To watch or not to watch? Resmaa Menakem on how to cope with yet another police killing

Resmaa Menakem press photo
Resmaa Menakem, New York Times bestselling author of 'My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies,' is a visionary Justice Leadership coach, organizational strategist and master trainer. Resmaa is a leading voice in today’s conversation on racialized trauma.
courtesy the author

The horrific beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police in Memphis, Tennessee has gotten all of our attention. There are calls for serious police reform at the state and national levels. Those efforts have stalled in recent years.

Amid the conversation about policy reform - there is also a need to know how to emotionally and physically deal with what happened to Tyre Nichols.

Bestselling author, healer, and licensed therapist Resmaa Menakem says this is an essential step for all of us.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The horrific beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police in Memphis, Tennessee has gotten a lot of our attention. There are calls for serious police reform at the state and national levels. Those efforts have stalled though in recent years.

Amid the conversation about policy reform, there's also a need to know how to emotionally and physically deal with what happened to Tyre Nichols. Our next guest says this is an essential step for all of us. Resmaa Menakem is a licensed therapist, healer, and author of the bestselling book, My Grandmother's Hands. He's on the line right now. Resmaa, thanks for being here.

RESMAA MENAKEM: No, thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Say, how are you doing?

RESMAA MENAKEM: Uh, I am-- I'm not doing well. I mean, this stuff-- people, I think, have this sense that when you're an author and you're a therapist and stuff like that, things don't impact you in quite the same way. And this-- these pieces are draining and withering on my body and is draining and withering other Black bodies.

This is not just within the last couple of years, with George Floyd, for Black folks. This is 400 years of brutalization and trauma. So it's historical. It's intergenerational. It's persistently institutional. And then, our own personal stuff combines with it.

CATHY WURZER: Do you think that was a mistake to show the video? Some folks said it was voyeuristic. Other folks said you needed to bear witness. Where do you stand on that?

RESMAA MENAKEM: Yeah, the destruction of the Black body has always been a spectacle, right? I mean, when you look at lynchings, when you look at brutalization, in terms of the plantation, those things were done in public. And they were designed to instill terror and horror into Black bodies.

And so for me, the idea that showing these things is something different-- the impact of it is the same. It brutalizes Black bodies. And I'm not saying that people shouldn't watch it.

But we should understand that there is an impact and a cost to watching it for Black bodies and Indigenous bodies and bodies of culture. It is part and parcel of the terror that gets instilled in our bodies by being here in America.

CATHY WURZER: OK. But you believe that emotionally, physically, you've got to deal with this, and that that's an essential thing to do. How do you do that then?

RESMAA MENAKEM: So this type of brutalization is not individual. It is also communal. And so many times, when you're questioned-- sometimes when I answer these questions, people think that I'm talking about an individual way of handling it. The brutality is communal, so you must develop communal ways of handling it, so we have to turn towards each other.

We have to act like this stuff is structural and not episodic. Right? And so therefore, we must build an infrastructure that can actually tend to these things, not just when it shows up, but also realizing that there is an aggregate effect from this stuff. And so we have to build a different structure to begin to take care of it.

So turning towards each other, getting enough rest, checking in on people-- after these things happen, after it comes out of the news cycle, people stop-- people think that it's over, or people stop addressing it. And then, it shows on and lingers on for years and years and years and begins to look like depression and anxiety and rage. But yet, we've decontextualized it. So my first thing is, we have to first acknowledge that something has happened and continues to happen to Black people.

CATHY WURZER: Is there a practice that you use that can calm the body and help you tune in as folks are taking in what has happened?

RESMAA MENAKEM: There are a lot of practices. There's a lot of practices that Black folks use to heal and in work through things. One of them is just crying with each other, actually acknowledging that something has happened.

That is a practice that we have to reclaim and say, what we're doing is we're addressing the grief, not only the grief in the present moment, but the grief, the historical grief, of what shows up when we see something like this happen, when we see Black bodies destroying another Black body, when we see-- when we see the structure of white body supremacy blown through Black bodies.

You have to grieve that. You have to rock with each other. You have to acknowledge the fact that this is impactful.

CATHY WURZER: What do you make of the fact that five of those police officers who were fired were all Black? And what about their trauma-- instilling trauma and damage on another Black person-- what do you make of that?

RESMAA MENAKEM: That's a good question. So I want to be clear about this. So when I'm talking about white body supremacy and structure, I'm talking about that we live in a structure in a society whereby the white body deems and has deemed itself the supreme standard by which all bodies, humanity, shall be measured, structurally and philosophically.

If you don't understand that, when you see Black bodies doing this to other Black bodies, you forget the fact that Black bodies have also ingested these notions of whiteness being standard. And those things get incorporated into structures and get incorporated into the policing structure. And so you have Black bodies that are police that actually align themselves with the culture of policing and the subjugation of Black bodies, as opposed to the cultures that they come from, as opposed to the culture that nurtured, as opposed to the culture that protected them, as opposed to the culture that actually showed them that they mattered.

That gives way to the culture of policing. And so when you watch Black bodies-- or even in the case of Philando Castile-- that was a Latino brother that did that. And what we have to understand is that once you become a police officer, there is an acculturation process that takes place.

And that acculturation process says that your allegiance is not to the people or the communities that you come from, but to this structure that brutalizes people like you. So when I see things like that, I go, this is still part of the white body supremacy structure, because that structure is predicated on the white body being the standard and the Black body being deviant from the standard, regardless of who carries out the brutality.

CATHY WURZER: I wonder, Resmaa, how you change that structure.

RESMAA MENAKEM: Well, there's 50%-- 55% to 60% of the United States is white folks. And white bodies, when they watch stuff like this because they are advantaged by the same system that they cluster pearls around, white bodies have no vested interest in changing it. They could-- this thing could change overnight if white bodies actually went through a mass re-education about race.

They have-- white bodies-- what happens when this type of stuff happens, they get shocked. But that shockedness does not move white bodies or communities towards creating a living, embodied anti-racist culture. They just get shocked. It wears off after a while. Everybody's mad. And then, white bodies don't do anything to create culture, a living, embodied, anti-racist culture.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. Oh, gosh. Resmaa, before you go, obviously, there are some people listening who've got kids, right?


CATHY WURZER: What is the message for white kids and BIPOC kids?

RESMAA MENAKEM: Yeah. So BIPOC bodies, first thing with talking to your children about this is to first-- the first piece is to say, I love you, I'm going to protect you, and you're not going to navigate this world by yourself. There is a world that is predicated on your body being seen as a ultimate threat.

And as you navigate this world, I am beside you, and I am here with you. That's the first thing. The second thing, in terms of white parents, literally, sitting down and talking to your children about race, particularly and specifically, and an understanding of it.

But that first must mean that you need to get together with other white bodies as an adult and say to yourself, I am committing to you, to these other white bodies, so we can usher in something else for our children. White bodies addressed or white communities addressing racism is not for Black people or Indigenous people. It is literally for you not passing down the virus of white body supremacy to your children and making them-- and so they have less access to humanity.

CATHY WURZER: Well-said. I have to go. I wish I could keep talking to you more here, Resmaa. Thank you so very much for your time.

RESMAA MENAKEM: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Resmaa Menakem is a licensed therapist. He's a healer and author of the bestselling book, My Grandmother's Hands. His most recent book is called The Quaking of America: An Embodied Guide to Navigating Our Nation's Upheaval and Racial Reckoning. You can learn more at Resmaa-- R-E-S-M-A-A-- dot-com.

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