August 2020 Blog – On “Embodied Trauma”

Posted in: Leader's Blog

New studies in epigenetics strongly support what Black Americans already know: white supremacy is passed down generation after generation. They inform Resmaa Menakem’s book,  My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.  Menakem was struck by the embodied nature of racism, realizing that picking cotton beginning at the age of four left his grandmother with “thick, stubby fingers.”

Menakem appreciated how science backed up common sense in, The Body Keeps the Score, a book by one of his teachers, Bessel van der Kolk. Neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda taught Menakem how gene expression is involved in trans-generational trauma. When environmental factors, such as this pandemic, magnify accumulated trauma, it can kill.  “The weathering effects of white body supremacy,” Menakem explains, is “why COVID-19 has run rampant through my communities.”

Menakem traces generational trauma back a millennium through “the five brutalities” of colonialism, enslavement, genocide, imperialism and land theft. But with the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Menakem’s hometown, trauma spawned protest.  Menakem, who works with Minneapolis police officers suffering from PTSD, condemned the white supremacy that allowed Derek Chauvin to murder George Floyd with a sense of impunity.

Racist myths about Black people having a higher pain threshold [see my 400 Year blog #43] mask the depth of trauma. In fact, psychologist Monnica Williams wrote about “ethnocultural allodynia,” the increasing sensitivity to pain that occurs with repeated injury.  Williams argues that Black people hide their suffering. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, in When They Call You a Terrorist, writes of how she and her siblings remained silent about constant police mistreatment “in the way we often hear of the silence of rape victims.”

Minimization of trauma only deepens the wounds. We shouldn’t pathologize the experience of Black people, some of whom felt that Dr. Joy DeGruy did in her book, the Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. But if we are to acknowledge the accumulated suffering of descendants of enslaved Africans, I believe we must listen to DeGruy and others.

Social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger calls the persistently transgenerational racial disparities in health “embodied inequality,” inequalities that Menakem thinks may take centuries to correct.  This is why he is so frustrated when white allies play the savior, display fragility, hope for quick resolutions, and request absolution.  Those who by-and-large have avoided racial trauma need to share the burden by committing to the long-term struggle against white supremacy.


Consider these actions. Do they seem reasonable and/or effective examples of anti-racism activism?

Action #1: Believe people of color who point out microaggressions and defend them against accusations of oversensitivity.  Explain to those less experienced and make such accusations how pain accumulates and increases suffering. Read, teach, and give as a gift Ijoema Oluo’s, So You Want to Talk About Race. Pay special attention to Chapter 11 on “Why can’t I touch your hair” and Chapter 12 on “What are microaggressions?”

Action #2: Support healing programs for all people, but especially for descendents of enslaved people, by supporting universal health care and access to mental healthcare. Contribute to healing spaces created by Black Lives Matter and other Black led organizations such as BEAM, the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective. Read about other organizations you can support here.

Action #3: Get organizations that you are already a part of to take the mental health needs of people of color seriously. Share articles such as “How Organizations Can Support the Mental Health of Black Employees” by Angela Neal-Barnett of the Harvard Business Review.


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