Ring Theory For Trauma From Racism

Photo of an Asian woman wearing black, she looks down sadly. Superimposed beside her is a graphic of a circle with multiple rings and a solid dot in the middle; to the top right are the words Comfort IN with an arrow pointing into the circle; to the bottom left of the outermost ring it says Dump OUT with 3 arrows pointing out.

[Content Warning: an image of racism]

Death by a thousand cuts

A cut from a slur. A cut from being overlooked for an opportunity. A cut from a derogatory comment. A cut from being tone-policed. A cut from being shunned. A cut from being told you imagined something. Cuts from any combination of microaggressions and demeaning messages add up.

Racism is traumatic

Stack onto the cuts spurts of violence against people who share similar racial identities. Direct attacks of varying degrees happen too. Each incident adds to the weight of racism which accumulates in the psyche and body over time. Each person has a breaking point.

Racism causes both chronic trauma and acute trauma.

Silhouette of woman with beige marks along each side like tiger stripes. On her left is a column of words like Seeing no will to solve or bring justice to crimes against POC, Killings by police, Police brutality, Racial profiling. On her right is a column of words like Mass murder, Lynchings, Hate incidents.

Racism affects someone in or around your business

As a business owner, you probably care a lot about the people on your team, your clients, and the people in your business community. Did you know that racism has likely impacted one or more of these people?

Look around. Is there a Black, Indigenous or a Person of Colour (BIPOC) or mixed-race person that you have a business relationship with? It could be an employee, a contractor, a client, a vendor, a brick & mortar business neighbour, a colleague, an advisor, or a service provider.

With the renewed spotlight on racism (it has actually been ongoing and historical for centuries), have you considered that some of the people around you feel grief, trauma or a range of emotions with every hate crime that happens? They may not openly discuss it but it affects them.

Saying the wrong thing or nothing at all when people are in crisis

Racism is a sticky subject. It’s uncomfortable to talk about if you’ve never spoken about it before. It’s painful to experience. It is emotionally charged. Please do not force the subject on BIPOC. There are ways to acknowledge people’s struggles without re-traumatizing them. How do you, as a business leader, want to provide leadership here?

Brands and businesses are expected to take a stand against racism. Nobody wants to be labelled as a racist or white supremacist. However, it’s easy to be gripped with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses.

Allyship is complicated. Business owners are often torn between saying the wrong thing or saying nothing. What if your statement or action is called out as performative and insincere? What if your silence is called out as complicity? Put all this aside for a moment and consider centring the people experiencing trauma from racism.

The Ring Theory

A client of mine, who is behaviour analyst and therapist, told me about the Ring Theory. It’s an approach that a clinical psychologist named Susan Silk came up with to explain how to best support a person going through a crisis.

You draw a circle and inside you write the name of the person who is directly affected by the trauma. You draw a ring around that and write in the name of the person closest to that person (they are affected by the trauma too but not as much as the person in the centre). Then the next ring has siblings/children/parents. Then the next one has friends. The next has colleagues, and so on.

The person at the centre of the trauma is allowed to complain and cry and scream in any direction. When you are in any of the outer rings, you can complain too but only to the outer rings, never toward any of the people in the smaller rings, closer to the crisis. Only direct comfort inwards to the smaller rings. Comfort IN, dump OUT.

Diagram of a circle with multiple rings. In the middle is a solid circle that says The Aggrieved or Afflicted. The next ring says Significant Other, Parent, Siblings, Etc. The next ring says True Friends. The next is Colleagues. The outermost ring is Lookie Loos. On the top right of the circle it says Comfort IN with an arrow pointing into the circle. On the bottom left of the circle it says Dump OUT with 3 arrows pointing away from the circle.

Ring Theory for trauma from racism

You can use the Ring Theory for racial trauma or trauma in any other area.

There was a racially-motivated (and likely misogynistic) mass murder of 8 people in Atlanta last week. Here are a few important things to note about the victims:

  • 6 were East Asian American
  • They were working in massage parlours
  • They were women

Using ring theory for each murder victim, their partner and any dependent children would be in the very middle — The Aggrieved. They are directly impacted by the event. The next ring would include the victim’s parents, siblings and adult children. The next ring would have the victim’s closest friends. Then, co-workers, clients, and employees (I believe 2 of the victims were business owners). The next could be extended relatives.

The next ring would include members of the East Asian American community. An overlapping ring would include other massage parlour workers and maybe sex workers.

The next ring would include the broader BIPOC community. An overlapping ring might have low-wage workers and/or undocumented workers.

The next ring might include other Americans (and Canadians by proxy). The next ring could include other Western countries.

Whenever there is a hate crime against a Black person, an Indigenous person or any other Person of Colour, their immediate families are at the centre of the trauma. The grief echoes out to the larger BIPOC communities.

Traumatized folks are over-taxed

My client explained that people in the inner rings are affected by the trauma too. However, they can’t turn to anyone in the same ring for support because that would be too taxing on folks who are already grieving.

Instead, they need people from the outer rings to provide comfort and support because they’re further away from the trauma.

What to say to a person in crisis

Do you want to know how you can be a source of comfort and support? Here are some things you can say to the people in the rings closer to the crisis:

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “This must be really hard for you.”
  • “I see you and I hear you.”
  • “Can I bring you some food?”
  • “How can I support you?”
  • Consider adjusting project deadlines or redistributing work.
  • Let them know that it’s ok to take time off to process things (if it is ok; factor in financial and other sensitivities).
  • If you are their employer, you can gently share the company’s mental health resources with them.
  • Or say nothing and just listen.

What NOT to say to a person in crisis

When dealing with people closer to a trauma than you are, here are some things to avoid saying to them or doing:

  • “You should hear what happened to me.”
  • “If I were you, here’s what I would do.”
  • “This is really bringing me down. Let’s talk about something else.”
  • “Look on the bright side.”
  • Don’t share images of violence against people who look like the victim, other BIPOC, or anyone in general.
  • Don’t blame the victim.
  • Avoid giving advice.

The world needs more compassion

Pay attention to current events and tune into anything that might affect the well-being of the people in your business sphere. Racist incidents can be traumatic.

If you have the capacity to acknowledge pain when you see it and to express care, then why not? Think of the ring theory. Send comfort in and dump out. The world needs more compassion.

[Originally published on March 24, 2021 at https://hoann.co/ring-theory-for-trauma-from-racism/]



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