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To change our systems, remember the body

A post on racism by Resmaa Menakem jumped out at me last week, so much so that I had to immediately read his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.

I’ve read a lot about trauma and somatics, (the body as we perceive it from within), and have done trauma recovery work myself, so I was excited that Menakem was bringing the body into the conversation about race in America.

Caveat: I’m a privileged white woman with a steep learning curve ahead of me about my role in perpetuating an unjust and racist world.

Without denying the needs for systemic social, political, economic, and judicial change, Menakem believes that both white-Americans and African-Americans hold what he calls “white-body supremacy” locked in their bodies. It influences our instinctual responses to fight, flight, or freeze in a situation. To free ourselves from our trauma-based responses, we need more awareness of the pain we carry within and how to work with it.

As an African-American expert in trauma therapy, Menakem has worked with blacks, whites, and blues (members of the police). The trauma of white-body supremacy affects members of all three groups differently, and the approach to healing needs to be different as well.


An event does not have to be deadly or horrific to trigger trauma.

Menakem writes,

“Trauma is anything the body perceives as too much, too fast, or too soon. Whenever trauma is involved, the first step in mending any relationship—or any emotional dysregulation—involves working through that trauma. And in order for someone to do that trauma work, he or she must first learn to slow down, observe his or her body, and allow it to settle.”

Our unprocessed fear reactions may show up in a slight hesitation, cringe, or a frisson of fear, when approached by a member of a different group, any of which may be tied, if but for a moment, back to white-body supremacy.

When we can’t deal with our pains, fears, and experience of abuse, we store them in the body as trauma.

Instead of dealing cleanly with our pain, we project it on to others, especially when we are afraid, triggered, and caught in the spell of white-body supremacy.

Once again, this month, we saw the tragic consequences.

What to do

Science is teaching us that fear, trauma, and prejudice can be passed down, on a cellular level, between generations. White-body supremacy goes back centuries. Many of us born in this country carry a legacy of fear deep in our bodies.

No matter how enlightened our beliefs may be, we need to consider what was loaded into our cells.

Although we can say racist reactions are very wrong (for example, the dog walker in Central Park who called the police on an African-American birder), we can’t change our beliefs by thinking alone, that is, without noticing bodily responses and our deeds. The fact that the woman claimed, “I’m not racist,” illustrates the gap that can exist between beliefs and behavior.

A personal example

Here’s how my personal trauma got mixed with a white version of white-body supremacy.

When I moved to New York City, I was mugged at gunpoint days after I arrived. I was staying with a cousin in Brooklyn Heights, not too far, it turned out, from a large housing project. I went to the corner convenience store around 7 pm for some yogurt and noticed a man buying Twinkies whose behavior seemed a little odd. My intuition didn’t register that he was casing me out.

Moments after leaving the store, he approached me with a gun and demanded, “Give me your purse.” Shaking, I handed it to him and he fled.

Physically speaking, no harm had been done. I hadn’t been hurt, and my losses, while inconvenient, were repairable. I learned to become aware of my surroundings when I walked in the city at night.

After the mugging, though, when I was alone on a street and saw a tall African-American man who looked like my assailant approaching me, my heart beat wildly and I felt a wave of reactive panic, even knowing that the sight of an African-American man did not necessarily spell danger.

I didn’t think much about the incident until years later when I attended a Story Bridge event and was paired with a man who looked a lot like my assailant. As we shared our stories, I fell in love with this stranger before me. As my heart opened, my body softened. We hugged. A wounded part of me let go.

Even with that healing, I have far to go to address the ways in which I still hold on to white body-supremacy.

Treating trauma

When it comes to freeing the trauma held in our bodies, talk-therapy may not be the best solution. The field of trauma care has developed gentle, body-based tools like Somatic Experiencing (Menakem is a practitioner,) to help us shake off and release trauma and reset the body’s nervous system.

One key to this process is learning how to settle ourselves. Menakem suggests learning to recognize when your body feels safe and at ease, and when it feels tense and threatened. With time, we can learn to find a place of safety and calm we can return to in ourselves.

Even as we protest for bold and urgent action to change unjust systems, the body requires a different approach. My experience is that it responds best to gentleness, compassion, and small steps. The body never asked for the pain that it bears. A body that’s been traumatized needs kindness and patience while it learns that it can change and let go and still be safe.

When talking about race makes us physically uncomfortable, let’s not hide from what our bodies are saying, but gently work with and through it.

We can pause, breathe, listen. We pay attention to reactions in our bodies as we speak to people who are different from us.

Hopefully, when we learn to safely release both the personal and cultural trauma caught inside of us, we can stop acting on it and passing it on to the next generation.

In his interview with Krista Tippett, Menakem says,

“I think what it means to be human is to realize that we’re ever-emerging and that we are not machines…And for me, what that means is that it’s about work. It’s about action. It’s about doing. It’s about pausing. It’s about allowing — the reason why we want to heal the trauma of racialization is that it thwarts the emergence…Let’s condition and create cultures that will allow that emergence to reign supreme…”

Let’s do the work so that our better angels can continue to emerge.


One Response

  1. I don’t feel trauma when I see a person of color. I notice that they are a different color but I don’t really think about it. My prejudice that I need to work on is Japanese women. There have been two Japanese women who married into my family and then were divorced. They both caused much pain to my family members. Their Mother’s were also mean and abusive. I’ve been trying to understand where they came from in their lineage. My one Japanese woman friend has helped me to get a perspective on what the Japanese women went through during and after the second world War II. Not a pretty picture.

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