Interview with Jordanne Edwards by Raquel Luna –
|Jordanne Edwards is a social worker and international development professional. As a doctoral student in social work and community-based interventions at the Institute for Social Research and Interventions at the University of Luxembourg, she is conducting research with NGOs to explore the emergence of socio-political trauma. Before joining the institute, she specialised in Anti-Oppressive and Generalist Social work practices and received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of the West Indies and Ryerson University. She completed her Erasmus Mundus+ Master’s in Advanced Development in Social Work across four European countries (the UK, Denmark, Portugal and France).
The main objective of my research is to examine this meaning-making struggle of conceptualising trauma in socio-political contexts. More specifically, my research aims to provide a conceptual framework and empirical inquiry into the role that racialised communities play in forming trauma discourses. I explore NGOs as legitimate actors in the formation of trauma discourses through their anti-racism activism work. NGOs embedded in social justice movements often draw on the rhetoric and logic of trauma to explain the pervasive effects of systemic racism and microaggressions in everyday community practice.
- The subject of your study is trauma in socio-political contexts. Could you explain this notion of trauma in more detail?
Trauma stems from the ancient Greek word meaning “wound”. Initially it was used to describe the physical effects of railway accidents, and later the psychological effects of war on soldiers. But from the 1960s onwards, the term started showing up in anti-war, anti-racism and feminist social movements, and this continues to this day. Now the term has expanded beyond its traditional place as a medicalised category into socio-political contexts. From terms such as sexuality-based trauma, racial trauma and, more recently, climate change trauma – we see the term being used to point to contemporary demands for social justice. While the language is increasingly being used, not enough is fully understood about how these discourses are perceived and created within the communities concerned. I think it’s so important to pay closer attention to the emerging ways in which the language of trauma is being constructed to explain contemporary issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia. Exploring the new meanings attached to the word is critical to understanding how communities are affected by discrimination and how they continue to make sense of and respond to these issues.
- What is the importance of understanding trauma in a socio-political context?
It’s so important to study this type of trauma because its emergence in anti-racism movements further shows that trauma is not as individual and explicitly volatile as originally thought. Trauma can be caused by microaggressions and constant exposure to societal inequalities like poverty, sexism and racism. In essence, trauma is a profoundly social problem. Studying it in racialised communities helps us to better understand the socio-political implications it has on the formation of collective emotions, culture, and identity. It therefore extends trauma theory to reflect contemporary struggles over what it means to be human and part of a community.
My work is a part of a historically unfolding reckoning with the different ways in which trauma manifests itself and what it says about society. Some of the seminal pioneering scholars of trauma, such as Dr. Judith Herman, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and Dr. Arline Geranimus, are again being recognised for their research in analysing trauma as a cultural and social phenomenon.
When it comes to studying trauma in racialised communities, we see how the legacy of colonialism and existing racial violence is collectively embodied and plays out in how people construct meaning from their experiences and identity. It also explains the politics of language and the fight for justice as a response to racial violence. This is often missing in trauma discussions.
- In the last couple of years, hate speech against certain marginalised groups (be they people with an immigration background of the global South, homeless, with drug addiction or mental health care issues, etc.) has been normalised by some public figures, politicians, and certain media, among others. Today, the rise of the extreme right is a reality in many countries in the EU (France, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, etc.) and beyond. According to an article in Le Monde, “what was once a political taboo in Europe is now becoming commonplace. Agreements between right-wing and far-right parties to form governments or parliamentary majorities are multiplying.”From your perspective, what does the criminalisation of certain groups mean?
Racialised people have long spoken of criminalisation as a dehumanising tactic used to legitimise violence and systemic harm against their community. Many argue that the current politics reflect the social foundations that have been built over decades. I remember once reading a French article about the Black Lives Matter protests that were happening across Europe in 2020. The journalist said something like “activists are protesting against what they have long felt in their bodies.” I think this is such an accurate depiction of the inherent knowledge that racialised people carry in their feelings: both what is happening in their bodies but also what it means for how the world works.
I’m reminded of Arhundhati Roy’s powerful quote: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Socially imposed silencing and invisibility is one of the main mechanisms of marginalising and even criminalising racialised people.
Speaking to NGOs and racial justice activists, the rise in right-wing politics speaks to the brewing of racial tensions (and other political issues) that have often been overlooked. Think about when Trump was elected in the USA and Black and Latino communities rebutted that, finally, white America was waking up to the reality of racism in the country (his appointment, while disappointing, didn’t come as such a shock to them). Going back to the trauma discourse, I see activists using the term ‘trauma’ to draw attention to the gravity of racial violence and discrimination in relation to the continued, historical criminalisation of black bodies. This also speaks to the ‘truth-telling’ mechanism of trauma, which points out the hidden realities that only certain groups of people have been subjected to.
- From your perspective, as a social worker and international development professional, what does the rise of the far right mean in terms of human rights issues?
Buckle up. I think despite the politics and regulations that often govern and restrict NGOs in some ways, now is the time to continue strong advocacy and activism work.
Human rights issues are interconnected and important for everyone to consider. As stated earlier, it’s interesting for some people to shift to deficiency models that dismiss the richness of knowledge and practices coming from racialised communities that can help address some of the most pressing issues of our time (such as racism, climate change and gender equality). But if we zoom out, we can also see that the trauma debate is a microcosm of larger issues. It reveals the significant impact of inequality and violence, not just on individuals but on groups; how the politics behind the language used to describe experiences shapes how we perceive them, the lasting effects of discrimination, the power of collective accountability and recognition; the power of social movements and the importance of decentring privilege. It’s fundamentally about how do we live with each other and how do we undo the harmful things that we have been trained to do to resolve our differences. Sometimes this work feels like a call back to ourselves and to care.
In this emerging political climate, I hope that the claims of racialised communities about trauma, injustice and violence will be taken seriously and that their practices of responding to and fighting for their rights will be more widely recognised. Conversations that centre the voices of racialised communities are a great place to start and paying attention to the different forms of activism is also really important. Racialised communities are rich in intellectual and cultural resources to explain, critique and respond to human rights issues.
My prediction is that racial tensions and rightful demands for justice will intensify but I think this can be a good thing in the long term; in the sense that continued discussions and policy debates about Europe’s colonial past, current racially motivated offences, harmful migration policies and systemic discrimination can lead to meaningful change in the future. But it will require a lot of cooperation, understanding and reckoning, especially from white people, and radical policy changes. How and whether this will truly happen soon is debatable, but I know that the global South and people of colour (POCs) will continue to lean on culture, land and community support to get through this heightened time.
Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the responsibility of academics and other relevant stakeholders in highlighting the important intellectual, technical, and creative work of anti-racism activists.
- How does the language of trauma manifest itself in racialised communities? How do racialised communities talk about trauma?
This is one of the central questions that I hope my research will address. So, the answers are still very much unfolding. What I can say right now is that the language of trauma is often used in racialised communities to refer to the ongoing ways in which they are subjected to violence. What’s very significant about this is that even more implicit forms of racism (i.e. microaggressions) are captured within the trauma discourse to valorise the pervasive effects of discrimination on culture, politics and identity. Perhaps more remarkably, these terms are typically constructed by activists who, through experience and study, have developed their own theories to explain racial violence. Using trauma and decolonial frameworks is one way of doing this. Furthermore, racialised communities also talk about intergenerational trauma. This often emerges in discussions of decolonisation as intergenerational trauma is centred on the violent and perpetual effects of colonisation on Black and Indigenous people. It should also be noted that many communities have their own ways of talking about trauma and other topics that are important to them. Through my research, I’ve seen this happen in a number of ways:‘healing circles’, NGO engagement, online and in-person activism groups, protests, panel discussions and art exhibitions are common forms of community organising.
- How can research on trauma inform or support society in general (and the work of social workers or international development professionals in particular)?
Several reasons: First, I think it helps people become better allies. Trauma narratives that are constructed in the community are accompanied by discourses that come from the cultural practices in certain communities. People who want to give support can learn how to be better advocates for the causes they are involved in and how to position themselves better. If we know more about trauma discourses, we know how to work better with people who claim/use this language.
Overall, it’s also important for how we develop our responses to community care. If we better understand what a community is experiencing and how they make sense of it, we can develop better policies, professional practices and more appropriate language around issues. Research now shows that trauma is almost a built-in part of life. The fact that most of us, even non-racialised people, are likely to experience or at least witness trauma is so important in helping us to learn how to better respond or even understand life in general.
Of course, trauma can be individual and based on random encounters. But the vast majority of traumas results from violence, human cruelty and harm. So, trauma is about us, society and political relations. The personal is political. It’s about injustice. Recovery isn’t just about individual healing, it’s about social justice, or new ideas about what justice even means when it is legally untenable.
For example, responding to a traumatic experience of, say, police brutality, may not necessarily be about providing psychological intervention for the ‘victims’ but about looking at how this is a manifestation of systemic racial violence and taking steps to rectify this socially. Social movements are demonstrating that justice is a core element of responding to, or even ‘healing’, from trauma.
Again, this inevitably involves everyone. It’s a societal project of getting to the roots of things. Trauma discourses are fundamentally a call to action to the wider society because social movements and anti-racism activism put the accountability on the ‘perpetrator’. This is why justice is so important: to acknowledge responsibility. It could look like: standing up for the coworker who was unlawfully terminated because of racial discrimination, calling out online attacks and propaganda against racialised groups, or sitting with your whiteness asking how you can de-centre your privilege. We all have a responsibility to protect each other’s well-being. Creating a deeper sense of community and belonging promotes general wellbeing and helps everyone in society to thrive.
 ‘Racialised communities’ refers to communities of people who are subjected to racism by attributing to them a set of characteristics that are considered inherent to members of the group because of physical or cultural traits (this includes, but is not limited to, skin colour or pigmentation, also religious practices, language and clothing). Racialised communities include communities of colour and Blacks, indigenous peoples, but also other communities such as Roma and Irish Travellers, according to the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), 2021.
 The New York Times published an article about Dr. Herman’s seminal work on trauma. Her book “Trauma and Recovery” remains one of the most groundbreaking studies on trauma. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/24/health/judith-herman-trauma.html
 The New York Times published a feature on Dr. Geranimus to spotlight her work on the lasting effects of racism on health. Her work had been largely overlooked by the scientific community until the growing recognition of racial trauma. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/12/well/live/weathering-health-racism-discrimination.html
 According to the Cambridge Dictionary, hate speech is defined as “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation (= the fact of being gay, etc.)”. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/hate-speech
 “ce qui était naguère un tabou politique en Europe est en train de devenir une banalité. Les accords entre des partis de droite et d’extrême droite pour former des gouvernements ou des majorités parlementaires se multiplient”in Chambraud, C., Le Bars, S., et al., ‘Les conservateurs européens sous l’influence de l’extrême droite‘, Le Monde, 20 June2023, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2023/06/19/les-conservateurs-europeens-sous-l-influence-de-l-extreme-droite_6178223_3210.html (viewed on 12 September 2023).
 According to the Cambridge Dictionary, POC is an “abbreviation for person of colour or people of colour: a person who does not consider themselves to be white, or people who do not consider themselves to be white.” https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/poc