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On “Building A Culture”* And How Our Mental Health Affects Anti-Racism Work: A Call To White Folks

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

*This references Resmaa Menakem’s call to white folks for us to build a culture, not a strategy, and put the work in as a community, as opposed to approaching anti-racist work from an individualistic, strategic perspective that does not create a sustainable container.

The fact that so white many folks are just now thinking about all the forms of violence Black and Brown folks experience daily is a special type of exhausting violence in itself. As Resmaa Menakem says, "Bodies of culture are uncomfortable every day. White people have the luxury of not being so." When, as white folks, we get uncomfortable, we escalate things, forcing Black and Brown people to then calm us down and make us comfortable, instead of addressing the harm we caused in the first place. We white folks think about race in such an intellectualized way that we separate from our our bodies and roles in continued racism. We can march in the streets (in ways Black folks are asking for), we can correct racist family members and talk to them about what All Black Lives Matter means, and we can call council members and demand change, but if we are not shifting our foundations; if we are not shifting how our bodies react and behave, we will not be able to create a culture of shared values, accountability, and transformative justice.

A few weeks ago, I started a 12-month somatic abolitionism book study under the leadership and wisdom of Resmaa Menakem, healer, trauma specialist, and author of the book we are studying, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, as well as writer, vocalist, sacred scholar, and activist Amber McZeal, and Rooted founder and Somatic Experiencing and Abolition facilitator Karine Bell. I am humbled to learn from these teachers, and I encourage others to support their work as well.

In this essay, I will share parts of the initial discussion we had, including a framework from Resmaa that I am so grateful for as we start on this journey. I will share this in combination with personal experiences and related frameworks and thoughts that have proven helpful in my journey as a human with white privilege, or “advantage,” as Resmaa describes it, engaging in anti-racism work for life, as a human working on my mental, emotional, and somatic health through various forms of therapy, and as a bodyworker with a trauma focus. I share these words with the intention that I, and other people with white privilege, will engage in the culture creation Resmaa calls for, together, to take out our “garbage” this generation, and not pass it down to the next.

Resmaa explains how white-bodied folks have not developed the culture to hold our disgust, rage, and other emotions, and how we must shift our focus to culture creation because simply trying to employ a strategy is not a sustainable or generative approach. He is not interested in our anti-racism work “resumes,” but instead, about who holds us accountable, who we give authority to call us in and out, and with whom and how we are creating a culture, a culture that “uproots and excavates anti-blackness.” As Resmaa says, everything else is “performance art.”

Until I found a community among fellow queers, and specifically, queers who shared the same lens that unlearning and dismantling oppression is a lifelong and necessary commitment, I was often at a loss about culture and identity because whiteness seemed so devoid of anything other than appropriation. This is an element of white supremacy -- white-bodied people hold power, and our dominance is violent on so many levels, and simultaneously, we lose touch with our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our families and friends. We build superficial relationships. We lose our humanity in our policing (literally and figuratively) of the humanity of Black and Brown bodies and minds. I understand that for some white-bodied folks, hearing the words “white supremacy” might make you picture Nazis and the KKK, and/or it elicits an intense reaction of “not me.” If that is what is coming up for you, I’d ask you to just take a few breaths, notice your feet on the floor, and notice where you are feeling that tension in your body, and what it is trying to communicate to you, rather than trying to get rid of it. And then I’d ask you to consider how I am speaking of white supremacy in the way Resmaa quotes it from Robin DiAneglo in her book, What Does it Mean to Be White.

“White supremacy does not refer to individual white people per se and their individual intentions, but to a political-economic social system of domination. This system is based on the historical and current accumulation of structural power that privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group...I do not use it to refer to extreme hate groups. I use the term to capture the pervasiveness, magnitude, and normalcy of white dominance and assumed superiority.”

I will note that this is also why saying, “I’m not racist” is actually pointless, incorrect, and an avoidant. As white humans, we were taught racism -- it literally flows through our minds and bodies even if we don’t want it to; it’s the structural system of violence America runs on that gives us power without us even realizing it. In that way, any time anyone says, “But I’m not racist!” or “I’m not racist, but…” what that it is actually communicating is how much extra work they have yet to do.

I am reminded of a break-out group for white trans and non-binary folks that I took part in, years ago during the Racial Justice Institute at the Creating Change Conference. The facilitators framed the workshop in grounding ourselves in our bodies (with acknowledgement of the fact the body is a place it’s hard to be in for many people, and for trans folks in additional ways). This was necessary to be able to feel when and where emotions surfaced as we discussed difficult subjects, and we sat with feelings long enough to understand them, which also gave us enough time to regulate ourselves before speaking so that we weren’t simply reacting, but we were still doing the work.

I think of that day often, and how it has influenced my journey as a bodyworker, and helped me move away from what I was taught as a kid, which was to not listen to my emotions because things were “fine” (which doesn't mean those emotions stopped existing; it just meant they got stored in the tissues as shame and presented themselves as stress and collapse). We can only work with our stuff if we are aware of it. And either way, our anger, confusion, sadness, grief, rage, etc. seeps out and harms people, particularly Black and Brown folks, whether we are cognitively aware of it or not, which is why doing this body-based and culture-creating work is vital.

It is also vital to note that this work needs to be done between white bodies. Resmaa describes the importance of this when he says that “Bodies of Culture” have to override feelings of being overwhelmed when we, as white-bodied humans, air our ugliness, and then Bodies of Culture are further wounded and we, white-bodied folks, leave “enlightened.” In that way, he is asking for us, as so many other Black humans have asked for us, to “get our house together before we go to anyone else’s house and do anything.” Also vital is disrupting any savior complex we have ingrained. It is beyond time to save ourselves and find our “position in the human family again.”

If any fellow white human reading this is feeling defensive right now, I’d ask you to consider again taking another breath, and a pause, and ponder why you are feeling that way. Perhaps you are saying, “oh but that’s not me; I have vibrant relationships, I have culture, I have a Black friend/partner, I donate to Black organizations, I march in the street.” I would ask again, why are you defensive? What responsibility are you trying to “dodge” as Resmaa puts it, and are your actions and culture truly rooted in excavating anti-blackness?

Does a white person in your life believe that police and the judicial system keep people safe? Is the president of your “progressive/social-justice” organization a white human? Do you use AAVE? Are you doing a feel-good service trip this year to help kids starving in Africa? If so, have you learned how the U.S. continues to profit from problems it creates and then markets itself as the hero, and what are you doing to combat that? Have you met the Black kids in the house next door to you in the U.S. who are hungry because rent is too high from white folks gentrifying the neighborhood, and are you listening to what Black humans need and want from you because of that?

All of these scenarios are steeped in various forms of violence against Black folks. There is always work to do. Are you committed, in every aspect of your life, to questioning and dismantling the white supremacy and racism in our minds and bodies? And again, if you answered that with, “but I’m not racist,” that is the problem, and it’s time to start learning about how this country was built on structural racism, that we, as white people, continue to benefit from, and continue to be both complicit and complacent in relationship to. The systems are not broken; in fact, they are working as designed, and it’s beyond time we understood that. We need to invest in alternatives, not reform. As Jane Clapp, a white facilitator in the book study group puts it, “A fish doesn’t know it lives in water.” As white people, we certainly always have more to learn about what advantages we have, and how we are oppressing Bodies of Culture. It’s beyond time to check out the temperature of that water, because it’s boiling Black and Brown folks alive.

This work is uncomfortable, but we got ourselves to this point. We must face these truths. And the work will never be as painful and harmful as what Black and Brown folks experience from us. Jane Clapp makes another important point that white people in the trauma work world often contribute to white fragility in how whenever we feel discomfort, we try to regulate it away. That is not what is needed. Being regulated enough to engage in the work is what is called for. Resmaa describes this as, “building tolerance for bodily and emotional discomfort, and learning to stay present with -- rather than trying to flee -- that discomfort.” In that way, completely calming down one's body can become, as he describes it, a “form of avoiding or overriding an opportunity to serve or heal.” These avoidance strategies then almost become unnoticed because, as Resmaa notes, they become seen as family “traits,” rather than trauma that has been passed down.

I will pause to make sure that I am describing what I mean by trauma because so many of us think about trauma as only a “Big T” Traumatic event. Those events are certainly traumatic and can have profound impacts on us, but what I am also talking about is complex and ongoing. My understanding and acceptance of my own CPTSD is due in large part to reading Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, and examining my learned trauma/survival responses, which gave me context for how my anxiety and depression have manifested in the ways they have. As Resmaa says, trauma can be the body’s response to a “long sequence of smaller wounds'' and a “response to anything that it experiences as too much, too soon, or too fast.”

With that, I will offer more thoughts as they relate to how, as white-privileged people, our mental health and/or depression/anxiety/CPTSD often play a role in this. And big disclaimer, I am not a talk therapist of any kind; I’m just speaking from my own mental health journey and the needed work. Let’s take the trauma response of freeze. Have you noticed (in yourself or another) the shut down that can occur during a call out? A shut down accompanied, perhaps by “But what can I do?” or “That’s impossible to change.” How is this dissociation getting in the way of us doing the work?

Let’s consider the flight response. A flight into action without thinking. A flight into “doing something, anything” and then often further endangering and/or exhausting Black and Brown folks. Or a flight away from what’s happening; diving into any distraction or changing the conversation.

Let’s consider the fight response. A fight because someone is suddenly defensive and starts pulling out racist dodges like “but what about (insert any distraction that puts the focus on the white person and their feelings rather than the violence Black and Brown humans experience that we were actually talking about a minute ago)?” It’s almost like watching a person fight with another human to try to hold on to the rainbows and butterflies version of the world they’ve lived in, and want to stay in, because certainly it can’t “all be that bad.” Yes, yes it can, and it is.

And now for the fawn response, which I first encountered in Sam Dylan Finch’s Article, People-Pleasing Can be a Result of Trauma. It’s Called ‘Fawning’ -- Here’s How To Recognize it. Reading this article prompted me to read the book I referenced earlier, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Growing up, I unknowingly relied on a fawning/appeasing response in order to make my home life less emotionally dangerous. I want to be clear that I am not saying that fawning, like other trauma/survival responses, is limited to white people, and in reality, we, as white folks, need to also examine how we are requiring Black and Brown folks in our lives to maintain their own fawning survival responses when they are around us. By that I mean, we need to take note of, and correct, how we (unintentionally) require that Black and Brown humans make us feel comfortable, especially when we mess up, in order for situations to be less dangerous or exhausting for them. For the sake of this essay, I will be specifically speaking on how whiteness shows up in these trauma responses, since that is what is mine to speak on, and not the experiences of BlPOC (Black and Indigenous and People of Color).

As children, so many of us learned to fawn, to anticipate the discomfort of family members, to avoid certain topics, and to redirect conversations when what we said or did upset an adult who had never learned to regulate themself. Consider the following scenario: a family member says something they don’t recognize to be problematic; the kid gets really uncomfortable and speaks up, but then is shamed, directly or subtly, for making a “thing of it” and for making the room feel tense. The room was already tense! Everybody else was just trying to disassociate by laughing it off. In this way, many of us learn that speaking up is bad, and that our thoughts and emotions are bad or not real -- they are “too intense,” “too much,” “too worried,” “too angry” or “too politically correct” (a concept which white supremacy violently made possible).

White families so often do not have the container to hold anything of substance. There is not a container to talk about hard, painful shit. I’m reminded of this in a particular way when Black and Brown folks leading an event or session call their ancestors into the room. Fellow white humans, there are certainly reasons why we don’t feel called to connect with our ancestors or call them into the rooms we are in, but we must know what they did and our families’ histories, and the generational violence and complacency that has been passed down into our minds and bodies. We must know about a thing in order to address it and to build a culture of accountability and sustenance.

In thinking about how white supremacy means white folks give up culture for dominance, I often think about how there’s also not a container to talk about life-giving, beautiful forms of expression. Let’s use sexuality as an example. For this point, I am not talking about sexuality in a “I’m queer and that’s hard for a family member to understand or accept” way, but in a, let’s talk about sex and its fullness, it’s complexity, its intensity, the bliss that is possible, and what consent practices look like and how trauma adds further complexity, and not just in sex, but with touch in general. Let’s think about how, so often, adults have access to kids’ bodies, and by that I mean, children are expected to hug and kiss adults out of “respect” when they don’t want to. Let’s think about what we are teaching our children in that way, and also how that then relates to race as well. Let’s think about how we are teaching kids that they should just take what they want and what they think they are entitled to. Let’s think about how we directly and indirectly teach kids who are AFAB (assigned female at birth), queer and trans, that they should just let things happen to them because that’s often safer (and let’s consider how this connects to fawning). So, this is all happening, and on top of that, we aren’t having real conversations about sex; consensual, mind-and-body-expanding sex? Again, there’s no container for that. There’s no culture for that. There’s giggles and shame and avoidance and examples of non-consensual or passively consensual practices. There’s a “strategy” on how to talk to, or not talk to, kids about sex, that so often seeps into adulthood.

Social justice facilitator focused on Black liberation, doula/healer, and pleasure activist, adrienne maree brown, describes socialization in Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, as people being ”socialized to swallow extreme reactions, to be pleasant instead of present.” Let’s consider how this again relates to white supremacy requiring Black and Brown humans to deal with all types of violence, in addition to implications for trans folks, cis women, queer people, Disabled folks, and other marginalized people. And for white folks in general, let’s think about how gross it gets when we dig our heels in to keep a dinner table conversation pleasant or polite. When something harmful is done or said, so often it’s brushed off as nothing in order to maintain the “pleasant mood,” and that in itself, is a form of gaslighting.

Going back to fawning, I was taught that when something uncomfortable or awful was said, that me speaking against it often then made the room emotionally unsafe for me. I learned to “read the room,” which has become a blessing and curse, or, perhaps in more loving terms from my therapist, a “brilliant survival skill that is no longer serving me” when I continue to try to intuit how others are feeling and how they are about to react, whether they even know it or not. As I kid, I learned what would cause an outburst or freakout, and, as Resmaa describes, freakouts are trauma responses of their own. My body got used to existing in a state of anticipation all the time. I learned how to prioritize others’ comfort at the expense of my own. How can this show up as an adult? It can mean we still aren’t empowered to talk to family members, or any person in a position of authority, be it a boss, community leader, council member, etc. It means we can’t even talk to white friends or partners because we are scared of losing them because we don’t have a container to hold the discomfort -- so I pose the question, what are we losing; what was that relationship anyway?

Fawning can also show up in comforting white people having white fragility moments. A person spewing white fragility into a space is manipulating the situation; they are making it about them. I recognize this behavior far too well from having an extraordinarily narcissistic father. In trying to de-escalate this fragility, if one is not careful, it can be easy to slip into comforting that person, and affirming their oppressive behavior. Owning our mental health and doing that work is part of doing anti-racism work. In fact, it’s required. Things should feel uncomfortable. Everything about how this country was founded and how it operates is violently messed up, so of course it’s going to be uncomfortable to talk about, and so, in order to do this work intentionally, it feels important to learn how to be regulated enough to stay present with our discomfort in our bodies, and question it, rather than slipping into one of these ingrained responses.

Let’s examine other aspects of white supremacy that run deep and often invisible to us in our families and strip us of the culture we need to build. Growing up, my father had a vision of who he wanted me to be, who he wanted me to partner with, and what he wanted me to believe and do in the world. I disappointed him/am a “disgrace” in all categories because I questioned and strayed from those visions. This could have been an opportunity for sharing and growth and culture creation. Unfortunately, he shuts down all call-ins and outs. He is more concerned with maintaining anger, and framing it as me not being grateful for all the times he showed up at my sporting events growing up (a redirect). He’s furious that I no longer send cards and pretend everything is fine. What substance is that relationship based on? Nothing. It’s artificial and manipulative, but it’s what he’s hanging on to, because everything else is stripped away.

We create these norms that are supposed to mean love or add meaning or value to relationships. Think about how much importance so many families place on joining them for a holiday rooted in the killing and stealing of land of Indigenous peoples. Think of the hurt if you don’t show up or send a card for a holiday celebrating capitalism. It somehow says something about the substance of your relationship, but try bringing this up at the dinner table to engage in relationship building and accountability culture with your family (something actually substantial), and here comes, “why are you so angry; why can’t you ever let us have a nice time?”

What is this “nice time?” It’s superficial. It’s avoidant. It’s a dodge. It’s devoid of culture. My dad always told me growing up that if I’m happy, he’s happy. Those were just words. He wasn’t happy about anything I ever expressed or called him on regarding race, gender, sexuality, etc. Other white dads and moms and parents, you have the option not to be like my father; engage in these important conversations with your children; be willing to be called in, consider it the gift that it is; let us build together. My mom has been willing to engage with me on this journey. I am not available for us to give each other superficial updates of our lives. I am here to engage in conversations that push each other to be better. This is not some strategy; it is an attempt at culture building and shifting; it’s relationship building for long-term growth and accountability.

I have been part of varying types of “intentional spaces” for white people trying to address our shit over the years, from solidarity organizing spaces, to “healing” spaces, to non-profit industrial complex resource group spaces, and the issue that we always come back to is this relationship building piece. White folks, we are so quick (think flight response again) to slap a slogan or a mission statement on powerpoint or letterhead to “help POC in the org” rather than actually engaging in real relationship building with Black and Brown people (which we often haven’t been taught in our white families, so step one, we have to learn what that means), and then we have to allow the time and space it takes to develop trust with BIPOC in our lives, and listen to what they say they need, and not what we think they do (again no flight into savior response), so it’s directed by them, and not for them.

So, this is a call to all fellow white humans, let’s get our “houses in order.” I know my house will always need work. Our white supremacy means we are dominant, privileged, and so often violent in ways we don’t even know. We are stripped of heart and soul and then attach ourselves to the cultures of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color without examination. Apparently we haven’t stolen enough, and in stripping ourselves of culture, we then turn to those we oppress for life, food, dance, music, clothing, hair styles, tattoos, language, health, and wellness, and engage in all the above in ways that are so devoid of intention that we white-wash beautiful practices that BIPOC were clinging to because they once offered a reprieve from us and our unexamined shit. Then, when we messily engage, without facing discrimination for doing whatever thing, we think we look good doing it, and we weaken and erase why these practices were important in the first place. Enter the importance of listening, of relationship building, and of culture creation of accountability, sustainability, and substance; a culture that welcomes feedback as the gift it is, and not something to get defensive over. And so we begin.

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