Reading and Reflecting on White Body Supremacy
I’ve been reading a book that was written in 2017 AND when I began reading it was the FIRST time I had ever heard the concept the author was describing. When I first read it, I said to myself, “YES!”
The author’s name is Resmaa Menakem MSW, LICSW, SEP. He works in Minneapolis as a domestic violence counselor, is a certified Military and Family Life Consultant for the U.S. Armed Forces, a trauma consultant for the Minneapolis Public Schools and is a consultant for the Minneapolis Police Department. He is a Black man. The book I am reading is My Grandmother’s Hands.
The concept he is writing about is white body supremacy. I’m sure at times you have heard someone say, “I’m not a white supremacist,” when the news articles are written about how Black men and women are often targets in our society. The author also reminds us of something that has been known for years! That when we are confronted with a personal threat to our life, we automatically have a response of “fight, flight, or freeze”. This automatic response is built into our bodies. For centuries we humans needed this response to survive! Whether it was a wild animal, an enemy attacking, or something catastrophic like an earthquake, forest fire, home fire, tornado, etc., we have this automatic response that occurs even before we feel or think! It has been called the “reptilian brain”. For our own safety we have this built-in response to imminent danger,
The shocking information he wrote about for me is that people have been lording it over other people since the beginning of time. He recounts how beginning in the 500s and continuing up until today people have been killing and torturing other people to exert their dominance over the other person. People were hung, beheaded, burned at the stake, drowned as a way of exerting dominance over them. (My wife and I recently watched the Netflix series “Reign” about Mary Queen of Scotland. We were astounded at how many people were depicted as hung, decapitated, burned at the stake as a way of showing dominance over others. And it always was white, powerful people who were lording it over other white, less powerful people.)
This pattern, which is documented from 500 to the 16th Century was happening in England, Scotland and all-over Northern Europe. When people began coming to the Americas in the 16th Century and on, they continued the practice. He described how in the early years of Europeans and British coming to the eastern seaboard of what is now the US, they brought along with them white and black slaves to do the hard labor. Early on there was a way in which these slaves could work to earn their freedom and be granted a plot of land which they could work as their own. It was easier though for the whites to earn their freedom.
Beginning in the early 1600s until 1865 the English became the dominant colonizers of the New World and they forcibly imported Africans and asserted dominion over them. This continued with the Jim Crow Era (1877 through 1965) and now continues in the New Jim Crow Era (19666 through the present). He reminds the reader that early in American history immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Eastern European Jews were considered non-white.
You’re probably saying to yourself – “Okay Rod, what is the point you are trying to make?”
Thanks for asking. This is where three pieces came together for me! 1) The fight, flight, freeze response when we feel we are in danger, 2) how since the Middle Dark Ages humans have been dominating, harming, killing other human being to exert power over them, 3) for centuries white dominance and power over people have been combined as one so that today it is in our DNA history that we carry forward to the present day.
When a white person and a person who has a different color of skin meet, before we can even register a feeling or a thought the reptilian brain has already kicked in the it is trying to decide whether to fight, run, or freeze. Because of the centuries of lording power over people by dominating them, a pattern that has been in practice with white people over others, today, when we encounter another person who has different skin color than we do our reptilian brain kicks in and we reflexively decide what to do. I am in danger. What shall I do?
My personal experience.
Before I retired, I worked in a medical center as the Director of Spiritual Care and an ACPE CE teaching other clergy and seminarians how to be effective providers of spiritual care to the patients, family and staff. The CPE group met in a room about 1 city block from my office. I was able to walk from my office to the classroom without leaving the building! So, every afternoon about 3 PM I could be found walking from my office to the classroom.
In order to get to the classroom, I passed by the office where 30 – 40 environmental service workers were waiting to clock in for the beginning of their shift. They would be gathered in the hallway and I would need to wend my way through the group of people. It just so happened most of them were men and all of them were Blacks, Latinx, Asian. Every once in a while, as I was making my way through the group, I had the sensation that it was not safe for me to be walking through that group. One day as I was arriving at the classroom and I had that sensation after walking through the group of workers, I said to myself, “That is stupid to feel that way!” I realized that my problem was between my left and right ear! I told myself that the group of people I had just walked through are employees just like me. They are getting ready to go to work. Why should I feel afraid?
The next day when I walked through the group gathered to clock in, I made eye contact with several people. I greeted them and smiled. They returned the gesture! I decided that from that day on I was going to smile, greet, and be friendly with the people as I made my way through their group. Soon they were greeting me first. I would see them at different times as we passed through the hallways and we were friendly and greeted each other. Every once in a while, we’d stop and talk. A couple months after I changed my thinking and my behavior, I was contacted by the PM supervisor of environmental services. He mentioned a very beloved member of the staff had just died unexpectedly and he wanted to schedule a memorial service for that person. Would I do the memorial service? I said, “Yes”. About 50 people were at the memorial service. Many were from the group that I walked through each day on my way to the classroom.
Reading this book helped me realize that my reptilian brain had signaled danger because of the conditioning I had grown up in white society. It was only when I went to seminary in Berkeley, CA that I routinely interacted with people of all races and backgrounds. Reading this book has given me understanding and insight of an important issue we ALL need to address as a way of enhancing the quality of life in our world. It is important for us to address the white body supremacy that is part of everyday life. Read this book. The author gives excellent suggestions on how we might address our own white body supremacy issues. Everyone in our society, no matter what color your skin is, must deal with white body supremacy. It is an issue for ALL people to address and work with in our own unique way.
Rod Seeger is an ACPE Certified Educator at San Francisco Night Ministry. He can be reached at email@example.com