This is a guest post from Alyssa Johnson as part of Lawline's Well-Being in Law Week. Browse 200+ diverse attorney well-being courses today. Not a Lawline member yet? Start a Free Trial during Well-Being in Law Week (May 1-5) to be automatically entered to win a free year of CLE.
A powerful way to develop greater well-being is through social well-being. Social well-being is “developing a sense of connection, belonging and a well-developed support network while also contributing to our groups and communities.”1 To develop connection, belonging, and a support network, we must spend time in introspection and become honest about who we are and what we need. It also means recognizing those parts of us that are wounded and need extra support. Deep connections can be developed in this vulnerable place, and support systems can be implemented as we take our next steps.
Part of our vulnerability includes admitting that we have unaddressed and unresolved trauma that's preventing us from having more profound connections with others. It means acknowledging that we don't have all the answers or skill sets to navigate complex dynamics that are going to be experienced in our Lives.
In this article on social well-being, I discuss how addressing the race-based trauma we hold as White people contributes to social well-being and builds more robust communities where people feel greater connection and belonging.
According to race literacy teacher Milagros Phillips, we all hold race-based trauma from White supremacy, but how we hold it in the body depends upon skin color because our relationship to supremacy differs based on skin color.2
As White people, we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that we are superior simply because of our skin color. For this reason, our race-based trauma is held in our bodies as supremacy.3 But many of us aren’t aware of the impact our race-based trauma has on us because the idea that we have race-based trauma has been suppressed by supremacy.
So, what exactly is trauma? The American Psychological Association states, "[t]rauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster."4 The body - and the mind - hold onto the trauma until it's moved through one's system and metabolized into a different feeling, sensation, or thought.
As a group consciousness, White people have never meaningfully addressed how racism affects our ability to connect with others or with ourselves. And so our trauma has been passed down from our ancestors without many of us slowing down and engaging in the healing that’s necessary for race-based trauma and essential to dismantling supremacy.
Our trauma shows up in our inability - or reluctance - to engage in race conversations. Take a moment and think about having a race conversation. As you think about the conversation, notice the feelings coming up for you. Depending on where you are in your race literacy journey, you may feel dread, anxiety, fear, or irritation. Or you may feel excitement, relief, or appreciation. Or perhaps other feelings.
Also, notice the sensations you experience in your body as you think about this conversation. Maybe your stomach feels unsettled, your mouth is dry, or your shoulders feel tight. Or perhaps you feel an expansion in your heart, notice your breath slowing down, or feel yourself becoming more centered.
There are no right or wrong feelings or sensations. Use the information you’re receiving from your body as a tool to identify your relationship to your race-based trauma.
Our unresolved race-based trauma prevents us from wanting to have a race conversation. In the beginning stages of addressing our trauma, we tend to have extensive anger, guilt, and shame. We may lash out at people of Color, we may shift the blame to them by saying it’s their fault that we have to do this inner work, we may cry, we may become defensive, we may try to exit the conversation by getting on our phones or leaving the room. These are all telltale signs that our race-based trauma is running the show. And the result is that these behaviors further harm people of Color.
It's critical that we move through our race-based trauma. We do this by educating ourselves on supremacy, going slowly through the material we're consuming, and giving ourselves time and space to process what's happening internally. This means being present with our feelings and noticing how our ability to engage with race materials changes over time. As we move through our trauma, we can consume more information without getting triggered. We'll also notice how our opinions on topics related to racism are different from those opinions of White people who aren't doing race literacy work. We start owning our role in upholding supremacy without feeling defensive, angry, guilty, or ashamed. And we speak up and take action against supremacy because we see to a much greater degree how much supremacy harms our world.
Think for a moment about your willingness to speak up against racism. How does it feel to you? Do you have fear? Are you afraid of getting it wrong? Or perhaps you're already vocal about racism, and it might be that you're figuring out how to deliver your message to a broader audience.
Suppose the thought of speaking up against racism makes you uneasy. In that case, you'll want to educate yourself on supremacy to learn what the facts are and the lies that supremacy spreads so that you can combat them when you inevitably come across them. You'll also want to spend time in introspection to discover why you don't want to speak up. You'll likely find many answers, including that you like your White privilege and are afraid of losing it. I've been on my race literacy journey since 2015, and I continually bump up against that fear and must work with it.
This brings me to the idea of a zero-sum game. Regarding supremacy, it's the idea that if a person of Color gains something, I, a White person, lose something. This false ideology is pushed by supremacy to keep our White anger, fear, and mistrust of people of Color high. Notice if you think this way yourself. Imagine a colleague of Color getting promoted over you. How do you feel? Do you believe that this person has taken what's rightfully yours? Do you think you'll never get what you deserve if your colleague receives the promotion?
This zero-sum game thinking is pervasive for White people, and supremacy encourages it because it creates divisiveness, which supremacy thrives on.
If you find yourself thinking this way (i.e., if a person of Color gets something, that means I, a White person, lose something), can you find other more expansive thoughts to turn to? For example, "My colleague of Color deserved that job even though I wanted it. Which means that another job is coming to me that's perfect for me." Can you shift your thinking to win-win-win situations rather than zero-sum thinking? Win-win-win thinking is essential for social well-being because it supports everyone in thriving and trusts that what's best for us will come to us.
When thinking about social well-being and dismantling supremacy, we want to consider the "curb-cut effect." Back in the '70s in Berkeley, California, Michael Pachovas and some friends "poured cement into the form of a crude ramp and rolled off into the night" in their wheelchairs.5 At that time, curb cuts weren't common, making it extremely difficult for those in wheelchairs to navigate sidewalks. That protest in Berkeley incited many more across the country. It helped pave the way for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which, among other things, mandated curb cuts.6
Over time people noticed that curb-cuts didn't just benefit those in wheelchairs. People with strollers used them, runners used them, and people with rolling luggage used them. The curb cuts, meant for those with physical disabilities, benefited everyone.7
Let's take that idea and apply it to dismantling supremacy. It becomes the idea that if we meet the needs of the most marginalized or oppressed and create a culture that allows them to thrive, everyone will benefit. According to Corporate Insights Into the CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity, “[w]hen we design the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully, everyone wins. Conversely, when we ignore the challenges faced by the most vulnerable among us, those challenges, magnified many times over, become a drag on economic growth, prosperity, and national well-being….”8
This is similar to the ABA Practice Forward Group’s conclusion about the legal profession. In 2020, 4200 ABA members were surveyed on several topics to see how they were faring during the pandemic. Respondents were asked about work stress due to race or ethnicity. 7% of White lawyers reported feeling stress at work because of their race. In comparison, 47% of lawyers of Color felt stress at work because of their race or ethnicity. The numbers were higher for women of Color. 54% of women of Color felt stress at work because of their race and gender versus White women (6%) and men of Color (41%). Based on these statistics (and others), the Practice Forward Group concluded that "too many members of the profession are working in settings that are not laser-focused on the necessary strategies to develop a truly diverse group of talented lawyers who reflect the breadth of backgrounds, training and experiences that lead to successful teams of lawyers."9
Social well-being includes a sense of connection and belonging. But this can be very hard, if not impossible, to achieve when our race-based trauma prevents us from having the courageous conversations necessary to create connecting and belonging communities.
When we address our race-based trauma, it opens doors for beautiful conversations and changes that can be made to create truly inclusive environments for all. Our goal as White people is "to get to the point where [we] can actually think about race - as a White person - without feeling defensive."10 The pathway to non-defensiveness is healing. And then we must be willing to create systems where everyone benefits.
As lawyers, we are extremely powerful and influential in our communities. As White lawyers, if we can do the inner work required to heal our race-based trauma and engage in meaningful race conversations that effect change, the results on a national and global level will be monumental. Let's have the courage and conviction to take those action steps.
Watch Any Course for Free
Start a no-risk free trial today to watch any Lawline On Demand course for free. Choose from over 1,800 courses, including attorney well-being, ethics, professional development and 40+ practice areas. No credit card required, no catch.
Alyssa Johnson, Esq., works with lawyers and legal organizations on topics related to lawyer well-being. This includes expanding emotional intelligence, the neuroscience of productivity, and aligning one's legal practice with their menstrual cycle. Alyssa is also passionate about dismantling supremacy within the legal profession. She works with The Opt-In™, a B Corp company that helps visionary leaders stay relevant through cultural strategy. The Opt-In focuses on building leaders' and organizations' race literacy and cultural competency skills through an integrated curriculum and coaching approach. You can learn more about Alyssa here.