Racial Trauma: The Blessing & Cost of Resilience

In this week’s episode of the Allender Center Podcast, Linda Royster and Wendell Moss lead a profound discussion on the intricate dynamics of trauma, resilience, and the transformative role of community healing, particularly in the context of racial trauma.

They discuss the profound impact of both personal and collective trauma, recognizing its reverberations across communities. They highlight the importance of not just surviving, but actively processing and learning from one’s experiences. Conversely, they discuss how unhealthier forms of resilience, such as avoidance or denial of one’s trauma, may actually impede the healing process.

A poignant theme emerges as they emphasize the significance of facing one’s story with courage and vulnerability, rather than turning away from it. They point out that resilience is not merely surviving but actively engaging with one’s narrative and inviting others into that process.


Listener Resources:

  • Linda cites Healing the Hurt: Trauma-informed Approaches to the Health of Boys and Young Men of Color, published by Drexel University. You can find that resource here.
  • Request the free Racial Trauma & Healing video series with Linda Royster, Wendell Moss, and Sam Lee to learn about the impacts of trauma, how trauma affects not only the individual but the collective, and how you can move toward healing to step into who God has called you to be.


Episode Transcript:

Linda: Welcome back to the Allender Center Podcast. I am Linda Royster, guest hosting for Rachael Clinton Chen and Dan Allender. And I have with me as a guest today in this conversation Wendell Moss. Welcome Wendell.

Wendell: Thank you. Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Linda: Absolutely. So Wendell, tell us a little bit about who you are. I know your voice on this space is familiar, but for those who aren’t as familiar with who you are and what you do, tell us a little bit about who you are.

Wendell: Yeah, Wendell Moss, I’m one of the founders and teaching staff, here at the Allender Center. I also am an instructor at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology as an instructor for the Social and Cultural Diversities class. And I’m also a therapist in private practice and I have currently have let people talk me to starting a doctoral degree. So that’s kind of me right now.

Linda: That’s awesome. That’s such exciting, exciting new season of life to be in your PhD program, moving toward earning your PhD, how exciting that work must be for you. Probably exhausting, but also exciting.

Wendell: But it’s really fun. It’s really fun because it’s allowing me to dig in deeper, to invest more into what we’re talking about.

Linda: Absolutely. Absolutely. So part of what feels common to who we are and the work that we do is that we actually met at The Seattle School and became part of the Allender Center and we’ve worked together for many, many years now doing this work around trauma and abuse. And that’s part of our conversation today. We’re going to start off by talking about trauma and then transition into our understanding of what it is to be resilient and how we live out our resiliency. That’s going to be a kind of broad stroke of how we frame our conversation today. And I am very much aware, and I know that this would ring true for you as well, Wendell, is that we all have trauma, whether it’s capital T trauma or whether it’s lowercase t trauma. We all have it. And I like this definition that I found with this report produced some years ago called Healing the Hurt: Trauma-informed Approaches to the Health of Boys and Young Men of Color. But in that report they define trauma as “experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing and that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope” and they go on to it as chronic adversity like discrimination, oppression, poverty, racism as those key points that really define with more particularity trauma. How does that land with you, this definition of trauma?

Wendell: Yeah, Linda, it’s interesting. When I think about my story, I can’t say I always had the word trauma as part of my vocabulary to describe me or my story. So I think when I initially thought about trauma, it was something that was really kind of by somebody else. I really didn’t consider myself traumatized because to consider myself traumatized, almost to have been almost said, I let something get to me that I shouldn’t. So it was actually really hard, Linda, to name my trauma. But when I came to really understand and engage in my story, it really hit me. Man, I had to finally come to name that I’d experienced trauma and to finally name trauma, it actually was freeing to be able to say, man, I know trauma, especially I love the definition. Because when I thought about my story, my story felt overwhelming. It felt too big, it felt too big for me to engage alone. So I’ve had to kind experience a shift in my thinking when it’s come to time about trauma.

Linda: So part of what I’m hearing you say is that early on in your work around story and identifying areas of your life where you experienced trauma is that in order to cause something trauma, it was actually moving up against your sense of identity and how you had come to know yourself as a man, as an African-American man, as a man in your particular community. So it was sort of bumping up against how you understood yourself that you toughen up and bare it.

Wendell: Yes, it was bumping up against a lot, especially masculinity and Blackness It was because again, it wasn’t a framework that I understood and from what I knew of it, it was actually shame.

Linda: It was shameful to have experienced something that was overwhelming that you could not bounce back from or you felt like you could not manage, that felt overwhelming. That was shameful.

Wendell: That’s well said, Linda. I couldn’t bounce back from you couldn’t say it that because I think where I come from, the whole I need to train being able to bounce.

Linda: That sounds really compassionate and kind to be able to say that that’s how we had to be. That’s how our people had to navigate the world. Rather than saying, oh, I hate that part of myself, or I hate that aspect of my community to say, oh my, this is how we had to survive by stuffing or tamping down the effects of trauma and just moving through the day, the next day, getting through, getting by. So rather than turning with kind of contempt, there is, I hear in your voice so much compassion, so much generosity to say, and that’s what they had to do. That’s how they had to be

Wendell: Yeah. And just state that there’s, on one hand I do, I know that I stand on strong shoulders historically, my people that have known trauma before me and have learned with resilience and made it.

Linda: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I feel that as an African-American woman, and one thing that I know, we all know it’s true that trauma is not bound to race, class, culture, age, abilities, that trauma in one form or another affects all of our lives. Capital T or lowercase t trauma affects all of our lives. But you’re speaking to a context that I can identify with as an African-American woman who has experienced trauma that’s both personal and collective trauma that has happened to me, my life that I’ve absorbed in my own being, but also trauma that’s been passed down from one generation to another. Trauma that’s not only happened to me personally, but trauma that’s happened to my collective. But I feel the impact and the fallout of that trauma. So I can certainly identify with what you’re saying, and I think there have been moments when I’ve not been as compassionate or kind to myself regarding stories of trauma. Why am I this way and why can’t I be more of this person or live life in this way? So there have been seasons where I’ve not been as kind and compassionate and understanding, of course, I would respond this particular way or of course my community would respond in this particular way given the layers of trauma that we’ve lived with.

Wendell: Just the idea of having compassion on it, it’s a humbling process to come to. Of course your body couldn’t handle all that was coming. Of course, even when you talk about collective trauma, there is no way that your people, your folk, that their bodies would not bear suffering in response to what happened before her. So of course, your body is going to hold that and I think it does take a compassion to be able to, it’s not a sense of weakness, of course.

Linda: Yeah. That’s in one sense kind of the nature of trauma and abuse, whether it’s a person who is abusing or traumatizing or system or collective that’s bringing trauma or enacting abuse, it’s kind of the mode of operation for that traumatic presence or that traumatizing presence or entity to say, and it’s your fault that you’re responding this thing happened, but it’s your fault. It’s either your fault that it happened or why are you responding this way? Get over it, get past it, just move on from it. Why are you, and fill in the blank there. But that seems to be the mode of operation for those people, individuals or systems that traumatized to say, yeah, this thing happened, but get over it. Or even to deny that whatever it is happened, what’s wrong with you? Why are you acting this way?

Wendell: And which you put words to deny or to not address it. It actually hurts us. It actually sets us up for more trauma. And in some ways, for me to deny it is for me to not address it. And now we’re talking about how do we reenact trauma that’s happened to us.

Linda: The trauma that goes unaddressed

Wendell: If it doesn’t get addressed again. And that’s the hard part. There’s a piece where it feels like, oh wow, there’s a sense of resilience, but there’s also so, okay, if it goes unaddressed, what does it costing and how is that going to affect how to ourselves, our families, how is it going to affect us overall?

Linda: So that sounds like the double impact of trauma, the event or the circumstance itself, that’s overwhelming. And then if it goes unaddressed, that’s the second wave of impact that this overwhelming thing has happened. But there is no place, there’s no opportunity, there’s no one to mitigate or help mitigate the impact of the trauma or to help you make sense of it. So if it goes unaddressed, it’s like that second wave of the impact of the trauma and how it just keeps playing out over and over and over.

Wendell: One thing we also know about trauma, and I’ve never forgotten this phrase that we’ve talked about it many times, but the fact that that trauma is often in the eye of the beholder because you and I, our stories are different and because of our context, there are times where, what they feel traumatizing to you may not feel traumatizing to me and vice versa. So that’s also what we have to talk about when it comes to trauma. Trauma is not a one size fit all, and with that we could both experience try the same thing but responded. So trauma, there’s just so much complexity when it comes to talking about it.

Linda: Absolutely. And I think we can go down, we can go down a trail as we talk about that reality, that it’s so much of not having anyone or anything to help mitigate the impact of an overwhelming experience that will help determine if it’s traumatic or not. And so it is unique for many of us, and there are some things that are traumatic through and through trauma is trauma is trauma. We can say on the one hand there are some things that regardless of the body, the age, the region, the season will be trauma. And then there are some things that most certainly what we experience it and depending on who we are, where we are in our circumstances, we will see, perceive it, experience it as traumatic or not. But I appreciate your highlighting that reality that it often depends on the individual and the systems that we have around us to help us make sense of what has happened to us.

Wendell: Yes, yes. I think that’s where I love where you also and there is a reality where from a collective trauma where it’s touched everyone.

Linda: Yeah. And as we’ve been talking about trauma, the reality is that the very nature of trauma, in other words, this overwhelming experience or circumstance that it’s made it almost impossible for us to cope. As a result that happens. The very nature of trauma happens in a way that’s juxtaposed to shalom. In other words, it’s juxtaposed to this way of being a living where we’re meant to feel wellness, where we’re meant to feel wholeness and goodness, kind of how a soundness of heart and mind where we’re not only well, but our collective is well, and even those beyond our collective, there is a collective sense that we are leaning into each other on each other’s behalf to make sure that we’re living the life that in other words, the kingdom of God is being lived out in our lives mutually and reciprocally in beneficial ways. It’s both personal and collective. And so when I think about trauma, trauma is juxtaposed to what we were made for.

Wendell: Yes. And I think what sticks out to me, because I think the ramifications of what you’re saying is trauma often will not be dealt with. From my standpoint, I want to be good. I’ll be all right. I got this, you know, that’s toxic masculinity, you name it. But reality was I needed a lot of folk. I needed other people to help me. It was not done in isolation because trauma often we don’t experience trauma often in isolation, so often healing won’t come in isolation.

Linda: Yeah, I love that you’re highlighting that reality is that more often than not, and I would venture to say that it’s probably 99.99% of the time that our healing is meant to happen in community. Whether that community is two other people or 20 other people, that our healing is meant to happen in the collective. We were born for the collective, we were born for community. And so that it makes sense that our healing from the disruption, our healing from that thing that threw a wrench in our lives that created all kinds of overwhelm and chaos, that in order to recover from that, we’re going to require something. We’re going to need something beyond ourselves in order to recover from a traumatic experience.

Wendell: And it backs up something, Linda, that you, I’ve heard you say, and just always just great. If the collectives, if those around in that experience in Shalom then I am not in Shalom. So just that whole idea of collective, so that sense that trauma is impacting my people or trauma is still impacting, then if we’re talking from a Shalom standpoint, then I need to be engaged in the trauma with them as well. So I love when you have needed connection with us.

Linda: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. I think what just came to mind in response to what you just named is the sense that absolutely our Shalom is not only meant for us individually or personally, it’s meant for the collective. And in order for us to recover, then it is the same kind of reality. Our recovery will require a collective involvement in our moving toward healing. And that our trauma, when it happens to us personally, it is not only personally our trauma is also happening in the collective. Even though it may have happened to my body, may have happened to me emotionally, psychologically. It also ripples out into the community. So just as we’re meant for Shalom, not only personally and individually, we’re meant for it to experience it in the collective. The opposite also is true that when we experience trauma, it also has an effect and a rippling effect into our community, whatever that community might look like. And so in some ways, our healing, we can’t escape the fact that we need other people, whether we want to embrace it or not. We can’t escape the reality that we need other people. And that can feel so terrifying, especially when we think about the harm that’s come to us. If it’s come to us through what we thought was a sacred relationship and the kind of betrayal then that we experienced and what we thought was a sacred relationship maybe with a parent or a relative or beloved friend or someone with trusted in the community. When that betrayal happens, that trust is broken. I can see how it makes trusting community in our healing process all the more terrifying.

Wendell: Again, it’s this two sides like, oh man, you need community and there’s a price for isolation and not trusting while at the same time your trusting makes sense. So I love that you point that out.

Linda: Thank you for that. Where you start makes sense in that healing process. And so let’s shift a little bit as we’ve talked about trauma as we’ve talked about Shalom, which is what we’re made for, and then that thing happens to us to try and disrupt, in our language at the Allender Center, we say Shalom shattered. So there’s those life circumstances that happen that feel overwhelming, that kind of feel like they are shattering of a sort to our sense of our identity to our bodies, to our psyche. We have different ways of responding to trauma as we’ve mentioned. And some of what I’ve noticed in my community is how we respond to trauma through our interpretation of what it means to be resilient. Now, I know that all communities, not just communities of color, not just BIPOC communities have developed this way of being resilient, but all communities have their unique ways of finding a way to move through the trauma that they’ve experienced. So let’s talk about a little bit about what you understand resiliency to mean. What does it mean for you to think about how you’ve been resilient or how you were resilient in response to the traumatic things that you experienced? What’s healthy, what’s unhealthy?

Wendell: Yeah, you know Linda, one of the things that I had to work with my own story was – know the difference between what it was is just kind of be in denial, be denial, act like something didn’t happen, act like it didn’t impact me, and kind of move forward, kind of been almost in dissociative way where I’m just not acknowledging what’s real and that’s how I’m making it. And I know at some point that would’ve been resilience to me. Now there’s something about moving forward and being able to press through that always has a resilient element. So I think that needs to be clear. But I think when I think about resilience, resilience was first of all, there’s nothing linear about, not that I had everything together, not that I understood everything, but the fact that I was able to acknowledge that something and that I had been impacted and I was able to say that I was traumatized and that I was able to let my community encourage me. And I was able to borrow, if you will, from my community. And I was able to feel the trauma at the same time. Got to stand up on my feet essentially. There’s a picture right behind me I’m kind of pointing at, and that’s a picture of somebody who has shackles and his knees are buckled, but there’s, he’s also breaking, but they’re buckled, breaking chain put the knees are buckled. So there’s something about resilience that holds, and I’m still hurt, but I’m still moving. I’m still dealing with it, but I’m still moving. And I might get hit by the very thing again, most probably, but you know what? It may hurt. I may limp, but I’ll move and my legs will get strong. So that’s all what comes up.

Linda: Yeah, that’s such a powerful picture that you are describing of someone in chains who’s breaking his chains while his knees are buckled. That’s such a powerful picture that you’re describing of what it means to be resilient, that it’s antithetical to this idea of strength and unbending knees and kind of like this unbroken will if you will, to survive and to move on. So like powering up, pulling yourself up and through, determining to not be taken out by the harmful, horrific things that you’ve experienced. But what you’re describing is saying there can be movement, there can even be movement with the limp. And even that kind of show or that demonstration of moving forward, even with the limp, is a demonstration of a more healthy idea of what it is to be resilient or to possess, if you will, a kind of resiliency.

Wendell: We have seen our black grandparents and tell the story.

Linda: Yeah. Absolutely.

Wendell: We have heard them set us out and say, listen, baby. Let me tell you where I’ve been. We’ve heard their stories and we have seen them learn, and yet they care of grandchildren.

Linda: Absolutely. And we’ve seen some of our parents, grandparents, our ancestors, we’ve seen them suppress some of their trauma. We’ve seen them live life without putting words to you, some of the horrific things that they’ve lived through. And it’s not just African-American folk, it’s not just BIPOC communities, but there are people who are not part of BIPOC communities who would identify as white, who’ve had traumas that they’ve responded to or their ancestors have responded to by powering up and not showing any sign of weakness of vulnerability to stiffen up. And there’s tremendous loss in that. It’s a loss of compassion, a loss of tenderness, a loss of what it means to be more fully human. It’s when we try and power up in response to something traumatic or overwhelming to say, we’ve got to get through it. And sometimes it was necessary because there was no one to help mitigate the trauma and help us make sense of it. So our initial response was to respond with a kind of resiliency that says, I’m going to power up and I’m going to get through this no matter what. Just kind of balling up our fists and determining to survive. I hold deep gratitude for my ancestors, my grandparents, my parents, my own heart, my own life for in response to what we needed to do in order to live another day. And at the same time, there is such a call toward more, a call toward being more fully who we are meant to be. And part of being more fully who we’re meant to be in response to trauma and being resilient in its healthiest form is being able to withstand or recover from a difficult circumstance or difficult condition. Being able to recoil or spring back into shape after, listen to this, after bending, stretching, or being compressed. I mean, that’s a commonly known definition of what it is to be resilient. But if we can think about it in our human experience, this ability to recoil or bounce back or spring back into shape after being bent, stretched or compressed.

Wendell: Yeah, that feels like that’s the picture.

Linda: It’s that picture

Wendell: Behind me and Linda. I think there’s something too, what gets really kind of hard in this, when you’re talking about resilience, because I know there’s something where when I walk with people, even when we walk with people who experience resilience a lot, I mean they’ve had to, like you said, they’ve had to survive and then to say, you know what? And you’re not done growing ever. You’re not done because hopefully resilience opens the door to more growth. And it says you can let it says you can grow. It says you can move forward. I mean, that’s what you kind of get into the whole idea of post-traumatic growth. Resilience, it feels like a process in itself.

Linda: I hear that. I hear that. I am thinking back to something I’ve heard you teach regarding being resilient and you said said, engaging trauma, learning from it and then overcoming a hard or traumatic experience is in part what it means to be resilient, engaging the trauma, learning from it and then moving toward overcoming something that’s hard or traumatic is part of what it means to live with resiliency.

Wendell: Yeah. I love it. This idea of overcoming,

Linda: It’s in the midst of struggle. It’s in the midst of living, living with a kind of vulnerability that says actually, I can actually turn toward my story And actually move toward getting on ground level regarding my story that I don’t have to be frightened by it. I don’t have to turn away from it. But actually living with resiliency and being resilient is that I can actually turn my face to look. And not only can I turn my face to look, but then I can invite others in to look at this story that might be horrific. But then I can look at this story in sacred community to say, this is what happened. So there are others there who are then bearing witness to our story, a phrase that I’ve heard Rachael Clinton Chen use years ago, bear to others, to bear witness to what we’ve gone through. And so even in that process of turning and looking, inviting others into the story and then doing that work in a collective reality, a sacred collective reality is in fact an expression of what it is to be resilient. It’s not necessarily toughening up. So false resiliency or expressing false resiliency is essentially having to, feeling that pressure that you’ve got to overcome without engaging the impact and you’ve got to do it quickly, or it’s putting our needs behind others and putting our needs on the back burner, focusing on other people, putting other people before us. But we use that as a kind of shield and a way to avoid having to look at our own need and our own stories of harm. False resiliency also shows up as that inability to name what’s truly happening around us. So it kind of blocks us from grief. I’ve heard you teach about lament. We’ve not yet talked about that. So it blocks, it can block us. False resiliency can block us from grief and from entering into lament. And it also, false resiliency says that grieving is weakness, that we’ve got to do this by ourselves, but we’re inviting people to think about resiliency differently, not expressing it through a false idea of what it is to be resilient, but we’re inviting people to think about what does it mean to live into your story when you feel like you’ve been bent, stretched and compressed? What does it then mean to live into community, to look at yourself, to look at your story and invite others to bear witness to your story also.

Wendell: I think two things that fill mind. One, choosing to be able to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing the truth. And to be able to do it both in your own body by yourself, and also do it in the midst of community and I always talk about Jesus had expressions of it.

Linda: Say more about that. What do you mean?

Wendell: Yeah. I mean, Jesus didn’t want to take the cup. He told the Father he didn’t want to take the cup, take it away from me. Jesus did not want to go through at all. And yet there was a sense of him being honest about that, which I believe hold both. This is both suffering, but I can also focus on what’s to come. You said it so well, Linda, I learned this recently you lot that the gospel’s a trauma story. That the gospel is a trauma story. Jesus was in trauma.

Linda: Absolutely.

Wendell: You’ve taught that so well. And so therefore, if that’s true, then of course Jesus had experienced a resilience where he had to tell the truth and he had to acknowledge the suffer being apart from the Father of the cross as he screamed Abba, why has thou forsaken me. And to follow through with the death on the cross and come back and ascension, what a picture of resilience. It’s not that had to engaged resilience as a believer.

Linda: Yeah. When you think about the story of Jesus from birth to his death and resurrection and all the iterations of what he went through, the story of classism and racism, the story of his attempted infanticide. People wanted to kill him as a baby. His experience of homelessness, his experiences as being an immigrant or a refugee, the experience of betrayal, profound betrayal, his abuses both physical and emotional, certainly psychological, but also his sexual abuse, which is hard for people to conceptualize. His incarceration and false imprisonment, the charges that were trumped up that were false, but powerful and illegitimate, guilty verdict. He experienced an execution by crucifixion and all of those things that we are just naming that, that is his story. And this story is the power of God unto salvation. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news? But we hear echoes of that in our own lives, in our own stories of places where we’ve experienced profound abuse, betrayal, incredibly overwhelming circumstances. But what I read in this part of what I read in this good news and the gospel story is that we have then the power to share our stories, even the painful parts, and we do it on behalf of others so that it leads to something of goodness for them and for us. Yes, that’s in part, I think, of what it means to be resilient. Not that we hide from our stories or have to power up, but that we can lean into our stories with all kinds of vulnerability and tenderness, and we can grieve and lament and sorrow feel the grief of what it’s been to be in our skins, that we can do that whether we’re part of a BIPOC community, whether we’re part of a white identifying community, that we all get to lean into what it means to have a healthy resiliency and not a false sense of what it is to be resilient. And so in light of what we are talking about today, I’m very much aware that there is a broad audience who might not be a part of the BIPOC community, but there are resources that we’ve created within the Allender Center that focuses on unique and nuanced ways that we can engage in story work for BIPOC communities. And one is we have what’s called our Racial Trauma and Healing Story Workshop that’s geared toward, designed by, and designed for folk who identify as being part of the BIPOC community. And this year we’re launching our first racial trauma and healing recovery week for BIPOC women. I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be happening in Pine Knoll Shores in North Carolina at the last part, the latter part of June of this year. So we’re excited about that. Then we have opportunities where we are inviting different communities to bring us to your community, bring us to your community so we can have a day, day and a half of these events that focus on nuancing this material to meet the needs of BIPOC community. So we would love to come to your communities and speak to your folk that you might have in your church communities, in your workspaces, in your friendship circles, who would identify as BIPOC folk. We would love to come do a community event where we get to talk through some of these concepts in a nuanced way that feels like it’s really relevant for who we are. So we are excited that we are building out our programming to reach a wider audience, and I am thankful that we have listeners here who can show up as allies. So even though you might not be one of the folks who will come to an event for a BIPOC community, if you know people who are part of a BIPOC community, that you can invite them and kind of create a situation that makes it easier for them to get to one of these programs or one of these events. So Wendell, thank you so much for joining me in this conversation today. You’ve been a long time faithful friend, and I’m excited about the work that you’re doing and your being in a PhD program and what you’re going to do in the world with the training, your ongoing training and expertise. So thank you. You are a gift. You’re a gift to the community, you’re a gift to the field and you’ve gifted. You’ve been a gift and friendship. So thank you.