With injustice out of hiding, we not only need to do something to stop it. We need to do the hard work of healing.
As a first generation Iranian-American, I’m one among many people these days who wonders if the course of my existence would have been possible under a Trump regime. Would my parents, new adults during the Iran hostage crisis, have been able to come study in the United States? Would they have ever met in a boarding house in D.C. for international students? Would boarding houses like the one where they met be seen as safe harbors for terrorist activity? When my grandmother went through immigration at Dulles airport, would she have been turned away? After all, she practiced “namaz” a few times a day, putting a soft chador on her head and laying out her prayer rug in a ritual that brought her great peace. Would we have lived a world apart, instead of minutes from each other? Could she have brought that warm, quiet peace into my life, taking care of me when I was little and sick and my mom had to go to work? Would I even have been born?
Trump will lose this election. There are many of us with eyes glued to the calendar, counting down to Trump’s sound defeat, waiting for the results of a referendum on our basic decency as a people. But however much of a blowout takes place, we can’t unknow that hundreds of thousands of voters love Trump precisely for the violence he has incited, for the fear he has stirred in our hearts and in our communities. We can’t unthink the what-ifs: mass deportations, Muslim bans, nuclear aggression. Can we really put this imagined world to rest on Election Day?
Trump’s campaign is just one snapshot among many revealing the true condition of our country right now. There is the nauseating repetition of videos documenting the killing of black men. The photos of Water Protectors being mauled by dogs for protecting sacred lands. The stories of rape survivors exposing the dehumanizing treatment of institutions meant to protect them. Joyful Latinx youth being murdered. The grim realities we’ve all pushed to the back of our heads can no longer be ignored. With injustice out of hiding, we not only need to do something to stop it. We need to do the hard work of healing.
For centuries, groups who couldn’t hide from these truths, whose very survival depended on absorbing them, have cultivated a rich arsenal of tools to process trauma, support each other, and exist under the constant threat of violence. Freedom songs, intergenerational storytelling, and indigenous medicine ground modern healing practices which have helped many to make sense of violence and inhumanity infiltrating our news feeds and our lives. I’m thinking of peace circles used to create community accountability around interpersonal violence, healing camps springing up to support anti-DAPL protesters, community trauma clinics, literature about how to process endless footage of police shootings, students’ guides to caring for oneself when protesting campus sexual assault, organizing conferences that intentionally pursue spaces for healing, radical self-care tips from queer women of color, worker-owned healing collectives, and most recently, tips for survivors of rape during this election cycle.
I’m thinking more specifically of the caregiver who worked a full night shift and then went straight to a support group meeting to care for herself and her sisters, the anti-rape activist who sought therapy to deal with job-induced nightmares, and the chronically overworked organizer who finally chose to put her health before her job. The need for this inner work has been packaged in different terms, “self-care,” “community care,” or “healing justice.” Each has its own nuances, a distinct framework, and legitimate critiques, but all are premised on the fundamental notion that without acknowledging the wholeness of our human experience, the ways in which our work, our life, and the lives of others us map onto each other, we repress the depth and magnitude of the trauma all around us. In doing so, we feel unmoored in moments where an event, a video, a tweet, or a photo shakes us out of our stupor and awakens us not only to the terrible things we knew were probably true, but to the ways in which we have numbed ourselves to their significance.
Our conversation circles back on itself, however, when we think about the political context in which healing work finds itself. Healing is under attack from all sides. For Trump supporters, the public mention of healing is an unbearable product of political correctness and hypersensitivity. Healing is nothing but a brake on American greatness. If people cannot handle violence and trauma, they “don’t belong in the workforce.” But healing is not only seen as a threat by the far right. The work of healing is also under heavy attack from those purporting to defend intellectual liberalism. This is in large part due to the ill-coined term “safe space” on college campuses, which proponents of academic freedom have depicted as a mythical space where all-powerful students have banned professors from mentioning difficult topics. When framed in the context of healing work, a “safe space” stands in for the project of creating deeply critical but emotionally connected spaces where people can digest trauma, not avoid it.
There are also attacks on the far left, where some see healing work as distracting “identity politics,” detached from the real fight of dismantling the material conditions which oppress all of us.
Ironically, the thread that weaves through these critiques is one of selfishness—if people of color did not have such hostility toward white folks, women were less histrionic, Marxists were more disciplined in their thinking, and students would stop being such teacups, maybe we’d be able to get to the “real work” of making progress—whatever that looks like from where you’re standing. But this is why healing is a political act—it’s about claiming space to say, “Violence has occurred and I want to talk about how it affects me. I want to think about how those effects sit in relation to the pain and loss that you feel.” It’s through sharing pain that we come together, that we break through the oblivion that is not only devastating to social justice work, but catches us blindsided with every new video, news clip, and policy designed to erase us and those we care about.
It’s not just enough to have healing spaces. And it’s not even enough to acknowledge their vitality to advancing social justice work. We must see healing as a part of our political agenda, not just doing it, but protecting it. Healing from an act of injustice cannot undo harm, but processing the pain means it doesn’t sit with us, holding us back as it was intended to do. And that’s why healing is most essential to those who are disproportionately harmed in our communities. Women make up 91% of rape and assault victims, young black men are 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to get shot by the police, and LGBT folks are 41 times more likely to be victims of hate crimes than straight, cisgender white people. So when healing is dismissed as selfish, distracting, or divisive, we need to hold space for people who need it the most, remembering that taking the time to rest and recover from injury is considered healthy for any experience but theirs. The fact that violence against some communities is normalized does not obviate the need for healing, nor does the work of healing make these communities weak.
What does this work look like? The guides, conference spaces, and articles are a start. Staking ground in discussions about political correctness, academic freedom, identity politics, and other discourses that routinely dismiss the importance of healing is hard, thankless work. But the potential of healing spaces to transform our communities is too powerful to ignore, so we need to participate in these discussions, making the case for healing despite heavy attack from all sides.
Most importantly, we need to keep building these spaces. We need peace circles, support groups, virtual communities, yes, “safe spaces.” Not spaces where harm can’t befall us, but where we can talk about harm together and share strategies for resisting its long term effects. We need to fight for these spaces, in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our political movements. We need resources for these spaces, and we need them to stop being a secret, and start being central, to a transformative political agenda.
When we stop talking about our pain, we stop knowing each other. And knowing each other is the only thing that grounds us when we learn that there are those in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces who’d rather we not exist. Who’d rather my parents never left their home country, that my grandmother never entered my life. Maybe even would prefer that I was never born.
So when the ballots have been counted, and Trump’s name slowly fades from the headlines, we need to come together and have the hard conversations. We need to tell each other the nightmares we had, the dark thoughts we pondered over, the hypotheticals we pushed out of our minds as the possibility of a Trump presidency receded. We need to consider whether or not we personally would have survived in the future that Trump imagined for America. We need to process the trauma we’ve gone through together this election season. Even more, we must build on the healing strategies that have been quietly preserved for us by our predecessors, whose trauma predated Trump by generations. This is an opportunity we cannot ignore. Even if we’d like to, we cannot just forget this ever happened.
Sheerine Alemzadeh is an attorney and expert on the intersection of labor inequality and gender-based violence issues. She is a co-founder of the Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence.
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