Sheila Wise Rowe is a Christian counselor and spiritual director who recently published the book Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience. In her book, Rowe invites readers to consider “how to individually or collectively pursue healing from racial trauma” in order to remain resilient amid pervasive racial discrimination.
In the following Q&A with Faithfully Magazine, conducted via live Skype video, Rowe discusses her motivation for writing about a topic many “racial reconciliation” books overlook, why she believes racial healing ministries are a necessity for multiethnic churches, and more. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Numerous books on racial reconciliation have been published, but yours is the first I’ve read that dives into the deep inner-work that’s often first required before an individual can bring him/herself to a place of pursuing reconciliation. Why did you decide to take this particular approach of dealing head-on with racial trauma?
You know what, it really felt like a lot of the conversation around reconciliation was missing a piece, and the piece being that people of color are being traumatized. So Black, indigenous, other people of color who’ve been traumatized by racism, and that has not really factored into the conversation. So we continue to carry that into these reconciliation spaces. And we’re still carrying the hurt and the pain of that, and it’s ongoing. So it’s not even just that, you know, we were healed in the past and now we move forward and everything is fine. We continue to face racism and microaggressions, and so it interferes with the the process of reconciliation.
One aspect which you touch on briefly toward the end of Healing Racial Trauma is that racial trauma healing is not just for people of color. Yes, people of color are the ones most affected, but White Americans, especially because of the legacy and the history in this country of things like white privilege and systemic racism, need healing as well.
Absolutely. I think that what White folk don’t recognize is that they may be coming from a place of trauma—they came here, whether they were fleeing religious persecution, or, you know, they were the Irish and because of the potato famine, they came here. They were traumatized in their own countries. So what we’re seeing is this psychological dynamic where you have traumatized people traumatizing people. This whole thing of “I’ve got to get bigger so that what happened there doesn’t happen to me again.” So in many ways, these White immigrants bought into this notion of white supremacy, in which they’ve said, “Okay, we’re going to be better than, we’re not going to be put in that position again.” And if you think about the things that people have witnessed…when I think about the lynchings and the fact that many of them are these massive White mobs that included children, and that does something to someone. It does something to someone emotionally, mentally, spiritually, on all levels. So there’s a need for White folk to confront that piece. It’s not just about guilt. There was damage done, and so perpetrators need healing as well. But you know, the focus of my book is not about that. It’s really about how we need to heal, and we so desperately need to figure out how do we move forward. Particularly in this current climate.
When you say “we,” of course, you mean people of color. You include in the book anecdotes from different individuals of various ethnic backgrounds sharing how they’ve found a way through the things that affected them in the past, or that they’ve been carrying. Why did you find it important to include these real-life stories?
These are all friends of mine…. I know their stories, I’ve seen their journeys, and have seen God work in the context of that and I feel like stories are really important. I feel like stories are accessible to everybody. The fact that Jesus often spoke in parables and stories, that in that way sometimes messages can get through in stories where they can’t get through in something that’s really more prescriptive. So [the goal] in sharing these stories [is] that people would be able to start to locate themselves in it, and maybe even family members when we touch on generational stuff…. That’s why the focus was really on stories, as well as Scripture and psychological and sociological perspectives as well.
Your family lived in South Africa for a while and returned to the U.S. in 2016. That was a big year, in terms of the presidential election and a lot of things that have since been revealed. But in South Africa too, they have their own racial and ethnic challenges. Can you discuss how the two compare and your experiences that motivated you to write Healing Racial Trauma.
You know what, I find it really interesting that the whole notion of South Africa [as] the rainbow nation… You know, they have the TRC, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and everybody looks at it like, “Okay, this is a model for it.” You know, what, there [are] wonderful things that came out of that clearly—apartheid is over. Yes, absolutely. But I feel like in a similar way, South Africa has also not dealt with the racial trauma. That although the TRC did a piece of the work, in terms of people being able to hear the stories of what happened to a loved one who went to school that day and disappeared. However, the fact that the kind of real intensive counseling that needed to happen and support for, you know, the woman who’s now elderly and she finds out what happened to her son, that really wasn’t there. So there were people who were actually traumatized by it. There were people who should have been tried and weren’t, you know, White folk who under apartheid really did some horrific things. For some, it did bring closure, and it was great and it was a healing moment. But having lived there for 10 years, what I’ve seen is that it’s an amazing place [and] that people are incredible, and yet there is an underlying issue. There’s an underlying trauma that’s still there and it spills out in other ways in terms of people lashing out, and in that way it feels similar.
“I’ve been practicing as a therapist for 25 years. Every person I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a rainbow of people in terms of people of color, race always has been an issue. It always came up at some point.”
So it was interesting to come back here in 2016 in the middle of this… I say to people, you know, I grew up during a time where there was mandated busing in Boston. I saw stuff, you know. It’s not shocking to me, but it really felt that way. Like, coming back here, it was just all gloves are off. Literally, you know, people would just randomly feel like they could say things. I mean, I was seeing stuff everywhere. It wasn’t even just a random thing. It would be in the supermarket. People were just saying things, like spontaneously, “I hate Spanish-speaking people.” Just thinking like, “Okay, you know, do you just feel like you need to say that?” …. Or people making comments on public transportation. It was surprising. Out of that, what I was seeing also [on] social media is—[because] it’s a place where we are constantly seeing these things. We’re seeing these viral videos. I think that also contributed to vicarious trauma, where we’re watching this stuff. We’re experiencing this stuff on the outside, and it wasn’t even just Black folk. It was like Latinos [being told to] stop speaking Spanish. Now, we’ve got coronavirus. So now it’s like if you’re Asian, you’re suspect, and they’re getting flack as well.
[I was] just feeling like this is a moment where this has to be addressed. It also is nothing new. I’ve been practicing as a therapist for 25 years. Every person I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a rainbow of people in terms of people of color, race always has been an issue. It always came up at some point. And it was some[thing] that had to be addressed and had to be worked through. So I feel like we have at least the resources here in this country to begin to do that. And South Africa does to a very smaller extent. But we have to address this because it’s not sustainable. We are literally walking around stressed out, angry, in pain, sad. Our fuses are really short, particularly with White people. And, we need it for us. This isn’t even really about them. It’s about us, like how do we continue to move forward, you know, raise our children and love our families, our communities, our churches, and to be more resilient.
Do you think racial healing ministries should be an integral part of churches, particularly those that are home to people of color?
I feel that if you’re gonna [posit] yourself as a multicultural congregation, multiethnic congregation, then this it’s like, 101. This is basic work. You’ve got to really look at who are the people in your congregation. They’re part of your family. What is it that they’ve experienced? What is that trauma that they’re carrying? Because if you’re not aware of it and not aware of how you contribute towards that, how systemically it’s baked into a lot Christian churches, you’re going to retraumatize people, you’re going to wound them, you’re going to minimize, you’re going to gaslight them and tell them, “Oh, that’s not what that is.” You’re going to, as a church…need to really look at how are you going to do this well? How are you going to steward these people that the Lord has brought…into your doors? What I think has happened, in many cases, is [you] come in and just slot in… It’s a majority white context, and basically, you just need to slot in and be that. Don’t come with who you are. Don’t come with your worship your church experience, your culture, none of that. So the challenge really is, if you actually want to…be a multiethnic church, then you have to do the work. You have to do the work. There [are] no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
What’s your advice or encouragement for the person of color who feels like they may be kind of isolated or alone, or who may be finding it really difficult to cope with these daily aggressions?
I really encourage people to find support and so and whether you don’t have the support around you like there, you know, in your community, or even on your work site, there are online communities that are supportive. You know, and I think you have to use wisdom, obviously, because you can be on Twitter and leave with your hair on fire, you know, it just doesn’t help. So you’ve got to measure out, you know, how much you need to be on social media. And where are the places that really feed you? Particularly, you know, we can be activists types and we’re just on all the time, and it’s just not sustainable. It just isn’t. We’ve got to figure out where’s life, where’s beauty? Because it’s there, you know, there has to be a balance in terms of how we approach life and how we’re intentional about getting support, intentional about really looking for places and people who really helped to build us. And ways in which we can also reach out and build our community so we can move beyond this place of… You know, if you’re constantly beaten down and there is not a place where you feel like “I can use my my agency and do something, I can serve in my community,” you know, whatever it is–whether it’s a soup kitchen, whether it’s going on a march, whether it’s signing a petition, you know, we can actually make a difference as well. I think that it’s just important that we have that sense of a balance.
So my word would be, really, look at your life and look at where are places out of balance. I look at like, what has God already done for you? Remind yourself of that. You know, what is He doing right now? What are you supposed to be doing? What are you supposed to be doing with other people? What does it mean to go forward? Just asking those questions. I feel like so often we don’t take the time to actually sit, get quiet, and listen. Listen to our own hearts. Listen to What the Lord might be saying to us around those things. So I would encourage people to take some time to do that alone as well as in community, whether it’s your church community or it’s a small group of friends [that] get together, but take the time to do that.