On Healing Racial Trauma

As you read on, I invite you to notice your body.

A trauma experience that is often left out of conversations is one of race.

It may be difficult, perhaps seemingly far-fetched, to consider that race and trauma coincide, or that they even exist in our individual or collective bodies. However, because of the manner in which our nervous system processes information and experiences of race and racism, both of which are so much a part of our American history and culture, it would be neglectful from a mental health standpoint to discount the mark that a societal history of racialization leaves in all our bodies.

Whether it is experiencing our own racial identities, witnessing another person’s experiences of racism, learning about race as inherited from our ancestors or families, the internalization of racism or the perpetuation of it, we find ourselves the consumers of all that is race. We embody it. The enduring emotional toll and physical shock arising from race that translates into trauma are stored in our bodies and remain as unprocessed memories. We also know from research that trauma unchecked or unhealed generates trauma.

Pause here for a moment. Take a moment to pay attention to your body. What do you notice?

I am reminded of the work of a healer, trauma therapist, and author, Resmaa Menakem. He articulated thoughtfully this concept of racialized trauma being present in all our bodies, regardless of our background or skin color. He relayed that in being part of American culture we have inherited a legacy of historical or intergenerational racial trauma that is perpetuated through white-body supremacy.

Specifically, Menakem noted that black bodies intimately know trauma through the historic experience of slavery, the effect of structural racism, and internalized white-body supremacy, while white bodies have inherited the brutal legacy of land theft, enslavement, imperialism, and colonialism inflicted upon themselves and on others.

Pause. Turn your awareness to your body. Do you notice a constriction or a relaxation of your muscles?

As Menakem explained the embodiment of trauma, he stated in part, “The body is where we live. It’s where we fear, hope, and react. It’s where we constrict and relax. And what the body most cares about are safety and survival. When something happens to the body that is too much, too fast, or too soon, it overwhelms the body and can create trauma. . .Trauma always happens in the body. It is a spontaneous protective mechanism used by the body to stop or thwart further (or future) potential damage.”

Over time, he noted that a trauma response can start to appear as part of the person’s personality, and as the “reflexive traumatic response loses context” (i.e., the origin of the trauma is not remembered) and becomes internalized, it starts to be viewed as a personality defect. When the traumatic response is passed from generation to generation in a particular group, it starts to be seen as culture. Phrased this way, it can be understood how we, individually and collectively, experience the embodiment of trauma from the racialization of American culture.

This legacy of trauma lives on and moves through our bodies. We may notice it as pain, sadness, frustration, anger, or rage. We may feel defensive or the need to withdraw. As a result, it becomes incredibly important that when we think about race, racism, and healing from racial trauma, we also account for our bodies, and not just our minds. As Menakem shared, “We’ve tried to teach our brains to think better about race. But white-body supremacy doesn’t live in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies.”

If in pausing and noticing your body, you felt relaxed, reading this probably felt seamless. If you noticed a discomfort, this is helpful information to know. According to Menakem, it is in acknowledging the discomfort in the body where the real healing begins. The healing is in working through the trauma in the body. Particularly, the healing lies in understanding how racial trauma shows up distinctively in each of our bodies; in knowing how our body makes connection and settles itself; in grounding ourselves; and in finding tolerance for any emotional discomfort. Most importantly, the healing of racial trauma is in slowly becoming more present with our pain. This sets the stage for allowing us to move away from our reflexive traumatic responses, and into our grounded and settled place where maximum growth, learning, and change can happen for us within this community and beyond.

For more information on racial trauma and healing, below are some books and resources: