While processing the trauma of serving two years in Afghanistan in 2013, Resmaa Menakem connected with a story his grandmother told him when he was a young boy.
He was sitting in his grandma’s lap and rubbed her hands, noticing that they were very thick. Menakem asked his grandmother why they were so thick, and she responded, “Oh, boy, that’s from picking cotton.”
His response was silence so she continued, “A cotton plant’s got these burrs and these things that stick out. I started sharecropping with my daddy when I was 4 years old walking up and down the rows, and so when you would stick your hands in, it would cut your fingers …. Until your fingers start to begin to get calluses on them, your hands are going to bleed.”
Now, Menakem is a local therapist and trauma specialist based in Minneapolis. Inspired by his grandmother’s story, he released a book in 2017 titled “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies,” which discusses how racism doesn’t just affect the mind, but is deeply embedded in our bodies.
“It wasn’t until I started going through my own suffering, started going through my own healing, that I put that story together in terms of how trauma gets encoded in the body,” Menakem said.
As an interactive extension of his book, Menakem released a free video e-course last month featuring five videos on racialized trauma. The first video defines racialized trauma and how it impacts the body. The remaining four videos focus on the impact of trauma on black bodies and its history, as well as how the stress affects police and community relations.
Menakem spoke to MinnPost about expanding people’s understanding of complex concepts like racialized trauma and building community and culture around healing and reclaiming bodies of color. The Q&A has been condensed and edited.
MinnPost: You’ve worked as a therapist for over 30 years and you discuss this topic of white body supremacy trauma. What drew you to study this and share it with people?
Resmaa Menakem: A large part of my work revolves around trauma, and a lot of my work has been working with marginalized communities or communities where people have less access to power. Over the course of my years of doing this work, I came to the realization that our understanding of trauma is just on a personal level. When we start to talk about trauma, usually we’re talking about something personally that happened to you, but I started to see the traumatic effects of white supremacy.
There are traumatic effects of having the white body seen as the supreme standard of humanity. That, in and of itself, is traumatizing, right? And if the white body is the standard of humanity, that idea is ensconced in institutions, right? So it’s ensconced in the legal institutions; it’s ensconced in the scientific institutions, the religious institutions, the military institutions, the educational institutions. If the idea is that the white body is the supreme standard of humanity … then there must be an antithesis to that, right? And in a lot of the work that I’ve done in the research, the setup was to prove that the black body was the antithesis of human.
The race question is intrinsically infused with the species question: Were, or are, black people monkeys or human? And many of the institutions went about proving that we were not human. That setup is traumatizing to any person of color, right? Because then if the white body is the standard, then every gradation from that standard is a deviant, right? So my work really has been about how do we begin to language this idea. Not only language it, but understand it from a cultural place — so people stop turning this defect in it on themselves or on other people of color.
Another piece to this is that because the white body is the standard, the black body is the antithesis of that standard. We all have ingested this idea …. So between cultures and interculturally, we end up having this kind of sanctioning that this is where you do that dirt — is on the black body and in the black body, and in the black neighborhoods, and in the black mind — that that’s where you do that stuff. And we all ingested that white body supremacy idea. … And part of our work, especially as people of color, is to begin to examine it and unhook it so we can actually bring into existence a fuller idea of what humanity actually is.
MP: So you wrote this book two years ago, along with a collaborative album and a visual arts exhibit. What are your hopes with the information being presented in a different way, especially with these videos?
RM: That’s a good question. The reality is that not everybody’s going to sit down and read a 275-page book. Not everybody’s going to be able to do that, but these concepts are important because I believe these concepts help people not turn the defect on themselves — that they begin to examine these things.
There’s a free course, and then there’s an enhanced course. Once you get through the free course, you can actually take the enhanced course. In my first pass, in terms of the free course, it was really important for me, for people to be able to understand really kind of big concepts, but understand it just on a human level — not because you’re trying to be an academician, not because you’re trying to get tenure, but just so normal people can begin to understand these concepts and begin to create language and culture around these concepts, and that’s the most important thing for me.
White body supremacy and racism will not be eradicated because people are smart. They will be eradicated because people will develop culture to eradicate it, right? It’ll get eradicated because people develop culture to abolish it, right? And in particular that white people begin to develop a culture around it because white people have not developed culture around this. The two things that white people develop culture around as it relates to race in this country is either segregation or assimilation, and that’s not going to get it. We’re going to have to develop culture around abolishing white body supremacy, and white people are going to have to do their part. And so that’s why the video and the music and the other art pieces, that’s why all of this stuff and any other thing that I can think of — so people can grab it, understand it, and begin to talk with each other about it and create knowledge around it is what I’m trying to do with this work.
MP: And how do you change the way you approach presenting these ideas to certain communities? When you’re talking to your fellow black community or the white community, what are the differences in communicating?
RM: So when I’m talking with people of color, one of the things that happens is that there’s been a lot of wounding, both intraculturally in people’s culture and also interculturally across boundaries. And one of the things I’m telling you about people of color with regards to that is that there’s been a lot of wounding that has taken place between cultures? And a lot of times we look at it either as personality or that people don’t really care or different things like that — when in actuality, one of the things that’s going on is that this idea of white supremacy is baked into the cake. So one of the things I talk about is what I call decontextualized internalized, white body supremacy. It’s this idea that even if we don’t talk about it, that we’re revolving around this idea that the white body is the standard — that the antithesis of the white body being the standard is the black body, which is a separate species. And so part of what I’m talking about when I’m speaking with people of color, it’s really us beginning to look at what are the things that we culturally have ingested — that we see standard, right? That if we don’t examine it, it will continue to frame our possible alliances that we could potentially have.
Then when I’m talking with white communities, I’m saying, y’all got to get in the ball game. Y’all actually have to begin to develop a culture in nuance and understanding around race because the absence of doing it means that what would end up happening is that every time we begin and people of color begin to start talking about race, you do things and the white community does things to rewound us or make it seem like it’s all in our heads or make it seem like we just need that. If they’re nice, then that should be enough in terms of abolishing white supremacy and white supremacy, when we know that white body supremacy did not just happen individually and it also happened communally. And so to develop an approach that says, the only thing I have to do as an individual white person is to be nice to you, as if that’s enough to uproot white body supremacy, is really disingenuous. And so part of what I do is when I’m talking to white communities is saying, you’re going to have to start developing culture specifically around abolishing racism and abolishing the things that underpin the racist ideology and stop disidentifying yourself as the “good” white people, right? And therefore you don’t have anything to do. So that’s how I talk with the two different communities.
MP: There’s this healing element, particularly within communities of color, when talking about racialized trauma. What do you think is important to keep in mind while learning about these topics or processing the impacts of racialized trauma?
RM: One of the most important things that I think is that many times when we start doing — we’re talking about healing justice and healing work — we think well it’s all bodies up. Saying we need to just get into a room and start trying to heal each other.
The fact of the matter is there has been a lot of wounding that has taken place — historically, intergenerationally, institutionally and personally. Many times we don’t account for the fact that just our bodies being in a room together can evoke wounding and re-wounding and we start to begin to do things to protect ourselves.
So I think one of the most important things that I’ve been stressing is that white communities have to get together and start doing this. People of color have to get together and start doing this. And until things are safe, I wouldn’t put those bodies in the room to do that type of work because that is a very intimate work, right? It is intimate. It is vulnerable. And what we don’t want to do is have people in a situation to where they are being wounded and re-wounded and don’t even know why. Right? Because this stuff happens so fast. So the most important thing for me when it comes to healing is that people have to pay respect to the fact that this is a vulnerable thing.
It has the potential to be powerfully healing, also has the potential to be powerfully wounding. And so people, as they begin to move through this, have to think about — what’s the container that they’re going to set up? So the wounding and re-wounding doesn’t occur, or is at least minimized.
MP: I know that you have a video specifically on police body trauma, and then there’s a communal one too. With your experiences, why is including police systems in these discussions important?
RM: I am an a black person, an African-American man. One of the things that I think is important is that — and I speak from my perspective, right? — the black body has had a particular relationship with quote unquote policing in this country. I think that many times that goes unexamined, what that relationship actually is, how it started …. So one of the reasons why I wanted to do this with police is, number one, give police an understanding of what actually is going on with their body, but also give people of color an understanding of what is going on in the historical context of policing and our particular bodies. So one of the most important things for me was to give the community some sense of what this is, as opposed to just acting like it’s not a big deal or acting like I shouldn’t include exactly what has happened.
MP: As a black man, how do these concepts, racialized trauma … How has it impacted you personally and especially working with it?
RM: Over 30 years, I’ve dealt with my own trauma. I’ve dealt with the racialized and racist aspects of trauma. The fact of the matter is that being born in this country and being considered deviant from the standard has had impacts on me and my people. I don’t escape that. I see it and I know what happens when we ingest it. We turn that inward and then we even see the black body as not having real value. Right? So this takes a lot of work to develop community, to be able to create a container by which you can reclaim the things that you can heal with and reclaim the things that your ancestors have healed with. Reclaim those things so you can provide a solace and healing for not only yourself and your family and this current generation, but for the next nine generations.
MP: I would like to ask about the title of your book, “My Grandmother’s Hands.” That resonates. What was the story behind that?
RM: The book came about actually because I did two years in Afghanistan and when I got back from Afghanistan in 2013, one of the things that happened was that I had to deal with my own trauma, from both my vicarious trauma and my secondary trauma, as well as exposure to some things I probably shouldn’t have been exposed to it. That started me on a long spiral, both in terms of trying to get better and trying to heal, and going through all of the pieces associated with that, but it also gave me some sense that there was a story that my grandmother told me that never made a connection until I went through my own kind of what I call a suffering edge.
When I was younger, my grandmother would lie on the couch, and I would rub her hands. My grandmother was not necessarily a big woman, but her fingers and her hands and her palms were very, very thick. She had these very thick fingers. I would compare her fingers to my fingers. At one point I said, “Grandma, why are your hands so thick like that? They’re so much different than mine.” Without missing a beat, my grandmother goes, “Oh boy, that’s from picking cotton.” And then she must’ve heard the silence. She looked at me, she said, “Boy, have you ever seen a cotton plant?” And I said, “no.” She said, “A cotton plant’s got these burrs and these things that stick out. I started sharecropping with my daddy when I was 4 years old walking up and down the rows, and so when you would stick your hands in, it would cut your fingers …. Until your fingers started to begin to get calluses on them, your hands are going to bleed.” Just that story. It wasn’t until I started going through my own suffering, started going through my own healing, that I put that story together in terms of how trauma gets encoded in the body. Because my grandmother would always do this stuff with her hands, even if nothing was really going on that would be something she would do. As a trauma therapist now, that (story) started to make sense to me with regard to what she was carrying in her body. So that’s what the story is about.
MP: Can you tell me about your journey to this point? What really inspired you to pursue therapy and social work?
RM: I’m a clinical social worker. I got my master’s degree here. Honestly, what inspires me and continues to inspire me is my ancestors and my elders, the ones that have been in the trenches and paved the way and supported me and admonished me and held me and corrected me and named me and loved me and told me when I when I needed to get my stuff together. … I’m inspired because I stand on their shoulders and there is no break between me and my ancestors. There’s continuity. So whenever I don’t quite know what to do … I get inspiration by what I call digging through the crates, going back and looking through the old albums, looking through old books. A recent ancestor is somebody that I know I’m going to be digging through his praises, Nipsey Hussle. I’m going to be digging through that ancestor’s crates and, and listening to the words, writing stuff down and seeing how it fits, seeing how all of this comes together and gets woven in. So that’s it.
MP: Is there anything else that you wanted to mention or talk about?
RM: Just that this book and all of this stuff comes about in community. It comes up out of community. Yes. I wrote the book and I’m doing some of this stuff, but I come from someplace, I come from a people, and I come from people that are trying to do this work. So, I just want people to go and take a look at the videos and go deeper if they want to. And that’s it.