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Racial Identity Ties That Bind

JULIE HALL, Therapist, MBA, MS, LMFT

I remember the first time I discussed my racial identity with colleagues at my therapy practice in Greenwich. Several of us had collectively decided to read the book Waking Up White by Debby Irving, and as our only non-white clinician, I took an opportunity during one of our book discussions to share about growing up as an Indian-American in a predominantly white neighborhood, often feeling like the “other” and not seeing anyone who looked like me on television, in the books I read or in positions of leadership.

More than any of the content I shared that day, I remember how my body felt as I described my lived experience. My face was flushed and my chest felt constricted. I could feel my breathing quicken and my muscles tense up. My colleagues met my vulnerability with a great deal of care and support, and yet something in my body was telling me I was unsafe in that moment.

Trauma expert Peter Levine in his book, “Healing Trauma, a Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body”, accurately describes the experience that I had in that book discussion group. He states that stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline release from our adrenal glands to activate our fight or flight response in situations where we feel hopeless, helpless and/or out of control. These hormones are designed to help us flee danger.

As I reflect back on my own life, there were times where I made meaning of my identity as the “other” or “less than” because of the color of my skin, which left me feeling hopeless and out of control. As a child, I did not have this language nor did I have the cognition or space to really process my thoughts or feelings in these situations, and those experiences remained in me, in my body, so even as an adult, sharing those stories with my colleagues created for me a feeling of panic and lack of safety.

As a therapist, I often come alongside clients as they navigate their view of self within the context of what they have been told or what they have observed. An important part of this for all of us, at any age, is an exploration of both racial and ethnic identity. Research shows that as children we observe differences in physical character traits at an early age. Over time we begin to understand that these physical differences lead to categorizations of people, and that these categorizations can have value judgements associated with them.

Right now, there are so many important and necessary conversations about race happening across the globe and in our local communities. Many of our local libraries and community organizations are hosting virtual events.
The YWCA of Greenwich is a great place to stay informed. https://ywcagreenwich.org/racial-justice/

My encouragement is that we take time to recognize the way that our bodies are processing these conversations. In the experience with my colleagues who heard about my story as a person of color for the first time, some of them may have had their own body responses as well. Our bodies can remind us that we all carry trauma, even when we cognitively dismiss those sensations for our good reasons. Our bodies also remind us that all of these stories are important and worthy of being seen and understood. One of the challenges with allowing our trauma responses to remain unchecked is that they can often keep us from being fully present with our own pain and the pain of the people around us.

Resmaa Menakem, best-selling author of “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies”, states, “The body, not the thinking brain, is where we experience most of our pain, pleasure and joy, and it is where we process most of what happens to us. It is also where we do most of our healing, including our emotional and psychological healing, and it is where we experience resilience and a sense of flow.”

As a community, we have an opportunity to build up the identities in the people we encounter by checking in with our body responses, challenging our own biases and being present for and listening to the stories of those whose stories are different from ours. The lifelong activist and author John M Perkins states, “there is no reconciliation until you recognize the dignity of the other, until you see their view- you have to enter the pain of the people. You’ve got to feel their need.” While it may seem challenging to understand how our actions can impact the identity in others, it can also be extremely encouraging. My hope is that if we intentionally engage in our own body and thought work, we have the opportunity to be agents of change and healing. There is no better time than now to begin.

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