On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in a Georgia neighborhood when he was shot and killed by a white man. At the time, amid the rising panic of the pandemic, few paid attention; it took 74 days and a viral video for the killer to be arrested and charged with the crime.
Arbery’s death reminds us that, long after the pandemic has come and gone, racial violence will remain an unhealed wound in American society, deeply entwined with our collective history, identity and culture.
Resmaa Menakem’s work offers a path to healing that wound. Menakem practices somatic therapy — from “soma,” meaning body —which recognizes that emotion, memory, and trauma reside not only in the mind but also in the body. Drawing on emerging research in the field of epigenetics, he contextualizes his clinical work within larger patterns of historical and collective trauma that can be passed on from one generation to another through our very DNA.
Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies shows how this trauma manifests our bodies, which are unconsciously sensing, remembering, and reacting to one other, influencing our behavior in ways we’re often unaware of — with often brutal consequences.
The term “white-body supremacy” serves as a reminder that racism isn’t just an idea; it is visceral. “While we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies. If we are to survive as a country, it is inside our bodies where this conflict will need to be resolved,” Menakem says.
The work of Menakem and his colleagues emphasize cultural change, beginning in small groups of friends and neighbors, with practices to settle the nervous system as the essential first step in the work of racial reconciliation. He offers simple healing practices — song, touch, movement, breath —that are as old as human culture itself. His work offers a different way of dismantling white supremacy, starting with the body and moving outward.
I attended two trainings with Menakem in Minneapolis and spoke with him over a period of several months. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
KM: The word “trauma” gets used a lot these days. How do you define trauma as a somatic therapist?
RM: Trauma is a response to anything that’s overwhelming, that happens too much, too fast, too soon, or too long — coupled with a lack of protection or support. It lives in the body, stored as sensation: pain, or tension — or lack of sensation, like numbness.
Say something scary is happening to you, and you want to run, to flee, but you can’t. That flight reflex gets overridden, but it doesn’t just disappear; it gets embedded in the body. As time goes by, the unconscious, reflexive trauma response can show up in all kinds of situations, including extreme reactions to things, irrational fears, avoidance strategies. There’s nothing wrong with this — it’s not some kind of personal failure. It is the body protecting itself from the trauma happening again in the future.
It happens so fast that it has nothing to do with our rational, thinking brains. In our culture, we believe logic trumps everything, but logic can’t even get its shoes on before the body is starting to protect itself.
KM: When I was in the training you led last year, you had us stand facing someone else at a distance and then walk closer and closer. And we had to pay attention to how our bodies responded when that other person got uncomfortably close, to see whether we had an impulse to flight, fight or freeze. But what really stayed with me was how you asked us to track where in the body the impulse was specifically.
RM: Yeah — if we slow it down, you’ll go, “Oh, it’s in my leg.” Or, “It’s in my gut.” It might feel heavy, or piercing. But you’ve got to slow it down so you can really tune into it. That’s what I do in my work with clients.
KM: The field of epigenetics is starting to understand the mechanisms through which trauma gets passed down through generations. Can you talk a little bit about this?
RM: Well, there’s a famous example called the Cherry Blossom Experiment. Scientists put male mice in a cage where the floor was electrified, and every now and then the scientists would turn on the electrical current and shock them. Now, as you can imagine, they were jumping around, crawling all over each other trying to get out of that cage, acting like they were in mortal danger. And every time the scientists turned on the electrical current, they also pumped in the smell of cherry blossoms.
They did this for about a week. The mice couldn’t settle down because they didn’t know when they were about to get shocked. Then, they took those male mice and mixed them with female mice who had never been shocked, and then they took the male mice away so that they never had any interaction with their progeny.
After the babies reached a certain age, the scientists pumped in the smell of cherry blossoms — just the smell, with no electric current — and the babies started jumping around, trying to get out of the cage, acting as if their lives were in mortal danger.
The second generation had never actually experienced an electric shock, but the trauma of that had been passed down through their father’s DNA expression. The fear of that cherry blossom smell was in their bodies.
That’s what we mean when we talk about inherited trauma. It’s not a change in the actual DNA structure, but a change in how those genes get expressed, letting the progeny know what is and isn’t dangerous. It’s a survival mechanism.
KM: What does this look like for people?
RM: So say something bad happens to me, and afterward you notice I’m acting a little strange. You might say, “I see you’re hurting. You need to go get a therapist.” It’s clear that my behavior change is because of what happened. But what about when it happened to me ten years, or thirty years ago — or to my grandparents, a hundred years ago? Over time — over generations — the original source of the trauma may be forgotten or erased, but the behaviors will still get passed down from one generation to another, through behavior and through their very DNA.
Now, what happens when this trauma didn’t just happen to me, but to everyone like me? When a group of people experience similar traumas, the strategies they use to cope are going to look similar, too. When that happens, it starts to look a lot like culture. That’s what we call traumatic retention.
Black people know trauma very intimately. There is a constant pressure on the Black body to deal with white body supremacy — the idea that the white body is the standard, and anything else is the ultimate deviance from that standard. Violence against Black and brown people is part of the structural apparatus of this land.
KM: There’s a place in your book where you say, “No matter what we look like, if you were born and raised in America, white-body supremacy and our adaptations to it are in our blood. Our very bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.”
RM: White supremacy is in the water, in the air, in everything that we breathe, see, and think about. It’s in the structure of our society, of the media, of religion, of economics. Race played into early work that I did with kids who were traumatized, but I couldn’t really get what the connection was.
There’s a famous study that showed that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — like abuse, or neglect, early in your life — these go on to affect your health in adulthood and in some ways determine the course of your life. We know this. We know that racism is a major factor in how many ACEs you have.
But I started thinking: this study starts when kids land on the planet. What happens when the trauma has been so acute and happens long before they even get on the planet? What about what happens to a mother while she’s pregnant? How does her trauma shape the cortisol levels in the baby’s body? The epinephrine levels, the heart? There’s so much historical input before that baby’s body even begins to form, and we weren’t even talking about that.
KM: How does traumatic retention show up in white culture?
RM: Imagine a scene with a white, four-year-old boy in Georgia in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Dad comes into his bedroom and says, “Get your clothes on; we’re going to go see something.” And then they go to a park, and there are thousands of people there. And then, the boy realizes that all these people are there for a lynching.
And he’s standing there, smelling the burning flesh and seeing the carnage and horror. Something in his body says this is wrong — there’s tension, constriction. But there are thousands of other white bodies here sanctioning this lynching. His dad is there, the police are there, and they’re all sanctioning it. But the horror and the constriction in his body are still there. The part of him that wants to scream or run knows that something bad might happen if he does; there might be repercussions from his father. So he has to push those experiences down.
How does the little white body make sense of this? He represses that discomfort, that tension. And when he grows up to have children, all that repressed energy gets passed down too.
KM: Is that different from the way traumatic retention shows up in Black culture?
RM: Say, for instance, an enslaved African on a plantation is about to be whipped. Whippings were not done in isolation; they would bring everybody out to see, including children. That was intentional.
Think about a little Black girl who’s brought out to see this. Think about that child’s nervous system bracing — I mean, literally, bracing and steeling itself against what she’s about to see. Think about when that whip hits the man’s back and the child watches the skin flayed open, and the child can’t render aid — because the same would probably happen to her, or somebody she loves.
So this little Black child is traumatized by watching this. And then she grows up, and she begins to “whup” her own children, right? “Whupping,” as we call it in our community, is a result of traumatic retention, a retained behavior that has become decontextualized. When Black people today say, “You got to whup your child,” we’re really saying, “We’ve got to discipline our children to keep them in line, to keep them safe.” But we use whipping for a reason.
KM: So is it doing two things, then? Making sure that kids follow the rules because breaking the rules in a racist society is dangerous — but also reenacting the behavior that caused the trauma in the first place?
RM: Yes. Exactly. I often say that Black people don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder. “Post” means the trauma is in the past. I say we have persistent-traumatic stress disorder.
Here’s the thing, though: I think we’re done with all this. We are done acting like what has happened to us, what continues to happen, is because of some kind of defect in our people. We are starting to reclaim ancestral understandings of how the world operates.
But we will not fix the problem of structural racism and racial violence in this country unless we heal the ways that racial trauma lives in our bodies. It will not happen. One thing that white people and white justice leaders are starting to understand is that there’s work to be done among white people — and that work has to be embodied. White people have got to start to lean into how to create culture around the abolition of white body supremacy. Not workshops, not book clubs, but culture. There’s been a culture built around segregation and assimilation; but there has not been a sustainable culture built around anti-racism. Not yet. How do we build a culture in which white people name their children in the tradition of anti-racist heroes? What are the stories of that culture? What are the rules of admonishment and rules of acceptance? What does the elderhood process look like in an anti-racist culture? How do we teach our white children about race in a way that is open and honest but doesn’t center them as the standard? How do we leverage our white body currency to make lives for our children less arduous? How do we develop the ability to notice when we’re taking up too much room, or when we’re hiding because we’re uncomfortable?
And that means coming back over and over again, and when you get tired, you get up and do it again. There are so many ways for white folks to say, “Okay, I’m done.” Right? But we don’t get to do that.
Here’s what you have to watch out for: white culture is all about the head, not the body. What they’ll do is they’ll take something that would be embodied and before you know it, it becomes a strategy. That’s where it’s safer.
But there’s no energy in safety comfort. You have to be willing to to go the “suffering’s edge” — white people have to be willing to tolerate the discomfort and pain of really experiencing all the difficult emotions and sensations in their bodies when race comes up. They don’t have stamina for that yet.
KM: Every chapter of My Grandmother’s Hands has guided body awareness practices to take readers into their somatic experience — rocking, humming, visualizations, physical touch. What does it look like to do these together?
RM: It looks like white people getting together and doing these somatic practices with each other, witnessing each other, resisting the urge to intellectualize. It looks like doing this consistently, so that all the stuff that never got dealt with starts to begin to show itself in the room. And when discomfort shows up, you stay with it long enough to metabolize it, instead of just pushing it away.
It looks like watching out for the “dodges” white people often use to get off the hook: the urge to look for Black people to affirm them, tears, collapsing, moving to anger or contempt. A big one is what I and a colleague, Rachel Martin, call “elitification” — “I’m the woke one.” It’s all a way of avoiding discomfort.
The thing about white folks is that they’ve never had to examine their ideas of race, and they don’t have many skills to navigate it. Their collective knowledge on race, trauma or white body supremacy is remedial at best. Many of their behaviors are reflexive defense responses. Most of my white clients don’t have a language to explain how they both benefited from the invention of white-body supremacy and are harmed by it. It cuts them off from gaining skills they would otherwise have learned. White liberals especially have a sense that, because they’re nice, or say the right thing, this doesn’t affect them. They want to distance themselves from people like the Trumpers or the “real” racists. I tell white people all the time, “Your individual niceness is inadequate to address genocide, imperialism, enslavement, land theft — all that.”
KM: Social movements in this country have for so long been about political organizing, education, lobbying, marches… but you also talk about how movement-building is also cooking together, singing, relationship building. But I wonder about accountability: if it’s just white people doing this with other white people, who are we accountable to?
RM: It’s not necessary to be accountable to me — it’s about being accountable to the next nine generations! That’s why I’m doing the work that I’m doing. My work may not make any difference now — I’m not looking at my generation. I’m asking, “How do we start to create community right now, so that nine generations from now, my children and your children won’t have to deal with this?”
I think it can be done. Because you know what? Trauma is not destiny. And that’s where the hope is. We can heal each other. And when we heal our trauma, we stop the cycle. We can choose to not pass it onto the next generation.