As I Thaw: Healing From White Supremacy Culture and Coming Home Human

Trigger alert: this article is about dismantling racism in white bodies. This is not to downplay that people of color have been and are the primary targets and survivors of racialized trauma. This article is an exploration into what it means as a white person to dissolve white supremacy inside my own white body, and what it might point to in terms of thawing white supremacy in our collective white bodies (churches, schools, communities).

I am not new to conversations about race and racism. And I am not new to thoughtful conversation and self-reflection about what it means for me that I am white in a country build on the massacre, slavery, and fundamental dehumanization of people of color.

But what I am experiencing now as I engage with how whiteness lives in my body, this is different. Very, very different. And hopeful beyond measure, because — while the story has long persisted that people don’t like to give up privilege — human bodies do want to heal, thaw, and relate in healthful ways to other human bodies.

I have begun to experience just how true this is.

I have been unraveling layers of trauma in my body for several years now with the help of a highly skilled somatic experiencing therapist, and through my own mindfulness practices, and self-education about trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). And, quite honestly, by being loved, very, very well, by my husband, Niels. I am truly healing. I wasn’t sure I believed it was possible before, but I am indeed healing.

And as I heal, I am discovering now a very persistent — easily reactivated — layer that I have come to identify with “whiteness” — or internalized white supremacy as it lives in me. It’s like an iron-strong shell that exists right below my skin, an armor that holds me up and has helped me muscle through incredible acts of achievement, self control, and overwork. It has led to exhaustion, a habit of strain, an addiction to doing, achieving, and controlling, and it has contributed to my debilitating chronic illness. In short, my whiteness has done a number on me. I can only imagine how being around my whiteness has harmed others.

As I learn and experience firsthand how to support trauma to resolve and heal, I am reviewing my past “thoughtful” (read: “somewhat heady”) engagement with the topic of race, racism, and whiteness. I am seeing my past involvement in unraveling racism in a new light.

The way I approached anti-racism work before involved a lot of muscling through. Even “informed” and “awake” conversations and engagement on racism, and whiteness, have re-activated and strengthened the hard shell of whiteness in my body. The language we use in anti-racism dialogue used to resonate with me, but I now see the way I approach whiteness needs further nuance and qualification to be useful in dismantling my own internalized white self.

For example, the language of “white fragility” and the frequent request from leaders of anti-racism work that whites toughen up and develop “thicker skin” is perhaps helpful when describing whiteness from the outside, and what’s needed from us in interracial dialogue. However, this is not the same as describing the internal experience of being white, or the internal process of healing racialized trauma in this white body. People of color certainly deserve to have me keep listening — as opposed to becoming so preoccupied with my own feelings that I dissolve into a puddle of self-indulgent tears — when the topic of racism is engaged. People of color certainly do NOT need me to take all the space in the room with my “white woman tears.” This way of becoming so absorbed in our own either heady rational or emotional reaction to the topic of racism is in these cases another way that whites have traditionally failed to really notice and take in the experience — and hence, the full humanity — of people of color. And truth be told, this kind of unconscious self absorption is not what I need as a white person either.

But when it comes to doing the internal work that I need to do as a white person to show up sturdy, present, engaged, and genuinely attuned to the experience of people of color, the language of “toughening up” and having “thick skin” is not helpful. And while I understand that “fragility” might be what it looks like on the outside, that’s not the internal experience that I have. And this is not language that helps me develop the girth that I need, and that the world needs me to have, to participate effectively in healing and rehumanizing the racially traumatized world in which we all steep.

To be clear, it is not the responsibility of people of color to use the language that I need to hear in order to set me up to do the internal healing of white privilege. People of color will use whatever language they want to use when describing what they see and what they need and don’t need from me as a white person. It is my responsibility, however, to claim the space of myself — and only myself — and find the approach, language, and support that I need to identify my internal white supremacy, heal and grow as a person, liberated from my internal white supremacist. And when I speak to other white people about race, racism, whiteness and healing internalized white supremacy, I also want to become skilled at using language that invites their healing of racial trauma.

The strength I need is a human, living, supple and strong strength. Thick skin, or “toughing up” won’t get me there. What is building my genuine, human strength has been the thawing of my body’s tightly coiled armor of internalized self-colonization — a process which at times has included tears, or it has at times included leaving the room, or opting for self care instead of pushing through.

Like many white, middle class young women, I learned to be a certain brand of strong: a brittle, disembodied, isolated, over-achieving, anorexically self-controlling “white girl” kind of strong. I learned to be this brand of strong in a family where it didn’t appear that anyone else ever had feelings. In a family where prolonged and warm eye contact didn’t happen much (ever?). In a family that was “loving” in a nice way, in a principled and “doing the right thing” way, but not in a “Oh, you are suffering, come closer” kind of way.

Does this sound like anyone else’s white middle class family? White culture, by and large, does not transmit relationship skills like listening, feeling with, attuning, setting boundaries firmly yet warmly, asking for help, expressing emotions, etc.

I learned to be tough, high achieving, hard working, challenge-embracing, feeling-suppressing, self-negating, and body-managing in how I approached myself. I learned this in a family where my parents had experienced inadequate attunement in their own lives. This meant that “feeling felt” — that experience that neuroscience now tells us is critical for laying the down the brain architecture for all other healthy functioning — didn’t really happen much; at least not to the extent that I needed. But being impressive could capture a fleeting moment of attention, so I learned to do a lot of that.

Mine was not a harsh childhood. Although some harsh things happened, things that add up to an ACE score of 2 or 3, they are things that I am certain I might have metabolized well if I had had the safe container of my parents’ warm attention in which to process what happened.

As I soften, slow down, and go gentle with my noticing of what happens inside me, and outside me, a new kind of integration and whole-body-self organization begins to take hold. For me, I have benefited from the help of a skilled somatic therapist to do this work, because attunement was the missing ingredient in our family. When I am on my therapists table, her gentle aware touch and listening sometimes shakes loose trembling or sweat ot tears or vocalization. But when I stand up and look around, and feel the structure of my physical self, I am here, sometimes it feels like for the first time.

Now I have an emerging quality of sturdiness mixed with sensitivity. I think this is what healthy attunement and responsivity develops in people, ideally starting in childhood. From here, I have a “self” without grasping, without efforting, and without strain. Funny thing, having a relaxed and strong self makes me more effective at everything I do. Including work for racial justice.

If rehumanization of white people is to be part of the solution to healing racial trauma, and I believe it is, then white people have to begin to believe in our capacity to heal. When given the fully nutritious alternative of human belonging, embodied living, being at home in one’s right-sized self, the excesses of privilege are less and less something that needs to be wrestled from our white-knuckled grip. Softening might just build strength. Softening might just encourage belonging. Softening, not toughening up, may be the key to the rehumanization of white people.

And my ultimate goal: to become sturdy enough that the black women in my life can show me the depth of their rage, and the weight of their grief. My ultimate goal: to grow into becoming a trustworthy white sister in the struggle for the rehumanization of humanity.

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Angela Jernigan

Mother, minister, artist… In 2018, I am listening to and following those women who know How to Make a Way Out of No Way...