Why Understanding Abuse & Trauma is Necessary for Social Justice Work

A man with dark brown skin and black locks down past his shoulders sits on a couch with his head in his hands, covering his face. He looks deeply upset.There is a woman sitting across from him who appears to be a counselor of some kind.

CN: disturbing statistics regarding intimate partner violence, extensive discussion of the impact of abuse, trauma, marginalization and the intersection of all three; brief discussion of trauma-based mental illnesses, and oppression as a result of race, LGBT status, socio-economic background, and/or physical/mental ability. 

The focus of Yopp has always been to discuss all things related to social justice and civil rights. But another important topic that emerged fairly early on was issues related to abuse and trauma. Without much thought, we started writing a number of articles specifically about the experience of being abused, the aftermath, what recovery looks like, etc. We never really considered that the connection between abuse and trauma, and social justice may not be obvious to everyone. 

And then we got ready to publish our upcoming poetry book, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery,” which tells the story of our experiences in an abusive relationship and the processing of that abuse, using Yopp as our primary platform to market the book. It felt like a fitting home for the book. But why? It occurred to us that it might be valuable to spell out these connections in article form. 

Lack of Educational Resources

One of the primary reasons we started this blog is that social justice as a topic is not consistently taught in a school setting meaning that each individual person is left to their own devices to teach themselves what social justice is and the required knowledge base for applying it to daily life. 

The topics of trauma and abuse have a similar background. While the existence and recognition of abuse signs are slowly making their way into school curriculums, it’s still not consistent. Plus, there are many adults who have long graduated who never learned anything about either subject in school. This creates a need for resources that teach the ins and outs of abuse and trauma, and creating educational resources is exactly what this blog is for

A child of around 7 years old with black, messy hair and light olive skin sits in a school desk, his elbow resting on the side of the desk. He is alone in the middle of many empty desks and he looks slightly confused or concerned.

A Large Overlap Between Trauma Victims and Marginalized Individuals

The Venn diagram between survivors of trauma and multiply marginalized people widely overlaps for multiple reasons. 

People Are Oppressed for Being Mentally Ill

One impact of trauma is the resulting mental illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, and a number of others. Mental illness is, itself an axis of oppression. As we explained in our article, “Who Is Marginalized?”:

Similar to people with physical disabilities, people with mental illnesses and cognitive impairments struggle with receiving proper accommodation and accessing adequate medical care, but they also deal with social stigma around medication, dismissal due to the invisible nature of their disability, stereotypes of dangerous and violent behavior associated with mental illness, and high rates of homelessness due to the difficulty of accessing care.” 

Understanding trauma, therefore, means also understanding the specific challenges this marginalized group is facing and how to support them. 

Oppression Causes Trauma

While we all know that the impacts of oppression can be deeply upsetting, we now know that it also causes PTSD. A study found that not only are the experience of racial microaggressions associated with symptoms of trauma, but also trauma symptoms were more prevalent in participants who were queer, trans, or came from a low socio-economic background

Logically, this makes perfect sense. Overt discrimination can be life-threatening, and the true purpose of microaggressions is to create a constant atmosphere that reminds the marginalized person that life-threatening actions are always a possibility around the corner. Even if you are never a victim of a hate crime, living your life being treated as inferior, burdensome, or invisible is deeply disempowering in a way that is inescapable. 

Understanding trauma is necessary to understand the full impact that oppression has on marginalized people. 

Trauma Survivors Are Disproportionately Marginalized

In case the last two points didn’t already create enough overlap between trauma and marginalization, the existence of other forms of marginalization makes people more likely to experience trauma in life, in addition to trauma from discrimination. 

a light skinned woman with brown hair tied back in a pony tale, a beige sweatshirt, sitting in a manual wheelchair, is sitting by herself next to a window, drinking coffee, looking pensive.

For example, one of the key aspects of the oppression disabled people face is poverty, since finding a job that will accommodate a person’s disabilities and pay bills that are often higher as a result of the disability, is frequently difficult, if not impossible. Many disabled people cannot work at all. And with institutional support for disabled people being so hard to access, disabled people are frequently dependent on family and romantic partners to financially support them. This is theorized to be one of the main reasons that disabled women are far more likely to experience intimate partner violence than non-disabled women and men or even disabled men. 

When many different angles of your life are difficult in ways that they aren’t for other people, and when support is not consistently available to cope with these difficulties, it makes those people more vulnerable to suffering traumas that are unrelated or only tangentially related to their original sources of marginalization. 

The experience of trauma and the existence of marginalization are inextricably linked with one another. 

Abuse Dynamics Mirror Oppressive Dynamics

While experiencing abuse on an individual level is very different from the collective oppression enforced by society, understanding individual cases of abuse can actually make it easier to understand the dynamics at play between oppressors and marginalized groups. 

Most abusive relationships are built around an uneven power dynamic of some kind, whether that be due to age, familial obligations, financial dependency, or some other form of marginalization. As such, you see a lot of the same behaviors from abusers toward their victims as you see from members of a privileged group toward a member of a marginalized group: Scrutiny and distrust that is disproportionate to the victim’s actual actions; having control over necessary resources; misplacing responsibility for everything that goes wrong on the victim; even abusers’ tendency to hide the abusive behaviors under a “nice” facade while in public, closely mirrors what marginalized people go through at the hands of their oppressors. 

Sometimes it is easier to conceive of complex power dynamics in terms of individual people than it is to think of it on a collective level, making abuse a valuable metaphor for teaching oppression. 

This is particularly clear when we see the lack of institutional support for domestic abuse survivors or children in abusive families. Just as their abusers deprioritized their needs and compromised their access to meeting basic needs, so does society ignore the need for help among the most vulnerable groups. Victims are even blamed for ending up in toxic relationships in the first place. 

Lack of Institutional Support for Abuse Victims/Survivors

One of the goals of social justice work is to make societal changes necessary to better support marginalized populations and to change the systems that created their marginalization in the first place. One of the groups that need the benefits of this work is abuse victims. 

When resources like housing, medical care, child care, and financial support are easily accessible, victims are more likely to leave their abusive relationships and not return, thereby increasing their relative safety. But when society fails to provide pathways to accessing those resources, victims often have no choice but continue to risk their physical and emotional safety in order to survive. Domestic violence shelters are notoriously underfunded, especially when it comes to federal support.

There is a similar lack of institutional support for abuse survivors in our legal system. In 2019, only 52% of domestic violence incidents were reported to police. Once the abuse had been reported, even in states that by law require an arrest if a police officer determines that probable cause for the abuse exists, perpetrators are only arrested around 50% of the time. And if an arrest is made, victims face a field of landmines in pursuing legal action, including social pressure to drop the charges, threats of retaliatory violence, and the daunting task of reliving the trauma in front of an audience of strangers. As a result, one estimation says that up to 80% of victims who reported domestic violence to the police will back out of testifying or pursuing charges

Plus, despite the fact that approximately one in five homicide victims is killed by a domestic partner, until recently, abusive partners with restraining orders against them were allowed to hold onto any firearms they owned if the couple in question wasn’t legally married. 

We need to recognize and understand the seriousness of the risks abuse victims/survivors face in order to build the structures needed to support them in society.  

Focusing on the Individual

When we talk about the widespread impact of oppression on collective populations, it can be difficult to connect to the reality of that impact if it doesn’t affect you. The larger the number of people affected, the harder it is for our brains to comprehend what that means. 

When someone discusses their marginalization in terms of an individual trauma they suffered, or in terms of trauma responses they developed in response to long-term exposure to macro and microaggressions, the marginalization becomes easier to connect to and understand. It’s much easier to become invested in and empathize with the story of one person’s horrible experience than to do so in response to a statistic concerning millions of people. 

Understanding Yourself

I tend to assume that the majority of our blog’s audience is marginalized in at least one way and maybe also trying to better understand the experience of other marginalized groups. As such, there’s a very good chance that the majority of people reading our blog have experienced some kind of trauma at some point in their lives. 

And one of our biggest goals in writing for this blog has been to better prepare you to engage with social justice issues by better understanding yourself

A woman stares into her own reflection in a bus window.

The world does not do a good job of acknowledging the oppressive structures that it runs on. Many people deny that those structures are there at all and claim that it’s “Just the way things are.” As a result, you may grow up facing extra struggles as a result of your marginalization and not have words for what is happening to you or your resulting emotions. Or perhaps you are well aware that you’re regularly discriminated against because you are a member of a marginalized class but you have not had the opportunity to view those experiences through the lens of trauma. 

Trauma responses can be scary and overwhelming. Oppressors love to characterize upset marginalized people as overdramatic and hysterical and if you don’t know that some of the feelings you’re experiencing are part of a trauma response, you could end up believing that you’re being overdramatic and hysterical too. And nothing is worse for a panic attack than telling yourself “I shouldn’t be panicking! Stop panicking!” But you aren’t being hysterical. Your mind and body are trying to keep you alive. And facing a micro or macro aggression is another reminder that your survival is conditional in the society you live in. Your mind and body are behaving in a completely reasonable way to the reoccurring barriers you are facing. 

I am very much hoping that if you hadn’t already seen the value in learning about abuse and trauma as part of your social justice education, that you will now. Here are some articles we’ve written on the subject to further your learning: 

About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.


Buy Our Debut Book of Poetry:
Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery

Order your copy now

A graphic advertising the book Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery. The book cover is displayed on the left: The word "Pet" is in a large, white, painted font on top of an illustration. There is a cage in the bottom left corner, with a lock and key. There are progressing waves of lighter shades of grey blue in different textures, separated by lines of gold foil. There is a beige bird flying into the top right corner. The graphic repeats the title and subtitle and also says "Order Now!" in all caps and "A collection of poetry you'll read from cover to cover."After many months of work, our self-published poetry book is now available for pre-order for both print and ebook!

Why You Will Want to Order “Pet”

“Pet” is a poem sequence that navigates the reader through the traumatic & transformative journey of domestic abuse and its aftermath.

Written in four parts, “Pet” explores what it means to lose the sense of self to the coercion of violence; the world-shattering revelation, grief, and uncertainty after the escape; the ache of hindsight; and the quiet strength found in healing. Kella Hanna Wayne’s debut collection of poems is a story of self-denial and self-discovery; A book of poetry to be read cover to cover, and then over again.


At Yopp we're dedicated to providing educational material for social justice that emphasizes the individual experience of lived oppression and helps you understand the whole picture instead of memorizing do's & don'ts.


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