"Right now, the normal narrative is that it’s great to be a white family, with two kids, a dog, and a picket fence. But not everybody has that, and not everybody is that."
Melissa Blount is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who works in Evanston and specializes mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and trauma. Melissa, her husband, Ben, and her 11-year-old daughter Safiya, moved to Evanston from Detroit in 2014, though she and her husband have lived in Chicago on and off over a long period.
I asked Melissa about trauma and the connection between trauma and violence.
Q: What is trauma?
A: Trauma is an event that happens to an individual who then experiences a sense of hopelessness or a lack of control over the situation. It could be anything from a natural disaster to emotional or physical abuse.
Q: What's the connection between trauma and violence, say in Evanston?
A: Violence is a symptom of trauma, but we all have to get on the same page as to what the trauma is that has occurred and why are we experiencing this symptom of violence.
Q: What, in your opinion, is that trauma?
A: I think it’s white supremacy. We talk about violence as a public health issue. We need to make white supremacy a public health issue. I’m not the first person to talk about it in these terms. Dr. Camara Jones talks about racism and white supremacy as a public health issue. And Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher back when Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, is famous for the brown eye/blue eye experiment, where she treated children in her all-white class with blue eyes as superior to the children with brown eyes so they could experience racism.
Q: How do you see turning it into a public heath issue?
A: When people think about white supremacy, they think about David Duke or the KKK--an ideology. But instead, it’s a social construct that's been designed to create a false sense of race and class in America, on which the country was founded, and which we don’t address. That’s what we can first begin to do: acknowledge these historical truths. We must get on the same page and use the same language to discuss the trauma of racism on us all, which would make it easier to build a framework to address it.
Q: If this could be done, how do you see it affecting violence?
A: In a perfect world, it would change our policies, it would change our education. Our history classes would tell the truth. I think white supremacy and the trauma we’ve experienced across the board has created, as Bryan Stevenson* calls it, a false narrative.
If we can address these false narratives, we could shift public policies. Right now, everything is concentrated on helping vulnerable communities, poor, disadvantaged, at-risk, broken, black and brown children get up to speed. Instead, we should come at it from the angle of here’s how we’ve all been traumatized, how we’ve been brainwashed to think that black and brown people are less-than. If we could shift that dynamic, we could address sexism, racism, and religious prejudice. Right now, the normal narrative is that it’s great to be a white family, with two kids, a dog, and a picket fence. But not everybody has that, and not everybody is that.
We have to change the paradigm, because we are treating these kids as though they’re problematic instead of the system being problematic. But they’re not the only problem. For example, if you asked universities to be honest about sexual abuse on campus, the face of danger would change to white males. The acts of mass shootings in this country are predominantly white males.
Q: Do you think white people are traumatized?
A: Yes. For example, they will say they want to live in a diverse community, but most of the wards white people choose to live in are almost entirely white. And they don’t think, ‘how is my life muted or diminished because I never look outside of this bubble?’
Q: How would you encourage people to get out of that bubble, especially if they’re happy to live in it?
A: People have to be intentional, and we have to tell people why it’s important. We just don’t have these discussions. That’s why we created MEET [Making Evanston Equitable Together]. I co-founded MEET to raise awareness regarding state violence against people of color across the nation, to highlight social justice issues here in Evanston, and how we as a community can work together using existing organizations and resources to ameliorate these social justice issues. We really just want people to meet and connect.
Part of what trauma does is cause a disengagement from life, a dissociation, a sense of hopelessness, a sense that the world is really dangerous, a hyper-vigilance. A lot of white people have an unnatural fear of black people that they don’t address. And I think black people are very disengaged for rightful and just reasons, and feel a sense of hopelessness when it comes to white people understanding and owning what’s historically happened to black communities. For example, right here in Evanston, how did the fifth ward get created? Most people don’t know or won’t admit that it was a socially constructed community. It was purposely designed to be limited and disadvantaged in order for the white community to prosper and grow.
Q: Can this message of addressing what you refer to as white supremacy really reach people?
A: I’m a pessimistic optimist, but we have to force the issue of how we language around it. I think white people can be conflict-avoidant. Again, this is where trauma comes in. Many white people are scared to address the real issue, because then what does that mean? They then need to ask, ‘what’s the work I have to do?’ And not everyone is ready to do the work or wants to do the work. Not everyone is conscious of what they feel or think. That’s where we get tripped up. If we start acknowledging trauma, we can be more compassionate to each other, more empathic, and move forward together.
Q: Do you think there’s a violence problem in Evanston?
A: Well, my reference points are Detroit and Chicago. So when I hear people talking about violence in Evanston, it doesn't register as an emergent issue. Yes, there have been violent incidents in Evanston, but it’s not a huge problem, it's contained, and it’s rarely random. Again, I see the issues within the framework of white supremacy, and violence as the symptom. The violence is a symptom of an under-resourced, deliberately deconstructed community by those in decision-making positions.
*Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, social justice activist, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a clinical professor at New York University School of Law. Stevenson has gained national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system.
Melissa Blount recommends these videos:
To watch a video about Dr. Jones discussing racism as a public health issue click here.
To watch a video about the blue eye/brown eye experiment, click here