American Indian scholar Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart developed the concept of historical trauma in relation to the cumulative emotional harm of colonialism. The term has since been applied to the legacies of slavery, genocide, and war as well. These events reverberate through generations, whether through social processes or epigenetics, leading to higher rates of physical disease and mental health issues among the descendants of those who suffered. Negative coping behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse and emotional issues such as anger and low self-esteem have also been identified. Academic and social work focused on historical trauma has enabled reflection and healing among marginalized populations.
But what about the opposite of historical trauma? Historical privilege surely also reverberates through generations of extremely wealthy families and through the broader privileged classes. This would include people who have benefited from settler colonialism (myself included, as a white Canadian with British roots), upper caste Indians, and anyone else who has enjoyed generations of advantage, propped up by the losses and servitude of others. Is there some intergenerational character defect associated with excessive wealth that drives inequality and planetary destruction? A callousness, or lower empathy, or tendency to make and justify selfish choices? For example, a recent study, discussed in this NYTs article, found that privileged people “were more likely to have an inflated sense of their skills — even when tests proved that they were average.” Even more frighteningly, “this unmerited overconfidence was interpreted by strangers as competence.” Generationally privileged people are for the most part continuing to call the shots on this planet and have created the current situation of ecological disaster and rising inequality. Examining this legacy may point towards a different type of economic, social and political healing that is needed, this time for the rich and powerful.
Of course callousness and self-interest is not the exclusive domain of the powerful. These traits can be cultivated in anyone given the right combination of factors. But these traits become especially dangerous tools in the hands of the people making policy and sustaining the current economic structure.
Just like the war on poverty needs a corresponding war on wealth, addressing historical trauma, and, more broadly, building a more sustainable and just world, requires addressing historical privilege. How to do this? I’m not sure. What does conscientization – originally developed to raise awareness among the marginalized of the oppressive forces in their lives – for the global elite look like? There are historically privileged people who appear to be genuinely trying to right past wrongs and who support political systems that reduce their own advantage. But to what extent can people in power ever really be convinced to concede wealth and status? Can we even see and diagnose our own evils? Maybe we need more research and interventions focused on healing the pathologies of privilege. What could case studies of these positive outliers teach us?
I believe in the concept of joint liberation, as described by Lilla Watson, another Indigenous academic: oppression of some compromises the humanity and freedom of all. Perhaps identifying the spiritual deprivation of being an oppressor and offering pathways forward will convince some elites to change. The pain of realizing that you are complicit and of giving up wealth and status may be alleviated by the deeper joys of living in a more just world, of experiencing genuine human fellowship. Perhaps highlighting how unequal societies are bad for everyone’s wellbeing will spur the haves to compromise. And then there is an environmental cliff that we’ll all fall off together – could that be the pending disaster that leads to real change?
But at the end of the day, as long as there’s inequality, there’s no denying that it’s far better to be on top than the bottom, and very unlikely for anyone to willingly stop passing privilege on through generations. As ideal as it would be for the privileged to heal themselves and voluntarily construct a more just world, we’re running out of time and real change may come in ways that privileged people cannot see or predict.
Acknowledgment: Big thank you to Stephanie Topp, Sarah Dalglish, Robert Martin and Kristof Decoster for insightful comments that helped shape this blog post.