By Doug Talley
February is Black History Month. I used to think that it was just for black people. I am such an idiot. Though I am sure it gives black people an opportunity to make new discoveries and to reinforce black history to their kids, I now realize it is an opportunity for white people to get more informed. The past shapes the future. And most of us white people are still living in denial when it comes to the way black people have been and are treated in the United States, and how our treatment has negatively impacted multiple generations of people (white included) and even our culture.
This month I am reading a book about racialized trauma that is really challenging me and giving me incredible insight. The title is My Grandmother’s Hands, by Resmaa Menakem. The author has an incredible resume that includes significant work in the area of trauma counseling and consulting for civilians, law enforcement, and the military. In the book he applies his trauma expertise to the impact multiple generations of racism has had on blacks, whites and law enforcement.
Trauma, according to Psychology Today, is “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event. Sufferers may develop emotional disturbances such as extreme anxiety, anger, sadness, survivor’s guilt, or PTSD. They may experience ongoing problems with sleep or physical pain, encounter turbulence in their personal and professional relationships, and feel a diminished sense of self-worth due to the overwhelming amount of stress.”
I used to think that trauma only affected our brains and emotions. Menakem suggests it also affects our bodies as it is absorbed in our bodies and produces unconscious physiological and behavioral responses. He thinks the effects of trauma on a person, including racialized trauma, can actually be passed from one generation to another. He doesn’t mean that the trauma itself is inherited like the color of one’s eyes or the shape of one’s nose. Rather, he is convinced that the chemicals released when trauma occurs, especially repeated trauma, have a lasting effect on us physiologically and can also have an effect on our children.
Here’s an insight that really caught my eye: the racialized trauma endured by black people, Native Americans, Hispanics and other people groups AFFECTS white people, too. When whites see someone mistreated or brutalized or if whites mistreat or brutalize someone, they are also harmed and in some ways traumatized. That means all people involved in racialized trauma – the perpetrator, the victim, and even the bystander – are harmed and violated. Their bodies absorb and internalize the injury.
In our country we have had 400 years of racialized trauma that has affected blacks, whites, Native Americans, Jews, Hispanics, and other people groups. According to Menakem thinking, that is like toxic chemicals being poured into our bodies. So to combat racism he says we aren’t just dealing with cognitive matters of how people think about race. We are also dealing with how the trauma of previous generations has affected the part of the brain that reacts to perceived threat or danger (sometimes called the lizard brain.)
Menakem writes about the damage that has been done to all people groups by what he calls “white-body supremacy.” During the Middle Ages, white bodies traumatized, tortured and killed white bodies. Torture was a spectator sport. People watched people do gruesome things to other people and were more deeply affected by that than they realized. Many traumatized white people in England were among those who colonized the United States. These included grandparents and children.
The Middle Ages also began lifting up the white body as the standard by which all other people were evaluated (white-body supremacy). So for hundreds of years in Europe before the United States was even established, the white body was viewed by white people as superior or dominant. Escalating in the early 1600s, this mindset left the door wide open for blacks to be dehumanized to the point of becoming property owned by whites. Slavery inflicted incredible and horrendous trauma on black people as they were caged, bought and sold, separated from their families, undernourished, beaten, murdered, brutalized, and raped. The level of trauma endured by black people for the last 400 years is heart breaking, cruel, overwhelming, lasting and ungodly.
All humans have a lizard brain. Psychology Today describes it as “the oldest part of the brain [that] is responsible for primitive survival instincts such as aggression and fear (“flight or fight”).” This part of the brain lacks the ability to think. It just reacts and is affected by events we experience. When it senses threat or danger, it becomes protective and focuses on survival. It will do whatever it thinks is necessary to keep us safe. All sensory input passes through this lizard brain. Trauma impacts the functioning of the lizard brain and can cause people to act in ways that may seem out of context. But the behavior always makes sense to the part of the brain fighting for your survival. Racialized trauma influences the lizard brain to react to situations and people in ways that may make no sense to the cognitive part of the brain or to others.
The trauma inflicted by white bodies on black bodies doesn’t just traumatize black bodies. It damages everyone, including white bodies. You can’t help but be significantly affected by seeing other people grossly mistreated and horrendously harmed. There is also incredible trauma experienced by those who perpetuate the mistreatment, torture, rape and killing of others. So white-body supremacy traumatizes whites, as well as blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics and other people groups. Isn’t it bizarre to think that this made up myth of race has led to deep pain and hurt due to people treating other people as though they were less than human? And just as bizarre to realize that this trauma may be kind of like a contagious disease that is passed from one body to another for multiple generations – unless it is healed.
Children are highly susceptible to this historical trauma. Menakem, speaking from his expertise in trauma, says the effects of it can pass from generation to generation. This does not mean that prejudice and racism are inherited, but that bodily responses to trauma are intensified and become incredibly subconscious as they pass from generation to generation.
So, Doug, what’s your point? Menakem explains that just teaching our brains about the fallacy of race will not end prejudice and racism because white-body supremacy doesn’t just live in our thinking brains. “It lives and breathes in our bodies…Our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our cognitive brains…The body is where we fear, hope, and react; where we constrict and release, and where we reflexively fight, flee, or freeze” (Menakem, p. 5).
Trauma not only happens to us but also in us. The way the body responds to trauma is designed to stop or limit its negative impact on us, i.e. the damage it causes. It is the body’s way of trying to protect us from events that are perceived as threatening, hostile, and dangerous. Unfortunately, it can also cause us to react or over-react in the present in ways that seem highly incongruous and out of proportion to the reality of the moment. But to the body, our behavior always makes perfect sense.
Menakem says, “… destruction will continue until Americans of all cultures and colors learn to acknowledge the inherited trauma of white-body supremacy embedded in all our bodies. We need to metabolize this trauma; work through it with our bodies (not just our thinking brains)…”
I realize his words may push some of your buttons. That’s OK. Being challenged to think about racism having trauma components has been good for me. I’m not suggesting that everything Menakem writes is necessarily accurate. What I want this article to do is challenge you to think that maybe racism is more than just a cognitive issue with a 100% cognitive solution. Maybe racism doesn’t just affect the thinking part of the brain. Maybe healing racism is not just a matter of unlearning and relearning.
Changing one’s thinking to equally embrace all people as being of equal worth and value is important. Understanding people different from us is important. Developing relationship across racial barriers is important. But maybe the impact/trauma of racism goes deeper than just learning new information. Maybe every part of our being (mental, intellectual, physical, spiritual, etc.) needs to experience healing. Why don’t you give that some thought?
Great article. Thanks for sharing it and your thoughts. It helps to put some perspective on today’s conversations about so many things bring seen as “racist” and as “white privileged”.