In his acclaimed book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem argues that we live in a society that is plagued by white body supremacy. By this he means that we live in a society that accepts white people as the standard for all human beings. This is an important insight. Our society is organized in such a way that rewards white skin culturally, economically, politically, and even aesthetically. Menakem writes, “The cultural operating system of white-body supremacy influences or determines many of the decisions we make, the options we select, the choices open to us, and how we make those decisions and choices.”
White body supremacy still takes a specific toll on black bodies. If your skin is black in the United States you are more likely to be poor, more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to get shot walking down the street, more likely not to have a life partner, more likely not to have a job, and more likely to experience poor health outcomes like heart disease, high blood pressure diabetes, asthma and chronic pain. You are also more likely to know black people who have experiences the same things. Without doubt, being black in America dangerous to the human body.
It is no wonder why black people have such a vexed relationship to our bodies. Many of us hate the color of our skin, the texture of our hair, and the shapes of our bodies. Some of us try to hide out in our bodies behind layers of skin and fancy clothes that we believe will protect us from other kinds of harm. Some of us try to work our bodies to death because we believe if we work hard enough, then we can avoid some of the more deadly consequences of not having a job while black (i.e. being locked up or shot for standing out on the corner).
Another hard fact living in a black body is the high likelihood of having to live with a constant sense of being threatened. When our friends, families and communities die prematurely, we very reasonably, come to believe and act like the same thing might happen to us soon. We begin to see everything and everybody as a real threat. When humans, like other animals, encounter a threat we typically experience one of four responses: freeze, flight, fight, or try to annihilate the threat . In order do any of these things our body goes into a state of hyperarousal. This is characterized by (1) holding the breath, (2) tensing the muscles, and (3) acting out quickly and decisively on instinct. Psychologists call this the “fight or flight response”.
Walking around society with an sense of eminent danger is very hard on the body. We tend to overreact to small everyday annoyances. We get enraged when someone cuts us off, disagrees with us, or looks at us funny. Although these things might “get on our nerves”, causing our bodies to react to even slightly stressful situations as if our life is on the line! The terrified body has overridden the rational mind.
One symptom of this problem is when begin to see every person we don’t 100% know to be non-threatening as a potential enemy we have to defend ourselves from, get away from, or when we get really upset, to actually try to fight or kill. This kind of existence is wreaks havoc on our communities. It keeps our communities in a perpetual state of conflict, and makes it difficult for us to be better people and interact with other people with patience, kindness and genuine respect.
Practicing meditation can help us become aware of when we are getting triggered because when we meditate we learn how to become attuned in small changes in our bodies. When we sit in meditation we learn to pay attention to something as slight and non-threatening as our breath. We actually begin to notice how certain thoughts changes the way our bodies feel. When we meditate and we begin to think about some recent injustice, we notice that our chest gets tight, we hold our breath, and our heart aches. When an image like laying on a warm sandy beach, or eating our favorite dish at our grandmothers house, we notice that the body feel relaxed and light. We can learn to take this attention, this mindfulness of the relationship between the body and mind, with us to other parts of our life.
When we are at the grocery store waiting in line and we are mindful, we can notice when our chests gets tight and then choose to relax and breathe. When realized that we have unconsciously clenched our fists because of someone says something that offends us we can choose to relax and breathe. We when we hear the sirens roaring and the police cars speeding down the street, we can choose to relax and breathe. When we hear about another black youth being shot and killed we can CHOOSE to relax and breath and get real familiar with how anger, grief, disbelief or rage is moving through our bodies. Remember, getting tense, holding our breaths and overreacting on instinct will not help us make better CHOICES. Relaxing and breathing gives us time to think and respond with wisdom. Choice gives us freedom. Reactivity and tension keeps us locked in unproductive patterns. Meditation helps us to cultivate the practices of freedom.
“If you keep trying to go around our feelings,
avoiding, looking for distractions,
Let the train start back when it does.
You will get there but for now, the most important place to be
Is in your own heart.”
-- quote taken from Dr. Joi Lewis’ new book, Radical Healing: The Act of Radical Self-Care