What Is Intergenerational Trauma, and What Does It Have to Do with Racism?

By: Amy Marschall, Psy.D., Freelance Columnist

Many white people have, at some time or another, said to themselves, “Well, I’ve never owned a slave / committed a hate crime / called the police on a black person. What does racism have to do with me?” Even if we choose to overlook the oppressive, racially-biased systems still in existence today and the legal loopholes that still allow for a modernized version of slavery in the United States through the prison system, there are biological and psychological reasons why we should still be aware of and account for the sins of our ancestors.

JSTOR offers a comprehensive list of free, peer-reviewed articles about the history of institutionalized racism in America. Screenshot by Dr. Marschall.

In your elementary school science class, I am sure you were introduced to the debate about “nature versus nurture.” Essentially, how much of who we are is due to our DNA, and how much is due to our environment? Most people will agree that genetics and environment both play a role in our development and personalities. What many do not realize is that these two concepts are intertwined; our nurture actually becomes our nature—trauma becomes engrained in our genes. This is known as epigenetics, and it is where intergenerational trauma comes into play. Epigenetics refers to how our genes express themselves and are passed down to our children.

As a species, we have survived for thousands of years due to our ability to adapt. When someone lives under chronic stress, certain genes are activated to help them stay alive. These genes are really good at making sure we do not die when the stressful or traumatic thing is happening, but they also prime us for things like heart disease or stroke in the long-term. For example, if you are living in a war zone, it is adaptive to wake up at every sound throughout the night because this will allow you to flee an attack. But when you are living in a safe environment, this sleep disruption increases stress and fatigue unnecessarily.

We see these issues play out in people who experienced abuse. They struggle to feel calm in safe situations and often feel like they are waiting for the next trauma to occur, even if it has been years since the last traumatic event. They might have difficulty feeling trust in a relationship because mistrust helped them survive in an abusive environment. Our brains are excellent at becoming resilient and surviving traumatic situations but have difficulty letting go of tactics when they are no longer needed.

Not only can trauma play out throughout an individual’s life, but when someone who has these traumatic life experiences has a baby, that baby’s genetic makeup is affected by the parent’s trauma. Because those genetic behaviors were helpful for survival in the moment, our bodies decide that our children will benefit from being primed for trauma as well. These effects have been shown to last for at least three generations, if no additional trauma occurs for the children and grandchildren.

So how does this play out with regards to racism? It means that, under ideal and trauma-free conditions, the great-grandchildren of slaves would still carry their ancestors’ trauma. It means that the children and grandchildren of those who grew up under segregation and Jim Crow still carry the trauma of that time in their DNA. And it means that black people in America in 2020 who continue to deal with institutionalized oppression will pass this trauma on to the next generation. This manifests in the systems that make it inherently more difficult for black people than white people to accumulate wealth, that causes racial disparities in prison sentences, and leads to police brutality disproportionately affecting black people.

Until these systems are dismantled, this intergenerational trauma will continue to be passed down from generation to generation. This is why it is essential to address historical trauma in the conversation about racism today. Oppression from decades ago is written in the DNA of black people in America today, and refusing to acknowledge this reality serves only to perpetuate this cycle.

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