Reflections on My Grandmother’s Hands – A Year of Practice in Somatic Abolitionism

Over eighteen months ago, I embarked on a year-long study of Resmaa Menakem’s text, My Grandmother’s Hands.

It wasn’t a book club and we didn’t bring wine or hors d’oeuvres.

It was less about talk and more about practice.

What makes Menakem’s work unique is that it focuses on what happens in the body when you encounter racism:

What do you feel?

What do you experience?

What are the images that come up?

What behaviors arise?

What is your affect?

What’s the general ‘vibe’ in that moment?

What sensations arise?

What meaning do you make of it all?

The goal is to ‘get out of your head’ and into your body. To really experience and identify what you do when you encounter racism and racialized trauma.

We weren’t trying to ‘talk it out.’ We wanted to fully feel everything that we were seeking to avoid.

We didn’t want to ‘dodge’ or evade the topic. We needed to face and feel it directly.

For White folks like myself, systemic racism is inherently structured so that I am unaware of how I benefit from it. It doesn’t want me to identify how I am advantaged by it. It wants me to believe that there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on here. That I should just carry on and go about my business.

What I learned was that I was ‘dodging’ a lot.

I didn’t want to talk to other White folks about racism because I didn’t think it would make a difference. They either wouldn’t listen or make some type of proclamation that felt more like virtue signaling than actual progress.

I still feel this way and I know that I have to be more direct in my conversations. I need to be more willing to broach subjects that I normally would have avoided. Not out of a need to prove my own virtue, but to prevent the ‘dodges’ that I would normally take.

What I Learned:

Doing this work was incredibly challenging. It forced me to examine much that I thought I understood well, that now realize I had little cursory understanding of.

It was hard to admit how often I dodged, without realizing I was, and how inherent this is to the nature of systemic racism.

It was hard to admit my advantage. That my body, the White body,  is the standard that all others are measured against in America.

It is hard not to collapse and avoid, when facing the totality of it all.

It is hard to work towards building culture that would sustain – when it feels so pointless to try.

It is hard to feel and witness much that I would prefer to ‘intellectually acknowledge’ and then ignore.

It is hard to admit how daunting this work is.

What was hardest was not even trying. Just sitting back and doing nothing – I just couldn’t stomach it. I didn’t want to give up.

And I haven’t.

If you have made it this far – I’m here, with you now, feeling all of it; and not running away.

If you are called to uproot your own ‘dodges’ – I’m here.

If you want to build your own capacity to feel much that you wish to avoid – I’m here.

If you are scared and just want it all to go away – I’m here.

But more than anything else, if you are confused and don’t know what to do – I’m here.

I don’t know what to do.

I’m lost and confused.

I also know that until my fellow Americans address what they do and feel in their bodies when they encounter structural racism, we won’t really move the needle.

DEI 2.0 has to include Somatics going forward.

We must address our embodiment and how that allows us to numb and avoid much that we don’t want to admit exists.

We have to learn how trauma can look like culture and personality in others and in our own families.

We need to work together to build a new culture that allows for all of this and for the fullness of our experience so that we can better regulate ourselves when we are triggered by those ‘foreign’ to us.

Once we do – it will be a different country.

A more whole and healed Nation.

One that I yearn for.

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With Stephen