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What Dahmer teaches us about racial bias in the way we see trauma

Illustration of Jeffrey Dahmer's glasses on a black background
ircydraw | Vecteezy

Opinion by Doaa Morsy Abdel Kader

Dahmer isn't just a retelling of a serial killer's crimes. It's a perfect example of how racial biases in our understanding of mental health issues can lead to unspeakable consequences

A controversial new series, Dahmer, fictionalises the life and crimes of Jeffery Dahmer, an American serial killer and sexual offender from Milwaukee, during the 1980s and early 90s. While the show depicts the bleakness and brutality of his horrific crimes – which included murder, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism of seventeen men and boys – the scenes that were most daunting and lingered in my mind far long after I turned my TV off were not the details of Dahmer’s murders, but the ones that displayed the systemic injustice that seemed to allow him to get away again and again.

In the show, during a trial for the second-degree sexual assault of a 13 year-old boy, the judge tells Dahmer kindly that he reminds him of his grandson and how he doesn’t look like a guy who belongs in the correctional system. “You need a second chance and this is your lucky day because I am going to give it to you,” exclaims the judge, before placing Dahmer on probation for a year. In several other scenes, Dahmer is able to easily dissuade police officers from investigating him, while in a dizzying contrast, officials seemed indifferent to the pleads and sometime clear evidence provided by Dahmer’s neighbours and his victims’ families.

The glaring difference is that Dahmer’s victims and his neighbours were people of colour. I wondered, as I watched, how it might have been to face such terror, to then feel unheard and be denied support and justice.

A blinkered view of trauma

From a mental health perspective, trauma is understood to be the result of a single or repeated experience that is perceived as a threat to one’s physical or emotional safetythat negatively impacts an individual’s wellbeing.

Until 1980, the psychological study and definition of trauma, had a predominantly individualised focus; conceptualising trauma as the inability to cope with an overwhelmingly stressful event. This narrow view ignored wider racial, cultural, and political influences and hence, defined pathology and catered interventions solely focused on the patient suffering from trauma. Trauma was understood as something wrong with the person, rather something that happened to them. This view not only presented an opportunity to place blame on the person themselves, but also overlooked many important factors in understanding and preventing trauma.

However, following the Vietnam War, a shift occurred in the US as political and social changes demanded acknowledgement of the impact of war on both civilians and soldiers. Trauma was then reshaped with emphasis on external stressors as the main cause of the distress people face.

While war poses as a clear source of stress and trauma, racism and systemic racial injustice seem more insipid and in the early stages of being studied and understood.


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The influence of systemic racial injustice

Systemic racism represents societal policies and practices that create and maintain an unfair advantage to some individuals and unfair treatment of other individuals based on their perceived race. People of colour live in a world with overt and covert messages of being different or less than and with economic, political, educational and social systems that are formed by and favours the white race. This paints a different picture of the experience of trauma in light of unjust system.

We can try to envision the complexity of navigating the world as a person of colour by imagining living with questions such as:

  • If I speak up will my voice be heard?

  • If I am in need of help will others support me?

  • Does my pain matter?

  • Is my point of view respected and believed?

  • If I make a mistake how will I be perceived and treated?

As depicted in Dahmer, this was – and still is – sadly a reality. A person of colour might have had experiences that again and again, based merely on race, left them with a legacy of feelings of mistrust of others and systems, of helplessness and hopelessness, and of fear. In one scene, Ron, one of Dahmer’s victims who managed to escape, expresses clearly to a police officer that he was drugged by Dahmer and that he tried to kill him. The police officer is depicted in the show leaning back in his chair, without any compassion and no real interest in investigating the accusations. He states that there is no evidence and Ron, exasperated, asks “you are going to take the word of a white guy who’s got a criminal record over the word of a black man who doesn’t have a criminal record?”

This reality of injustice adds a burden to any person of colour facing the difficulties of life. As Audre Lorde, an African American poet and feminist, expressed in one of her poems:

For those of us

who were imprinted with fear

like a faint line in the center of our foreheads

learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk

for by this weapon

this illusion of some safety to be found

the heavy-footed hoped to silence us, For all of us

this instant and this triumph

We were never meant to survive.

What the show highlighted was viewing trauma, and its horrendous continuity, in the frame of a racist world. How frustratingly lenient and at times negligent the system at the time was towards the crimes of a white serial killer, empowering him and failing to provide care and justice to people of colour. It also depicted the fighting spirit that the victims’ families and neighbours had in the face of trauma.

The power of resilience

Outside of the clear bias and flawed judicial system at the heart of the investigations into Dahmer’s killings, there was one positive that could be seen in the victims’ families and neighbours: resilience.

Defined as one’s ability to ‘bounce back’ after being exposed to adversity and experiencing positive psychological adaptation, resilience was clearly demonstrated by Dahmer’s neighbours and victims’ families through their sheer perseverance to be heard and to bring him to justice, as well as in the bonds they formed to find support and meaning to their experiences of loss and suffering.

The question here is whether stopping horrendous acts like those committed by Dahmer would happen if we only focus on promoting resilience and empowering people of colour or would it require the radical change of societal and judicial systems to identify racial imbalances and address them?


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