Naming Trauma as Trauma

As part of my research on epistemic injustice, I’ve been thinking about the power of naming: the power of having the linguistic resources to identify, describe, and call out varied experiences, especially experiences of injustice.

Systemic oppression works in a way that denies the ability to name experiences of wrongdoing. When experiences are named, they can be acknowledged and addressed. To me, this is part of the power of the word microaggressions: the word allows for acknowledgement of what too often goes unacknowledged. Similarly, phrases like sexual violence, rape culture, and #metoo do important work in raising awareness, mobilizing response, allowing for healing, and calling attention to what’s typically hidden.

This week Inside Higher Ed published my article on why it’s important to acknowledge and address the trauma of graduate education as part of career conversations:

Screenshot of “The Trauma of Graduate Education,” showing the orange Inside Higher Ed page logo and navigation toolbar at the top followed the title, by-line, and first three paragraphs of the article.

The Trauma of Graduate Education” shares insights from this research on epistemic injustice, relating how graduate writers (participants in my dissertation research from several years ago) described the need for therapy, counseling, and self-help. In interview after interview, I heard writers (many of whom were white women and women of color) describe harms inflicted through graduate school. Moreover, participants’ stories echoed my own experiences with graduate education, which tore down my confidence, contributed to internalized pain, and kicked off a healing process that’s now taking me away from higher education.

In the article, I describe why it’s important to name these experiences as trauma:

“Often conversations with career advisers are similar to those among graduate writers: it is common to share, receive and even exchange stories of trauma while often not naming it as such. An important part of career conversations, therefore, may be recognizing trauma as trauma. There is power in naming experiences: acknowledging and giving language to describe trauma can lead to other actions, such as seeking trauma-informed care or, in Grollman’s words, “rewriting the trauma narrative.” Similarly, it’s important to name microaggressions as microaggressions, epistemic injustice as epistemic injustice and violence as violence. Doing so validates the reality of the experience (essentially saying, yes, this experience really did happen and really is wrong), countering the many invalidations that cumulate into trauma. Further, giving language to experience helps with developing the linguistic resources to understand, process and describe trauma and other injustice.”

My call to name trauma must have struck a chord with readers. On the one hand, I’m experiencing a new round of graduate students (especially white women and folks of color) reaching out and saying, “Yes, me too!” On the other hand, I’m seeing comment after comment (from what I can tell, all by white men) complaining about my “over-sensitivity,” exaggeration, and misuse of the word trauma.

Alongside these various forms of gaslighting (another powerful word for naming injustice) is a familiar rhetorical move of saying that if the experience of graduate education is too traumatic, then folks should just leave. Here again, as in my dissertation research and my own lived experience, I see readers (folks engaged in academia) making the moves that feed into trauma: those of denial, dismissal, and disengagement.

Such interactional moves point to why we need an “unrestrained” definition of trauma. What registers as trauma to one person may not to another, but to deny the experience is to deny the person. Writing off the reality of trauma is linked literally to writing off the people who experience it. Hence, we see the perpetuation of violence—perpetuation of oppression, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and epistemic injustice—within and beyond higher education.

Though this violence is all-too-familiar, I am encouraged again by the power of speaking and writing UP. I am encouraged that together we can build the linguistic resources to name experiences of injustice, and together we can use the act of naming to mobilize.

Today, tomorrow, and going forward, I’m naming trauma as trauma. And I hope you’ll join me in naming experiences of injustice to acknowledge and address them. We’ll need a lot of creativity and visioning to keep building the words for naming what’s intended not to be named. But build together, we must.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “A Love Letter to Students Surviving Sexual Violence,” “A Barrage of Microaggressions,” and “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

A Barrage of Microaggressions

Some years ago I began recording everyday microaggressions toward learning to recognize racism, which is so often coded and which whiteness has taught me not to see. This recording project aimed at building a repository of common microaggressions to teach with and practice interventions using Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed.

The project emerged from conversations with colleagues of color, who shared how often white colleagues failed to believe their experiences. Across a number of institutions, colleagues and I began writing what we observed—disguising the primary players, but keeping the details true to life. We hoped this project would help to counter epistemic injustice, or the problem of prejudice resulting in marginalized peoples not being believed about their own experiences.

Word Art

From my vantage point as a white woman, there’s been MUCH systemic racism I haven’t recognized in everyday life, but the more I actively choose to listen and learn, the more I witness. This process of witnessing means that some days are beyond tough. Recently, I had a day that felt like a constant barrage of microaggressions making themselves visible in individual and intimate ways.

To help me process my emotions, to sort through my response-abilities, and to figure out when/where to take action, I returned to the practice of documenting microaggressions—making a list of what I could recognize from the tough day. I’m sharing this list in the spirit of showing how microaggressions are anything but micro. They stack up, cumulate into vast inequities, and feel like a constant barrage or ongoing assault.

Though these scenes are tied to higher education, such scenes happen daily in and out of workplaces, family gatherings, church settings—throughout all of our everyday lives. May sharing them bring attention to the work that’s needed when we talk about standing TALL for justice.

Morning

  1. Even before arriving to campus, I recognize that my university is reeling from white supremacist hate speech (photos circulating as clear threats against students of color) that’s drawn campus-wide and beyond-campus attention.
  2. While hearing from students of color how little the university is responding, I see that my participation in the YWCA’s annual #StandAgainstRacism campaign has been used to give the optics that the university is responding.
  3. A white campus leader goes completely colorblind on a situation disproportionately impacting faculty of color.
  4. Another white leader says that a faculty member of color will be fine, professionally, because they’re “well liked,” making clear that white folks LIKING a person of color is what determines career viability.

Afternoon

  1. A panel on the school-to-prison pipeline names numerous problems rooted in racism, including that the majority of K-12 teachers in Milwaukee are white women who play into the savior archetype and expect students of color, therefore, to play the victim. Students’ behaviors that show strength and independence (not victimhood or gratitude for being “saved”) are considered behavioral problems.
  2. Following this panel, a white professor posts to social media how proud she is of white students (pre-service teachers) for buying school supplies for “underserved communities,” playing into this savior script and celebrating altruistic charity instead of teaching ways to re-route power.
  3. Another white pre-service teacher tells a white student colleague that she’s doing an act of Othering by designing a teaching unit with literature by authors of color. The student receiving the feedback takes it seriously, expressing concern that she might be marginalizing white authors. (Short answer: that’s not possible.)

Evening

  1. In a Facebook group, white feminists say they don’t appreciate me citing/amplifying Alice Walker in a recent blog post because she’s not vegan. When I take time to engage in discussion and calling-in, I have to ask: “Do you take seriously only the ideas and experiences of vegans?” before they get just how shitty their dismissals are of a womanist of color (in fact, of the feminist leader who coined the term womanist).
  2. A colleague of color is asked to bear emotional labor that goes uncompensated, while financial compensation is offered to white faculty/facilitators doing similar work.
  3. And all of this is happening against ongoing anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate speech, while the Supreme Court “weighs” the Muslim ban, Chikesia Clemons is assaulted in Waffle House, and Starbucks plans a day of anti-bias training.

Such a day calls attention to why a commitment to racial justice needs to be actionable in everyday life, why it asks us to be in it for the long haul (not quick fixes), and why self-care and community care are so important for bolstering ourselves against the constant barrage of microaggressions.

May we—especially those of who are white, who hold power and privilege within this white supremacist world—do more to name and speak out against injustice.
May we do more to find humanity in the midst of dehumanization.
May we do more to recognize and counter ongoing, everyday microaggressions.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter,” Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” or “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

A Love Letter to Students Surviving Sexual Violence

As we near the end of spring semester, students in both my “Contemplative Writing” and “Writing for Social Justice” courses are pulling together projects to make interventions in some way. Several students are addressing rape culture, and one student is compiling a book of letters by and for survivors of sexual violence. She hopes that others at our university will read the letters, write additional ones, and add threaded response—facilitating healing through storytelling and solidarity-building.

I agreed to write a letter for her book, and I share that letter here with the hope that it speaks to others engaged with similar healing, storytelling, and solidarity-building work:

Dear Reader,

Every semester I’ve taught, students have shared with me stories of sexual violence and survival.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve experienced everyday enactments of rape culture.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve seen sexual violence create new wounds and rip open old ones.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve raged at limited and lacking response.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve been encouraged by incredible resilience and creative healing.

These words are too few and do too little, but with a commitment to justice, I say to readers and to your friends-colleagues-peers who have experienced sexual violence:

I hear you. I see you. I believe you.

I hurt with you. I learn alongside you. I speak and write UP for you. I advocate for change. I call violence violence. I build critical imagination to envision more equitable ways of being.

I write as a professor who carries with me story upon story of sexual violence that I’ve been called to witness. I carry my own #metoo stories alongside those of family, friends, colleagues, and students. I’m learning how to hold these stories as gifted memories rather than weight holding me down, and I’m learning to leverage these stories toward collective healing, truth-telling, reckoning, and liberation. These stories matter, and so do we.

With fierce love keeping hope alive,

A Feminist Educator

Blogging is often always a process of countering perfectionism and sharing words that feel not-ready, not-right, and not-refined. Writing this letter, however, twisted me in knots, as there are never ready, right, or refined words to speak into the violence I know many students are experiencing and even perpetuating.

So, I share this letter with Reiki, love, and mantras:

May these words do some good.
May what’s still unsaid be heard and healed.
May this offering reach those who desire/need it.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence,” “Revealing the Cultural Patterns of Rape Culture,” and “What Is Justice?” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Going Public as an Educator

I’ve been investing recently in spell-casting and other contemplative practices that help identify and manifest inner desires. I’m investing in these practices, as my whole being (still concussed from a recent fall) is craving a more embodied, experiential way of doing education. I’m investing in these practices, too, because the quiet winter months invite the sort of introspection that helps me know myself and my commitments more clearly.

In the spirit of spell-casting (and with a lot of hope and a little fear), I share now my desire to offer what I currently teach as college courses more widely—within and beyond higher education. I’d love to co-learn and co-teach publicly—with others committed to everyday living for justice. I’d love to share the contemplative practices, writing prompts, small-group exercises, sequenced assignments, readings, and other materials I’ve developed over the years. I’d LOVE to “go public” as a writer, educator, and activist.

I share these desires as I’m in the midst of teaching two courses this spring:  (1) Contemplative Writing and (2) Writing for Social justice.

English 3210 Spring 2018 Flyer Contemplative Writing

English 4210 Spring 2018 Flyer Writing for Social Justice

I’m also in the midst of developing a 40-day practice for a local church on strengthening emotional literacies to counter white supremacy. Increasingly, as I step in and out of classrooms and other teaching spaces, I’m thinking about how to make such learning experiences more widely available.

Toward this goal: in the coming months, I plan to expand Heart-Head-Hands.com to describe offerings. These might include in-person workshops, e-courses, retreats, consulting, or coaching. These likely will include more readings, resource lists, and suggested activities.

To move forward, I know I’ll need help. If you’re interested in sharing feedback or learning more, I’m interested in talking. Please reach out with requests or suggestions: bethgodbee@gmail.com. I appreciate any support in moving these desires into manifestations.

May speaking aloud and sharing these dreams help bring them into being. May this time of metamorphosis—of quiet transformation from caterpillar to butterfly—realize new possibilities. May new possibilities fuel inspired, committed action.


This post is written with courage, love, and a little fear by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For updates, please consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Listening for/to the “Strong YES”

In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about when and how I tune into my “strong YES” for decision-making. I find that I’m truer to myself when I’m following Marty Tribble’s guidance: “The absence of a strong YES is actually a no.” Reflecting on this advice is what led me to write “Using Your ‘Strong Yes’ to Guide Career Decisions” for Inside Higher Ed:

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.00.40 PM

I hope that this article helps others tap into the strong YES not only for navigating job searches and career decisions, but also for everyday decision-making and living for justice. I share in this article five strategies for finding the strong YES:

1. Follow the deeper breath.
2. Check in with the heart, head, and hands.
3. Keep an emotion journal.
4. Look for signs in everyday life.
5. Look inward through guided meditation.

Each of these strategies asks us to prioritize embodied knowledge, inner knowing, and emotional literacies that we too-often downplay or discount, especially in higher education.

Each of these strategies asks us to unlearn ways of being-doing-living that keep us limited to less than our whole selves, less than fully human and messy.

Each of these strategies asks us to slow down through imperfect meditation and other contemplative practices so that we stop shutting out what hurts and instead get to know ourselves and our commitments with greater clarity.

Despite practicing these strategies, I still often act without checking in with my body, without intentionality, and instead with procedural efficiency. I’ve had several recent reminders—from dropping my phone to becoming sick—that I need to slow down and listen more carefully.

When I listen for/to my strong YES, I sometimes have to change plans. For example, recently I’ve sat on several blog posts, not sure if or when they’ll feel ready to share, and I’ve canceled several meetings, not sure if or when I’ll feel ready to have them.

Truly, listening for/to the strong YES is essential for de-routinizing dehumanization, yet it’s so hard to do because I love routines, even when they undermine well-being. Similarly, the strong YES is essential for countering the lies of internalized inferiority and superiority, yet I’m so attached to these lies that I resist letting go. Noticing routines and resistance helps me shift toward more careful, mindful listening.

Toward better listening, I am starting today a daily practice of yoga nidra that I hope will help me stay truer to myself and my commitments. As I work to align with my strong YES, I hope you’ll join me in asking:

  • How can I release the “shoulds” that inadvertently direct my days?
  • How can I notice (and be kinder to myself when I notice) that I’m acting without intention?
  • How can I better align my everyday living with my hopes and commitments?


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Imperfect Meditation and the Desire to ‘Slow Way Down’” and “Reframing ‘Independence Day’ as a Day for Truth-Telling and Committing to Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Revealing the Cultural Patterns of Rape Culture

It’s been a few weeks since the #metoo hashtag prompted discussion about the widespread and systemic nature of sexual violence. As I’ve shared stories and listened to others’, I’ve been struck by frequent questioning: “Does ______ really count as sexual harassment or assault?” And that question has led me to consider the many moments of sexual intimidation that aren’t harassment or assault per se, but constitute violence and are part of rape culture nonetheless.

Here are a few examples from my life as a professor interacting with undergraduate men:

  • A student waits until everyone has left the classroom to confront me about his grade, raising his voice and moving closer until he’s towering over me.
  • A pattern emerges in which at least seven students (all men) walk into my faculty office and shut the door (only for me to re-open it), making me aware of the tension that arises in my body from their assumed control of space and uninvited move toward intimacy.
  • A student enters an otherwise empty elevator and stands in front of me, blocking both the exit and the keypad for selecting floors. My body stiffens up so that I wait until he’s left the elevator before moving forward to the keypad and pressing the button for my office floor.
  • A student brings his friend (another man) to his writing conference late in the evening when the department is empty. This friend sits outside my office, essentially guarding the hallway.

Whether intentional or not, intimidation operates in moments like these because they play into larger understandings of agency, ownership, intimacy, and control of physical space. They obstruct efforts to maintain distance, to meet in public, to plan exit routes, and so on.

While none of these experiences constitute sexual harassment or assault, they show how presumed ownership of space communicates domination. They show how rape culture, which is based in domination, operates in classrooms, offices, elevators, hallways, and other spaces. They also show how no one is immune: even the professor who holds institutional power can be intimidated and over-powered.

rape-culture-pyramid
Rape culture is rooted sexism, heterosexism, and other interlocking systems of oppression, which we see reflected in attitudes, inequities, and everyday realities. Source: http://www.11thprincipleconsent.org/consent-propaganda/rape-culture-pyramid/.

I share these moments with the hope that we might better understand rape culture as a cultural phenomenon that is constructed and performed in everyday interactions. Moments like these aren’t ones I report to our Title IX coordinator, but they are ones that stack up the longer I’m in higher education. They are moments that come to mind when I think about how gender-based intimidation and invalidation—like other microaggressions—play out in many seemingly small yet consequential ways.

I share these moments, too, because they’ve become memories that sit alongside those of harassment, assault, and other sexual violence. When I think of my own stories and those shared by others, I see how moments like these are part of larger narratives of rape culture, or a culture that perpetuates deep injustice through sexism and heterosexism, including the objectification and exploitation of women’s and marginalized peoples’ bodies. Truly, such everyday moments make up the larger culture and have cumulative impact. They erode trust, provoke fear, and increase inequitable demands for emotional labor, among other matters.

I also share these moments because they reveal patterns—like the pattern I noticed of men shutting the office door. Just as there’s potential in looking for themes and outliers for everyday divination, there’s potential in identifying patterns of sexual intimidation and other violence. Identifying patterns allows us to better witness, name, and intervene into injustice. And the patterns supporting rape culture desperately need intervention.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence” or “Microaggressions Matter.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books

There’s a story that I’ve told for years, a story that represents my early disappointment and dislike of school.

In kindergarten, I was assigned to color a bird brown, but I thought brown was too typical. I’d been reading Zoo Books and learning about parakeets, toucans, and other birds at home. I knew birds could be practically any color or any combination of colors. I decided, therefore, to use my creativity, knowledge, and the tools (crayons) available to me to create a colorful bird.

A few days later, I received my teacher’s response: a frown face at the top of the coloring assignment. I had failed to follow instructions, and following instructions was what mattered in school.

I was crushed that my teacher didn’t like my imaginative attempt at art. I was sad, then discouraged, and finally angry. In the years that followed, I felt largely disconnected from school, stubbornly refusing to do assignments if I couldn’t see their value. I’d sit still with arms folded, embodying the stubbornness of a bull (yep, I’m a Taurus). Instead of learning to follow instructions, I learned to question schooling.

The stubbornness and questioning have largely served me well, especially as I’ve become invested in unlearning inequity, injustice, and social conditioning that we’re taught in and out of school. If I’d been too attached to school or too invested in following instructions, I might not have spent time analyzing what felt or appeared unfair. And I had a lot of time to reflect while not doing assignments.

Recently and randomly, I felt called to coloring again. I ordered a coloring book of forest trails, extending my love of hiking into art and looking again to tread another path. When the book arrived, I opened it to the first page and began adding color to birds on a branch:

2017-09-18 09.17.12

It wasn’t until I’d colored birds yellow, blue, and purple that I realized I was recreating this early childhood memory. I was choosing colors based on intuition and inhibition. I was creatively following my own path, calling back my early identity as an artist.

I share this story because it’s got me thinking about the power of recreating, re-enacting, and ultimately rewriting early experiences. Rather than being trapped in old narratives, it’s possible to remember and revise them. Now, when I’m adding color to each bird, I’m seeing myself as an artist with power, as an artist whose intuition can contribute to personal and collective healing.

As a child, I wanted my artwork to bring joy, and I was sure that colorful birds could do that. Then the teacher’s frown face communicated the opposite: her dislike and disappointment with the work. It’s taken me years to sort out her response from mine and to appreciate—deeply value and feel gratitude for—the disconnection I felt with school.

Now I can see that early school experiences rooted in me the courage and conviction to stand TALL for justice. They helped me question authority and value self-determination. They fueled my desire to be an educator, but one who’s never quite comfortable in school. They allowed me to understand ageism and were surely the origin of my alignment with ecofeminism.

Rather than swinging from one extreme (following instructions) to the other (resisting assignments), I’m wondering what it might mean to value the wisdom and reclaim the power from these early childhood experiences. I’m wondering how I’m recreating these early experiences and the stories I tell about them as I keep coloring bird by bird. I’m wondering how this work of reflecting on the past helps with articulating and acting on commitments. And I’m wondering how the adult/teacher self might be more accountable to the kindergarten/student self and to all selves looking for their artist + activist efforts to be nourished.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!” or “Disrupting the Mind-Body Split.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!