A small group of those racialised white in CPA have been meeting to explore racialisation, decolonisation and climate psychology. The group was one part of a response to the need for anti-racism practice within CPA. It followed discussions on the CPA google group, calls for those racialised white to do their own work, and the general increase in awareness about internalised and systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
One of these responses was a small group – ‘Decolonising ourselves: learning, reflecting and dismantling white supremacy from the inside out’ - the invite going out in the monthly CPA updates. It started as a series of reflective spaces for those racialised white to learn about racism, how it works through us, and to develop awareness and action to dismantle systems of white supremacy within and between us. We have continued meeting, and co-wrote a reflective piece and compiled relevant resources. This piece explores some of the issues from our sessions in more depth.
Shame and embodied shame
We started our work together by exploring our racial identities over our lifetimes, and in our family history. Shame was a theme that arose for many of us. To explore it together, we listened to the Brene Brown podcast on shame and accountability. The inspiration for this came from decolonising and anti-racist work being carried out by the Radical Therapist Network that Jamie has been party to. We shared our responses to the podcast, and were led through an arts-based exercise of mapping shame in our bodies to become aware of how thoughts about race and racism become embodied in ways that can make it difficult to articulate or name. This is especially the case where experiences related to race are rooted in childhood and/or located within deeply embedded family and cultural myths and stories. We know from trauma-informed work that shame is very often located outside of rational thought, with the work of therapy to try and help that shame at least be named, and made sense of. Experiences of race and racism adds an additional cultural and inter/intra-generational element to how that shame is communicated between individuals, families, groups and societies.
Jamie writes: from my perspective, as the person facilitating this exercise, it was a profound and moving experience to witness how other white people experienced shame related to race and racism. This is such a powerful exercise that requires a lot of trust to make work. Together, we had built the trust necessary to explore the theme in depth. I have included an image of how I have personally responded to the exercise in another group. It illustrates to me how shame can appear in so many different ways within the body and how personal metaphors of the body can reflect a collective political body - fright, flight, locked in, silenced, breathless, sick.
When we’re talking about trauma, … about historical trauma, intergenerational trauma, persistent institutional trauma, and personal traumas — whether that be childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, when they are left constricted, you begin to be shaped around the constriction. And it is wordless. Time decontextualizes trauma. Resmaa Menakem.
Menakem compares the impact of unhealed trauma to the ripples from a rock thrown into a pond. The ripples move outwards and impact many others over time. Children are particularly susceptible to picking up unresolved trauma from the adults around them. The cognitive parts of their brains are not fully developed and it’s their limbic brains that sense danger and they then move through the world as if it’s a dangerous place. The child will grow up sensing this danger but with no understanding as to where it comes from. The way they move through the world looks like personality rather than a trauma response. The science of epigenetics has shown that patterns and genes are in an interactive relationship that doesn’t stop with what we inherit. So we may be carrying unresolved trauma from our ancestors that our cognitive brains can make no sense of. We struggle to find the words and this is another way of thinking about how we are silenced. Menakem recommends body based grounding exercises and a gentle approach that slowly builds our tolerance for discomfort. Too fast and we will recoil and run away or lash out. Too slow and we will come up with all sorts of cognitive excuses or deflections.
Drawing on Resmaa’s book ‘My Grandmother’s Hands,' we were guided through some exercises to explore our embodied feelings of safety and discomfort. Alongside the ‘Onbeing’ podcast interview featuring Resmaa Menakem, this proved a valuable exercise in developing awareness about our relationship with comfort or discomfort (and that discomfort does not equate to being unsafe), and how that relationship can open up or close down opportunities for action.
Doing and being, the being of doing, and doing from being
Bayo Akomolafe says ‘The times are urgent – let's slow down’ and that the rush to solutions is part of the problem. When we ask the question ‘what can we do?’ there is an assumption that we have to do something. And whilst of course, those of us who are racialised white, do need to take action, it is not the case that we can tick these actions off our ‘to do’ list and then sit back. Something much more profound and grounded is needed, incorporating anti-racist practices into our daily lives.
We all came to the group with a desire to take action, alongside an acknowledgement that our intentions had got stuck in different ways. The ‘fear of messing up,' or saying or doing the ‘wrong’ thing cauterised intentions to act. These illustrate some of what Tema Okun terms the characteristics of ‘white supremacy culture,' such as perfectionism and defensiveness. Drawing on CPAs strapline of ‘facing difficult truths,' we sat with the difficulties of seeing how our bodies and minds have been enrolled into a system of white supremacy. The image of the Newgrange labyrinth - a recurrent motif within the group – was an invitation to go deeper, not to just complete the path but to go down into the shadows, the depths, the underground. In different ways we have all transformed our ‘shoulds and oughts’ of stuck intentions into the flow of ‘what can’t help but happen.'
We have been taking and integrating anti-racist actions and practices in our personal and professional lives, and strengthening our personal and collective muscles of dealing with discomfort in the process. The fear of ‘messing up’ hasn’t gone away, but the fear of silence is greater. Having greater individual and collective capacity to deal with the potential impacts of ‘messing up’ has created more space for action, for speaking up. Whilst we might not get it right every time, mistakes are opportunities to learn, grow, and transform.
Exploring our relationships with denial and numbing concerning complicity in white supremacy culture has also deepened our awareness of climate denial. As Eugene Ellis unpicks in The Race Conversation, the race construct 'serves to keep the distress associated with the violence and brutality committed in the name of race out of the minds and bodies of white people.' Similarly, the constructs of climate denial keep the distress of facing the difficult truths of our complicity with a system that is destructive. The injustices of racism and the fossil fuel industry and an exploitative and othering system are intimately intertwined (Nafeez Ahmed). Seeing through the lenses of the climate crisis and racism is a kind of binocular vision of seeing clearly.
Learning about racial identity and the complicity of white supremacy culture is one part of the wider work of decolonisation and dismantling racism. But it is only one part, which gets tested – and developed - in practice. An essential part of dismantling racism is building relationships, and developing accountabilities, and putting what we learn and experience into practice within and beyond CPA.
Jamie Bird, Kate Evans, Jo Hamilton, Camilla Sim
- Bayo Akomolafe, The times are urgent, let’s slow down. https://bayoakomolafe.net/project/the-times-are-urgent-lets-slow-down/
- Menakem, R. (2017) My Grandmother’s Hands. Racialized Trauma and the pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Central Recovery Press, Las Vegas. https://www.resmaa.com/about
- white supremacy culture by Tema Okun. ttp://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/whitesupcul13.pdf www.dismantlingracism.org
- Eugene Ellis, 2021. The Race Conversation: An essential guide to creating life-changing dialogue. Confer books. https://www.karnacbooks.com/product/the-race-conversation-an-essential-guide-to-creating-life-changing-dialogue/95399/
- Nafeez Ahmed https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/white-supremacism-and-the-earth-system-fa14e0ea6147