How many of our instinctive habits are results of our ancestors’ experiences of inequality and discrimination?
For years, I have known what the concept of ‘intergenerational trauma’ was, but I’d always thought about it as something that affected other people — something I didn’t really need to think about much apart from just to be aware of. Other people I know may have conflicts with their parents or particular genetic traits that are a result of trauma suffered previously, but this doesn’t apply to me. Or so I thought.
As I grew into adulthood and began to feel an even stronger passion for issues relating to equality to justice, I started thinking about the extent to which the treatment my ancestors received affects me now and the extent to which traits my parents have adopted — that I often disagree with or don’t understand — are a result of what they experienced and what their parents told them.
I am a first-generation (culturally, more second-generation) immigrant and a minoritised ethnic woman. My parents are from very poor backgrounds, and I’d say I spent my early childhood in a low-income household even though I am now fairly privileged.
Does the fact that much of my early childhood was spent discussing budgets and affordability as a matter of necessity explain why I am prone to buying things on an impulse if I have the money? Or is that just a personal flaw I would have had anyway?
I don’t know, but what I do know is that the racism and sense of otherness my parents experienced upon moving to the UK is likely why we had countless arguments about how I felt English or British even though my parents maintained no one would ever see me as anything other than foreign (or from my country of birth). It might be the reason I’ve ended up with a quite noticeably ‘typically English’ accent. It is definitely the reason I still have personal insecurities and worries about being good enough or fitting in.
My parents’ experiences of society are part of why, with recent discussions about misogyny and violence against women, I recently suddenly remembered quite clearly examples of when male family friends would stay with us when I was a girl. They were perfectly nice, normal people, but my parents would tell me to make sure I locked my door at night because these were lone men, and you could never be too safe.
I’m sure I’m not the only woman who grew up being reminded not to walk home alone at dark if at all avoidable, not to have headphones in, not to get too drunk, among many precautions we’re conditioned to take for our own safety. Why? Because this is what our mothers learned to do to protect themselves and what our fathers learned needed to be instilled in their daughters.
Passing on the lessons we have learned is admirable and more than valid, but, as a self-professed empowered woman, I want to make an active effort to evaluate the habits I have adopted and see which are the result of societal inequalities that need to be combatted.
I can take precautions for my own safety, but I should not need to. Misogyny and violence against women need to be addressed adequately.
Budgeting is a healthy habit to have, but I should be conscious of living as my current circumstances dictate and not in an instinctive reaction to my previous circumstances.
My ‘Englishness’ can be a source of amusement for those close to me and something I can be proud of, but it should not overcompensate for my insecurities. Racism, discrimination, and xenophobia are serious problems in society that are seemingly spiralling out of control.
Intergenerational trauma is partly the result of an inherent need for survival, but it is also exactly that: trauma. We must fight the causes of the trauma rather than expecting generation upon generation to simply adapt.