm gonna be made fun of, if I walk down the street, and I see a police member, that somehow I'm a threat, and so I'm not safe. So we're hyper-vigilant, and we just feel unsafe, constantly, in the things that we say, in the way we move our bodies. It's just never good enough. And that's an attack on our racial identity. Just being beautiful people, unfortunately, is not seen the same way. When we don't see ourselves represented, for instance, in the school system, we're being told once again, that something is wrong with us, or we are inferior. So it tells us that we don't belong.
When we talk about racial trauma, it's a combination of these constant attacks that tell us that we don't belong, we're not good enough, something is wrong with us. We need to reach the standard of whiteness in order to fulfill a life that is fun, joyful, and full of love, peace, and success. And that is not the truth at all.
SWY Comment: I could definitely attest to those bodily feelings of a lot of stress in my shoulders and this heaviness. Certain things have become even more dramatic for me over, obviously, the past year. Also, there are a lot of movies and just media that's coming out that I just can't even bear to watch because I feel the trauma already coming up from them.
SD: Absolutely. And I think it's so important as we move through, especially these days where things are so much more publicized, and in the media, that we're really careful and kind with ourselves about what we are retaining because it really does put a toll on our bodies. Even myself, I have a really hard time watching the news and even staying on social media for very long, especially now we have the Capitol Hill incident. I just couldn’t be bothered with it. I feel like, for me, the first response is this overwhelming exhaustion. And so it's funny because even when I talk about racial trauma, I've noticed that I can't talk about it as much as I maybe once did because it's becoming more of a trigger to talk about it if that makes sense? So it's like giving myself enough time in between, to really self-care to ensure that I'm feeling safe, and I'm feeling okay while discussing these issues. It really takes a toll on our body, as well as our emotions and our spirit, just everything.
SWY: What is intergenerational trauma and what does that look like in the black community?
SD: Intergenerational trauma is really just the unresolved legacy of trauma being passed down from generation to generation. So Grandma, pass it down to my mom, my mom, pass it on to me. And when I eventually have children, I pass it on to my children if that trauma has been unhealed. It's a wound that we're walking around with. It's kind of the way we've learned how to survive and maintain life. It doesn't mean by any means that we're thriving. In fact, oftentimes, it means we remain in this place of survival mode. So that often means that we are again stuck in this place of just really needing to constantly fight to be seen or fight to get access to things that everyone else has access to. But in the meantime, feeling disconnected from our identity. Slowly but surely cutting ourselves down and not honoring who we truly are, as black people, as great black excellence. But instead constantly trying to live out or obtain a standard that really isn't our own. So the lack of self-esteem, self-identity, care for ourselves as individuals, as well as the community, becomes very difficult. Intergenerational trauma is something when unhealed, it really passes on to the next generation because it's what we've been taught. It's what we haven't resolved as yet. And as I mentioned earlier, our minds and our bodies are in this constant loop, from a severe experience that unfortunately when we talk about racial trauma, happens on a daily basis. So that's what intergenerational trauma is.
An example I was talking about earlier, for instance was talking about your beautiful hair and the unfortunate experience of many black women often not feeling they can rock it. Feeling as though they too have to do whatever it takes to make sure that their experience is as close as it can be to whiteness. So that might mean wearing a straight weave in our hair so that we feel more beautiful, versus being able to embrace the kinkiness in our hair. And if we don't see our mothers wearing their natural hair, because again, they've been taught that it's not beautiful, that it's not accepted, that this means maybe they're savage or something like that. Then, we internalize the idea that beauty can only be held, if we possibly look as close as we can, to those who are white with straight hair, lighter skin. That's another issue.
If we talk about colorism in our cultures. Unfortunately, it's a very real thing, no matter where in the world you live. This idea that the lighter your skin, the more superior you are, and often treated as such. As well as this idea that again, it means beauty. So you will see parents, even, for instance, say to their young black boys, make sure you don't bring home a girl that is dark skin, because I want some pretty little brown skin kids. Things like that just truly attack our identity and who we are. We are constantly questioning, “Where do I even belong?” “My parents don't even accept me for who I am. So why should I?” There are a constant questioning and attack on our character and our identity as being black people. Those are two examples that are standing out to me right now, when we think about intergenerational trauma and help me play out in our families.
SWY Comment: As you were speaking, I was thinking, potentially feelings of anger all the time or kind of those collections of feelings, could that also transfer into intergenerational trauma?
SD: Absolutely. And it's funny because when you say that, I also think of when people say the “angry black woman”, and obviously, there's often a negative connotation to it. But to be honest, there's some truth to it, because we are angry. We are angry that no matter where we go, no matter what program we try to access, we're not represented. In our school programs, from a very young age, we're being told that there is something wrong with us. We don't have representation in the school, sometimes the teachers aren't represented, the very books that we read to our kids aren't accepted. So you grow up thinking that there’s something wrong with you. So you're miserable, you're upset, you are angry, you're sad, and really you’re hurt. And the only permission we've been given in terms of expressing emotion has been the anger emotion. And unfortunately, that stereotype has been forced on us, in a way that doesn't allow us to be our true selves, but also we've internalized it. Sometimes we don’t express the way we really feel because we don't want other people to feel uncomfortable. Meanwhile, everybody else is allowed to be angry. And then on the other end, as I said, some of us really are angry at times. But that's okay because anger is a healthy emotion to have, it's just how we express it. Once again, sometimes living in the experience of racial trauma we haven't developed coping mechanisms because again, it hasn't been role modeled for us in the home. And sometimes we don't know how to express ourselves anyway, because anger is the only emotion that was allowed in the home.
SWY Comment: I can definitely speak from my own personal experiences of your parents saying don't raise up or don't get angry with me and stuff like that. Then that's also internalized along with the racial discrimination and the racism in the world which solidifies what you said that we don't have those coping mechanisms. We don't learn those coping mechanisms growing up, so where is this anger supposed to go?
SD: This is why we talk about having black therapists, as an example, as being important. We understand for the most part, not all of us. I'm not gonna sit here, naive, and say that every single black therapist gets it. Some of us don't always get it, because we're going through it and we haven't resolved that for ourselves. At the same time, not all of our experiences are going to look the exact same either and sometimes people are far removed from it. But I will say that most of us do get it, to some degree. So when you talk about anger or even if you get angry, for us it's not a threat. For us, it's like, “I'm with you sis, I get it, I would be angry too.” And we're not validated enough, in our anger. And that's where therapy is so great and powerful, especially for black folks, and the black community. Having that representation allows us this ease and this calmness of not having to explain why we're angry, and even expressing that anger in a safe space, hopefully, for maybe the first time and hopefully find those coping skills to move through it in a healthy way.
SWY: As the in-home and online environment seems to be the current setting for the majority of youth today, I can imagine there would be an uprising of more challenges dealing with racial trauma. What can some of those challenges look like for black youth?
SD: There's so many, so I guess some things that they could be dealing with, especially as it relates to external influences, is obviously the media. We're so much more attached to our screens nowadays, which means we're seeing the constant disrespect, the constant attack on our identity, the constant inequity. Even if we weren't taught watching movies or television before, we're seeing the lack of us being represented in a different light than that of maybe the gangster, the angry woman, the exotic woman. So we're seeing these things more and more. It's really important that we're so careful about the things that we retain and give ourselves time away from it, so that we can ensure that we're well. And I will talk a little bit more about black joy. And also making sure that we retain things that are really going to feed us versus things that are going to break us down.
When we go back to these stereotypes, and these identities that have been forced on us, some common ones that we often hear is, “the strong black man” or “the strong black woman”. And if this is something that a child is growing up in, if that's what they're hearing, then the idea of crying is not happening. The reasoning being is that we’re gonna be told that we’re weak or crying is considered weak, and we are supposed to be strong all the time.
So there are a few things that happen there. It means that we're likely not identifying what our needs are as parents or adults, and we're not stopping, we're not pausing. We're not taking the time to pause and say, “Listen, this pandemic is actually scaring me. What can I do about it? How's my body feeling? Why am I feeling so exhausted?” And as adults, we're probably not checking in on our kids the same way or when they come to us, if they come to us, or if they feel safe enough to come to us. If it's not modeled in the home, once again, you feel a little bit ostracized to be able to discuss or express those feelings. And again, I'm not generalizing that this is everybody's experience. But what I am saying is when we uphold these ideas that we have to be strong, then it transfers to the next generation. Also, making them feel that there's only one way to be strong, that they can't express their feelings, that they can't check in on their needs, they can't address them, and they're not allowed. And so this can increase levels of anxiety, increased levels of depression, and levels of grief, which a lot of us are experiencing during these times, and are heightened because of the pandemic and/or come about because of the pandemic.
SWY Comment: There's so much in the media right now, even before that, of course, but especially right now, it's very challenging, very stressful, very tiring, very exhausting.
SD: Absolutely, it's a huge and triggering time. That's what I always tell people, it's a triggering time for all of us, young and old. And you don't feel like you can settle at all. And that's why it's so important that we monitor what we're taking in and realize there are other possibilities. But also, it's not healthy to sit in anger, even though it's a healthy emotion. We don't want people to sit there, for an extremely long time. We want people to be able to process it, and do things to protect themselves, create boundaries for themselves that will make them feel well and whole. But it is hard. It's hard.
SWY: What are some ways we can work together as a community to combat intergenerational trauma, as well as racial trauma?
SD: Absolutely. Anybody that knows me, if there's one topic that I love to talk about, it's village building. It's about really ensuring that we take care of one another, I think that's a responsibility for all of us. Coming from an Afrocentric lens, it takes a village kind of mentality. And we're all those children that we talk about, it takes a kid to raise a child, we're all that kid. We all need to be held, we all need to feel safe, we all need to feel comforted and know that we could express ourselves in certain ways and know that things will be okay. We need to be able to relate to one another and know that we all share similar experiences, as horrible as they are, but being able to release that and say to another person, “Oh, so it's not just me.” It allows this level of calmness to come over you. It could also bring a lot of anger too, right? Because it brings up this idea of “But hold on, why am I not the only one?” But also, “Yes, I'm not the only one!” So it's a plethora of emotions that you could be experiencing. But at least you know, you're not at it alone.
And it's so hard, obviously in the pandemic, for us to find different resources in places. But honestly, we have to cultivate that, we have to prioritize that for ourselves. So who are your safe people, who are the people that you look at as role models for yourself as an adult, and as a child? How are you fostering those relationships? And it could be one person, it could be a few people. But we're social beings, and we really thrive off of our relationships. And we have to truly take it into our own hands, sometimes, to create those spaces for ourselves.
Unfortunately, when we talk about racism, it's systematic, which means a lot of the programs and policies do not cater to our needs. So we have to do some of that building ourselves. And I think that, as much as we have to do it, it's also not our issue to deal with. This is not just a black person's issue to deal with, because we're not the problem. It's the system, that's the problem. So they too need to step up.
Which goes to my next point, which is leaving a different legacy for our generations following us. It's so important that we create spaces, and we create time and energy into those that are after us, whether it's a sibling, a cousin, a friend, or youth that's in a program that you know of, the children that are in our school systems. We need to be able to create something different for them. Parents need to really work on affirming the blackness, the black identity in their homes. Allowing them to understand what their culture or tradition was like growing up in the home or outside of the home. Sharing the Mansi stories, passing down all these great memories that they had, which allowed them to embrace their culture differently than here in Canada. But also letting them know that this society, Canadian society, not just American, is full of attacks against us. And puts us in this place of feeling like we're not good enough, and there's something wrong with us and we don't belong. And I think it really is our responsibility as parents, our responsibility as teachers, black and/or otherwise, to really leave a different legacy for our children. So that 10 years from now, we're not having the same conversation, just at different dates. I've been talking about this for over 12 years. And I'm really not that old. But it's like the same conversation I was having 12 years ago, and then 10 years before that. It's time for it to end.
But what's most important for me, in terms of us really supporting our community is to first support ourselves. We have to be able to identify how racial trauma has impacted the way we behave, the way we move, the things that we feel, the way we see ourselves. Until we can identify those pieces, whether racism is here or not, we're going to be left with those unresolved wounds. And when we're left with those unresolved wounds, we're still going to behave in a way that has become our norm, which doesn't allow us to thrive. I think that it's so important that we first and foremost, give ourselves permission to be different, give ourselves permission to wear our hair out, to speak our dialect in the workplace. Permission to not work 10 times harder and remember that you were hired for a reason to that job. I feel like we need to be able to first check into ourselves, why is my body aching me so much? Is it actually stressed? What am I really experiencing? And until we do that, really and truly, we're also going to create a cycle that isn't going to be healthy for our next generation, and for us. We shouldn't be resting when we've finally had to go to the doctors. That’s a whole other conversation. How many of us wait until we have to be sick or in crisis before we seek out help? So how can we normalize, asking for help? And also following through with that? How can we normalize resting, and not seeing it as lazy because we've been told we have to work 10 times harder? How can we normalize taking five minutes to ourselves to begin trusting our thoughts and our feelings again, so when they try to gaslight us at work, we're able to say “Actually, no, this is actually what I meant.” I think it's something that needs to be considered. That's what we need. That's where we need to get for ourselves first because also we could have much more longevity in this fight. Right? However, we go about it. We create more capacity to do so. So those are the main things for me that I think are quite important in terms of addressing intergenerational trauma in our community.
SD: Thank you for having me, girl. It's such a wonderful platform to be on. And like I said, I love the kids, so to speak. Especially when it's a youth-focused organization or initiative. Hopefully, adults are also engaged, of course, but I really feel it's so necessary for us to have these conversations with our youth, and I think this platform is wonderful and I'm so honored that you guys are gonna have me on for a few more lives or sessions to discuss it. It's something I'm passionate about, something that I think we could all move forward on. And I don't have all the answers, but I'm definitely going to be doing my damnedest to ensure that you guys get what you need to start getting the ball rolling. We got to do something for ourselves. We can't stay in the place that we're at, we deserve to thrive. We deserve to thrive and live out our purpose.
We want to thank Simone for being apart of our conversation and sharing her knowledge on racial and intergenerational trauma for ACB Youth. Make sure to check out her Instagram for more information on this topic
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