Therapist and author Sheila Wise Rowe (left) talks with Christina Edmondson, dean of Intercultural Student Development at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., after Rowe’s speech at Calvin in February 2020.
Therapist-Author Sheila Wise Rowe Recalls the ‘Lies’ She Learned about Herself as a Black Girl, but Maps Out the ‘Road to Resilience’.
By Ted Hartzell
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Sheila Wise Rowe was just a little girl in 1965 when her parents signed her and her older siblings up for a voluntary busing program in Boston known as Operation Exodus. They trusted that their black children would benefit from the far-better-resourced white schools.
Fifty-five years later, Rowe is still coming to terms with what happened during the voluntary busing and the involuntary, court-ordered busing that followed. “I was often accused of cheating. I was often shamed in front of the class,” she told a small audience at Calvin University in a February 2020 presentation on how people can learn to be resilient and heal from racial trauma.
“I experienced just repeated incidents,” said Rowe, who still lives in the Boston area and is executive director of The Rehoboth House on the Atlantic seaboard, an international healing and reconciliation ministry. “And my sister (Stephanie), who’s a couple of years older than me, experienced even more.” Their brother Kwame and other black students went to a high school where every day they faced “white folk – men, women, children” – who stood alongside the street, swearing, and throwing rocks at them, she said.
The Winding Road to Healing
If anyone can move on and live a healthy life after such trauma, it would seem Rowe is well suited. She is, after all, a Christian counselor, with a master’s degree in counseling, who has counseled abuse and trauma survivors in the United States and South Africa and who has worked with thousands of individuals, couples, churches and other organizations for a quarter of a century. She believes in therapy for herself and has done a lot of it. Her book, Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience, was published in January 2020. She and her husband Nicholas are described in the book’s foreword as a “powerful ministry couple.” Her talk at Calvin, a Christian university, was peppered with allusions to biblical stories.
But Rowe, in her Feb. 24 talk and her book, made it clear that the accumulation of many years of racial trauma, living with persistent “racial battle fatigue,” is not something one can suddenly declare victory over.
“Stuff is still coming up for me,” she told her audience. The problem for her and other African Americans is compounded by the knowledge that there will be still more racism to endure. Rowe’s book cites an article from The Journal of Black Psychology defining resilience to racism as the ability “to persevere and maintain a positive sense of self when faced with omnipresent racial discrimination.”
The road to resilience is winding and apparently never ending. In the book, Rowe writes: “The journey of healing from racial trauma involves processing and grieving our compounded losses in a way that is not linear; there are no fixed stages – it’s more like a figure eight. We may repeatedly cycle through grief, and then at some point we’re able to live with the loss without it overtaking us.”
A ‘Breach’ Delivery
As she began her Calvin talk, Rowe said someone had asked her if writing the book was like giving birth. She responded with dark humor: “Yeah, it was like a breach birth … the full delivery.” Those stories of her early years were “a snapshot of a time in my life that really threatened to derail most of my life, and actually did affect most of my life.”
As a little girl during the time of voluntary busing , Rowe said the insults and demeaning treatment “really affected me on multiple levels, emotionally, relationally and even spiritually.” She tried to make friends in school and to feel at home with her classmates. She thought her teachers would see her for who she really was, and maybe they would encourage her. But that never happened.
“And so, I really stuffed in my pain, my fear.” She decided to stay quiet and out of everybody’s way. “My mind complied, but my body didn’t.” Her body paid the price in the form of hives, constant ear infections and headaches.
Learning the Lies about Self
She said she felt like she couldn’t even tell her parents what was happening with her, because they put their hopes and dreams into her going to this white school. “But I was actually experiencing more abuse in the school, in the blessings,” she said with irony, “of being in that environment.
“I learned a lot of lies that I had to unlearn,” Rowe said. “I believed the lie that our people were somewhat less than. It took a long time for me to renounce that lie and to begin to heal from it. I carried that, and it started to hijack my voice – it did– for a period. And so, it’s taken a long time for me to reclaim my voice from that experience.
“I came away with a sense of racial trauma, of not feeling secure about who I was as a black girl. Did I actually have hope and a future? Those things were in question. And so, in that school environment I learned that there was something inherently wrong with me, and no amount of, whatever, education, etc. was going to fix it.”
Trauma Through Generations
Like other African Americans, Rowe’s story of racial mistreatment and trauma did not begin with her own life. It began many generations ago. But she only had to go back one and two generations – to her father and his parents – to recount a troubling story that still reverberates for her today.
An outbreak of tuberculosis struck the county in Virginia where her father’s family lived. Her father was 5 at the time. At first, Rowe said, no hospitals would treat black people, and so the black residents resorted to things like home remedies. Over the months, TB killed the following relatives of her father: his mother, father, baby brother, paternal grandfather, and paternal uncle. Rowe’s father and younger brother, now orphans, were taken in by their maternal grandparents.
This string of deaths decades ago “had a huge impact on him, and then consequently on me,” Rowe said. “Basically, I had a father who was traumatized, and did not, till the day of his death, deal with that trauma. And so, it was leaking out all over the place.” Rowe said her father’s stored trauma, never confronted, diminished his ability to be a good parent and husband.
The Trauma from a Photo
Rowe said a 1935 graduation photo of her father’s mother was discovered recently. Rowe had never seen a picture of her paternal grandmother before. “And she was beautiful.” Rowe said the picture brought her siblings to tears, in light of “the reality that within a few short years this woman was dead. And it just brought up, just something, trauma. There’s a way in which we’re connected to our ancestors, in ways that we can’t even explain. And that pain of that loss, my father’s loss, was starting to bubble up in me.”
Memory and passed-down stories might not be the only transmitters of family trauma from generation to generation. Rowe referred to research pointing to how “historical and transgenerational racism and oppression, such as the genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment and more” can affect how the DNA is expressed in a person’s body of a later generation, making that person more susceptible to physical illnesses and to difficulty in handling stress.
This means there is possibly an inherited tendency to exhibit behaviors and emotions similar to those of abused ancestors, Rowe said. Descendants of Holocaust survivors, for example, didn’t experience the Holocaust directly, but some have exhibited behaviors and responded physically in ways similar to their ancestors. While she said some of that could be because of the “leakage” of stories from ancestors, epigenetic research suggests a biologically transmitted cause is also at work.
Similarly, black women in the U.S. suffer a much higher rate of maternal deaths than white women in the U.S. or other developed countries. Rowe attributes the discrepancy in part to “racism embedded in medicine,” but also to the stress that “black women are carrying in our bodies.”
More Subtle and Systemic Today
Any mistreatment of black people by white people in the U.S. in 2020 is typically not the same as in the 1960s and ‘70s, Rowe indicated.
She asked rhetorically: “And what are the ways in which things have changed, and what are the ways in which things are still the same?” Her answer: “In some cases it’s not a brick, and it’s not a rock, but it’s a word. Anyone who’s lived long enough – we’ve heard that before, we’ve seen it, we’ve experienced it,” she said of racial slights and insults. “The more things change, the more they stay the same, and that’s sad.
“We are still experiencing that (mistreatment) today,” she said. “It’s just in a different form. It looks a little bit different.”
Rowe recently wrote an article for The Boston Globe in which she pointed out that Boston public schools are actually “far more segregated” now than when she was in the school system. “And the disparity in education is the same.” She said this speaks to the reality of systemic oppression – not the blatant, interpersonal kind of oppression she endured.
As Rowe described in her Calvin University talk, systemic oppression and racism also create an atmosphere in which people are simply blind to the realities of mistreatment. “There are so many ways that we don’t see,” she said, giving as examples the “almost-live footage” on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook that document racial injustices. “That person was pulled over, shot, didn’t do anything wrong, whatever. And yet there’s a whole other population that doesn’t see it. Doesn’t see it as the huge travesty and injustice” it is.
She compared these “blind spots” to the places outside our vision we are warned about when driving cars. “Blind spots endanger us,” Rowe said. Wherever people might think they are regarding race, Rowe said she challenges them to look at their blind spots, and to look at those of their churches and other institutions.
Rowe’s family lived from 2005 to 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the U.S. was not the center of daily news. Returning to the U.S. was a shock. “I thought, ‘Whoa!’ What has happened!” “It was a real wake-up call. … We just felt like it was a coldness and a callousness that really was permeating the mood of the country. We were trying to figure out, ‘OK, what happened?’ I mean, we just finished eight years of Obama.
“It became really clear to me that there were so many people of color who were dealing with racial trauma, who were traumatized,” Rowe continued. “They’re holding trauma from the past, and then, literally, almost every day, several times a day, there was something dramatic occurring, either personally or vicariously, watching something—a video. But people were traumatized and needed healing.”
‘Racial Trauma is Real’
Rowe has set herself on a major mission: to bear witness to what she describes as the undeniable reality of racial trauma for non-white people in the U.S.
“Racial trauma is real,” she underscored at one point in her talk. She said even though it’s not a category in the mental health profession’s “Bible,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), mental health professionals are “starting to really look at the seriousness of this.”
Rowe said researchers have found that symptoms of trauma can be: fear, aggression, depression, anxiety, low self-image, shame, hypervigilance, pessimism, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, addictions, flashbacks, relational dysfunction, as well as physical symptoms like hyperactivity, ADHD, heart disease and headaches.
She said trauma often shuts people down. It activates stress hormones and a fight-or-flight response. “What are we going to do?” Rowe asked, putting herself in the place of someone traumatized. “We’ve got to manage this. And because we can’t manage it, we just continue to hold it.”
Why So Few Here?
To the sparse audience in the auditorium, Rowe speculated that the low attendance might have been caused by people not being able to face the reality of trauma. There were probably no more than 20 people, and only a few were students. Most of the small audience were faculty and community members.
“Some people are not here because they can’t handle it, they just can’t. And that’s OK, for now,” said Rowe, who encouraged her audience members to help such people confront their trauma. (Rowe later in the day at Calvin led a nearly three-hour workshop for faculty, staff, and students of color on healing from racial trauma.)
When she began really feeling the symptoms of her own racial trauma, she said, “I actually found myself constantly on the verge of tears. At times, my emotions were all over the place. They really vacillate between being angry, indifferent and bone tired.”
More than once, Rowe emphasized she was not speaking only of the African American experience. As fellow victims of racial trauma she embraced Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latinx, among others. She chose the stories in her book to reflect the commonality of racial trauma. Among the people she profiles are a Japanese-American woman; two women who have both Native American and African-American heritage; a woman whose family came from Colombia, South America; a black South African woman; a middle-aged man whose father was black and mother was white; and Rowe’s own son, Jonathan.
She said this intentional mixture of people of various backgrounds was “really countercultural” because there has been a “set-up” in the U.S. to pit people of color against each other. “Being a person of color in America, we have a lot more in common than we think.
“The reality is throughout our lives—we’re black, indigenous, other people of color—we’ve experienced various forms of trauma, and we’re often … trying to manage things, trying to make a life in the midst of having to deal with this reality,” she said. “We as people of color have endured personal and communal trauma … and we have seen lives and livelihoods lost.”
Those Daily Assaults
Turning to what are called microaggressions, Rowe said, “People of color continue to endure the almost daily assaults against our community.”
The message of these microaggressions? It’s that people of color don’t belong, she said.
“Scholars believe that the day-to-day hassles can compromise psychological well-being.” She said the day-to-day stress can harm mental health and wear a person down, making the person more vulnerable to poor health. Most people don’t realize the “pile-on,” or compounding effect, that constant microaggressions have. “It is layer upon layer upon layer.” When not confronted, these insults add to the trauma a person carries.
“We are told that there must be some reason why we deserve it, whether one’s being pulled over by a police officer, being tailed in the mall – like, there’s a reason. And it doesn’t matter who we are. You could be a janitor, senator, celebrity.”
At some point in their lives people of color have been profiled. And then they’ve suppressed that knowledge to themselves, resulting sometimes in acting out. “Many of us have taught ourselves to minimize or deny our wounds, and believe that it’s a lie, that everything is really OK.”
White people will sometimes respond to grievances over racial trauma by “gaslighting” – essentially telling people of color the pain is imaginary. Rowe said white people might say things like: “You’re too angry. You’re too sensitive. You’re imagining things. You just need to get over it.
“We live with the deafening silence of injustice. We have found others are too quick to communicate solutions without really listening to us. That’s a form of gaslighting.”
Rowe said a person of color does not need to experience racism directly to feel the pain. It can come vicariously. For example, seeing news footage or a social media video can make someone think, “Wow! That could be me. Or that could be my husband. Or that could be my child,” she said.
Healing is a Messy Business
Addressing her “white brothers and sisters,” the therapist-author said even though they might have a sense of the racism people of color endure, white people sometimes “rush to racial reconciliation,” failing to recognize the trauma carried by people of color. This is a “blind spot” for white people.
But people of color can also be blind. “The reality is that white folk might not take our wounds seriously, but we sometimes don’t take our wounds seriously either,” Rowe said. “I realized that for me I had to make a choice: not to continue to have this false peace, but to really address the severity of my wounds, the severity of that experience. Some of us who haven’t been in denial have prayed about racial trauma we’ve experienced” and wondered how to deal with it.
Rowe brought up the story in Mark’s Gospel about Jesus healing the blind man by essentially spitting on the man’s eyes and putting his hands on him. Acknowledging that the spitting conjures up a “nasty” image, she also said she thinks there’s a reason why it makes people cringe. “It’s messy,” she said. “This whole racial trauma thing, it’s messy. And to confront our blind spots, it’s messy. And to have to look at some messy truths. It’s not easy to look at the extent of the damage done by racism.”
‘We are Miracles’
Rowe’s talk at Calvin University necessarily described the pain of her own life and that of others. But at one point, during the question-and-response session at the end, she figuratively stepped back from the trauma and painted a picture of a victorious people.
For black, indigenous, and other people of color in this country, “We are more than resilient,” she said. “We are miracles, literally miracles. And there’s a strength there. And so, knowing the whole story (not just of oppression), is absolutely important. When we do” know the whole story, “I think we’re more able to engage in activism. When we don’t” know the whole story, “We think, ‘Just, what’s the point in this?’ Why vote? Why march?’”