How images of white terrorism impact Black bodies

By Kira Shepherd on January, 8 2021

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Kira Shepherd

Kira Shepherd is the Vice President of Organzing and Policy at Common Justice.

Black Americans and other people of color must take deep care during this moment in history.


This week we saw numerous images of bitter white men and women forcefully taking  over the nation’s Capitol, a building that symbolizes the U.S. government and its citizenry, and boldly assert their presumed power over government officials and the police. These images caused a stir of emotions in many of us ranging from fear, anger, excitement, and grief. But these emotions were not just a by-product of what we witnessed this week, nor do they stem from the racial and social unrest that we have seen over our lifetimes. We were likely triggered by something much larger on Wednesday. We were likely triggered by the boisterous display of violence that white people  have long gone unchecked for, and the racialized trauma experienced by our ancestors. Such trauma, their trauma, still lives in our bodies.

As the somatic therapist (“soma” means body), Resmaa Menakem details in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, large patterns of historical and collective trauma are likely passed down from one generation to the next through our DNA. This trauma, which manifests in our bodies,  sometimes influences our behaviors in ways that we oftentimes are unaware of and the consequences can be quite difficult and challenging for many of us. When triggered, our bodies sense and remember this trauma leading us to have an emotional response such as overwhelming anxiety, fear, irritation, and anger. And oftentimes our minds are not able to fully comprehend and know where these strong emotions are coming from. 

Menakem’s work on inherited racialized trauma stems from the emerging field of epigenetics, which shows that experiences including anxiety, stress, and fear are heritable traits. An example of this is an experiment called the Cherry Blossom experiment. Scientists put mice in a cage and then developed them to associate an electric shock with the smell of cherry blossom. Eventually, the mice began to associate the smell of cherry blossoms with the fear of being shocked. Consequently, the offspring of these mice were scared when they were exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms although their bodies had never received an electric shock. The trauma was passed down through their father’s DNA and lived in their bodies. In his book, Menakem notes that Black “bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.”

Take this notion of inherited racialized trauma and apply it to what many Black folks experienced this week. We were confronted with numerous images of bitter, emboldened, and fearless white mobs. Those images likely invoked the same traumatic response that our ancestors experienced when they saw groups of angry white men come to cause them harm throughout their lifetimes - groups of angry white men who stole them from their homelands and forced them to work as slaves in America, groups of angry white men who hunted them down as they tried to escape to freedom, groups of angry white men who ran them out of their neighborhoods for simply being accused of looking at a white woman, groups of angry white men and women who forced them to give up their seats in a segregated diner, terrorized them off of school grounds, and burned their neighborhoods to the ground. Such examples are limitless, spanning across centuries in this country. And unfortunately, the fear and anger that these images brought up in our ancestors could not simply be lessened by turning off the TV or disengaging from social media, as we were able to do this week. Instead, this fear was often followed by unimaginable social, emotional, and physical pain ranging from being stripped of one’s dignities and possessions to being lynched, maimed, and beaten. Black people have inherited the trauma from those acts as well. And, for many of us, that trauma was relived this week when we saw hoards of white people takeover the U.S. Capitol as if it was theirs to take.

Moreover, these images must have triggered a particularly stressful trauma response for Black people who have experienced harm at the hands of the police or who have had family members who have experienced such harm. Individuals such as Jacob Blake, and the family members of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tamir Rice. Not only are these Black people dealing with the inherited racialized trauma caused by these images, but they are also dealing with the pain of knowing that they were hurt or their loved ones were killed by the police for simply being Black, while a white mob was  allowed to loot, vandalize, and wreak total havoc on the nation’s Capitol without fear of being harmed by the cops.

So much is owed to Black folks. The U.S. owes Black people so much for the constant and unwavering harm it has caused us, stemming from overt acts of racial harm and discrimination to more covert acts, such as those perpetrated this week through the government’s unwillingness to hold white terrorists accountable for their actions. We are owed in the form of reparations, free mental health services, affordable housing, and so much more. And that day must soon come if the nation is ever to have a racial reckoning. But until then, while we wait, we owe it to ourselves to fully recognize the ways we have been harmed and traumatized by white violence.  And we owe it to ourselves to recognize how that trauma lands in our bodies. This will allow us to take the steps we need to heal. And yes, turning off the TV and getting some rest helps, for those of us who can do that.

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