Gerardo Romo’s recent opinion piece (“Legacies of trauma,” Oct. 21) is a strong and unmistakable call for University action to redress the injustices of the past, which, he posits, have left an indelible psychological imprint upon persons of color in this country. The “systematic depression” of persons of color at Columbia, he writes, is the result of the continued “colonization” of their minds by the legacy of “genocide and enslavement.” I do not intend to trivialize his own personal struggles and challenges, but his approach is misguided, as it makes generalizations of the experiences of Columbians and subsequently makes compartmentalizations based off of those generalizations.
Romo insists that certain subgroups of the broad category of “students of color” are wholly unaffected by the traumas he claims are so burdensome, and therefore manage to remain content. Those with backgrounds abroad or access to quality education, he says, “cannot relate to the struggles that many poor people of color go through in this country.” On what grounds does he feel able to make such a broad claim?
I will admit to having been lucky enough to come from a stable family, but does that mean I cannot relate to those struggles? Does the fact that I did not grow up in a neighborhood “heavily policed ... with racist practices” mean that such challenges are beyond my comprehension, when my own mother fled from a repressive and murderous Marxist regime that would go on to kill 2 million of her country-men and -women? Is my ability to understand the challenge in rising above poverty through education hopelessly impaired by the fact I did not go to an “overcrowded school,” though my own father slept on a mat in a hut far from home as a child, just to go to school? Romo calls for us to understand, yet he makes the assumption that we inherently cannot.
In pathologizing the legacy of the past and attributing depression to “legacies of trauma,” Romo generalizes: Why must we assume that the depression of persons of color is the result of some common cause peculiar to them? Romo effectively asks us not to view people as individuals with their own set of experiences and traumas, but rather as simply a group of persons who are reacting identically to a shared trauma.
But how are these groups determined, particularly in the case of overlapping identities? What is to say that a queer person of color is facing depression as a result of the past and continuing oppression of persons of color, and not, for example, gender or sexuality-based discrimination? I am inclined to think that there could be multiple causes; Romo admits as much in highlighting queer persons of color. Yet he calls for the redress of the legacy of “genocide and enslavement” of persons of color, rather than, for example, the historical and continuing discrimination of queer people. And, if we are to accept his paradigm of historically derived psychological imbalance, what places the redress of the factors causing depression of persons of color over those of any other underprivileged group or subgroup—women, blacks, former Dalits, the rural poor?
Is the depression of persons of color somehow more important than the depression of others? It’s quite obvious that being a person of color it is not the leading cause of depression at Columbia. Romo says he knows of six people who have been forced to withdraw, in contrast with the hundreds of people treated by Counseling and Psychological Services yearly. So are we either to place their depression as being a greater cause for worry than all others or seek to redress all the possible factors of depression in all groups in a similar fashion? The former is openly discriminatory; the latter would entail replacing the curriculum with a series of cultural sensitivity and privilege-comprehension courses.
It is quite a relief, then, that it is misguided to regard depression as the result of historical injustice rather than the individual distresses of individual persons. It is for that reason we have developed the psychiatric profession, and why we here at Columbia have a large and supportive mental health program. I make no claim to understand Romo’s own personal struggles better than he himself does, but it seems wrongheaded to adopt his vision based upon compartmentalization and generalization. What we can and should do, however, is ensure that we in our community are compassionate, understanding, and tolerant of one another, that we accept our differences and celebrate our diversity, and that we vociferously and stridently reject discrimination and prejudice in all its forms. That, rather than assigning blame for the past, seems a better way to ensure the well-being of our community and help those among us facing such challenges overcome them.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.
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