Epigenetics and Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome
May 15, 2013 § 8 Comments
In the 20th century, it was common for white families in all parts of the United State to hire African American women as maids. Usually this job included taking care of children, sometimes actually raising them from infancy.
It is obvious that the presense of African American caretakers in the homes of whites would sociologically and psychologically transmit cultural and behavioral information between the caretaker and child. However, this impact may be deeper and more persistent than we have previously thought. The scientific theory of epigenisis hypothesizes that behaviors, actions and thoughts can trigger changes in the functioning of a gene without affecting the inherited qualities of the DNA genome.
This theory is contrary to Darwinian science, which concludes that our genetic structure is fixed—that we are born with an immutable set of genes. Epigentics expands the concept of evolution. Through epigenisis, genes are turned on or off, in part through compounds that hitch on top or jump off of DNA. It’s a little like hardware and software. DNA is the fixed hardware of the genome. Epigensis is like software. It tells the hardware what to do.
This theory has huge implications for us today and may explain why it is so difficult to have conversations about race and reconciliation between blacks and whites. This explanation is further explored by author and educator Dr. Joy Degruy.
Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Dr. Joy Degruy believes that prejudice is a function of the process of epigenetics. In her seminal work, Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, she explains that the imprints of slavery and the continued abuses suffered by African-Americans after emancipation have handicapped many blacks.
Dr. Degruy states that “The systematic dehumanization of African slaves was the initial trauma, and generations of their descendants have borne the scars. Since that time, Americans of all ethnic backgrounds have been inculcated and immersed in a fabricated (but effective) system of race ‘hierarchy,’ where light-skin privilege still dramatically affects the likelihood of succeeding in American society.”
Degruy also explains that many whites biologically carry their ancestors’ negative beliefs and perceptions about African-Americans. Likewise, African Americans carry ill-feelings, even hate, for whites, which have been passed down since slavery. Even unconsciously, blacks and whites pass down viserally and genetically the burdens of the past within their neurological patterns. These feelings create an impasse for healing and reconciliation.
The descendants of slave owners, in particular, carry the impacts of their ancestors’ systematic abuse of enslaved African-Americans. Knowing your ancestors owned other human beings and treated them as chattel could certainly create conditions of psychic confusion, wrenching guilt, and conflicts of the soul—even if unacknowledged today. Or maybe not. The arrogance and unconscious expousal of racial hatred and the continued degrading attitudes toward African American may also be determined by epigenetics.
Within the context of Just Like Family, you can imagine that the intimate relationships between African American women caretakers and the white children they took care of were complex, conflicted, and fraught with confusions and contradictions, feelings that remain with us today.
Now, with the knowledge of epigenetics, how do we change this genetic destiny.