S4 E3: Resmaa Menakem on Racialized Trauma (Part 1 of 2)

Released October 5, 2021

Following the death of George Floyd, racialized trauma was reignited for people of color around the world. While many calls for social justice, others want to know how they can be allies for change. In this special two-part episode, we speak with Meadows Senior Fellow Resmaa Menakem about the effects of racialized trauma and the action steps that are needed for change.

Podcast Transcript

Resmaa Menakem: The race question in this country really is a species question. The way it was configured by Europeans was a species-ness around it. A race of dog, race of cat, a race of bird. And so, what was done was taking that idea or that ethos around race and applied it to the human being and applied it to the African and applied it to the indigenous people. And so, when we’re talking about race, the part that we forget up underneath, or the part that we don’t quite catch up underneath, is that the idea of race and me being race is really a species question. Is Resmaa a fully-flesh human being? And the answer in this country is “no.”

Dominic Lawson: Welcome to Beyond Theory, a podcast powered by Meadows Behavioral Healthcare that brings you in-depth conversations with firsthand insights from the front lines of mental health and addiction recovery. I’m Dominic Lawson.

Following the death of George Floyd, racialized trauma was reignited for people of color around the world. While many call for social justice, others want to know how they can be allies for change. In this special two-part episode, we speak with Meadows Senior Fellow Resmaa Menakem about the effects of racialized trauma and the action steps that are needed for change.  

Let’s get out of the abstract and see how this applies in the real world. It’s time to go beyond theory.  

Resmaa Menakem: My name is Resmaa Menakem. I’m a Senior Fellow at [The] Meadows. I am a clinical social worker by trade, married, with two kids 36 and 20. I believe that the work that I do in terms of helping people understand racialized trauma and somatic abolitionism is my last work.  

Dominic Lawson: Resmaa, thank you so much for coming on the Beyond Theory podcast. We really appreciate your time today.  

Resmaa Menakem: Thank you, brother. Thank you, bro.  

Dominic Lawson: Of course, of course. So, if you would Resmaa, just kind of start with your background, your origin story, if you would.  

Resmaa Menakem: Yeah. So, I’m originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was born and raised in Milwaukee. So, I graduated from Bayview High School, which was a performance arts high school at the time, and got really involved in, like, theater and then also played acoustic base in symphony orchestra. Did that for a lot of years, graduated, and as soon as I graduated from high school I went to college to University of Lacrosse-Wisconsin for sociology. I was on the six-year plan, so I did that for six years. Then I figured I’d better get on with the rest of my life. Then I got out, moved up here. At the time, I had a lot longer hair back then, so I thought with 1989, I thought I was going to come up here and be the next Prince. But there’s only one Prince. So, I figured out when I got up here, I need to get a job — work — if I ever wanted to eat again. Then started doing a lot of work up here working with youth with regard to gun violence, and in ’92 I met my wife. She had a six-year-old daughter by that time, so I started raising a daughter and got married in ’95. Then I have a 20-year-old son also.

Came up here, a mentor of mine by the name of Dr. Oliver Williams said that, we were doing some work together and he said, “You need to go back and get your master’s.” I was like, man, I barely got out by the skin of my teeth in my undergrad! He’s like, “No, you can do it, blah, blah, blah.” And so I went back, got my master’s and then stayed around and got my clinicals and then started and, I believe in 2013, started once I got back from Afghanistan, I did two years in Afghanistan doing therapeutic work around people who got traumatized while they were in country. So, a lot of my work, that’s where all of the kind of trauma stuff all galvanized together. So, after I got back, I started doing some writing, and the rest is history.  

Dominic Lawson: Resmaa, if you would, I want to ask a follow up. Can you talk about your work in Afghanistan?  

Resmaa Menakem: Yeah, so my brother was, I believe he’s like a 25-year veteran of policing. He’s a police officer. He ended up getting a job from one of his boys, when his boys was talking about he could go over to Afghanistan as a military contractor. And because he had so much of that police training, that’s one of the things that they were, that they needed. Not only was he a contractor, he also trained police officers. So, he went over there, and he was over there for about a year, and he called me — and this is my, this is my brother, so we’ve been together our whole lives. He called me and he says, “Dude, you know anybody that does counseling? Do you know anybody, you know any therapist or anything like that? They do anything with trauma and stuff like that?” And I’m listening to him, I said “Dude, what are you talking about?” He was like, “Dude, do you know somebody that does something. I’m trying to ask you a question.” I said, “Dude, that’s all I’ve been doing, like, like what are you talking about?” So, he’s like, “Well, that’s all you got to say.”  

What he was saying was that there was over there, some of the military contractors, even though many of the people that were over there were civilians, what a lot of people don’t know is that most of the military bases and in foreign countries are not run by the military, they’re run by military contractors, people who do the logistics, people who get the food on and off the bases, people who get the garbage on and off the bases, all of those different types of things are run by military contractors. So, my brother said that one of the things that they were accounting for was all the trauma that the people were experiencing while they were there.  

He asked me, would I ever go over there and do some work? My first response and was, “Hell no.” Then he said, well, let me tell you how much they’ll pay you. I said, “Oh, well let me consider that.” I talked with my wife and, as you probably can imagine, she wasn’t happy about it and everything. But she gave me a pass and told me I could go, and I did it for a year. It was so traumatizing in that year that I re-upped, signed back up without telling her, and went back again.

My job was to manage their response, the kind of mental health response to any military contractors in 53 bases in Southern Afghanistan. So, whenever the Taliban would hit or whenever somebody would hang themselves or whatever, somebody would do things, my job was to go and process the base and determine whether or not we could provide support for them while they were still in the country or they needed to leave to get support outside of the wire. I did that for two years and got pretty traumatized myself. The book actually comes up out of that because of the trauma that I sustained and had to work with.  

Dominic Lawson: That actually leads me to my next question. I want to talk about your book, My Grandmother’s Hands. One of the things you talk about throughout the book and many of your talks is this idea of somatic abolitionism. I’m just curious if you would crystallize that for us. What is somatic abolitionism and why does it matter? Why do we need to know that?  

Resmaa Menakem: Yeah. My idea is that we live in a structure. We live in systems, right? The racialist structure in this country is predicated on the white body deeming itself the supreme standard by which all bodies humanity shall be measured, philosophically is structured. So, if you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand how traumatizing it is for a body that is not born into a white body, but a body that is darker. You don’t understand that being born into that structure is actually weathering. It actually weathers the brain architecture. It actually weathers the endocrine system, it actually weathers the musculoskeletal system — that trauma, and that race, and the concept of race as it was configured by Europeans. The concept of it is traumatizing on any body that is not housed in the white body.  

My whole thing was to begin to put context around some of the pieces that people, bodies of culture, have been experiencing, specifically in America for the last 400 or 500 years. My idea is that if we don’t work with the body as it relates to racism and we just keep trying to think about it and keep trying to come up with nifty little strategies and ideas about race, we’re really going to continue to miss the mark around how these types of things actually live in the body. They go past the neocortical or neocortex part of the brain and go right into survival parts of the brain, right into the reptilian parts of the brain.  

My whole piece is that we have to have a somatic abolitionist movement. What I mean by that is that somatic abolitionism, at its core, is developing a living, embodied anti-racist practice and culture. It is not enough just to have strategy or tools. Well, if you don’t have a culture then what ends up happening is that any types of good ideas you have, they will bend at the knee because culture is stronger and faster than people’s cognition. So, my whole idea of somatic abolitionists is that we have to extricate ourselves from the idea of white body supremacy and racism. We have to extricate that from the body first and create a container by which all of that charge and all of that heat and all of that pressure and all of that weight that’s contained in the concept of race can be processed and metabolized through.  

Dominic Lawson: That’s definitely interesting for our listeners to understand. It actually speaks to something you talk about often as far as, like, declarative allies and operational.  

Resmaa Menakem: Yeah.  

Dominic Lawson: Kind of talk about that a little bit, Resmaa, if you would.  

Resmaa Menakem: Yeah, that’s a good question, brother. That’s a good question. So, when I’m doing my work, brother, one of the things that happens is that people will come up to me, specifically white people, and will say, “I was very moved by what you said, and you know, I’m an ally.” That always just strikes me as just a very curious thing among white people, where they believe that their self-declarations are enough, that their ability to say that they’re an ally means something. To me, it doesn’t really mean anything. One of the questions that I ask when people say that type of stuff to me is I say, “How would I have known that if you hadn’t told me? Who are the people that you come from? Who are the people that you’re building a lifelong community and culture with that will hold you accountable when you go against those value systems, that the idea of being a self-declared ally as opposed to an operational action-oriented ally, means that you realize that your individual sense of ‘allyship’ is inadequate to deal with the level of brutality and viciousness that is entailed in racism and white body supremacy?”  

Collective white bodies also do this thing where they say, where they believe that niceness and kindness is the same thing as living embodied anti-racist practice and culture building. That is not the same thing. I don’t want you to spit in my food or turn water hoses on me or sick dogs on me. I want you to be nice to me. But that is not the same thing as developing a living, embodying anti-racist practice. It is inadequate to deal with the level of brutality and viciousness that white body supremacy keeps on my body and bodies like mine every day. So, this idea of having an operational ally means that you are, in terms of somatic abolitionism, means that you are vested in a lifelong practice with other white bodies to make sure that you don’t pass white body supremacy down to your children’s, children’s children.  

Dominic Lawson: I appreciate you crystallizing that for our audience, Resmaa. If you would, let’s kind of go back to the trauma a little bit because one of the things you often talk about is that even though that trauma has left the brain, it’s still in the body. Could you talk to us about that a little bit?  

Resmaa Menakem: Yeah. So, trauma is not primary. I think this is a really important piece for people to understand. Trauma is not primary. Resource is primary. Resource and the ability to tap into communal resource, those things are primary. Trauma thwarts the emergence of resource because — I want to be clear here — because a lot of times when we talk about trauma, we forget that trauma is not the primary thing. Resource is the primary thing, love is the primary thing, joy is the primary thing. Those pieces are primary. But trauma thwarts the emergence, can thwart the emergence of it. It doesn’t kill it. It doesn’t stop it from happening. It can thwart the emergence of it in a particular way. When I talk about trauma, what I’m saying is that anything that happens to you, that’s too much, too fast, too soon, or too long coupled with something reparative that should have happened that didn’t.  

Now imagine us, brother, me and you, coming from a people who had been raped and brutalized for 250 years — legally, sanctioned rape and brutalization. There’s a certain type of way that our ancestors would have had to organize themselves in order to survive that piece. That organization can look like over time, because time decontextualizes trauma, that organization can look like personality in a person. It can look like family traits in the family and it can look like culture in the people. What I’m doing with somatic abolitionism is asking people to begin to slow it down enough so we can actually interrogate and examine what pieces are what and be able to discern pieces from one another and to be able to notice when resource actually shows up. There’s a tempering conditioning process that must happen that many of us don’t want to do. So, when I’m talking about these pieces, that’s what I’m talking about.  

Dominic Lawson: Resmaa, you often talk about white bodies. Even in your book, you talk about police bodies, but you also talk about bodies of culture. Could you define bodies of culture for us? Because I think that’s important for our audience to know.  

Resmaa Menakem: Absolutely. Yeah. So, bodies of culture. I actually had somebody when I was doing a training recently, brother, and I had somebody say to me, well, I find it offensive that you keep saying bodies of culture, white people have a culture too, right? My answer to his him being offended was when I say bodies of culture, I’m not talking about you. I’m not talking about white people. That actually speaks to the idea of what I’ve been saying, is that white bodies believe have a sense of, a collective sense that the black body has to be deferential to the white body. That, if I say something that is true for me, that when I say bodies of culture, I am talking about that white body supremacy has stripped us of our humanity. Part of the reason why I say body of culture instead of people of color is because what I am saying is that we have to reclaim culture as an aspect of our humanity.  

So, when I am talking about that, I’m talking about particular people who have been brutalized by the concept that the white body is the standard of humanness. So, when I am saying bodies of culture, I am talking about anybody that is not housed in a white body, right? When I wrote My Grandmother’s Hands, one of the things that I did was is I made a mistake by equating a vocation with a body. So, I called them blue bodies, right? That was a mistake. A lot of times, what I’m noticing about my writing is that I can’t find the holes in my writing until I write it. Then, once I write it and get it out there and work with it for a while, then I go, Oh, that was a mistake to house it, to kind of configure it in that way.  

So, what I’ve been doing now is, in my next book is, I’m actually taking that piece on. Many times we equate certain vocations with a virtue, right? So, if you’re a police officer, there’s a certain virtue that comes with that. If you’re a firefighter, there’s a certain virtue. if you’re a military person, there’s a certain virtue. A virtue is something that emerges from the thing that is inside you. It is not a vocation. Just because you put on a uniform does not make you virtuous. I equated virtue with a vocation and the vocation with the body in My Grandmother’s Hands, and that was a mistake.  

So, when I’m talking about blue uniforms or the police, I’m talking about a part of a structure that has been used, that was born out of a very feral system that was predicated on seeing me as a species. The race question in this country really is a species question, the way it was configured by Europeans was a species-ness around it. It is a race of dog, a race of cat, a race of bird. So, what was done was taking that idea or that ethos around race and applied it to the human being and applied it to the African and applied it to the indigenous people. So, when we’re talking about race, the part that we forget up underneath or the part that we don’t quite catch up underneath is that the idea of race and me being race is really a species question. Is Resmaa a fully flesh human being? And the answer in this country is, “no.” The three-fifth compromise was about that being not, the Dred Scott decision was about that being, me not being full human. 

The construction and the creation of white bodies and white persons in Virginia law in the 1600s was about Resmaa not being human but being other species. So, when I’m talking about bodies of culture, when I’m talking about police bodies, when I talk about white bodies, I’m talking about it in the context of that.  

Dominic Lawson: And I imagine, Resmaa, that’s why you champion the phrase, “black people, you are not defective.” I’ve seen it on hoodies and things of that nature.  

Resmaa Menakem: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s why I do that, brother, because black people don’t even know that we need to hear that. Bodies of culture don’t even know that we need, like — let’s do something real quick, if it’s all right?  

Dominic Lawson: Okay.  

Resmaa Menakem: So, me and you were talking and I just looked at you and I said, “Brother, you are not defective. You never have been. You never will be. You are not defective. Something has happened, and continues to happen, to your people, but you are not defective.” Now, when I say that to you, what do you notice happened for you when you hear me say it? 

Dominic Lawson: Personally, I feel empowered. I feel empowered. I feel a change in narrative, I feel the change in myself. That’s what I feel when I hear those words.  

Resmaa Menakem: Where do you notice the change in the embodiment? Like you say, “I feel empowered.” Like where did that empowerment, that sense of resource, land?  

Dominic Lawson: I’m not sure what you mean.  

Resmaa Menakem: So, like you said, I feel empowered. So that would suggest that you have some type of sensation about empowerment, right? Where did you notice it? Did you notice it in your hips? Did you notice it in your head? Did you notice it in your chest?  

Dominic Lawson: I noticed it in my chest and my stomach a little bit.  

Resmaa Menakem: That’s it. That’s the piece. So those are the pieces that we don’t get at, that are operating up underneath when we’re talking about somatic abolitionism, right? When we’re talking about white body, the supremacy, it is a visual experience. Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about that, this idea of white supremacy breaks bones, gnashes teeth, rips muscle, right? That’s what he means, is that when we talk about white supremacy, we are talking about something that weathers the brain architecture, brother. We’re talking about norepinephrine and cortisol literally weathering my reproductive system, right? Which is why, so often, black women die giving birth. Why black children are born with low birth weight. Even if you account for lifestyle choices, right? And we never asked the question, what is the impact of 400, 500, 250 years of rape on the black woman’s body? We never even bring that into the equation when we start trying to think about why certain things are happening. And so yeah, that’s why I say the thing that you’re not defective, that something has happened and continues to happen.  

We hope you are enjoying this very important conversation. Join us next time as we conclude our conversation. Resmaa Menakem is a New York Times bestselling author and a Senior fellow here at Meadows Behavioral Healthcare.  Find out more about him at resmaa.com. Beyond Theory is produced and hosted by me, Dominic Lawson. You can discover more, including videos of some of our conversations, at beyondtheory.com. For more information on Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, go to meadowsbh.com. Finally, thank you for listening, and I hope you join us next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.