Racism is an intimacy disorder


I’ve been reading a lot about attachment theory lately, and how trauma encountered in early childhood develops into intimacy disorder in adulthood. As Robert Weiss, a scholar and clinician whose work focuses on intimacy and addiction, writes:

Intimacy avoidance is often caused by or related to early childhood trauma — physical neglect, emotional abandonment or other forms of abuse — all of which have been associated with attachment problems in adulthood. Instead of experiencing healthy bonding, children who are neglected and abused learn that intimacy is conditional or abusive, absent or overwhelming; they learn (on an emotional level) that to get to close is to get hurt, and thus it is best to fear and flee any lasting emotional connection.

Sounds an awful lot like racism, doesn’t it? Think of Philando Castile. Not only was he murdered by the police, but his murder was executed front of his girlfriend and her baby girl. So he was traumatized to death, and then they were traumatized by watching it. Then, millions of people watched and experienced his murder on Facebook. Further trauma. Then, activists all over the country rose up and protested. Some of the response to that protest was emotional invalidation: further police brutality, political censure, and media calling Black Lives Matter a terrorist group. It is like the abuser telling his battered partner that his or her feelings are not real and that they aren’t experiencing what he or she thinks they experiencing, right? I’m gonna punch you and then tell you that what you thought was a punch was really just a light, justifiable tap on the shoulder to help you because you were going to drop something. Except– it was a punch. It was a punch.


Stay with me, I have another point to make. If one accepts Dr. Joy DeGruy’s assertion that the legacy of slavery is a post-traumatic disorder, she calls it PTSS or post-traumatic slave syndrome, then the logical following is that slavery beget community and individual trauma, and trauma begets intimacy disorders and addiction. In other words, racism is an intimacy disorder. Experiencing racism may lead those who are experiencing the abuse to addiction, harmed relationships, fear and emotional distancing from loved ones– in addition to all the other symptoms of PTSD including flashbacks, inability to sleep, distress, inability to work, paranoia and hyper-vigilance, etc. etc. Read what happens to veterans when they return from war. Sounds a lot like the effects of racism, doesn’t it?

Let me go one step further. I’m arguing this isn’t a “sounds like” scenario, this is an “is” scenario. Racism is PTSD.

And here is the kicker: being racist (remember that Eduardo Bonilla Silva taught us that there is no racism without racists) means that persons who engage in racist acts are also traumatized by virtue of that fact that they are enacting harm. The abusive partner is broken and harmed, the abused partner is broken and harmed.

I’m not ready to propose policy solutions to this, although I will in future posts. For now, I want to just take a moment to pause and reckon with the enormity of what is happening in the United States. What Black Lives Matter has done, admirably, has shed a spotlight on a horrifying disease that is encapsulating all of us. Our nation, in its infancy, went through a sickening trauma. Slavery that has resulted in centuries of addictive, harmful, emotionally avoidant behavior.

We do not know how to have intimacy with one another. We are emotionally avoidant and addicted to harm. The abused have stood up and are screaming– stop abusing us. And the abusers are mostly saying– we are not abusive, ignore reality. We choose to stay in the delusion that is the hallmark of addictions. For both the abused and the abuser, healing intimacy is the necessary long-term work to permanently recover from racism.

However, and let me be crystal clear about this: our immediate interest here is not in healing the abuser– but removing the abuser from the home so that the abused can have a safe space to live. We must, in other words, remove the racists first. This is the short-term work at hand.

(Picture credit: Nabil K. Mark, AP, published by USA Today)


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