Segregation and integration: healing the trauma of whiteness

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are really princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and bravery. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that needs our love — Rainer Maria Rilke

My work to heal myself and hold space for others healing from complex trauma has given me many experiences of how segregation functions in the psyche. We know from the diagnoses available within the dominant mental health framework, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), that trauma fractures us into pieces. During a traumatic event, pockets of sense data, fragments of embodied memory, and disparate notions of self become segregated and are thereafter experienced as “parts” that are separate from, and often incompatible with, one another. This is explained biologically through changes in brain function when trauma occurs, and it is explained psychologically as necessary and adaptive defense against overwhelming experience that is adaptive in the moment but comes at a high cost.

The fundamental approach of Internal Family Systems (IFS) to trauma is that all parts are welcome and must be re-integrated in order to achieve health. Systems theory tells us that complex systems are moving towards a state of greater integration. Quantum physics and entanglement tell us that everything is connected to and affects everything else and that the opposite only appears to our limited sense perceptions to be true. Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) guides us to create a facilitating environment and a new experience of attachment that can hold the trauma adequately to re-integrate what has been split off. These are, however, all approaches whose results are often interpreted within the framework of whiteness and white supremacy culture, which is itself grounded in segregation. 

That segregation must be addressed if we are to attain health on a greater-than-individual scale, which I believe is what the current climate and political crises are inviting us to do.

When I am holding space for someone who is hijacked by a traumatized part, our first task is to establish enough safety to un-blend the part and bring it more clearly into view. This requires a shift, for the traumatized person, from being taken over by symptoms to externalizing a part and beginning to “see” it in the room. At this early stage in the work, the part often appears as fearsome, non-human, sometimes demonic, or even inanimate. I have worked with a protective part that appeared first as a black obelisk; a wounded part that appeared first covered in oozing sores; a defense that looked like a red spinning sphere; a feared part that showed itself as a hunched gremlin. As the work unfolds, it becomes clear that the appearance of the part is not objective, but actually a reflection of how the part is held within the self-system: hatred and fear shape its manifestation, and dawning understanding and compassion transform it into someone else – often the child who experienced the trauma – who can be re-incorporated into the self and, in doing so, change the entire system.

The foundations of whiteness and white supremacy culture are also in collective traumatic and traumatizing segregation that goes back centuries. Whiteness as a cultural identity co-arose with many shadows or dissociated parts including blackness and savage-ness. Whiteness was created as a legal category in the so-called New World (itself a construction based on erasing indigenous peoples) to divide and conquer those whose existence and rebellion threatened the dominant class, but it rests on binaries created much earlier and present in different forms around the world. There are no actual “black” or “savage” people: these are the projections onto other humans made by whiteness of what, in its own nature, it has been traumatically split from and can no longer perceive directly. For most settlers of European descent, their embodied connection to the earth and the other species that co-created the ecosystems they were born in were destroyed in the Middle Ages and during the witch burning times. The worldwide dominance of the English language, which defines so many other beings as objects, is also a reflection of these traumatic losses.

Whiteness is defined by these layered segregations, and much violence has been enacted to maintain these splits and project the disowned parts onto other humans. For example, to be a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied man is to be defined by a long list of characteristics that are founded on binaries and exclusions: not mineral, not vegetable, not animal, not female, not BIPOC, not LGBTQ2, not disabled – categories of deficiency then projected onto other parts of Creation and needed to shore up the white man’s sense of who he is. As this man, I require all these categories to exist as split off parts to maintain my identity – the more I disown, look down upon, and fear these parts, the more distorted my projections onto others will be, the more separate and frightening other humans will become, and the more violence I will require to police these boundaries that tell me who I am.

I believe the process for facing and integrating trauma is a potential roadmap for healing the segregation of whiteness, and in a society that did not identify itself through the denigration of spirit, it would also be recognized as a spiritual map. To the extent that any of us has taken in and is embodying white supremacist culture – and those of us with white skin are born with a huge dosage already administered – we need to be able to face the demons our race has made, which are in reality the split off parts of ourselves we lost centuries ago that must be integrated if we are to become healthy and whole. Donald Trump, as easy as it is for us to disavow him, is only the pinnacle of the white patriarchy many of us are also defined by and profit from. He shows us our illness and disfigurement so exaggerated that we can no longer miss it: as the most terrified and emptied-out part of humanity (part of me), he must desperately re-assert his identity hourly through disavowal and segregation. If you want to know your whiteness, see his projections and know that we do this too, and that other real humans have borne that violence for centuries. The work of facing our whiteness will require that we face what we most fear in ourselves just as those I work with must face the parts of them that have become alien and inanimate: our savagery, our darkness, our splitting, our violence and projection, our stupidity, our lifelessness, our blindness. All the ugliness we see ‘out there’ as demons and abject, lesser-than others are actually our own lost pieces projected onto other beings. We must do this in order to recover what we have collectively lost – integration with land, life, spirit, the gods, our bodies the earth, and the whole “nonbinary” flow of Creation that this language can only define as a negative because we speak out of the shadow of its loss.