‘It is impossible to consider peace, justice, and nonviolence without an intimate understanding of the way in which our institutions perpetuate violence ’ Kazu Haga

This is Part 7 of a series of posts designed to help us explore our work and leadership through the lenses of dominant power and liberatory power.

Our history is full of acts of violence committed in the service of dominant power (genocide, slavery, wars, abuse, forced seperation of families, destruction of culture and spiritual traditions etc.). The trauma that this caused has been passed down, accumulating through time, leading to more violence and more trauma. This legacy continues to live in our bodies, minds, hearts, relationships and systems. In order to be able to heal and transform ourselves, our relationships and our systems we need to better understand the different ways that violence is expressed and experienced…  

Direct physical violence is one way in which dominant power is enforced. This kind of violence can be expressed through state sanctioned (or tolerated) violence targeting marginalised communities. For example, the ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines, the assassinations of marginalised community leaders and activists in Colombia, or acts of police brutality directed at people of color in the United States. 

Another form of the direct physical violence enacted by dominant power is when violence is expressed through interpersonal relationships. For example, the acts of physical and sexual violence targeting women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, or the physical and sexual abuse of children either at home or within institutions. These expressions are allowed to continue because they are either hidden or normalised, happening behind closed doors or within cultures that encourage or enable them.

‘The nature of systemic violence is that it can feel inescapable and omnipresent.. The impact of that constant, repeated exposure to violence impacts not only your body but your soul’ Kazu Haga

There are other less direct expressions of violence that are harder to recognise because they are caused by the inequities of social dominance. This is known as systemic violence and it is often hidden behind the facade of politics, laws, policies, culture, disinformation, and enacted through the everyday day actions of ordinary people. Systemic violence is the accumulative effect of systemic inequities (healthcare, education, legal and incarceration, employment, housing, food distribution, political etc.) that make it harder for people with marginalised identities to access the opportunities and resources needed to live healthy and secure lives. A consequence of systemic violence is that marginalised communities are more likely to be exposed to pollution, dangerous working conditions, malnutrition, physical violence, incarceration, addiction and family separation. The effects of systemic violence are huge, and often felt more widely than direct physical violence. However, despite the scale of harm caused, it is rarely recognised and marginalised communities are often blamed for the harm they experience.  

‘Non physical forms of violence impact society at a much greater level. If we are thinking that violence is just a physical act from one person to another we are missing the point’ Kazu Haga

Systemic violence also causes psychological, emotional and spiritual trauma as well as physical, but this is often overlooked because dominant cultures have historically prioritised physical health. While many Indigenous traditions across the world have long recognised the holistic nature of our wellbeing, it is only recently that Western science has begun to acknowledge how our emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical states are all connected. We will not be able to appreciate the full extent of the trauma caused by dominant power until we look at it holistically. 

‘’You are not worthy’’ ..‘’You are not intelligent’’.. ‘’You are not enough’’.. words like these can be as harmful as any physical action, and it is important that we begin to acknowledge that they can have a violent impact.’ Kazu Haga

For those of us holding marginalised identities, there are different ways that we might experience the psychological and emotional trauma caused by systemic violence depending on our identity and culture. Here are some examples..

  • When we experience bias and prejudice within our societies it can lead us to internalise negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves. This not only effect’s our mental health it can also directly impact our body chemistry in ways that can lead to physical illness too. As Cyndi Suarez shares in The Power Manual ‘When one feels excluded, one’s body exhibits the same neurological activity exhibited during physical pain.. Feelings of low status induce cortisol levels similar to chronic anxiety. To be low status is to live in a state of chronic anxiety.’ 
  • When we are living in high-risk environments instability and the threat of violence may be a daily reality. This violence may come from the police, military, conflicts within the community, or violence and abuse at home. It can also be the experience of not having secure housing, or not knowing when the next meal will come from, or living with family members who have an addiction. The trauma of living in these circumstances also raises our cortisol (a stress hormone) levels which can lead to physical health problems. These high risk environments are often the result of structural inequities and historical trauma, where unhealed wounds are being perpetuated systemically, and expressed through interpersonal relationships. Which in turn can perpetuate our feelings of low worth as we learn to blame those around us (family and community) for the trauma we experience.

When we internalise trauma it is either directed inwards (intrapersonal violence) or it is expressed outwardly, often through how we treat others (interpersonal violence). When we direct it inwards we often internalise feelings of pain, shame, self-blame and inferiority about who we are and our value in the world. This emotional experience can be different for each of us, for some it may feel like a dull or persistent ache that hangs around in the background for years, or as waves of intense emotions that are impossible to ignore. But either way the feelings hurt, and we may seek external ways to help us manage this pain. 

However, dominant cultures are not designed to help us heal, in fact they do the opposite, and so often we do not have access to support and practices that can help us heal from our trauma. Some of us may be able to find strength and support from within our communities and cultures, accessing healing practices passed down from our ancestors, but for others these may be harder to find. This can lead us to improvise, sometimes in positive ways, and sometimes in ways that do more harm to ourselves and others. Both the positive and negative ways of dealing with pain often become a part of our culture and passed onto our children. This is one way that trauma is past down from one generation to the next (intergenerational trauma).

‘When people are hurt, when we carry around some pain or trauma that we have not found healthy releases for, we lash out and hurt others. I believe that all violence is ultimately rooted in this.’ Kazu Haga

However, despite how deep this is, it is also important for us to recognise that (as Kazu Haga says in his book Healing Resistance) ‘if we carry intergenerational trauma then we also carry intergenerational wisdom. Like the trauma that has been passed down by our ancestors, their wisdom and resilience is also embedded in our genes and in our DNA’. The effects of violence are real, but so is the resilience and wisdom expressed on a daily basis by our communities and ourselves as we find creative ways to keep living, loving, surviving and thriving. This energy and wisdom is a power that we can cultivate to heal, disrupt and transform the violent dynamics of dominant power. We will explore this more when we look through the lens of liberatory power.

Cory Greene: Personal experience of systemic violence Jeff Duncan Andrade: Effects of systemic violence on students H.O.L.LA. Combating Systemic violence through healing justice


Take a moment to consider these questions..

  • How does systemic violence express itself in your context? 
  • How  may this have affected your personal experience? 
  • How may this have affected the experiences of your students?

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