In Dr. Joy DeGruy’s groundbreaking work, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. DeGruy describes Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome as “a condition that exists when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today.” Dr. DeGruy builds off of the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to unpack a pattern of behaviors and beliefs impacting those who were enslaved, their communities, and their descendants today. Dr. DeGruy later posits that white people have also been impacted by this traumatic legacy of multigenerational violence, racial superiority, and the justification of “500 years of trauma and dehumanization [that Europeans and their descendants] and their institutions produced.” If there is a Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, then there must be a Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome. And indeed, in the trauma healing field, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress describes the “psychological consequences of violence against human beings” on the person perpetrating the violence. When I asked a friend and colleague where I could find the book on Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome, he told me it was mine to write.
This body of work is me accepting his challenge, with one important modification. Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome – the ways in which the multigenerational perpetration of physical and structural violence, internalization of racial superiority, and corresponding belief system afflicted and continue to afflict the racial descendants of slave masters – is not entirely mine to write, but a very (inter)connected piece of it – Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome – most definitely is.
Long before Julia Roberts starred in the psychological thriller Sleeping with the Enemy, white women have been. White women have been in bed with “Imperialist White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism”* (to quote bell hooks*) for a good long while and that historical legacy yet to be undone is a collective struggle at the intersection of race, gender, and class which is both specific to white women and also entirely connected to Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome in an interlocking and overlapping partnership that has kept violence unnamed, normalized, and securely in place, both inside and outside the Big House.
I was born into white ladydom. Given a race and a gender in an Atlanta hospital in the early 80s. Along with my name, pink dresses (which I still love), and Cabbage Patch dolls, there were immediate references to dating, jokes that boys better stay away and hypothesizing about how my future white feminine sexuality would be fortified. I grew up a good little white girl, groomed to play by the rules and win, or at least maintain the flawless and effortless appearance that I was. And when occasionally I wasn’t winning, my white lady mama would go remind the system that I was supposed to. At the same time that I was being conditioned to win at the perfect grade, the perfect body, the perfect attitude, I was also conditioned to help, support, defend, and ultimately defer my self-interest to God (the Father), men (almost always white including my actually father), and the (church) Family (most definitely white).
There is a personally specific way that I have been colluding with whiteness that comes from my own unique story, yet cannot be detached from the story of other white folks. In that way, Mistress Syndrome is both incredibly personal and expansively collective. Unpacking Mistress Syndrome means clearly stating that it is not a unique affliction. It is not a rare disorder. All us conditioned as white ladies are carriers. Individualism keeps us from seeing how similar our experiences are. In organizing with status quo and passing white women to deconstruct and transform our white ladyness, White Women’s Group uses this description:
“What do we mean by the term “white woman”?
“When we say “white woman,” we are not necessarily referring to a personal identity. We are referring to a dominant or mainstream identity with certain images, messages and narratives that have been used to uphold systems of oppression. It is an identity that many who have experienced socialization as white and female often have to negotiate with, whether by resisting, conforming, imitating, subverting or distancing. It’s this negotiation and relationship to “white women” that we are investigating, whether it is our current identity, a past or new identity, or a personal or political connection to the effects of this identity. In our dialogues and workshops we honor every body’s unique relationship to the themes explored. Even if we have never had a Barbie, we know what she looks like, what she symbolizes and what oppressions are committed in her name.”
Mistress Syndrome is about lying – the lies that we tell ourselves and tell each other. The lies that we act out of in order to keep our white lady mask in place. The lies we began learning in utero; and even before, inter-generationally, and which are passed down to us, and that we have nursed and cultivated for ourselves and for each other. In our striving for perfect and good and holy and pure we don’t notice the harm we are doing to ourselves and to others. So we don’t explode in imperfect rage even as we are imploding. Mistress Syndrome is also about the lies that is takes to sleep with the enemy and the energy that it takes to hide those lies. Mistress Syndrome explains why we care more about hiding the lies and keeping our outside appearance in place, rather than addressing what is happening in the inside. Mistress Syndrome keeps us in a toxic relationship believing that he is going to (eventually) choose us, all the while sacrificing ourselves and helping to keep his secret. We maintain our denial because deep down a part of us knows that he actually won’t ever leave his bride of power and privilege. Because our value and worth is tied to our relationship with him, we know that cutting him off would mean squarely looking at what’s left and dealing with it. So we are afraid to try. It has facilitated our ability to be hyper sensitive to what we think other people need and want without ever knowing ourselves or questioning our own motives.
Mistress Syndrome backs us into the corner of denial and deceit by design. It gives us false options. We are both victims of the system and active perpetrators of its harm, both to others and ultimately to ourselves. Mistress Syndrome is how us white ladies are (and have historically have been) complicit in our own oppression as well as the oppression of others. Mistress Syndrome is the rationalization it takes to stay in an abusive relationship. Mistress Syndrome is dedicating every waking hour to helping, fixing, and saving others so that we won’t have to do the difficult work of helping, fixing, or saving ourselves. Even though helping, fixing, and saving ourselves is exactly what we need to do with this information.
Mistress Syndrome is part of a lifelong journey of personal and collective healing from the multi-layered, generational trauma of what it means to be a white woman. And just as behavior and belief go hand-in-hand, Mistress Syndrome (the blog) is part of a larger collective body of (art)work involving anti-racist organizing that holds these words accountable.