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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today is a special episode, a conversation that I had with New York Times bestselling author, healer, and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem. Resmaa describes himself as a cultural trauma navigator, a communal provocateur and coach, someone who considers it his job, in the moment, to make the invisible visible. This conversation was originally broadcast as part of a free series of teachings and resources at Sounds True in which we express our standing in solidarity with the Black community, and also our desire to step up and work proactively as a multimedia company that stands for social justice. This page of teachings and resources at Sounds True is called “Walking Together: Growing in Awareness and Accountability and Putting Our Love into Action.” I encourage you to visit us at “Walking Together,” and here’s the URL: product.soundstrue.com/walking-together. Again: product.soundstrue.com/walking-together. And now, a special episode of Insights at the Edge on Somatic Abolitionism with Resmaa Menakem.
Resmaa, welcome, I’m so happy to be here with you.
Resmaa Menakem: Tami, I’m happy to be here with you and the Sounds True audience. It’s a pleasure, it’s actually a dream to be on Sounds True for me. When I was going through some stuff back in the day, Sounds True was something that I kept listening to, to help me get through some stuff. So, this is good for me.
TS: Here we are together realizing our dreams. And I want to introduce you just a little bit to Resmaa, and then I’ll let him share some more about himself. He’s the author of the beautiful and inspiring book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. It’s the first self-discovery book to examine white-body supremacy. And I believe Resmaa, you introduced this term into our collective vocabulary. Is that correct?
RM: Yes, I did. Yes, I did.
TS: And we’ll be talking some—what is white-body supremacy? The book, My Grandmother’s Hands, examines it from the perspective of trauma and body-centered psychology. We’ll also be talking to Resmaa in this session about some of the themes of a new book that he’s working on, on somatic abolitionism. Another term—I mean, you had to make these terms up because where else did they come from?
RM: Right, right, right.
TS: Somatic abolitionism.
RM: They came out of the kind of collective unconscious. It emerged. And so, these terms actually came from me working with community in community. And then this quickly created this kind of sense of something needed. There needed to be a different language to explain this somatic experience that I was having and others were having.
TS: And let’s just start right there, Resmaa, with some kind of working definition together for this conversation, somatic abolitionism. What is it?
RM: I want to just take a step back and talk about the first thing, and that is white-body supremacy because this aligns with that. So white-body supremacy is the, it’s kind of the construct that I believe, if you don’t start with this construct first, then everything else about the way that this structure, in terms of a racial sense, works will confuse you. And so, my basic idea is that the white body is the supreme standard by which all bodies’ humanity shall be measured, both structurally and philosophically. Let’s let that land for a second. The white body is the supreme standard by which all bodies’ humanity shall be measured, structurally and philosophically. I’m not talking about innate worth here. I’m not talking about intrinsic worth here. I’m talking about structural worth.
And the race question in this country has always been a species question first. Is Resmaa, or people that look like Resmaa, or have the skin pigmentation or the variances of skin pigmentation near Resmaa’s, are they human or are they monkey? And in this society and in this structure, the answer to that question is, they are not human. So, that’s why I start with there is a particular time that the white body accepted the notion of whiteness, and at that moment it became supreme, it became the standard. Not only as a, what do you call, as a fill-in for a proxy for race, it also became a proxy for humanness. So all I had to do was look at somebody and I could tell whether or not they were human or not simply because of their pigmentation. If the white body is the standard of humanness, then the Black body and the Indegenous bodies have been a proxy of the antithesis of human.
And so, if you don’t understand that, you will start thinking that the idea of race and racism and white-body supremacy is only about niceness or not niceness, is only about the bad ones and the good ones. It’s not about structure and how certain people are advantaged by the structural system that exists.
TS: I think I understand what you mean by the structural components of white-body supremacy. But I got lost when you were talking about the philosophical aspects. What do you mean by that?
RM: Beautiful, beautiful question. When we talk about structure, one of the things that happens is that it is not just about—we want to talk about just enslavement or genocide or land theft. When I’m talking about philosophy, I’m saying what buoys that understanding that the Black body is not human. And it is not just institutions that buoy that. It is a collective understanding and an agreed understanding that certain people are less human than others.
So, for instance, the five superpowers of the time, when we talk about the early 1600s, the five superpowers of the time were Spain, England, France, Portugal, Belgium, and, no, that was it. Yes. England, France, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium. Those five superpowers that had just come out of the Middle Ages—the brutality, just rampant brutality that was heaped upon the white body, the poor white body. Elite white bodies were beating and torturing and taking land and perfecting these ideas of domination on poor white bodies.
So, what happened was that as those superpowers started to move out, what began to happen is that they had a philosophical agreement, and they shared philosophy with each other in terms of who was human and who was not. This is where you start to see the things show up around skull sizes. This is where you start to see the things show up around religion, and the belief of who was human and who was not, who was stamped as a curse and who was not. All of these pieces around the Indigenous and the Black body started to begin to be shared as knowledge base amongst those superpowers.
So, by the time poor whites in America or in the colony of England, by the time they were offered the idea of being white, they accepted it because of all of the kind of brutality that happened—remember, most white people that are listening to us talk right now come from ancestors that were fleeing something. That trauma and that brutality never got dealt with, and it got blown through Indegenous and Black bodies. So that’s what I mean by philosophy, that there is an understanding, there is a sense, there is a cultural glue that is the underpinning of white-body supremacy both institutionally and philosophically.
TS: Now, Resmaa, right here, I just have to say something. You’ve said a couple times that in this white-body supremacy, there’s a view that the Black body is not fully human, it’s not human. I notice when you say that, that hurts. That just hurts. It hurts to hear you say that.
RM: As you hear me say that, Tami, as you say “That hurts,” here’s what I would ask that you do. When you notice, can we do something quick?
TS: I’m also standing in for our audience that’s listening too, and potentially experiencing that as well. I want us all to do something together.
RM: So just notice this, just notice as you say, “Resmaa, that hurts for me to hear you say that.” What I want you to do is notice where that hurts. Notice the vibration that shows up, that lets you know that this is something that is causing something emotional inside you. Where does that land in you?
TS: For me, it lands in my heart.
RM: In your heart. So when you notice that landing in your heart, is it a thud landing, is like a thump, was it a gradual landing? And does it just stay in that place?
TS: It was like a kind of ache in my heart that noticed and underscored when you said the words and took note of them. And then it moved and changed.
RM: And then it moved and changed. Before it moved and changed, was there anything in your heart that radiated or was it just like a lump?
TS: No, it was more like a radiant ache.
RM: Yes, radiant ache. So now, the next question I’m going to ask you is this. As you notice that radiant ache, I want to ask you about a different emotional quality to that, is there anything just below the hurt that you notice coming up for you as we talk about this?
TS: What I also noticed coming up was words that said things like, that’s bullshit, that’s wrong. So, a righteous thing too.
RM: That’s it. That’s the piece. That’s the piece. And so, here’s what happens. These things, all of these somatic pieces are coupled together. And many times, both individually and collectively, these things go uninterrogated and unexamined. So you’re having an experience that is both aching, that is both hurt and is righteousness like, goddammit, this is bullshit, all that different type of stuff.
And many times, structurally, because this society is predicated on and this structure is predicated on white comfort, those things never get examined. And that energy that comes up like that, ends up getting blown through. And this is why I said, this is not about—I’m not talking about intrinsic or innate value. Of course, intrinsically and innately, I am human. That’s not the structure we’re under. So part of my work in terms of somatic abolitionism, part of my work in terms of these pieces around white-body supremacy, is to get people to begin to slow down so they can begin to get and develop nuance and discernment around those pieces. So often, it doesn’t happen.
TS: You use this interesting phrase, because we’re not slowing down paying attention investigating, it gets, you said “blown through.” What does that mean?
RM: So what it means is that many times when we do something like a DEI training or an implicit bias training, there are all of these kind of subtexts that are going on that we never surface. So what ends up happening is that Black and Indegenous bodies end up coming to these types of things, and the ask—many times, even if it’s not stated—the ask is: teach us white people around what it’s like to be in your shoes. And so, what ends up happening is the deference that bodies of culture begin to lean into in those situations puts them in a situation where what happens is that they filet themselves open. And in that fileting themselves open, white bodies many times don’t have to work with those, just what you did, that little piece that you did in terms of the hurt, and then you drop down a little bit lower and you were noticing those things already. Many times in those types of situations, the white body as a collective doesn’t have to deal with that different type of stuff.
So all of that stuff that just showed up in you right now gets pushed through those bodies through tone, through vibration, through image, through urges, through collapsing, through the charge, all of those pieces end up getting blown through my body, and because we haven’t developed a somatic vocabulary or a somatic understanding, what happens is that many times, bodies of culture in upholding it as a testimony to a defect inside of them as opposed to what has actually happened structurally. So, that’s what I mean by blowing it through, that because the white body has not metabolized those centuries of things that they haven’t had to, all of that energy, when we begin to talk about race, that has been unmetabolized, gets blown through my nervous system.
TS: Now interestingly, and I’m picking up, Resmaa, on some of your unique vocabulary. I think it’s unique, I haven’t been exposed to it in other places. So it’s unique for me because in it, I think as we sort of go in and pull the strands out, I am able to understand more from your perspective.
You use this phrase “bodies of culture,” not “people of color.” So normally, people of color, you’re saying bodies of culture. What does that mean, bodies of culture?
RM: Great question. So the work that I’m doing is not just me. It’s me and communities of people that I’m working with and training. And so a lot of things become emergent because we actually develop a cultural container so this stuff can grow through. One of the things we worked on is this idea that really, people of color comes out of the idea that color is, when we talk about race, that there’s something intrinsically valuable or not valuable around color. And what I’ve said is part of what has happened to me and my people did not happen individually, it happened communally. So we have to develop communal ways of dealing with a communal brutality and a communal violence.
And so, bodies of culture really is about a reclaiming of those things that were stripped by participating in this system, that a human being—one of the manifestations of human-beingness is exhibiting culture, having some culture, right? And so, for me, bodies of culture really is about people reclaiming those pieces that were stripped from us. I’ve said this before and I’ve had interviewers say, “Well, I’m a white person and I have culture too.” And one of the first things I say is, “I’m not talking about you. What I’m talking about is not your experience. I’m talking about a different experience where people who are darker or who the system has been structured around, their darkness is attributable to some intrinsic value, and it is not.” And so, bodies of culture is a reclaiming of our cultural pieces, also a reclaiming of humanness.
TS: OK. So let’s just a little bit more explore this notion of white-body supremacy. I wrote down from My Grandmother’s Hands, “It’s the notion that the white body is the standard by which all bodies are measured.” And I heard you speaking at one point when you were sharing a story of how you asked a group of people “How many of you stand for diversity?” And people raised their hands. And then you said, “Well, diverse from what?” And the point that you made is diverse from this white-body standard. Then I thought to myself, this is such a good point, such a good point, that if we stand for diversity—diverse from what?—from this standard that we’ve all accepted that’s dominating our consciousness.
And so then I thought, well then I’m not going to stand for diversity, I’m going to use other language, like I stand for inclusivity or something because diversity cannot be part of my language anymore. I’m wondering if you could talk about that.
RM: Tami, I’m so glad you’re doing this interview with me because I think what you’re doing is, you’re highlighting things that people who are listening—this is actually what’s going on in other people’s brains right now. This thing around diversity, one of the things I want to be clear about is that, if you look at nature, an organism that has diversity, that organism probably is going to survive in ways that something that doesn’t have diversity probably will not. From that rubric, I’m setting that aside, because what some people do is when I say that, they go, well, what about this? So I’m setting that piece to the side.
What I’m talking about is this notion of racial diversity. If you never say what we’re diversifying from is the notion that the white body is the standard, then it can mean anything. It can mean kimchi or Tuesday, can mean collard green Wednesday. We begin to think about these things as very aesthetically cultural. And what I’m saying is that there’s a depth to it. And one of the things about diversity, in terms of the way that we talk about racial diversity, is that we are saying—this is what most DEI trainings and implicit bias trainings don’t do, they don’t say we’re diversifying from the white body being the standard, they don’t say that. So, everything is up for discussion. And then many times, bodies of culture will leave that situation experiencing a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, and a lot of, just, confusion.
And so, diversity for me—so, one of the things you said, “Well, I can’t use that term anymore.” What I would say is, one of the things that happens is, we end up hearing things and reading things and doing stuff, and then saying, OK, I am going to do something. What I want to caution the audience about is, what I talk about a lot in my book is doing this communally, not just individually, because when you do it communally, the tendency is for things to emerge. When you do it by yourself, the tendency is to develop strategy. And strategy is not going to get white bodies out of this conundrum that they’re in. And so for me, I don’t know what the language will be in terms of your community. What I will say is that if you’re doing it with a community for one, three, five, seven years, nine generations, something will emerge that will hold the sense of—and it’s not just words that we’re kind of using interchangeably, but the words that I’m using came up out of community, from grinding on other bodies, from working with other bodies.
And so, that’s how I think about both diversity and inclusion, right? Because when we say we want to include people, what we’re saying is we’re starting with something and then we want to include it in. But what’s the thing that we’re starting with? And then once you do that, people start to begin to quake and start to begin to have these urges and these things that show up. And then out of that, if you stay with it long enough and you begin to condition and temper the body so it can withhold the charge of race—the race has a charge to it. It has at least a 400-year-old charge to it. And in the collective white communities, because the white body is the standard, you haven’t had to deal with that collectively. So you don’t really have the nuance, you don’t really have the communal understanding because your survival has not been dependent on whether or not you know it or not. So that’s what I mean by diversity and inclusion.
TS: Let’s talk about this skill set that we need or the capacity that we need to experience the discomfort that you’re pointing to, the charge of race. What capacity do we have to develop so that we can do this?
RM: I would start slow. When I’m speaking with large groups of white bodies, one thing I’m saying is, think about this. Have you ever been to something, Tami, or you hear people say, well, I need more tools, I got to get more tools, I need to put more tools in my tool box and stuff like that? I have a friend of mine who is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. One of the things she says to incoming therapists that are trying to learn, she says, “I need you to start thinking about this less as a tool box and tools, and more as a toy box.” Yes. Notice how that lands. Because a tool box suggest something to be fixed. There is one tool to fix this particular thing. A toy box suggests something to be explored.
And in this kind of play element—and not play as in frivolous when we talk about race, but play in that this is hard, and my ability to, if you watch a child play with something or grab a teddy bear and then grab the block and put some things together and then set it down and look at it and do all those different things—this is the same type of tonal structure that we need to have when we talk about somatic abolitionism in race.
So one of the things that I say with white bodies when I’m working with white bodies is, I get into a room with just other white bodies first, and then begin to explore what’s showing up in you with other white bodies. So, capacity usually doesn’t happen on the front end, it happens on the back end as people begin to grind up against each other. But this idea of playing with it and slowing it down so you can actually begin to develop nuance and the understanding of nuance and begin to develop communal discernment, that happens over time. And so, over time, as you do that, then capacity can be built, humility can be built. They can begin to emerge. At the beginning, it’s not there.
TS: It’s interesting this notion of a toy box, because it’s like, what? I’m going to be playful with something that’s so heavy and is so important, that has so much gravitas to it? I think of a toy box as just, and I know you said it’s not frivolous, but still, it doesn’t seem to match.
RM: It’s hard when I say this to people, it’s hard for them to get the embodied sense of it until they do it, until you begin to notice the edges of, just like when I watched your face, she was like, like that. That kind of constriction that shows up, there is no, I don’t even know how to put play and the race thing together, you know what I mean? But once you begin to do with other bodies, not all of a sudden, over time, you start to notice and track things that you couldn’t possibly notice and track right now.
If you go into trying to work this stuff from a place of tools, there is a fixing quality to it. There is an intelligence hoarding that goes along with that. And this is more of an intelligence expansion. I am leaning and looking at the other bodies that I’m going through this with that I’m making the commitment to this with. And as I’m doing that, I’m learning how to lean in and pull out, I’m learning the flexibly, I’m learning the hardness, I’m learning all of those pieces. And that involves play. That’s not just, OK, there’s one answer and one thing that we should be doing, and we need to have this structure and that, that’s not how this works, right?
When I’m talking about somatic abolitionism, I’m talking about more of, like I said, not playful as in frivolous, but playful as in flexibility, playful as in leaning in, playful as in the ability to tolerate discomfort, playful as in beginning to be able to discern clean pain, clean discomfort from dirty pain and dirty discomfort.
TS: All right. Let’s offer our listeners some type of working definition of somatic abolitionism.
RM: So, somatic abolitionism is the idea that we can and must be about the work of not just abolishing white-body supremacy cognitively, but also spend the time slowing down and beginning to abolish it in the body first. In the body and bodies. Through reps, through practice, through working with, through play, through all those different pieces. Through conditioning and tempering. That it is our work to start there first, not start with the cognition. There are a number of intelligences. In this structure, the primary intelligence, which is the big tree that crowds out all the little trees in terms of value is cognition. How we think. That one intelligence, logic, crowds out everything.
But what we know is that there are many more intelligences. We also know that there is a vibratory intelligence. We also know that there is a meaning-making intelligence. We also know that there’s a behavioral and urge intelligence, there’s a sensate intelligence, there’s an emotional or aspect intelligence. There is an image intelligence. These intelligences, for the most part, are thwarted and made to be something other than what’s true and real. And what I’m saying is that we thwart those things at our own peril. We have to begin to cultivate those other intelligences because the cognition is something that has been used to say, “This is the only intelligence.”
And so, when I’m talking about these pieces, that’s what I’m talking about. The expansion of our intelligences, but you expand those with other bodies. You don’t just expand those with your cognition or what you think. You expand those by rooting around your suffering’s edges to allow yourself to grow up both individually and communally.
TS: OK, again, digging into the language, I think I get the somatic part, it’s the abolitionism part that I have this question about, because the end, the end of slavery, the end, are we going to be able to create a true end to white-body supremacy? Is that what you’re positing here? That’s what we’re working on and we’re going to do it?
RM: Yes. So one of the things that I believe, it’s going to take at least nine generations before white people even know what’s going on with race. So, do you remember a number of months ago when brother George Floyd was murdered?
TS: Of course.
RM: Do you remember looking at your timeline and looking at your social media and talking with people and seeing in your neighborhood all the Black Lives Matter signs online and every other place? And seeing everybody, including white people, out there in the street, saying, yes, we got to stop this, we got to do this, right? And I want you to take a look at your timeline now, and now see how many of those signs have been replaced by pictures of people’s food, videos of cats, videos of dogs and flowers and stuff like that. Because there is no container for white folks by which they can sustain this stuff around race. There is no cultural reference point collectively for them to sustain it.
So, they may be shocked into action for a short period of time, but there is no cultural container to hold the charge of race so something else can emerge. So what happens is, the genuflect is to go back to the way that things were already, and get fatigued very easily, and not hold to that for a long time. So, for me, my posit is that this generational thing is not going to be able to be sustained and cultivated in one generation. I believe it’s going to take at least nine generations for that to happen, given the fact of how long we have had to contend with the idea of race, at least over 400 years, we have to contend with it. So to think that it’s going to be assuaged in two years because you’re doing some work or three years because you’re doing some work is a misnomer, that won’t happen.
So yes, I believe it can happen. I don’t believe that it’s going to happen because we do some performative gesture, unsustained. I don’t believe it will happen because people are
into some type of action. I don’t believe that’s how it happens. I believe it happens because people spend the time with each other’s bodies over time grinding, not liking each other, pushing back on each other, doing those pieces, specifically around race. And then a different culture will emerge with regard to somatic abolitionism. So yes, I believe it can happen. Do I believe it can happen in my lifetime? No, I do not.
TS: When you say grinding, spending time together grinding, give me an example, what is grinding?
RM: So, part of grinding is what me and you are doing right now.
TS: That feels in the toy box category for me.
RM: That’s exactly right. So what happens is that the grinding is not like, is not we get into a room and we all grab hammers and start beating the hell out of each other. The grinding is that we develop some, or we develop a—not develop—some type of somatic elicitation occurs. And rather than us going and genuflecting right to strategy for how to work through it and fix it, we begin to do the work of what I call soul-scribing first. We begin to notice the five intelligences, what’s showing up right now for me. And then we begin to do that work with each other. We begin to give voice to it. We begin to hold each other and hold each other accountable to those things that are emerging forth. That’s what I mean by grinding. It is uncomfortable.
The white body has so many dodges built into the structure, that all white bodies have to do is not do anything. And there is no repercussions with regard to race. If white bodies decide they don’t want to address race, there are no repercussions for not understanding how race impacts. There are these dodges, there’s these dodges around difference, there’s these dodges around crime, there’s these dodges around brutality, there’s these dodges around cognition, there are these dodges around pulling away. There are all of these built-in dodges. When I’m working with white bodies, one of the things that I’m saying is, resist the dodges. Hold it with each other and hold this charge communally so something else can happen.
TS: So Resmaa, I pulled out several quotes from My Grandmother’s Hands that were super meaningful to me that I wanted to have you comment on. And there were a couple of those that had to do with this notion of clean pain versus dirty pain. One of the quotes is “A key factor in the perpetuation of white-body supremacy is many people’s refusal to experience clean pain around the myth of race.” So, help me understand, and our listeners understand what would it mean for me to experience clean pain versus dirty pain when it comes to discussions around race, issues around race, challenges around race.
RM: Yes. Yes, yes. So, we talked about somebody before we got on the air, one of my mentors, Dr. David Schnarch. That’s his stuff. That’s David’s stuff. He was a wonderful mentor to me. But this idea of clean pain and clean discomfort and dirty pain and dirty discomfort is revolving around the idea that somatically, we know when we’re doing something that goes against our integrity, that goes against our sense of rightness and wrongness. Anybody that’s ever been in a relationship with somebody that you know you shouldn’t be in a relationship with, but you just can’t help yourself, knows dirty pain. Even though I know this person is not good for me, I stay with them. There’s a dirtiness to that, because your integrity keeps gnawing at you. You need to break up with this person, you need to be by yourself for a little while. All of those things.
That part of you that’s saying you need to be by yourself for a little while, that’s the clean pain. And that part has more ability to build capacity in ways that dirty pain does not. Dirty pain moves you around things. Clean pain takes you straight through it. And when it comes to race, the white collective has not developed any ways of managing it, of managing race, but only through dirty pain.
Let me give you an example. And I’m talking about this as a collective. The way that the white body, as a collective, expects my deference, plays out in a national and international way in very, looks like benign ways. Let me give you an example. So, all that has to happen for the white-body collective to have a hiccup or to have a constriction in this body is for a Black man to kneel on a football field quietly. Just think about what I’m saying. Think about what happened when Colin Kaepernick and some of his teammates just—they weren’t screaming, they weren’t yelling, they weren’t doing anything disruptive—but kneeling quietly to protest brutality. And to this day, he has lost his job. To this day, there’s been no apologies. When that happened, you watched the collective white body begin to push against him for simply not using whiteness as the standard by which he was going to do what he needed to do for and with Black people.
And so, that’s the piece that I’m talking about when we’re talking about these ideas around how the white body has a difficult time with these different types of things in terms of clean pain and dirty pain. What the white collective did was do what it’s always done, and that’s blowed that type of stuff through the body rather than holding it and working with it. And because the white body hadn’t had any practice in doing it previously, there was no ways of working with that communally. And so, that’s what I mean by clean and dirty when it comes to race.
Another one is what happened when me and you first started talking and you said, you started having these notions in your brain and in your body and all this stuff around, that’s bullshit, that’s bullshit—this kind of reaction to it—and then you dropped down. If you didn’t drop down, you would have stayed at that place. This is wrong, what Resmaa is saying is reverse racist, and all of that different type of stuff. But if you can drop down and then do it with other bodies, now you have more room available to actually transform and grow as it relates to race, as opposed to continuously do dirty and say, well, something must be wrong with Resmaa, because I’m uncomfortable now, so therefore, he’s doing something to me, and I never have to confront and work with it myself.
TS: All right. I’ve got several really interesting quotes here that I also want to have you comment on. Here’s one of them from the book. “For America to outgrow the bondage of white-body supremacy, white Americans need to imagine themselves in Black, Red, and Brown bodies, and experience what those bodies had to endure. They also need to do the same with the bodies of their own white ancestors.” We need to imagine ourselves in Black, Red, and Brown bodies and experience what those bodies had to endure.
I noticed when I read that and it had the emphasis that you wrote about it in the book. I had the thought to myself, I don’t know if I have enough, kind of, inner correlates to even be able to imagine that. I don’t know.
RM: That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful, Tami. That’s beautiful. That’s a very honest thing you just said. And that’s why I say those types of things many times have to be done with other white bodies. Because if you can do it with other white bodies, somebody else might be able to lean into things that you can’t lean into yet. And if you do it for a while and you’re holding with each other for a while, you may be able to borrow resource from those other white bodies as you’re beginning to move through that. That piece is not about an exercise.
Imagine yourself in a Black body and dah, dah, dah. It really is about asking you to actually go through a process of—because like I said earlier, the second part of that quote, the white body, most white bodies are descended from white bodies who were fleeing something. That historical brutality, that intergenerational brutality, that personal brutality, all of that stuff gets balled together, undiscerned. And so, white bodies beginning to work with those energies, and beginning to work with those energies around race, will help them grow up as it relates to race.
And so, that’s why I talk about, well, imagine yourself there. If you can’t, that’s fine too. Let’s see if you can imagine yourself with your ancestors, right? And what they were fleeing, begin to ask questions about—when I asked my questions around, if I was a white person, what were my ancestors fleeing? What did they flee? What was going on that they had to flee? What’s the terror that may have never gotten resolved in their fleeing, but then got standardized?
So one of the things that I talked about when I’m talking about racialized trauma is that trauma decontextualized in a person can look like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family can look like family traits. Trauma decontextualized in a people can look like culture. And if you don’t examine and if you don’t interrogate that trauma, what happens is it becomes standard. It becomes, oh, this is who we are, this is what we do. When in fact, your people may have gotten organized around how to survive a trauma. And now, because time decontextualizes it, it looks like culture, it looks like personality, it looks like family traits.
TS: So, this notion of resolving our trauma and clean pain, can you connect that for me because it seems like in order to resolve our trauma, we have to have a willingness to do the clean pain work.
RM: Yes, yes. You got to go through it. That’s the piece. And when you have advantages, one of the reason why I don’t say “white privilege” anymore, I say “white advantage,” in a structure where the white body is the supreme standard by which all bodies’ humanity shall be measured, it is an advantage off top before anything else is done. Before one murder is committed in your name, before any of that stuff is done, it is an advantage to be in a white body.
And so, clean pain would involve, yes, you go through that, you examine that, you excavate that stuff. And you’re willing to go through it both individually and communally. Otherwise, the genuflect is white comfort. The genuflect is, that’s too much, we can’t do it, we can’t handle it, we don’t even know where to go. So why even start? Well, the reason why you start is because your Black and Indigenous and Brown brothers and sisters are catching hell in this structure. Your Black and Indigenous and Brown-bodied brothers and sisters are being torn asunder in this process. If you were going to be about the work of somatic abolitionism, you’re saying that is no longer a bargain that you’re willing to extend.
TS: One of the things I’ve noticed in this conversation, Resmaa, is that you keep pointing, in some of your answers to me, about a certain kind of communal work. And I keep, originally, coming at my questions from a kind of personal, individual work. And that I don’t naturally think in a communal way. I naturally think as a kind of individual self-growth person.
RM: That’s it. That’s it. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Think about this, for most of our history, the white body has had full and unfettered access to my body. It is relatively new, Tami, that me talking to you right now, in the ways that I’m talking to you, it is a relatively new occurrence that I’m somewhat sure that when I go downstairs and go out on my front porch, that there’s probably not going to be a lynching party waiting for me. That’s new, that is a new occurrence. For most of our history, the white body has had full and unfettered access to every orifice of my body, for every idea in my body.
Remember, I come from a people who were legally raped for 250 years. Not illegal rape, sanctioned rape. Rape that was designed to produce offspring to produce workers to produce wealth. That’s the people that I come from. White bodies, if they can’t begin to deal with that level of brutality communally, their individual niceness is inadequate. The individual growth is inadequate to deal with the communal brutalization and violence that still works and lives and was predicated on my body and bodies that look like mine.
So, the genuflect for this society is individual. Everybody’s an individual, individual, individual. Without understanding that, yes, we are individuals and we’re part of community. And that things that impacted my body don’t just impact my body in this space and time. It impacted also my communal body. And that the same thing is true for white folks—you’re not going to individuate your way out of the charge of race, the weight of race, the texture of race, the direction of race, you’re not going to do it.
TS: So, Resmaa, I would like to turn our conversation for a moment, if it’s OK, a little bit to you, and to you personally, in terms of, if you were to describe for me and for our listeners, kind of the antecedents in your own life that put you right here in this moment with a body of work that is so unique—where you’re combining trauma work, this whole focus on body-centered psychotherapy and racial justice. Help us understand how you got to this very unusual place to be articulating what you’re articulating now.
RM: First piece I want to start off with is my grandmother, who started me on this journey when I was nine years old, but I didn’t even know, I couldn’t even put together what she was doing and what she was saying until I turned, like, 47. And after I had been through some of my own trauma stuff, personal trauma stuff with regard to being two years in Afghanistan, being bused from junior high and dealing with racial stuff there. But my grandmother, early experience that I talk about in the book is me rubbing her hands, and because she always complained that her hands ached. Rubbing her hands. Looking at her hands, my grandmother was a small wonder, but she had big thick fingers. And thick padding on the backside of her hand, and then thick padding on the inside of her hand. So I was rubbing her hand at about nine years old just comparing her hand to my hand.
And I said to her as she was watching TV, I said, “Grandma, why your hands so fat? Why they so big? Why they so fat?” Kind of half joking. And my grandmother without missing a beat said, “Oh, boy, that’s from picking cotton.” And she must have heard the pause. And she looked at me, my grandmother is looking at me and she goes, “Boy, you ever seen a cotton plant?” And I said, “No, ma’am.” She said, “A cotton plant got these burrs, there’s these burrs.” And she said, “I started walking up and down in rows when I was four years old because my daddy was a sharecropper. So as I’m walking up and down them rows, you reach your hand to pull that cotton, it scratch your hands up and make your hands bleed. And until they get thicker, they’re going to bleed.” And that’s the way she’s talking to me. That’s what’s in her voice, that’s what’s in her chest, that’s what’s in her body as she’s saying that. And then I’m looking at her.
I did not remember that story again till I started writing the book. And it all came together with regard to how that horror and that terror in her body was still there when I was not. And I didn’t pick it up. I knew it was something by what she recoiled from and what she leaned into, I knew was something to pay attention to. And so, that stuck with me until I started writing the book, until I got up to my own trauma pieces and saw things that I shouldn’t have saw, smelled things that I shouldn’t have smelled, experienced things that were overwhelming, and then structured override around that.
And so, for me, my whole life has been about beginning to help Black people, bodies of culture understand that we are not defective. We are not fraudulent. We are not imposters. In a structure that’s predicated on a white body, those pieces are woven in structurally. And so we must innately resist those pieces. We must interrogate those pieces so we can reclaim those things that have tried to be stripped from us. So, all of that led me up to writing the book because I had these kind of aggregate experiences that came together at one time and produced My Grandmother’s Hands.
TS: Beautiful. So, just a couple more questions here, Resmaa, about somatic abolitionism. You have a kind of statement on your website where you lay out the bones of what it is. And you write that it requires endurance, stamina, and discernment, and that these can be built day by day through reps. And I presume by reps you mean repetition.
RM: Repetition, yes.
TS: And the questions I had—I kind of get, I think, a feel at least about endurance and stamina. I can feel what that means, and sticking with it. I’m not sure I understand the kind of discernment that I need to be developing if I’m committed to somatic abolitionism. And then I don’t understand the reps I need to do. And it sounds a little bit like an athletic thing or something.
RM: It could be athletic thing, it can be a musical thing, it can be an arts thing, whatever. Give me a hobby of yours, something that you do.
TS: I like to cook. I like to cook.
RM: You like to cook. So, that’s perfect. That’s perfect. Are you a better cook now than when you first started?
TS: The pandemic actually made me a really good cook. I was kind of average before the pandemic but I had to get creative.
RM: But now you can get down. So, here’s what I want to say. Part of the discernment comes in—the way that you’re able to tell me, “I’m better now than I was”—it’s because there’s been some practice, there’s been some discernment, there’s been some noticing this dish, tasting it, that needs a little bit more of that, let me put a little bit, right? You pay attention to it. And over time, your palate can pick up on things that it couldn’t before the pandemic. Do you understand what I mean?
RM: But you had to condition and temper yourself, and at the beginning, you may not have been able to pick it up, but now you can. That’s discernment. And you’re able to discern by doing, by repping, by getting repetition in over time. By reading, by studying, by looking at it. OK, they do it like that. Let me try that. Oh, that sucks the way that I do it but let me try it again, let me try it again. Now I’m better at it. Now when people eat it, they go, “Oh, that’s good. You made this?” So now that becomes a reinforcer.
What makes us think that becoming better or becoming more intelligent about race is any different than that process? It’s the same processes. It’s just that there’s so much charge to it that when we start to begin to go at it, it overwhelms us, and we begin to try and figure out override strategies or protective strategies to get around it. But those that stay with it develop more discernment, develop more conditioning and tempering as they’re going through it. So that’s what I mean by reps and discernment.
TS: Very good. OK, just a couple more questions for you, Resmaa. This train’s coming into the station.
RM: OK, OK.
TS: You write, “Whiteness itself can be redefined, could be redefined so that it gets equated with taking responsibility and growing up.” And I wanted to ask you about this because here, this Walking Together page is a way that Sounds True is saying, we want to take responsibility, we want to grow up. We know it’s a journey. We want to walk this walk. So what does it mean? I don’t think we’re clear on what it means to take responsibility and grow up, but we’re interested. So help me understand more what does that mean, really, taking responsibility, growing up?
RM: What it means is that it’s not a destination. I’ve heard white people tell me, “Well, I’m an ally, I’m an ally.” One of the things that I always say is, “How would I know that if you hadn’t told me?” Who are your people? Not who are you, who are your people? Who are the people that you’re doing this somatic abolitionist journey with, that you’re grinding with? That are holding you and holding you accountable as you move through this? How are you developing elderhood in the context of this work? And so, part of it is getting a book, sitting down, doing the practices, and then beginning to say, we are going to do this for the next 30 years. We don’t know what’s going to germinate up from this but we know if we don’t do it, we’re going to pass this stuff down to our children’s children’s children. And we want to interrupt that.
We want to develop a cultural container so those things that need to cook can begin to cook. If we don’t begin to get in the room with each other’s bodies—not a book club, not a sourdough club. You get in the room and you begin to read and you begin to notice and develop an embodied alignment with each other, so you notice when things begin to shift and move and stuff like that, around race specifically.
And so for me, the journey really is starting with one or two other bodies first. Just starting with one, you don’t need, I can’t tell you the number of times people call me and say, “We got 100 people showing up to that.” And I’m like, that’s not impressive. That’s really not impressive. Get two other bodies, three of y’all. And you decide you’re going to make the commitment to work this for the next 30 years, next 10 years, next five years, and you’re going to keep coming back, and you’re going to develop cultural fields so that you can learn what you need to learn about race.
TS: Resmaa, as we come to the end of our conversation, in the book, My Grandmother’s Hands, you offer dozens, really, of different somatic practices that people can start exploring, ways that we can work with our discomfort when conversations around race trigger us in different kinds of ways. And I’m wondering if you can just share with us here something that you think would be a good conclusion to our conversation, which is something that people could perhaps begin working with, obviously, in community in a cultural container. I learned that, I got it.
RM: So, the practices for me are the most important part of the book. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I read your book in a weekend.” I said, “You absolutely got nothing out of that book, man.” The most important part of the book is the practices, is the noticing, is the working within, is the pausing. So for me, the practices that I would suggest, and I talk about it in the book, are what I call cultural somatic practices. They are self and communal grounding, self and communal orienting, self and communal movement, and self and communal touch.
And those pieces, those self and communal pieces are things that I think can emerge out of when people are starting to do their work. So one of the first ones that I would suggest as kind of a reclaiming is that people do humming. Because there is a nerve that comes out of the brainstem called the vagal nerve, and humming allows that if stuff begins to be too overwhelming, you have a somatic elicitation, and you notice that you’re overwhelmed, you can begin to do some humming to settle that down. But here’s the key, once you settle it down and you move away from it, the key is to come back to it later.
The thing about what I’m talking about is that a lot of times people think I’m saying, just go in and just immerse yourself in. That’s not what I’m saying, this is not firehose training. This is really taking little chunks of it, noticing the charge. And if it begins, you notice it begins, the overwhelm begins, you can pull out of it. Pull out, come back to it on another day or another time. So that’s the practice that I would tell people. I don’t want to give people tips. I want to say, this is the thing to start to begin to play with, start to begin to look at, and then see what emerges from that.
TS: So just to make sure I understand, it’s humming and then returning. Go back to that thing that flipped your switches.
RM: That’s exactly right.
TS: Return back to it.
RM: That’s right. And then just know like, what’s the vibe that’s showing up? What’s the images and thoughts that’s showing up? What’s the meaning making, what’s the behavior, what’s the urges? What is the affect, feeling? What’s the sensate quality of it, right? And keep coming back to it. And then notice what emerges from that place.
TS: Very good. I’ve been speaking with Resmaa Menakem. Thank you so much for being part of Sounds True’s Walking Together collection of resources. Your contribution is so important, and really one of a kind. I’ve never heard anyone put together language and point to what you’re pointing to in the way that you are. Really inspiring and really healing. Thank you.
RM: Thank you for having me, Tami. I’d love to do it again at some point. Thank you.
TS: All right. You got it, you’re on.
Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at soundstrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and also if you feel inspired head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. Soundstrue.com: waking up the world.