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Racing ACEs gathering and reflection: If it's not racially just, it's not trauma-informed.


The following memo was written by a small group of Gathering participants. 

 It’s 2016. Local and national protests rise against an ongoing stream of state-sanctioned murders. African-American lives are being lost at a frequency and in a manner that decry ethnic cleansing. Sacred Indigenous land is being desecrated for profit. African-American, Native American, Latino American, Asian American, and poor communities are facing dislocation, police violence, and a range of traumas that compose the frayed ends of America’s historically racist national fabric.

It’s August 2016. In the middle of an election season replete with racially charged rhetoric, immersed in Black Lives Matter actions and the rich local history of social justice movements, a group of practitioners, researchers, and community advocates come together in Richmond, California. 

Who are we:  We are more than two-dozen carefully selected representatives engaged at the nexus of the trauma-informed and racial justice fields, forming a circle on behalf of our ancestors, our children, and ourselvesWhat brings us to the room, to the work? Colonialism brought us here. Imperialism brought us here. The spine of western civilization and plunder of nations brought us here. Slavery, ethnic cleansing, all things that made this country possible, that make possible the hoarding of wealth in the hands of a few, all the ramifications of those things, of race as a structure that cages us—that is what brings us here. Oscar Grant brings us here. Mike Brown brings us here. Tamar Rice and Sandra Bland bring us here. Eric Garner. Alex Nieto. Terence Crutcher Korryn Gaines Philando Castile Alton Sterling Anthony Nuñez Jessica Williams Loreal Tsingine … As kin of the murdered, we share an urgent and crucial need to speak. For them. For us.

On the agenda: an exploration of how racial justice – its values, investments, strategies and practices – can be centered at the heart of trauma-informed work. The meeting is called “Racing ACEs,” a reference to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Our work, in a fundamental sense, is to race ACEs so that we can explicate the inequitable burden of racial oppression, as well as the intersections of oppression, privilege and liberation in all their forms.  

The ambivalence of ACEs: The ACE Study is a valuable tool that brings a wider audience to what clinicians, researchers, and advocates working in the field of child and adolescent trauma have said for decades - confirming that experiences of violence, neglect, and trauma are harmful to a person’s long-term health. For those of us in the room, the opportunity and obligation to leverage the study and its implications is also matched by an ambivalence.  The ambivalence that fills the all too common absence of historical trauma and ongoing violence and harm aimed at people of color.  This absence has an atmospheric effect that conveys and compounds harmful pathologies surrounding people of color in the midst of ongoing trauma - pathologies that lead to misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and false assignments that render us as problematic and risk-laden. When they are translated into policies, practices, and investments, these inaccurate pathologies further perpetuate and codify racial oppression and the dehumanization of people of color. 

Much of our time together during Racing ACEs, then, was spent in a challenging and often painful discourse. Together in that space we held and hold each other. In congregating we braided our strengths, making cable and network of them; we reinforced ourselves, refortified our ambition by showing each other our experiences. Despite our differences we put our lives on the table in front of us and recognized, reaffirmed, the core similarities of them all: a value for these same differences and an insistence that they are not a marker of worth, that our worth is our ability to be proud, dignified, and strong in the midst of a war being waged against us.

 We held our pain, sharing the weight of it so that our neighbors can stand again rather than crumple beneath it. We acknowledged that our pain is sacred – and so too our rage: rage at systems that perpetuate oppression; rage at systems that fail to recognize themselves as causing the trauma they claim to fight; rage at the incremental changes in cultural and organizational practice that we are forced to accept as ‘good enough’ when it comes to our lives and our dignity; rage that “people are dying, people are being hurt everyday, and people are being paid with our tax dollars to do it;” rage that people stripped “of family, community, safety, and other protective factors of privilege are left raw, exposed . . . hurting;” rage that so many of us came to and lived in the space “heavy with grief.”

 This rage, all of it, is sacred, as one of the great minds among us pointed out. And our commitment to channel it productively and heal ourselves is priority.

Also of import, we recognize the need to bring together white people and people of color to dismantle the fallacy of whiteness and address issues like white supremacy, white fragility, and the role and responsibility of white people to actively rupture and repair the harms of racial oppression. For the privileged that depend on supremacy for their own well-being and preservation, this struggle is key. How do we dismantle habits of ‘whiteness” for ourselves and for diverse communities at large, especially those who profit from such habits? Given that some of us understand “white” to be another term for savage greed, how do we cross the divide to do this work? And how do we make it clear that the quest to end white supremacy is in itself a white responsibility? And that for the sake of our own health we must set that responsibility aside and leave it for the privileged to resolve, while we simultaneously fight for space in which to live safely while the privileged fail to make overdue progress.

 Our aims and assignments:

  • Racing ACEs was, to our knowledge, the first meeting of its kind, and to many it felt long overdue. Again and again participants called for “more human, and financial resources, so we can have these conversations and do this work.”
  • We must foster and sustain more of these too-rare spaces - including spaces that are solely for people of color - to honor sacred pain and rage, to create joy, and to share our stories, and build power.
  • Racing ACEs included a discussion of critical and practical resources for trauma-informed work. If we are truly to center on liberation we need to collectively bring a racial justice lens to specific tropes and tools within that space. This includes reexamining the ACE Study in public practice, taking into account, for example, cultural and racial humility as practiced by the privileged, as well as the tremendous and all-exhausting resilience necessitated by people of color, LGBTQ people, as well as the differently-abled who must daily navigate hostile spaces in public and in private.
  • As one participant pointed out: “Until we get to a place where ‘white’ people recognize their harm, we can’t make change.” The challenge, then, is to learn what it will take to bring white people together to do white-on-white work around issues like white supremacy, white privilege and white fragility. And this particular challenge cannot and should not be the responsibility of Afrodescendants, Indigenous, Latino, Asian, or any person of color. The challenge to dismantle white privilege and harm is a challenge to be shouldered by white people whose white-on-white work (white people working with each other) must address white fragility and combat white privilege.
  • As targets in a race war, the priority to speak is ours – all of ours. We must connect and build with other communities who were underrepresented in the space, including our Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, South Asian and Southwest Asian partners. 

It is 2016. Today, tomorrow, and ever-forward we will hold our community—our pain, our rage, and our joy—as our key to survival, as our key to honoring ancestors who are our strength, and against whom our children will measure us for generations.

 We are the living frontline of resistance.  

(Full Racing ACEs Memo attached)


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Comments (7)

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I am so appreciative of this "rethinking" of the ACEs pyramid, literally seconds after I discovered the first one!!  The timing could not have been better.  Count me in on this conversation -- let me know how to support this work!!!

My gratitude for this work, and the sharing of it by you, is abundant right now!


I think this focus dilutes the original intention of preventing childhood adverse experiences. Yes, the adult need repair own issues, but to save the children not a group that has not healed themselves. And this responsibility does not lay with conquerors, the guilt tripped privileged class, but each individual adult who rather commits themselves to healing themselves.


1. a combining form extracted from mansplain, and meaning “to explain or comment on something in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner, from the perspective of the group one identifies with,” as in ladysplain; whitesplainracism being whitesplained to a person of color.
Whitesplain article: 

6 ways well-intentioned people whitesplain racism (and why they need to stop)

Whitesplain video (2 min):



Last edited by Alicia St. Andrews

Like many, I too felt that the ACEs study was powerful for its recognition of the long-term effects of trauma, but severely limited by its lack of examination of historical trauma and pervasive racism. I would like to note that your revised pyramid, while including these factors, also has a limitation: it is very Western-centric.

The issue of white supremacy and entitlement is critical in the United States and European countries. It probably even impacts countries that were former western colonies. But if we want to use ACEs internationally, we need to recognize that, given the opportunity, every group has individuals willing to subjugate and oppress others, and persons willing to tolerate an unjust system that does not disadvantage them.

I don't say this in an attempt to soften the blame on anyone else. To move forward, we need to be able to acknowledge our own errors, and accept a measure of responsibility for errors committed by our own group. I'm of Japanese ancestry. I could certainly talk about America being the only country to use nuclear weapons on a civilian population. But I must also acknowledge that Japan committed atrocities in many countries during the war. And among other things, it has historically treated Koreans terribly.

The Koreans have a term, "han" that refers to their collective feeling of oppression and unresolved injustice, caused by centuries of domination by China and Japan. I imagine that members of Black Lives Matter probably know what “han” feels like.

Let's have the discussion about white supremacy in the United States. And let's have similar discussions about the appropriate perpetrators in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Let's take ACEs to the international level.



Thanks for posting this, Kanwarpal. I hope our community has some suggestions on how to proceed on doing "white-on-white work around issues like white supremacy, white privilege and white fragility". I think one aspect that we can work on is how our systems (education, juvenile justice, criminal justice, child welfare, etc.) are set up to traumatize already traumatized people, how so many of them are set up to disproportionately harm people of color, how they are organized to manage problems instead of solutions, and how we can create self-healing systems that actually understand, nurture and help people help themselves.

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