Racialized trauma and learning how to heal (#17)

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Amy Hageman
May 23, 2023
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Amy Hageman writes about racialized trauma and healing. She courageously speaks out about what many feel, yet are afraid to even think.

Here is another guest post by Amy Hageman. She courageously speaks out about what many feel, yet are afraid to even think to themselves, much less say aloud.


But Whiteness doesn’t define me! Or does it?

As many White people would agree, I used to believe that my “Whiteness” was not a defining aspect of who I am. I would have said that my spiritual beliefs, passions, and creativity were much bigger parts of who I am than my skin color. Of course, any person of color in this country would have known better and probably would have chosen not to correct me. After all, White comfort is always the priority; when White people are not comfortable, other people get hurt.1

After all, White comfort is always the priority; when White people are not comfortable, other people get hurt.

– Amy Hageman

With this understanding I’ve been doing a deep dive into the question: What does it mean to be White? How much is my Whiteness actually affecting me? I’m not referring to the economic, social, and security advantages that I’ve been learning about for years. More recently I’ve been looking very specifically at my body.

This new question has been inspired by Resmaa Menakem’s2 work studying racialized trauma. Menakem is a trauma specialist whose work is based on the recent studies of epigenetics,3 demonstrating how trauma can be passed down fourteen generations or more.

Resmaa Menakem sitting in a library

Before you read the rest of this post I want you to know two things about me, not as the author, but as the human being who is sharing her experience.

First, I am a highly sensitive and kinesthetic person; I relate to people emotionally and physically. It is one of my lifetime goals to make the human emotional experience something to be celebrated, not feared or shamed. I believe our emotions are one of our greatest tools and I hope to teach others how to utilize them as such.

Second, after much soul searching about my role, or my “next right steps” in the quest for social justice, I created a vision for myself. I want to live as an example of how to be a White antiracist person in a White supremacist culture.

The journey for White people has to start at the most basic level – our own lived experiences. White people need to be able to tell one another how we think and how we feel if we are ever going to remove racism from our genetic code and our culture.

Some may wonder why a White middle-class woman would dare talk about her trauma in today’s climate. I can and will because no group is free of a history of trauma. I deeply believe that until White people acknowledge our own trauma, we will not be capable of empathy for those whose trauma has been much more visible. Our suppressed emotions block our empathy. I am committed to getting in touch with my own trauma as part of my commitment to an antiracist life and world.

Because I feel so strongly about this, my post is a deeply personal sharing of my own physical emotions regarding racism. If you are a person who does not easily discuss emotion, this post may be a stretch for you. I invite you to read it anyway.  As Menakem explains, we can’t change cognitively without doing the emotional and somatic work.

Trauma lives on in the body

After being exposed to Menakem’s work on racialized trauma, I began to wonder how my Whiteness has affected me and potentially lives in my body.

In a recent interview with Krista Tippet of the On Being Podcast,4 Menakem asked Tippet to say the words “White supremacy” and to notice how her body felt. When I heard him say “White supremacy,” I felt a strong flash of nervous energy which started in my head and traveled down my spine. The energy felt nervous and chaotic. It took me several deep breaths to feel the energy dissipate.

a maze of lighted stairs

Then, Menakem asked Tippet to observe how her body felt hearing the words “White Body supremacy.” When I heard “White Body supremacy,” I noticed an ache in my chest that slowly expanded into my whole body. It was a more subtle reaction which lingered longer, but the energy was less uncomfortable than that of “White supremacy.”

While it would be easy for me to assume that people of color are the only ones with trauma – given our history of slavery and indigenous genocide – Menakem points out that White people who came to this country were also fleeing trauma.

During the Great Migration, nearly 80% of immigrants to the New World were indentured servants. Prior to that, White people experienced medieval times in Europe, in which torture, mutilation, and violence against women were normalized, even a spectator sport. The White bodies that emigrated to North America brought their trauma with them.5

I wonder, what did my ancestors experience? And how are their experiences shaping my comfort today? What is my comfortable body telling me to avoid that is not actually a threat, but is simply old conditioning?

Our bodies see danger when we don’t

One of the most powerful statements in Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, is this:6

The white body sees itself as fragile and vulnerable, and it looks to police bodies for safety and protection. It sees black bodies as dangerous and needing to be controlled; yet, also, as potential sources of service and comfort.

The black body sees the white body as privileged, controlling, and dangerous; it is conflicted about the police body, which it sees as sometimes a source of protection, sometimes a source of danger, and sometimes both at once.”

When I read that paragraph I finally understood a physical phenomenon I had been experiencing. For years I’ve been reprogramming my mind to get rid of learned societal racism. I have Black friends, I support Black businesses, I donate to social justice organizations – so why on earth am I sometimes uncomfortable around Black people who I have every reason to believe are no threat to me?

I now understand that my body is trained and conditioned into this behavior.

Understanding more about what takes place in my body has been profound. Recently, I have been able to observe my discomfort and get clear about whether it’s a rational response to an outer circumstance, or if it’s irrational. I’m not perfect at this. It can be hard to distinguish gut instinct for danger from my physical conditioning around trauma – but I imagine that, as with many skills, practice makes perfect.

Having uncomfortable conversations to heal racial trauma

Menakem also taught me how harmful my conversations with my Black friends can be.7 He advocates that White people talk to other White people. For me, this will be my next step in personal change.

I have had many conversations about racism in America, usually with Black people or in mixed groups. The conversations I have had with other White people have been too superficial to effect change.

In hindsight, I recognize that they stayed superficial because at the earliest signs of discomfort, White people usually fight, flight, or freeze – which points back to Menakem’s thesis that White bodies expect to be comfortable and perceive themselves as fragile. When White people are not comfortable it can feel like our lives are in danger.

As a White woman, I need to learn how to tolerate discomfort. As I work my way through Menakem’s book, I find his exercises to be poignant. The very first exercise was as simple as sitting down and gaining awareness of what I felt in my body while following along with some guided questions.

I repeat this exercise almost daily. If I am feeling fear I try to name it – is there a specific reason I feel fear? Does it seem unnamable? Thus far, I have noticed the unnamable fears seem to be the most uncomfortable, and also the most embedded.

There are times I experience what feels like a primal fear that is not logical but biological. These negative emotions, which feel embedded in me, are the evidence of trauma that I am in the process of healing.

Learning to shed my racist skin

When I started this journey, noticeable discomfort could quickly escalate to feeling like my life was somehow in danger. I have been amazed at how much taking time to notice what is happening within my body can release negative emotional energy and retrain my brain.

The more I repeat the practices that Menakem recommends for White bodies, the more I feel I shed my racist skin. Yes, my skin will still be White, but I am getting to shed the layers of me that are embedded with racism.

I’ve also noticed that I can think more clearly. Being able to quickly identify a cause of my emotion rather than being controlled by it is a game changer, with inherited trauma as well as daily stressors.

By doing this work, I am refusing to let biological conditioning be the driver of my behaviors, and to perpetuate the racist tendencies already taught to me by our White supremacist culture. These physical energies may have been passed down and embedded into my body, but I am determined to do the work to heal what is not serving me or my antiracist goals.

His questions heighten my awareness of my own physical reactions as well as my perceptions of race. The more I learn about my physical responses, the more I can identify what is conditioned and choose not to respond to it. Furthermore, the more I practice, the more I become accustomed to discomfort, and the more easily my body recognizes that discomfort is not necessarily a sign of a fight or flight situation.

When we all become more aware of our unconscious tendencies in regard to race and other biases, we gain more control of ourselves and our lives.

I encourage you all to practice observing your body and its physical reactions to stimuli regarding race. Take deep breaths. Consider finding purposeful ways to heal the trauma that has accumulated in your body, both genetically and since you were born.

As a White woman, I now understand that by healing my body first, I can be a more effective change agent in the quest for social justice.

a wooden oar in a river

Amy Hageman

Junior Associate, Leading Consciously

Amy has a Masters of Science in Positive Organizational Development. She lives in Houston TX, is 34 years old, and is doing her part to create a world in which Black Lives Matter. 

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Where are you called to change in the context of racial inequities and trauma?
  2. How is your body with its emotional experience driving your behavior?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Check to see if you are making cultural assumptions
  • Avoid emotional suppression
  • Clear negative emotions
  • Build positive emotions
  • Develop an awareness of your own stereotyping tendencies and biases and learn how to manage them
  • Accept responsibility for your own contribution
  • Surface undiscussables

#ChangeStartsWithMe   #BeAccountable   #WhitePeoplesHomework  #SomaticBodyWork #RacialTrauma   #BridgingDifferences

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.    

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[1]   Rachel D. Godsil & L. Song Richardson, Racial Anxiety, Iowa Law Review Vol: 122

[2]   About Resmaa

[3]   Can trauma be passed to the next generation through DNA. (8/31/2015). PBS Newsletter.

[4]   Menakem, R. (June 4, 2020). Notice the rage; Notice the silence: On Being with Krista Tippett.

[5]   Menakem, R. (n.d.). Healing your thousand-year-old trauma: Garrison Institute.

[6]   Menakem, R. (2017). My Grandmother's Hands : Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies: Central Recovery Press; Illustrated Edition, p. 30

[7]   Menakem, R. (2020). #262: Why we're all suffering from racial trauma (even White people). In D. Harris (Ed.), 10% Happier.