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‘Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory’ Adds Another Devastating Layer to Recent Shootings

After having spent the first 17 years of my life in Southern California, I finally returned to my home state in 2021, living this time in San Mateo County where Half Moon Bay is. Having since moved 3,000 miles away to Boston, my memories of California are now tainted with grief from the two recent mass shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park that resulted in innocent people’s deaths, injuries, and immeasurable grief.

Like many others, I worried these were racist attacks against people of Asian and Latino descent, given the context of anti-Asian, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, and pro-white nationalist rhetoric, hate, and violence.

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However, both alleged shooters were Asian men who opened fire on their own communities: other Asian people in Monterey Park and other Asian people and Latinos in Half Moon Bay. Many Asian Americans around the country are reeling from the violent murders themselves, as well as grappling with how this violence could come from inside the Asian American community. As Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said: “He chose to do harm on his fellow Asian Americans, so I think that’s kind of like that additional level of hurt.”

What is this additional level of hurt? Why does it exist?

My research with cultural betrayal trauma theory provides some insight. The crux of cultural betrayal trauma theory is fairly intuitive. It is that Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC), as well as other marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ community, develop solidarity with each other to protect ourselves from the discrimination and oppression we face. In Monterey Park, that solidarity was in the cultural celebration of the Lunar New Year. These are spaces for communities to live more freely from the laws and policies against our humanity and the indignities of dehumanization from other people’s bigotry. These spaces are ours.

When violence happens within these spaces—perpetrated by one of our own—it has an “additional hurt,” known as cultural betrayal, because it violates that solidarity. As Frances Wang, reporter at NBC Philadelphia tweeted, “Victims were of Asian descent. Suspects are of Asian descent. It’s the Lunar New Year. What is happening. Does it ever stop.”

A cultural betrayal in violence can make dangerous the places, spaces, and relationships that we so need to be safe. Why? Our society of white supremacist discrimination and oppression is the reason why many feared that white people’s racist hate was the motivation for these murderous shootings. As painful as that would have been, what could have remained was solidarity within the Asian American community—the notion that “we still have us, and we will support each other as we combat this violent oppression.” With the alleged shooters both being of Asian descent, the solidarity and safety within the “us” is tarnished.

Read More: What Dancing Means to Asian American Elders Like My Parents

This additional hurt of cultural betrayal is indicated in my research with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). In a study I conducted in 2015, AAPI participants completed a survey that asked about their mental health and experiences of physical, sexual, and psychological violence. The research findings show that violence within the community is linked with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hallucinations, and hypervigilance. Importantly, when the impact of violence from outsiders is statistically accounted for, cultural betrayal trauma is still linked with these mental health outcomes.

With the same methodology of surveys, our research with Latinos has similar findings: cultural betrayal within physical violence, psychological violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, race-based violence, and police brutality, impacts mental and physical health, especially when the perpetrators are strangers. Future research can further examine if this cultural betrayal harm exists between communities of color, as was the case in the alleged shooter’s murders of both Asian people and Latinos in Half Moon Bay. Together, what this research is showing is that yes, the violence is harmful, and cultural betrayal in that violence explains even more harm.

When cultural betrayal tragedies occur, it can be easy to reprise stereotypes of the marginalized group to place the blame for violence on them, while also justifying dominant society’s discrimination against them. This discriminatory blame doesn’t just come from outsiders—it can come from inside the communities in question, too.

In one of my research studies, BIPOC participants completed surveys that asked about their experiences of physical, sexual, and psychological violence, as well as the thoughts they believed about their communities, such as endorsing negative racial stereotypes about their own group, known as internalized prejudice. The findings show that even when statistically accounting for violence perpetrated by outsiders, cultural betrayal trauma is associated with the cultural harm of internalized prejudice: When the “us” is infiltrated with prejudice against ourselves, then what are we left with?

While research hasn’t shown whether internalized prejudice and its associations with cultural betrayal trauma are sustained over time, one thing is clear: Internalized anti-Asian hate from these mass murders is a heavy burden that does not need to be added to an already devastating situation. Violence is a human problem—not a minority problem.

The ultimate cause of cultural betrayal has always been in front of our noses: discrimination—discrimination within our institutions, governments, policies, and society. After all, it is the discrimination that threatens our lives and livelihoods routinely. It is the discrimination that creates the need for protection from white capitalist society in the U.S. It is the discrimination that would manipulate these tragedies in California into a vehicle to spew more hate, more harm, and more violent policies.

As we bear witness to the impact of these murderous violent acts that have stolen lives and fractured communities, now is the time to create space for silence, stillness, respect, reverence, and mourning. Now is the time for solidarity and healing from these mass shootings and murders, from the enduringly volatile discrimination against Asian and Latino Americans, and from the cultural betrayal that discrimination produces in the violence. Now is the time for creating a world in which both violence and cultural betrayal are replaced with peace and equality.