Finding My Voice: On Race & Racialized Trauma as a White Health Care Provider

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Reflection: Interestingly, I’ve written so much here and elsewhere about my own very personal pelvic health and pelvic organ prolapse experience, but this blog, for me, has felt much more vulnerable and uncomfortable to write…Please don’t hesitate to reach out and share your thoughts!

I LOVE to read. One of my favorite parts of taking some time off in the summer is the opportunity to sit down and consume some long awaited gems that have been accumulating on my book shelf, usually a balance of light hearted novels and works that I have set aside for personal and professional growth.

This summer this book, “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Manakem, was on the top of my list.

Here’s why:

I grew up in a predominantly white area with a whole ton of privilege. It was more than 10 years ago when I attended a cultural sensitivity training for health care providers and I was first exposed to the realities of the Canadian history that I was not taught in school (elementary, secondary or post-secondary). Namely the violent actions taken by my ancestors towards the Indigenous populations of these lands: Forced displacement, the spread of diseases leading to significant population loss, imposition of cultural assimilation policies resulting in loss of autonomy and beautiful tradition, residential schools policies that resulted in families getting torn apart, and incredibly violent and racist acts that continue today. 

I left feeling shocked, nautious and consumed with guilt and disgust towards my own ‘whiteness’. For years, I have had no idea what to do with this information and this guilt.

I have been doing a lot of listening, learning and reflecting on my own cognitive biases when it comes to racism and how this might show up in the care that I provide to my clients and in my parenting. I have externalized my mission, believing it to be about having more compassion, empathy and understanding for my BIPOC clients but I didn’t necessarily see it as about me, as a white person, quite so directly. 

This learning has been eye opening and important but VERY intellectual in nature. Emotionally, the guilt has festered, pulling me towards silence, avoidance, and inaction. My default is to duck conversations about race “I don’t have lived experience of racialized trauma.”; “It’s not for me to speak to”;  I have viciously feared saying or doing the wrong thing and causing more harm. 

Let me be clear…Resmaa’s book and teachings is for EVERYONE of ALL COLOURS. It addresses the unique experiences of those in law enforcement. And though it does not speak to the applicability for health care professionals directly, the transferability is paramount when it comes to trauma informed health care and the need to for a deeply personal and interospective approach to culturally sensitive and trauma informed care. 

It is an immensely powerful read that has led to new understandings and paradigm shifts for me when it comes to considering my lived experience of these issues in my body and the role that I can and must play in it all as a white person to break well worn patterns and speak up.

Here is just a glimpse into some of the personal insights that I gained…

  1. Racism effects us all and stems from historical trauma that continues to live on in our bodies.

    While BIPOC folks know the impacts of racialized trauma intimately, it also lives in white bodies, but in ways that white people have the privilege of being able to ignore, dismiss or disconnect from. Our history lives in our nervous systems and we can only heal from this trauma and break the ongoing harmful cycles that we inadvertently perpetuate by slowing down, tuning into our bodies and the automatic reactions that have been conditioned, build skills to settle the body and connect as humans, and act from the best parts of ourselves. This takes immense vulnerability and courage but is necessary if we are to see meaningful change in the structure of our culture.

    If you have never heard the term “White fragility” coined by Robin Diangelo before, in a nut shell it describes the defensive reactions that a white person often experiences when encountering discussions about race. When I initially heard this term, I thought that I understood it and was able to observe it in others but it didn’t necessarily resonate with me, personally. This book helped me to broaden my understanding of “White fragility” and see how it rears itself in my own reactions to issues of race and perpetuates harm. Resmaa explains that when white folks consider themselves progressive and awoken to issues of race by way of feeling incredible shame about their ‘whiteness’, this is another form of white fragility that inadvertently perpetuates harm. I now understand my guilt and avoidance as trauma retentions that are at best, not helpful and at it’s worst incredibly harmful.

    3. Moving through guilt: We can move through guilt and “Reclaim whiteness” (as Resmaa describes) by taking responsibility.

      I learned that I can manage my guilt more effectively by noticing how it arises in my body. I can take ownership of my own reactions without expecting external forces to somehow soothe that guilt for me and staying frozen in it when that doesn’t happen. I learned that one way that trauma has been retained in white and BIPOC bodies is a dynamic where white bodies expect to be soothed out of our discomfort and BIPOC bodies expect to have to provide this soothing and reassurance to white bodies in order to maintain their personal safety. This has been the reality of our history and one way that outward expressions of my own guilt and shame can inadvertently perpetuate the harmful myths fostered by white supremacy (that white bodies are fragile and need to have its needs met by BIPOC bodies). 

      4. Moving from an intellectual understanding of Racism towards an embodied understanding of racism, personal healing, and effective action.

      Getting unstuck from my own embodied experiences of white supremacy means that my practice and responsibility is to curiously tune into these reactions of guilt, shame and the urge to avoid conversations about race with compassion and a new understanding about where it is coming from, build skills and take ownership of my own self-soothing, and act with intention from the best parts of myself. I know that this is not enough and that my repertoire for effective action to speak up and out against injustice needs to grow alongside my capacity to notice and soothe my bodily manifestations of racialized trauma as a white person, but this is where I am at, personally, after gleaning Resmaa’s wisdom…clarity in my next best steps to move out of freeze and avoid.

      There is so much MORE wisdom in this book and I do hope this little glimpse into how it has supported my personal and professional growth will prompt you to add it to your reading list!