We are in a new era of a long-standing movement that demands justice for Black lives. This involves the dismantling of racist policies and systems where white voices and perspectives are prioritized. It has resulted in widespread collective action, painful public reflection, and increasing demonstrations of white solidarity with racial justice.
Recognizing your privilege can be intensely uncomfortable. It is common for non-Black allies to feel ashamed, overwhelmed, sad, guilty, and angry. A history of trauma can magnify these feelings. Left unaddressed, these feelings may cause us to shut down or act out subconsciously. When this happens, it can place additional burdens on Black people.
Don’t Ignore Discomfort
Robin D’Angelo, author of White Fragility, asserts that the protective environment white Americans are born into can cause defensiveness around racial topics. This defensiveness can result from either a conscious or subconscious desire to defend or preserve one’s social position or advantages. It can also manifest in fear of being “wrong” or “judged” in conversations about race.
Uncomfortable emotions, however, are necessary. They signal that something is wrong and that there is a need for change. In racial justice work this means embracing discomfort, listening, openness to vulnerability, willingness to take risks and make mistakes. Importantly, don’t expect Black friends or colleagues to educate you about racism.
Between Black and White
“If we hope to become ANTI-RACIST and yet have not worked on our RACIAL TRAUMA we are at risk of performative allyship because TRAUMA prompts us to protect, shield, and guard against threatening and negative emotions. But genuine anti-racist work is inherently threatening and emotionally upsetting to our EGO.” - Dr. Jenny Wang
In discussions about solidarity, it’s important to acknowledge the position of non-Black POC. Often POC groups are pitted against each other, as seen by anti-Blackness in some POC communities. Addressing anti-Blackness, as well as addressing other forms of bias, racism, and other injustices in your own POC communities is an important step in standing in solidarity.
Jenny Wang, Clinical Psychologist and creator of the Instagram page @asiansformentalhealth, suggests that Asian Americans and other non-Black people of color who have “not worked through [their] own racial trauma” are at risk of “performative allyship.” Wang explains that “trauma prompts us to shield against negative emotions.” This can limit our capacity for deep reflection or exploration on what it means to be anti-racist. This may be the case especially among those new to racial justice work.
Racial Trauma & Mind-Body Care
Stacey Thompson, a therapist at the Viva Center, describes common symptoms of racial trauma as anxiety, hypervigilance, and hopelessness. These can arise through direct experience with racism – such as being ignored when trying to flag down a taxi — as well as through vicarious exposure to racism – like seeing a news story about racial violence.
Resmaa Menakem, a social work therapist in Minneapolis and author of My Grandmother’s Hands, teaches about the effects of intergenerational trauma on the Black community. He explains that after “centuries [of] unrelentingly brutal conditions,” the bodies of Black people have “stored trauma and intense survival energy, and passed these onto … children and grandchildren.”
“Survivors of trauma often conflate comfort and safety,” says Menakem. “So it is understandable why they may want to turn away from discomfort.”
For activists who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and at the intersection, who have been having these conversations about and speaking out against racial injustice for years, your discomfort may show up differently than the person who is new to standing in solidarity. You know that the work you do can be exhausting and triggering, and that deserves to be acknowledged. Here are just a few resources for mind-body approaches with you in mind:
- Dr. Candice Nicole Hargons provides guided meditations for the Movement for Black Lives.
- Liberate is a meditation app that is led by and for BIPOC.
- This article by Irresistible provides resources for BIPOC activists and allies who are in need of mind, body, and soul healing. It includes exercises for how to stay grounded during actions, and holistic social justice podcasts.
How Allyship Works in the Mind and Body
A mind-body approach to being with and working through uncomfortable feelings is useful because of the interconnected nature of our brain, mind, and body systems.
Dan Siegel explains in his book, Interpersonal Neurobiology, that our brains consist of differentiated parts with distinct functions that are also linked together. This linking is called “integration.” It is the key to enabling functions such as insight, empathy, and intuition. These functions help us move past blaming ourselves for past behavior so we can assume responsibility for learning to do better.
Our spinal cords carry energy and information between our bodies and brains. Energy flow moves from the brainstem, which is responsible for regulating bodily functions and states of arousal.
The brainstem creates fight, flight, or freeze reactions to perceived threats in our environment. In the central part of the brain, the limbic system coordinates perceptions of memory and behavior, and handles the recall of facts and autobiographical detail. The limbic system integrates a variety of mental processes including meaning making, understanding social signals, and activating emotion. It also plays a role in attachment, the system that motivates an infant to seek their parent in order to be soothed and impacts relationships into adulthood.
The cortex is the last part of our brain to evolve. It is divided into two hemispheres: the right and the left. The right hemisphere specializes in information received from the body and focuses on nonverbal communication. The left hemisphere takes in logical data and rules regarding social behavior. The cortex enables awareness and invites more opportunities for choice and change: hence the integrative nature of the mind-body system.
Why “Mind-Body Approaches”?
Trauma can disrupt these systems in significant ways, causing lack of clarity in the nervous system about the chronology of traumatic events. In essence, the nervous system recalls past trauma as though it were happening in the present moment, and it responds as if in danger.
Interventions that focus on integration of the mind and body can highlight and help counteract this process. This is done in part by helping the brain differentiate between memories of past trauma and awareness of present-moment safety.
Mind-body Activist Tools
Below is a list of mind-body approaches and resources to help non-Black allies manage the uncomfortable feelings they may experience in the course of racial justice work. Each approach offers something different and some may work better for you than others. If something does not feel right, don’t push it.
If an approach doesn’t work for you, consider trying it again at a later time and you might discover that it feels different. One approach will not be sufficient so work with several at a time, as much as you can.
- Morning check-in: Before getting out of bed in the morning, check-in for a few moments and simply ask yourself, “How am I doing?” Then, listen for an answer with curiosity, putting aside any judgment or analysis if possible. Perhaps the answer is “I feel good about today” or maybe “I feel crummy.” Then, take a breath and acknowledge that feeling. Once we start the day, we are often pulled in many directions which take us further away from ourselves. Checking-in first thing allows us to pause and tune into our state of being before we go about our day.
- Breathe into the discomfort and see what it needs: Where do you feel the discomfort in your body? What does this feeling or sensation need? For example, does the warmth in your throat feel connected to the need to be heard? Does the fear and tightening in your stomach need reassurance that your feelings matter? Imagine yourself, or a wise older person, giving you what you need. Breathe into that. Do this to a point that feels manageable and not overwhelming.
- Meditate: Meditation invites us to be aware of thoughts and feelings without judgment. There are many ways to meditate and it’s important to find the ones that work best for you. Sometimes we meditate to avoid feeling discomfort. If that’s the reason, consider meditating to cultivate grounding and resilience for when discomfort arises.
Those new to meditation can listen to this informative interview with meditation teacher, Ruth King. She talks about RAIN, an approach that invites you to Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture whatever thoughts and feelings arise in your practice. For the experienced meditator, the Calm app provides helpful ways in which you can use your mindfulness practice to stand in solidarity with the Black community. These include finding self-compassion, honoring similarities and differences, and allowing things to be complex. Michelle Johnson, a yoga teacher and clinical social worker who fights for social justice, also offers these brief guided meditations.
- Journal: If you’re sitting with hard feelings and don’t have someone to talk to about them, journaling can be helpful. Journaling can be as flexible or as structured as you like. Leesa Renee Hall shares these writing prompts for working with feelings around white fragility.
- Connect with a trauma therapist: As mentioned earlier, racial and other forms of trauma may be connected to past experiences, or intergenerational and collective patterns. Therapeutic approaches to healing trauma include brain-based modalities like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brainspotting.
- Connect with body-based practitioners: Somatic experiencing works with the body’s responses of fight, flight, or freeze to process and release emotions. Resmaa Menakem offers a free 5 day online course on racialized trauma and the body. Sensorimotor psychotherapy is an integrative modality that focuses on body sensations and their connections to thoughts and emotions when healing trauma and attachment issues.
- Yoga: Arielle Mesa of the Viva Center shares in her blog post how to heal through trauma-informed yoga.
- Connect with a holistic or spiritual healer, if that aligns with your needs: Holistic healers may include Reiki, body work, and energy healing practitioners. Spiritual healers may include ministers, indigenous healers or spiritual leaders in communities of color, or clergy members.
- Connect with your roots: Consider learning more about the lineage and history of your immediate family. If you are BIPOC, this might include exploration of your family’s pre-colonial history. Even if you are not Native, I would also invite you to consider the relationship of native peoples and nations to the land on which you are living and whose traditional territories this is. If this brings up discomfort, see if you can lean into it a bit more. Be curious as to why this information may be uncomfortable.
- Cultivate nurturing and safe relationships: Sandra Kim offers free weekly healing circles for BIPOC. If you are white or white-presenting, consider connecting with like-minded individuals interested in antiracist work. Jennifer Loubriel’s post offers guidance on processing white privilege for white people. DC-based Lighthouse Yoga Center also offers free inner work healing circles for racial justice, for both white people and BIPOCs.
- Talk about racism with Black friends: Kristen Rogers lists ways in which you can talk to your Black friends about racism. She suggests approaching the conversation as if you would someone who is grieving.
- Breathwork: Susan Ateh describes the intense practice of breathwork as “an active self-healing meditation” that opens space to work through stuck energy utilizing the power of breath. Rachel Ricketts invites people who are “comfortable with getting uncomfortable” in a replay of her breathwork workshops: Spiritual Activism 101 and 102 courses. There is one group for BIPOC and mixed-race people and a separate group for white and white-presenting people.
- Be ready to make mistakes: This will happen and may happen often. If you find yourself feeling stuck in the discomfort, imagine that you’re at a fork in the road, a choice point. One path continues on a perpetual loop of shame and guilt. The other invites a sense of curiosity and asks, “What can I learn from this experience?” Privilege induces a form of societal blindness, so “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Under these circumstances, missteps are inevitable.
- Be a lifelong learner: There are a variety of resource lists available to help you on your journey of standing in solidarity and doing antiracist work. Find the resources that you connect with, as well as those which push you past your comfort zone.
- Rest: We all need a break from time to time. Listen to your body’s cues for when you need to disconnect from the news, social media, and other people, and take a nap, bath, snuggle with a pet, or do nothing at all. Be patient with yourself.
- Make time to play: This might include exercise, running around with your children and/or pets, or engaging in any hobby or activity that brings you joy.
Building tolerance for discomfort in general, and especially when doing racial justice work, requires practice and life-long learning. It’s important work that keeps the onus on you for expanding your awareness and capacity for thoughtful action. It will also help you feel more embodied and unburdened within yourself.
***I want to acknowledge Dr. Melisa Casumbal-Salazar, PhD, activist, writer, and my incredible sister, for her important and helpful insights around BIPOC and activism***