Somaticizing your people’s trauma

I heard a very insightful discussion (between therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem and Kritsta Tippett) of the deep bodily harm racism inflicts, on a cellular level. Menakem describes how the subjects of racist attention are born inheriting, in their bodies, the stress their mothers felt while carrying them in their wombs. It made a lot of sense to me, the innate vigilant tension that must be carried in the body by those who society marks, solely by their external appearance, as inferior and threatening.

Menakem makes this profound point:

Not just that they lived through trauma, but that the angst and the anguish was decontextualized. And so for my Black body to be born into a society by which the white body is the standard is, in and of itself, traumatizing. If my mom is born as a Black woman, into a society that predicates her body as deviant, the amount of cortisol that is in her nervous system when I’m being born is teaching my nervous system something. Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture.

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I immediately knew the truth of this. I thought of my advantage, as a white person raised in safety by white middle class parents [1], when an off-duty cop tried to punch my face in for a disrespectful remark I’d made to him. (In my defense, I had no idea the violent piece of shit was an off-duty cop.) When three of his colleagues finally pulled us apart, two pinned my arms. I immediately relaxed my body, signaling to them I was not resisting, that I was calm, that they could safely let me go, which I quietly asked them to do.

Had my body been programmed to tense up and resist, knowing in my ancestral memory that the next likely thing was for all four of them to start beating me, or worse, I’d never have been able to relax and free myself so easily. I’d never have had the chance to reasonably ask the guy who’d tried to punch me in the face over and over what was stopping me from doing the same to him, then doing it, in front of three witnesses, and making my exit without having the shit beaten out of me afterwards.

The trauma of growing up in a despised, feared group is somaticized, it becomes part of the body’s response system (making the body more susceptible to disease and early death, among other things [2]). Not surprising at all, once it’s put out there, but fascinating and important to consider. The inherited, instinctive fight or flight mobilization in traumatized bodies can also be described by epigenetics, which Krista Tippett also did a great show about.

The new field of epigenetics sees that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Rachel Yehuda is a pioneer in understanding how the effects of stress and trauma can transmit biologically, beyond cataclysmic events, to the next generation. She has studied the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks. But her science is a form of power for flourishing beyond the traumas large and small that mark each of our lives and those of our families and communities.

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These biological expressions of stress and trauma can be worked through by survivors who receive help and support, once the traumatic events are far enough in the past. But what of those whose stress and trauma are ongoing, systemic, unending, in the news every single day?

In the context of now daily police killings of unarmed Black people, this dynamic is very important to consider. The day after Derek Chauvin was convicted, unarmed, unresisting Andrew Brown was, shot to death in a rural county in eastern North Carolina. The warrant for his arrest called him a dangerous drug dealer and the unidentified sheriff’s deputies who went to serve the warrant on him wound up killing him. According to the officers who shot him, the proof that he was resisting arrest is that once they began shooting into his car, and four shots are confirmed to have hit him, he tried to drive away, attempting to back down his driveway, which seems to have been when the fatal fifth shot was fired into the back of his head.

Ask yourself how a Black man, even if he is not a “dangerous drug dealer”, does not try to flee from police bullets coming into his car, particularly after he has complied and kept both hands on the steering wheel.

Recall the original police account of the murder of George Floyd: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” We know now, thanks to the video shot by a courageous seventeen year-old, the testimony of several witnesses, police officials and medical experts, and the guilty verdict by a jury of twelve of Derek Chauvin’s peers, that the original police account, while strictly true (there was a “medical incident” but it was Floyd’s murder) was a grossly misleading oversimplification of what happened during those fatal final nine and a half minutes of the “police interaction” that ended George Floyd’s life.

Makes me want to holler, it really does.

I’ve been reminded that most people who become police officers, the vast majority of them “white,” grow up with a conservative mindset, conforming to the norms of our society and believing in a basic code of right and wrong based on enforcing the law, whatever it is, against lawbreakers. I believe many, if not most, are motivated to become police officers by a real desire to protect and serve. The burning, killing question is who and what, exactly, you have vowed to protect and serve.

[1]

Leaving aside my own epigenetic trauma to be the child of parents who lost all but a few family members, every single family member left in Europe, to an outbreak of murderous group madness in Ukraine and Belarus in 1942 and 1943. Every one of them murdered and disappeared without a trace, just thirteen years before I was born. Try as I might, it is something I can never get out of my head, or my body, I suppose, though my own experience never included anything like the killing crews that were the last thing my grandparents’ family members ever saw.

[2]

For a very short description, see also, HERE.

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