By Ellie Barta-Moran
I have heard the fight for racial justice described as singing in a choir. When one singer needs to drop out to catch their breath, the song does not falter; other voices continue the song. There’s an understanding in justice work that it’s a long, hard fight that can easily overwhelm us and that it’s our individual responsibility to take care of ourselves so that we don’t burn out. For me, I’ve used that rationale often, but after my breaks for self-care, it’s easy to stay disengaged, particularly as a white woman living in a predominantly white area.
Until the next Black person is killed by a police officer or a white vigilante self-policing their neighborhood. Suddenly the urgency for more energy is there again, but it usually lasts only as long as the news stories do. When those quiet down and move onto other stories, so does the outrage and the action. This cycle also includes guilt, as invariably, that’s what I feel for not being more engaged on an ongoing basis. Consequently, nothing about this anxiety-provoking cycle is healthy or sustainable.
About two years ago, I learned about something that changed my life, and transformed the way I approach my role in the work. I participated in a yearlong international study group for the book “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem. Meeting monthly in a white affinity group, with separate mid-meeting break-out triads to deepen the work, we explored how white bodies traumatize Black bodies because of their own inherited trauma. I’ve studied epigenetics in the context of my social work with trauma, but it was a concept I had never understood could apply to myself: that my own body carries the trauma of my ancestors.
Through the group, we began to identity and heal those historical traumas, learning how to settle when our bodies were activated by that ever-present “history.” Recognizing and acknowledging the ways that my body can unconsciously constrict in the presence of Black bodies allowed me to sit in the discomfort, examine it, learn how to be more settled and present to my bodily responses, and thus be able to change them in the future. I had never before been given permission to explore rather than apologize for my whiteness. This was transformative.
Indeed, it feels like a controversial position to acknowledge that white folks also come from ancestors who were themselves brutalized. But when history is explored in such a way, it brings to mind the adage of “hurt people hurt people.” Once we acknowledge the harm, then we can begin to start the healing. In fact, it is our duty to! This newfound knowledge and experience have completely changed the way I approach the work now. I am better able to maintain consistent involvement and cope with the feelings of overwhelm that this charged work creates.
Ellie Barta-Moran is a licensed clinical social worker whose career has centered around working in the field of trauma. She resides in Spring Green with her husband, Tim. They are interested in building relationships through community, most recently through leading Spring Green’s Community Group for Racial Justice and its book group. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contribute your voice to the Antiracism Open Mic, email email@example.com.