The Intentionality of Systemic Racism and Perpetual Trauma: The Effects of Poison-Privilege
By Desiree L. DePriest, Purdue University Global
Figure 1. The U.S. Flag (Photo by Angelique Johnson, oohhsnapp, on Pixabay)
It is hard to watch the humanity of a group of people being perpetually disregarded in a society claiming to be moral and just. It’s not just hard to watch, but it creates trauma over years in perpetuity. This trauma reinforces a heritage of pain born from the origins of this country and weaved through the Constitution, federal and state policies, including incarceration and policing. The misnomer of a perfect union began with the valuation of enslaved Africans, of human beings, as less than human and the relegation of indigenous people to reservations. This continued through the half-measures of the 13th (Freedom), 14th (Citizenship), and 15th (Right-to-Vote) Amendments. The Compromise of 1877, which traded the rights of Black people for Rutherford Hayes’ ultimately worthless presidency, made the Reconstruction amendments near-impossible to enforce. Jim Crow segregation, economic destruction, and political disenfranchisement resulted, as all the trappings of power were brought together in the singular effort to deny equality to Black and indigenous Americans. However, the courage to fight lynching, hanging and other intentional outgrowths of systemic racism never died within the souls of Black folks, but neither did the trauma.
This trauma was systemic and intentional
Indigenous Americans cannot go unmentioned when discussing the poisonous intentional trauma of systemic racism. Indigenous Americans welcomed the European colonizers, fed them, assisted, and trusted them to respect shared humanity and the land. Yet, the colonizers harbored oppressive, white supremacist, murderous intentions. While the European colonizers ratified unjust contracts to steal land and committed chemical war crimes trading blankets filled with smallpox, they also began to kidnap and enslave Africans. Far from a humane practice, they stacked the enslaved Africans like sardines in the bottom of ships named after Christian saints, disregarding humanity in the name of a God whose teachings they did not heed.
Indigenous Americans as well as Africans had no context for this. Numerous ethnographies demonstrate these cultures’ common belief in collectivism, in putting the group before the individual. These ethnicities continued to have faith in a shared humanity that had no place within the Europeans’ self-interested individualist mindset. This core difference in ideology helps to explain why the zero-sum colonial project both denies and requires the trauma and subjugation of Black and brown bodies. The trauma itself is a tool of social control and a means for producing capital.
This lust for the trauma of others is what any modern psychologist would diagnose as psychotic. The violent ideology that undergirds and rationalizes white supremacy — where the so-called winners write the history, assume the spoils, and perpetuate a poisoned privilege – still exists today. It is a system of thought where justice is dispensed based on the color of one’s skin, where humanity is made bare and fungible, where the vaunted individual is privileged over the exploited collective that toils to create his (and it is most often “his”) wealth. It is the centuries-long effort to rewrite history, to shift the bounds of logic and science to create continuity where there is none and craft false narratives of übermenschen and epochal dynasties, all to feed a deep rooted need to exploit. A poison-privilege.
The result is the circumstance white people find themselves in today. Many white people are now waking up to the realization that accomplishments, be it home ownership or acceptance to certain schools, was in large part subsidized by a system of white supremacy and capital built on the backs (and necks) of Black and brown people. As a result, there are many capable and intelligent white people who harbor no conscious racial animus, but who unintentionally center themselves, and view equality as “you [the other] are welcome to my [white] world.” The clarion call of this moment is not merely to reject the violence of immoral, white foreparents who perpetuated trauma and systemic racism.
The call is to be anti-racist
The current circumstance denies melanin-rich people of their life, breath, and being. Giorgio Agamben, in his seminal work Homo Sacer, reflects on the idea of “bare life,” where people are forced to prioritize the biological fact of living over the things that make life rich. In American society, Black and indigenous people are constantly forced to fight against reduction to bare life, fight for a life worth living. From that fight was born the rich cultural legacy of America, whether it’s in jazz, in rhythm, in dance, in poetry, prose, or politics. But these products were also borne of a trauma so hard-coded in the fiber of the American system that America would be inconceivable without it. The symbiotic inverse of this trauma, the poison-privilege, is represented in the freedom of erasure, of not pondering why people of color are largely unrepresented in equitable positions of power in society. It is represented in white people being more comfortable when communities, business environments and even religious centers are segregated. The denial of poison-privilege continues today in white society’s present failure to reckon with and redress past harms. The absence of honest negotiations, of true and meaningful shifts in power and capital, in the continued belief that renewing the Voting Rights Act is equivalent to making it an immutable Law, are all just as much a part of this poison-privilege as the badges, white hoods, and tiki torches that the most fervent modern white supremacists don.
For centuries, the burden of resolving these traumas have been on the backs of the perpetually oppressed. The valid historical realities of the ongoing white supremacist genocidal project continue to be denied at white dinner tables rationalizing false narratives to justify why Black and indigenous people continue to suffer. It is the intention to perpetuate suffering.
Identifying as white and moral requires a volitional effort to seek out and learn the true history of this country. To research all the great societal and economic contributions made by Black and brown people throughout history is a counter-hegemonic and courageous act. Learning how many of these accomplishments were omitted from history or destroyed by the poison-privilege of white supremacy is everyone’s responsibility, but particularly the responsibility of those who benefit from the erasure and co-optation of those accomplishments. Achieving true justice requires re-writing the narrative of inclusion and embracing the diversity that created this country’s potential. To reject poison-privilege in favor of true equality, and in doing so to reject the falsehood that white people worked harder than others and alone built their generational advantages, is upon our doorsteps. It is no longer adequate to confess to “white privilege” from a platform built upon that same privilege. This moment requires that white people either reject or employ their privilege in the service of those whose perpetuated traumas undergird it.
This is not to indict living white people with the guilt of past generations’ behavior; the task is not self-flagellation for being the unknowing benefactors of the psychosis of white supremacy. The true task is to become educated and reject false narratives, to stand firmly in the defense of the oppressed, and to engage in the moral and just project of redistributing resources and rebuilding this nation into something that seeks the higher intentions possible in its founding documents.
About the Author
Desiree L. DePriest is an IT/AI business intelligence professor at Purdue University Global for 16 years. Desiree’s expertise is in business intelligent information systems and artificial intelligence in business environments. She holds a Ph.D., in Management & Organization with emphasis in Information Technology, along with two masters degrees (Telecom and IS respectively). Desiree has a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and certificate in ABA and I-O psychology which greatly assist in her work in the various areas of business intelligence, industrial and organizational motivation and attitudes. She is the Vice-chair of the Institutional Review Board at Purdue Global and attended UMKC Law School. Desiree developed and directs the Purdue Global Internship Program – Technology (PGIP-T) which is an internship for IT and business students wanting real world experience prior to graduation. She also created the Graduate Information Technology Association (GITA) for active and alumni IT/Business students, and serves as Faculty Advisor. Desiree recently won the “Best Practices” award for her work in the internship from the American Association of Adult Continuing Education (AAACE).
Her publications include research in persuasive and predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and algorithms in decision support, and pattern recognition. Desiree’s recent interests have expanded to neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), cognitive computing (CC) and quantum teaming (QT). Quantum Teaming is a quality management methodologies with particular focus on virtual team environments and is the intellectual property of Dr. DePriest. Desiree presents throughout the year at conferences in these areas.
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