I discovered something interesting about the nervous system when I went to see a counselor several years ago. Fight or flight aren’t the only responses to stress. There is a third: freeze. That made a lot of sense to me. I knew it well.
Resmaa Menakem, a Black anti-racism teacher who wrote My Grandmother’s Hands, explains that racism is a story held in our bodies, and we need to treat it at the nervous system level, before we can really make any structural changes that will stick. And we need to understand that it’s not us. It’s inherited. And it’s inherited in such a way that we have no context or understanding for why we’d flinch if we saw a police officer, or a person of a different skin colour. We don’t understand. We just have a nervous system response. But we can train our nervous systems.
I’ve shared before how much I appreciate his approach, because it gives us a little bit of detachment, for dealing with something deeply charged. It’s much harder for me to talk about racism when it’s framed as white vs not-white, as an identity. I don’t really identify as a white person. Like, it’s not even in the top 20 markers I would use to describe or introduce myself, unless I’m filling out some government form, and even then, I never really understand the relevance. (I recognize this is privilege.)
But, when we start talking about nervous systems and bodies, I don’t feel defensive. I just feel curious. And more compassionate. Like, what’s happening in your nervous system right now? What’s happening in mine? Oh, that’s why we’re arguing. Oh that’s why you’re being so block-headed and defensive and arguing about the definition of a word. Oh, that’s why I’m feeling so outraged. It’s our nervous systems doing their thing, responding to perceived threats, and using the old patterns that are embedded in us by our childhoods.
“Trauma, decontextualised, can look like personality, in a person. Can look like culture in a people.”
In a recent instagram post, Menakem explains why “white bodies freeze under the weight of racialised trauma.”
“Imagine,” he says, “that you’re a seven year old little white girl, and your daddy comes home. You love your daddy. He says, get your coat, I’m taking you to the park. You get out and see other little boys and girls in the park, and some of them are your friends, and you see all the people you grew up with in the park. Also, you smell something you’ve never smelled before. You keep playing. And people are barbecuing and having a good time. And your daddy takes you into a clearing and you see that the smell is a pile of black bodies being burned. And everyone is acting normal.”
Horror that is sanctioned, that you witness and that makes you recoil in horror, creates a traumatized response – you learn, as a child, to suppress those emotions because noone else seems to be having them – and this deep freeze response to something that is so evidently wrong and horrific that even a child can tell, can be passed down, and over time it looks like personality. Detachment. Denial. Freeze. Turning away.
There are particular somatic things you can individually, to work through that tendency to freeze – to freeze at horrific injustice, which there must have been a lot of witnessing to, over the years and years and years. The years of residential schools, of smallpox, of massacres, of slavery, of lynchings, of mass rapes, of concentration camps, of wars, of refugee camps, of civil wars, of witch hunts… there’s no shortage of horrific things experienced through history. And those experiences landed in people’s bodies. Ordinary people. People who had children. And though they may not have passed the stories of the experiences down, they passed on the genetic effects. The trauma is encoded in the body, as ways of responding to stress or certain skin colour.
But Menakem says, there are also collective things we can do, to process that, to do our part to end racism – we need to do it together, he says, “because when a trauma has a weightedness to it, such that no matter what I do when it shows up, I cannot assuage it, many times [the necessary medicine is] communal. And because white people have not developed an embodied anti-racist culture and philosophy, there’s no place to go. So the closest you can get to it is yoga. Or different things that help you dissociate from it, rather than develop a culture that can begin to hold it, so you can begin to emerge up out of it.”
Just as the feminist call to dismantle the patriarchy and end toxic masculinity is not meant to set up women vs men, but to liberate everyone from a culture of power-domination and scarcity and violence and bullying, including men, ending racism is not a set-up of white vs BIPOC. Everyone is liberated from the violence and trauma of a racist system. We all get to flourish. But the work can’t be on the shoulders of BIPOC people. As white people, we can’t ask them to liberate us from our own racist ideas and thinking and frozenness…
Ending racism and resolving the tendency of white bodies to freeze under the weight of racialised trauma, is not an individual question, says Menakem. It’s a communal question. “So begin to get with other white bodies – not for a book club, or a cooking group – but specifically around race. Because race has a charge to it. And working with that charge will allow white people to begin to challenge the ugly, creepy, musty, low places that you don’t challenge in polite company. And you have to begin to challenge that.”
Quite the call to action, isn’t it?