Monday, May 2, 2016

Who is Assata Shakur and Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

It's May 2nd, the 39th anniversary of Assata Shakur's famous arrest. 

What? You've never heard about it? No kidding.

Assata Shakur is a black activist most famous for being racially targeted by the New Jersey Police Department and later the FBI. She was the target of a massive manhunt from 1971-73, culminating in her arrest when white police officers stopped the car in which she was traveling, citing a broken taillight. After her capture she was not charged with any of the crimes that had made her the subject of the manhunt. However, she was convicted by an all white jury for shooting white police officers during the traffic stop, even though forensic evidence showed that there was no gunpowder on her fingers and that she herself was shot in the back by another officer while her hands were raised in surrender. Assata was held in inhumane conditions in an all-men's prison, confirmed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, who in 1979 cited her case as "one of the worst cases of human rights abuses" and called her a "victim of FBI misconduct" who was "selectively targeted for provocation, false arrests, entrapment, fabrication of evidence, and spurious criminal prosecutions." ( If you watched the Black Panthers documentary on PBS you know that unlawful arrests, entrapment, and murder were common strategies of the FBI's COINTELPRO branch, whose job it was "to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence..." and to prevent black leaders "from gaining respectability, by discrediting them to both the responsible community and to liberals who have vestiges of sympathy…" ( With the aid of fellow activists, Assata escaped prison in 1979 and was ultimately granted political asylum in Cuba where she now lives. 

I was about to launch further into this topic when I nearly forgot to mention one little thing: The prerequisites. To be clear, if you don't believe that racism is inextricably embedded in the very fabric of our nation due to our shameful history of dehumanizing black people and the residue it has left on our current worldview, then you should most definitely complete the following prerequisites before proceeding. 

I borrowed the concept of prerequisites to racism education from the brilliant and distinguished Dr. Joy DeGruy, a scholar I met through a YouTube link provided by my new friend, activist, and musician Glenn Waco (check out his new release, Assata, here: You can determine your own necessity for the prerequisites with a simple self-quiz:
  1. Let's start with an easy one: Roughly how many years did slavery last in the United States of America?
  2. What does the word "chattel" mean in reference to slavery?
  3. Other than a few small groups of white abolitionists who believed slavery was a sin, what was the reason cited by most white abolitionists to end slavery?
  4. According to the U.S.. Constitution after the American Revolution, what "percentage of a person" was a slave? (Meaning, 1/2 of a "real" person, 3/4 of a "real" person, etc.)
  5. When and where else in the world has human chattel slavery lasted as long as it did in America?
  6. What is the estimated number of slaves who died in transport overseas?
Here's my point: White people think we know about slavery because we learned about it in school and watched Twelve Years a Slave. But if we don't even know these basic facts off hand, how can we really be sympathetic to what Dr. DeGruy calls Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which by her account can explain a lot of the stuff us white people just do not understand about the black experience? Before I get into all that, here are the answers to the quiz. 
  1. Human chattel slavery lasted from about 1619 to about 1863, so roughly 250 years.
  2. Chattel is an item of property. Human chattel slavery is the proper name for what our textbooks call "slavery," during which humans were bought and sold and considered personal property of an owner who had full discretion over his or her treatment. This is the least prevalent form of slavery in the world today, and has been exceptionally rare across the globe throughout history. 
  3. After the American Revolution in 1783 the new U.S. Constitution counted each slave as 3/5 a person.
  4. The majority of abolitionists argued that slavery should end because it was inefficient and made little economic sense.
  5. No other society has had a system of slavery like ours. American human chattel slavery is unlike anything anywhere else in the world in terms of the following:
    1. Duration- more than 200 years
    2. Race-based- slavery in other countries usually consisted of indentured servitude between people of the same race or ethnicity. Rarely was slavery based on one race enslaving another race and deeming the enslaved race subhuman.
    3. Subhuman status by law- most other slave contexts involved exploitation but not dehumanization supported by law. 
    4. Number killed in transport- see next item.
  6. 9 million is one estimate of the number of slaves killed merely in transport due to the conditions (18 inches per person, see below). Just to give perspective, while it's hard to compare since the Holocaust occurred over only four years, it is estimated that 6 million lives were taken by the Holocaust.
    Humans on a Slave Ship

    If your reaction to Slavery 101: Basic Facts is, "But that was so long ago, why are we still harping on it?" then you failed the prerequisites.

    On the other hand, if you can plainly see that it wasn't too long ago to have lasting residue, then let's get down to business. 

    No one gets down to business like Dr. DeGruy, who plainly and masterfully details exactly what's on the minds of many of the black members of our shared society and why they are so freaking mad. Her two hour lecture is so thorough that I can only summarize part of it here, so this piece is entirely dedicated to what she calls Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

    While obtaining her Master's degree in clinical psychology, Dr. DeGruy noticed some uncanny parallels between what she was learning about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and what her and her fellow black community members felt on a regular basis. In short, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is the residual mental anguish experienced by members of the black community because of the collective trauma that has been passed down by generations and the persistent triggers of this trauma that continue on a regular basis today. Years after DeGruy's first lecture on PTSS we now have scientific evidence that trauma is passed down generationally via DNA by a process called epigenetic inheritance ( Keep in mind that our black friends, coworkers, and neighbors are only two generations removed from the institution of slavery, meaning their great grandmothers could have been victims of human chattel slavery. 

    See for yourself if you can find parallels between PTSD and PTSS. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), PTSD comes from exposure to traumatic events. The exposure must result from one or more of the following scenarios, in which the individual:
    • directly experiences the traumatic event;
    • witnesses the traumatic event in person;
    • learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend; or
    • experiences first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event 
    The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in one (or more) of the following ways:
    • recurrent and distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions
    • acting or feeling if the traumatic event were recurring (includes a sense of reliving the experience
    • intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event [i.e., racial slurs]
    • physiological reactivity on exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event [i.e. stop and frisk]
    Persistent symptoms are indicated by two (or more) of the following:
    1.       difficulty falling or staying asleep
    2.       irritability or outbursts of anger
    3.       difficulty concentrating 
    4.       hyper vigilance
    5.       exaggerated startle response
    "The disorder may be especially severe or long lasting when the stressor is of human design (e.g. tortune, rape). The likelihood of developing the disorder may increase as the intensity of and physical proximity to the stressor increase."

    DeGruy notes our society's willingness to diagnose Americans with PTSD from the effects of 911, even for those people who were nowhere near the event and unrelated to anyone who died, versus our unwillingness to consider that black members of our society may have PTSD from the residual effects of our culture's recent slave system. She explains, in describing the traumatic effects of both 911 and slavery:

     "It's not just the lives that were lost, but the symbol of what it meant...
    wrapped in the notion of power, and control, and stability." 

    I like Dr. DeGruy's work because her focus is on healing. How does our society heal from what we've done to each other? Validation and recognition that the trauma has occurred is a good start. Questioning our own worldview is key. Seeking information that may not have been revealed in our Euro-centric education helps. Checking ourselves any time we are tempted to discount or question the lived experience our black fellow humans are trying to share is highly recommended by the good doctor. 

    If you have 2 hours to listen to Dr. DeGruy's entire lecture you can find it here:
    but if you just want to hear the part about PTSS start at 53:25.

    Denial of the truly horrific nature of American human chattel slavery and resistance to the fact that it's effects still permeate our society comes in many forms. For example, responding to the demand that Black Lives Matter with the retort that All Lives Matter. Or being annoyed by an "unfair advantage" given to minorities for jobs and resources to even the scoreboard created by a history of inequality. But today, on this anniversary of Assata Shakur's arrest what's on my mind is this: that I, a white woman, can post a blog about government conspiracies, murders, and police corruption without even batting an eye. If you have a privileged voice like I do, please be a white ally and share.

    Friday, April 22, 2016

    Notes on Racism and Social Justice from a White Ally

    My name is Carrie Hutchinson and I strive to be a white ally. It sounds like an admission of something shameful, I know. A lot of really nice white people I know feel the same way. We are eager and passionate, yet tentative and cautious. We are scared to overstep, terrified of offending, but even more scared of being part of the problem by doing nothing. Hell, I even started a separate Facebook page where I could share news about injustice since I didn't want my non-activist middle class white friends getting tired of my impassioned posts (quick plug for updated page: please like

    Ever share news on social media relating to Black Lives Matter only to be met with crickets? You get what I'm saying. Wait. Since I haven't really seen my white friends post anything related to Black Lives Matter, let's try this: Ever read something about the black struggle that you thought was share-worthy but it just seemed like a bad idea for a variety of reasons you didn't dig deep enough to question? I'm talking to you.

    I have a wealth of second-hand racism experience that most of my white friends don't have because my family is biracial. This doesn't mean that I'm a better white person than any other, and it doesn't mean that I'm less of a benefactor of my whiteness, or less guilty of contributing to structural racism. It just means that I am more acutely aware of the silliness of the well intentioned but ignorant claim of colorblindness, and they way in which race affects the daily, no, hourly, experience of black people just trying to go about their lives like everyone else. I've tried to write pieces describing what it's like to visit Trader Joe's or the carwash with black members of my family on any given day of the week, but I just come across as angry and bitter and I overuse the word "stupid." Hopefully this will be more productive.

    With every book I read, every article I collect, and every song, speech and podcast I listen to on issues surrounding race (which are a lot), I get more and more fired up, always intending to figure out something I can do, other than exercise complacency, or worse complicity, by remaining silent. I actually don't have any brilliant ideas at the moment, in case you thought this might end with one. But continuing to do nothing other than engaging in a nightly mutual rant with my spouse is starting to feel like complacency. And so here I am, prompted by an inspiring interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, who responds to the question "What can people do?" by outlining two important steps in being an ally:

    Step 1:
    "The first step is saying 'I am willing to be awake.' That I'm not going to tell myself the same old stories or be lulled to sleep by the mainstream media. I am willing to wake up to our current racial reality, our current political and economic realities... and I'm also willing to acknowledge my own complicity in the system. We're all complicit...if you've been born in the United States or lived for any significant period of time here you have within you conscious and unconscious stereotypes, biases, and varying degrees of privilege...we're all complicit and we all benefit in various ways from turning away and being in denial." 

    Step 2:
    "We all have a role to play. All of our talents, our creativity, can be brought to bear. And I think it's up to us to become fully honest with ourselves and act with greater boldness and courage and creativity than we have in the past. Failure to act is a choice in itself." 

    Never mind that I teach about racism in my Communication courses to roughly 150 college students each semester. It's not enough, plus at least 30% of them are probably stoned during any given lecture. So here is me attempting to do something more. My name is Carrie Hutchinson and I am striving to be a white ally by using my writing to inspire others toward change in both attitude and actions. Through this blog I intend to creatively discuss and share ideas, some better than others, related to how white people like me might become allies to people of color as we strive together for a more just and civil country. My posts will ask you, my white friends specifically, to think about your role in our current system of institutionalized racism, understand your own (warning: trigger word) white privilege, and consider that you could be doing more. I'll save you time by researching sources of good information, sharing and summarizing them, and sometimes I'll even challenge you to pass it on.

    I invite you to join me simply by reading and considering these ideas, so that you, too, are doing something instead of nothing.

    My first share is the podcast I mentioned above (which I listened to while working out at the gym- a topic I'll address in a future post called White Space). In the podcast On Being, Krista Tippett interviews author Michelle Alexander, asking the author to not only describe the topic of her book, The New Jim Crow, but to engage in a dialogue about how we can be better humans. Throughout the interview, Michelle Alexander offers multiple quote-ables, like those I copied above. Here are other important take-aways I'd like to share with you:

    • Most of us are vaguely aware of the topic of mass incarceration, but here's a fact I learned in the podcast that gave me pause: Heterogenous cultures are the most punitive cultures. Meaning, cultures comprised of a variety of people from a multitude of backgrounds tend to use a more punishment-based model of law enforcement than homogenous cultures. This rings true of my travels to places like Japan, a highly homogenous culture, where people engage in self-punishment, such as shame and self banishment, for violation of social rules. In general, less punitive models are more effective (if the goal is abiding by the rules). As most parents know, punitive forms of rule enforcement are effective short term, but create more anti-social behavior in the long run. Michelle Alexander outlines how the Drug War and the resulting mass incarceration of black citizens (which she coins "The New Jim Crow") is a systematic method of disempowering people of color by removing their rights after minor offenses such as carrying marijuana. Here's how: After being released from prison, felons are not allowed to vote, serve on juries, be free of discrimination in jobs and housing, or have equal access to education, which are the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement. In short, after being incarcerated a person is, in the author's words, "relegated to a permanent second class status." When the number of people arrested and incarcerated is disproportionately black, this is institutionalized racism. 
    • What basis do we have for arguing that the numbers of arrests and incarcerations are disproportionately black? First, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, yet the rate of incarceration is not tied to the rate of crime. Meaning, people of color are swept into the criminal justice system at higher rates, which do not parallel any higher rates of illegal activity by their race. 
    The following are helpful statistics from the NAACP Criminal Fact Sheet, which you can find here:

    Drug Sentencing Disparities:
    • About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
    • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
    • African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
    • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). 
    My challenge to you is to memorize one of these stats so you can pull it out of your hat at an opportune time. You just never know when you'll be faced with someone who could benefit from a gentle teaching moment. I'm committing to memorizing this one: "Five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites." I bet I'll even have the chance to use it this week.

    If you have an hour and a half, listen to the entire podcast of the interview with author Michelle Alexander here:

    Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your feedback.

    Yours in solidarity toward justice and peace,

    Friday, May 30, 2014

    Intergroup Communication During Tragedy

    Tragedy struck our seaside university town of Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, on May 23, 2014 when a young resident committed a mass murder leaving seven people dead, and our community grief stricken and shocked. Amongst the disbelief, rage, and overwhelming sadness, a plethora of explanations for the massacre erupted on social media and in the press. While mass murders (defined as having more than 4 victims) occur on an average of twice per month in the United States according to a 2013 report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, we rarely hear about most of them. Atrocities like the Isla Vista murders get a barrage of press because they differ from  other murders in their inexplicable nature, based partly on the randomness of the victims and especially the privileged life of the assailant.

    One of the key concepts I teach in my interpersonal communication class is how our own psyche demands that we make sense of others’ behaviors, using a process called attribution-making.  In a tragic situation like this one, the attributions we make reveal the influence our pre-formulated schema, or frameworks for thinking, have on how we interpret behaviors. Here are just a couple of examples: 
    -People against gun control claimed that the Isla Vista murders could have been prevented if more citizens had guns because they could have shot the killer before his rampage continued. Those who support gun control insisted that if guns were not readily available to citizens then tragedies like this couldn’t occur.
    -Social justice advocates concluded that our culture’s objectification of women and misogynistic value system were to blame, since the killer stated that he was seeking revenge on women who had rejected him. In response, there was a deluge of comments about women’s insensitivities to men and their contribution to male rage.

    These explanations are not only oversimplifications, but they only divide us further into the ingroups and outgroups we invent because of our innate need for social identity. However, viewing a tragedy from the biased lens of our ingroup prevents an interpersonal approach to outgroup members, that is, seeing them as individuals instead of representations of their group, and ultimately deters communities from healing and restoring peace.

    When we channel our frustrations at inexplicable human behavior into disdain and contempt for an outgroup that we erroneously hold responsible (whether it’s the NRA, feminists, or social media users), our way of thinking becomes no better than the deluded assailant who blamed women and Asians for his rage, among others. We all possess a human mind that is prone to fallacies in thinking, but resisting the instinct to simplify, categorize and act out in hateful ways is what separates us from him.

    Thursday, January 17, 2013

    Everyday Compassion

    Everyday Compassion

    As I arrived to yoga class the other day I learned that the electricity was out, which meant no heat and no music. The instructor sheepishly apologized, promising that the class was usually about 80 degrees (instead of 50), and normally accompanied by inspiring music. Also, she said, it was a new time slot… which explained why there were only three people in the huge room. Actually the class ended up being great, but while sinking into my final Shavasana I had a vivid memory that jarred me out of relaxation. I remembered a time when I had shown up to teach a class and nothing was functioning correctly. Even though there was power, the LCD projector wouldn’t turn on and the Internet wasn’t connecting. The clock was ticking as I fumbled around, feeling quite embarrassed while a class of 50 college students waited impatiently. On the outside I probably appeared somewhat calm and collected, joking about Murphy’s Law, but inside I felt frazzled, and inept. Silently judged.
    In the midst of this memory I heard my mind reveal the punch line: “We are all the same. We all share the same fear.” Despite strict instruction not to linger on thoughts during Shavasana, I couldn’t help but wonder if my instructor had feared appearing incompetent while starting her two-person, frigid, music-less class. I suddenly felt very connected to her, overcome with a warm heart. Upon leaving I made sure to tell her that she had made my day, and I left feeling quite happy.

    I was reminded of a tenet in my field of study, which states that each person in any interpersonal interaction is aware of three identities simultaneously:
    1. Who you think you are
    2. Who you think the other person is
    3. Who you think the other person thinks you are

    At that moment it dawned on me that much of our suffering comes from a focus on who we think the other person thinks we are (Identity 3).

    That same day, the Dalai Lama posted this on his Facebook wall (and yes, I am “friends” with the Dalai Lama…on Facebook): “The ultimate source of a happy life is warm-heartedness. This means extending to others the kind of concern we have for ourselves.”

    We are always concerned with what others think of us. So perhaps a new approach to compassion is being concerned with what others think we think of them?

    For the remainder of the day I tried this approach with every important person in my life. My husband came home from work complaining about something and then quieted himself, probably feeling like a whiner. “Get it out,” I encouraged, “I’m listening.” At bedtime my eight year old was about to ask me to stay and cuddle, when she sensed that she should be a big girl and just go to sleep on her own. So I said, “Scoot over. I’m lonely, too.”
    My own mother, often concerned about bothering me, hesitantly emailed inquiring whether or not she should make a birthday cake for me on Friday. I wrote back, “I absolutely need your cake.”
    I don’t know if my attempts at validating others temporarily alleviated their human fears of judgment and disregard, but one thing is for sure: it certainly made my day.  I went to bed that night truly feeling like I had done right by the world, and I didn’t really do that much. I imagined what it would be like if we all engaged in this simple approach, and fell asleep peacefully without dreams of forgetting to be somewhere or showing up naked. The Dalai Lama was right (yet again): Warm-heartedness toward others, in this case through simple validation, does indeed seem to be the source of happiness, at least for me… and maybe for you. Pass it on.

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    Independence Day

    I'm not a patriotic person. In fact, I'm naturally suspicious of anything that resembles group pride, because I know arrogance and ethnocentrism are it's inevitable shadows. I've never been particularly enthusiastic about the 4th of July, and I'm not the type of person to puncture the lawn with the gleaming plastic flag provided by our neighborhood realtor.
    But this year is different.
    The anticipation began when Lilah and Cleo passed by a store window displaying little girl's dresses in red, white, and blue. They said, "Look, Mommy! Those dresses are America flag!" It suddenly occurred to me that I had neglected to explain the upcoming national holiday that would prevent them from their favorite weekday afternoon activity of checking the mailbox.
    "Girls, those dresses are for a special celebration coming up. It's America's birthday!"
    Well. Any sentence with "birthday" in it has the power to make jaws drop, ears prick up, and best behavior to come out of thin air. "AMERICA BIRTHDAY? Where is it? What do I WEAR???" inquiring minds wanted to know.
    Luckily Grammi had it covered: That same day she presented them with their new T-shirts embellished with red, white, and blue peace signs. I didn't argue. "Okay," I conceded, "they can dress like flags if there are peace signs on them." When we got home they hung the new shirts up on tiny hangers and carefully placed them in their closet. Over the next few days they peeked at the new shirts, asking questions like, "Does Obama go to the America birthday party?" "Mommy, where was the party again?" was the night before the Big Day. Grateful for a bedtime incentive, I explained that if they didn't go to sleep right away we would all be too tired to go to America's birthday party. For literally the first night EVER, they closed their eyes tight and off to sleep they went. I started to feel like I could warm up to this holiday.
    Around 3am I responded to Cleo's nightly cry, shuffling into her room like a nurturing zombie. But instead of finding her in a sleepy post-nightmare haze, she greeted me with wide eyes demanding to know, "Is it America's birthday yet?"
    Around 7am we heard the familiar pitter-patter coming down the hallway, and when I opened my eyes there they were holding out red, white, and blue ribbons, hoping I'd fix their hair.
    Seeing their excitement sealed the deal: This is my new favorite holiday.
    They may be too young to understand the collective significance of July 4th, but it means something very special to them personally. It's a chance to show that they feel they belong here, to have pride in their dual identities, and to celebrate the life ahead of them in this country. So this year I'm not going to be shy about it. I tied giant bows in their hair and found the flags they were handed at the airport when they arrived in the U.S. We each held a flag out of the car window (mine, the plastic one from the realtor) as we flew down the highway toward our 4th of July pool party. We counted every single flag we saw, and sang Happy Birthday to America.
    Today as I reflect on what it means for Lilah and Cleo to be here, celebrating their own Independence Day and looking forward to all of the opportunities that lie ahead, my mind keeps repeating a statement that I've never felt with greater passion and enthusiasm: God Bless America.