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Transcend Collection

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On unpacking generational trauma

I grew up in an Afro-Latina household with a father who was in and out of the healthcare system. I was only four when he had a heart transplant and I remember having to say goodbye to him because we didn’t know if he would make it. He lived 10 more years until his sudden death when I was 14. 

Growing up in the Bay Area, where the Latino community was predominantly Mexican-American or Central American, I didn’t see a lot of other people who looked like me. The novellas that my family watched didn’t feature any Afro-Latinas either. My mom is Mexican-American and I don't think she understood what it meant to have Black children or to have Black women growing up in the California Bay Area. My dad often emphasized that there were Latinos who looked like me, specifically Puerto Ricans and Columbians, but I didn’t have access to that community in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, my dad would also regularly remind us of what others would see when they looked at me and my sister. He’d say, ‘when you walk out that door you're a Black woman. You're a Black person and people are always going to have eyes on you’. I didn't realize how much of his teachings would prove true in my adult life and it’s been difficult to not be able to speak with him about it.  

He’d say, ‘when you walk out that door you're a Black woman. You're a Black person and people are always going to have eyes on you’.

My dad faced a lot of issues that he never really talked about. He grew up in the Bay Area during a time when the Black Panther movement was huge, but he never joined. I only recently learned it was my grandmother that influenced his decision. This was told to me by my uncle who explained she was afraid for her children but never said it directly even though her kids knew. She was one of the Black people who came up from the South. Her generation experienced significant trauma and swept all of it under the rug. They never spoke of it. Instead, they’d button up and put their best foot forward at all times, regardless of how they might feel. Ultimately, this led to my dad having a lot of respectability politics, meaning he’d always ensure that he looked great when he went out because dressing up might make him less of a target. It’s this notion of respectability politics that tries to give a sense of safety to Black people.  Even so, my dad still had run-ins with police officers. I didn’t know this until after he died but it’s clear that those moments impacted how he spoke and prepared his kids for the world. 

Respectability politics and a lack of trust in systems meant that things weren’t openly talked about in my community, even if they were problematic. On top of that, I grew up in a household where you didn’t talk back. Instead you followed whatever the parents told you, particularly with my dad. I’m working on undoing this repression and it makes me think about the trauma that my dad must have been carrying around that he didn’t unpack. There are generations of trauma that are being held onto by Black people and people of color and it’s weaponized to keep us in line. There’s this notion that because we endured this we need to continue on in this way. It leaves all of us in survival mode when actually we need space to unpack.

While I speak freely now, it took years of unlearning and making mistakes to get here. Ultimately, I had to hit a wall to realize that I had to change my ways. College was that breaking point. I went to college in Arizona because I was an 18 year old wanting  to experience something outside the Bay Area and I experienced pure blank racism while there (it happens in the Bay Area too). I always felt like I had to wear a mask or put on a show. People would say underhanded comments but I would tell myself to let it go or shake it off. I’d never confront that person, or sometimes I would but it would be in a way more gentle way. I was far away from family and friends so I was stuck there and forced to navigate these experiences. 

I studied teaching because it’s something that came naturally to me. I’ve always been around kids, starting with working at a church nursery when I was 12. I began noticing that some students that were considered difficult by others would end up with me because I figured out how to structure a learning environment that best fit them. In college I was on the ‘traditional’ track because I had to work my way through college, while other people were in practice groups where they were in the classroom full time. I think this had a huge impact on me trying to work, have a social life, and get through school. By my last year, I was going to drop out and not go into teaching. I lacked the support and motivation I needed in teaching in Arizona and was surrounded by people who directly conflicted with my values. One teacher, who was married to a police chief, would regularly say to her fifth graders that Black Lives Matter was a terrorist group. I recall her being really proud of one of her students when he turned off the classroom TV because LeBron James appeared on it wearing a shirt that read ‘I can’t breathe’. 

There’s this notion that because we endured this we need to continue on in this way.

My sister ultimately helped me get back on track. She’s also an educator (an incredibly accomplished one, too) and knew that the best way to encourage me would be to put me in the classroom. I spent my final spring break paired with one of the teachers at her school. I was hands on working with high school seniors and at the end they gave me feedback. One of them told me, ‘you’re cool but why do you come off not confident?’. I realized then that if high school students were telling me that I wasn’t confident, then things had to change. After graduating, I returned to the Bay Area where I was hired to teach Ethnic Studies. Diving into the materials forced me to really invest in myself and do some deep self reflection. After all, if I was asking kids to reflect on who they are, then I had to be the one to model it for them.

Something that I'm thinking about a lot right now is how I’m going to support students and advocate for parents. Only my mom went to college, but neither of my parents knew how to advocate for education. They knew that if you did certain things then you would succeed, but between 4 children, my mom working full time and my dad in and out of the hospital, they didn’t have the time to sit with us every day and read bedtime stories. My parents knew the importance of education and how it could help with getting a career.

Also, I leverage my role as an opportunity to fight systemic racism in education. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to provide students with skills to navigate our society. A critical part is identifying oppressive systems so students work around them. We currently have the highest rate of Black and Latino male students not graduating. It’s up to all of us educators to ensure that we catch those students and challenge the system that considers it acceptable to operate this way. We have to help them build enough confidence so that they go to school and successfully enter the workforce. 

Still, there are many barriers that are beyond our control, like the pandemic. In some ways, the pandemic is helping educators realize that there are inequities. People have been saying this for years, but now others see it, too. As a colleague, I challenge my peers to act. Now that they’re realizing the inequities of the American education system, I’m encouraging them to take the next steps to ensure that students don’t fall through the gaps.  For instance, I had students who were at a third grade reading level in tenth grade and we were reading The New Jim Crow.  I wasn’t going to tell them that they couldn’t read that book and instead hand them a third grade reading level book. That’s not fair. It’s up to us to make sure that each student participates and to ensure that they have the tools for the next time they have to read a difficult hard text. To help students be successful I had the privilege working with a team of teachers that focused on different strategies. The school pushed our thinking about the different strategies to help support students. 

The favorite buzzword in education is ‘equity’, ;anti-racist’, ‘Black educator’ even ‘woke’. As a teacher, it’s simple to look at your gradebook and say, who's failing my class and why? Or to ask yourself, why am I lowering standards to students at this moment in time? Too often, teachers give up on students by labeling them as incapable of learning a particular topic. Those students get left behind because no one is trying to create a scaffold or support for that student to succeed. 

For parents, educators and everyone advocating for education – it’s not going to be fixed overnight. It's a really sad realization, but you can shift your approach to focus on the things that you can change. Ask yourself, what solutions can I play a part in? Each of us has a role to play in supporting students and  enabling them to be the best that they can be.

Thank you for reading this story from the Transcend Collection.

We donate 10% of revenues from our Transcend affirmation candle to The Loveland Foundation, an organization committed to showing up for communities of color in unique and powerful ways, with a particular focus on Black women and girls.

About Dominique

Dominique is an educator who’s is making a career change to becoming a mental health therapist.


Culturally Responsive Teaching by Zaretta Hammond
Identity Safe Classrooms by Becki Cohn-Vargas
Is it Time for All Students to Take Ethnic Studies? by Lindsay McKenzie

Mantras and Affirmations

Rest and peace are vital in the work that I do.