I Feel It in Raised Heartbeats

The Dysregulation and Damage of White Supremacy on the Body

 Somerville and Medford mayors declared racism a public health crisis on June 21, 2020, which is a step in the right direction—and long overdue—but it is not enough. It focuses on the defunding and demilitarization of police, which is necessary, but it does not acknowledge how the system of white supremacy deeply damages physical bodies of color. To heal BIPOC, institutions and people must additionally reflect upon how white supremacy is housed within and damages the biological system, the basic unit of function. If rudimentary health is left damaged, how can one expect to dismantle the larger system of white supremacy in the US? 

When talking about white supremacy, what is often missed is white-bodied supremacy. White supremacy endures in all of our bodies, a parasitic creature that manifests violent damages to the body, especially and insidiously so to bodies of color. I want to clarify that there is no biological basis behind race; it is a social, political, and historical construction. However, it is a construction that has real consequences, one of those being how it affects the body. 

I identify as Indian, and also acknowledge I have racial advantages as a South Asian American. But I have felt white supremacy embodied; as a person of color, I have noticed it in raised heartbeats and noticeable tension in my shoulders when I am in new, white-dominated spaces. The way our somatic well-being is impacted by the United States’ racist system looks and feels different for everyone; it is important to realize the intersections of health and white supremacy.

White supremacy is in conversation with the survival modes of our brain and bodies, causing biological dysregulation. The vagus nerve carries information between the brain and internal organs and serves as the connection between mind and body. It wanders throughout the body, and by its widespread nature, the vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” system. To achieve this, the vagus nerve slows heart and breathing rates and essentially calms the body. However, the vagus nerve can also withdraw its functions, and by doing so, increases the heart rate and activates the sympathetic nervous system, our “flight and fight” system. In the study Multiple Pathways Linking Racism to Health Outcomes, racist events and the constant threat of racism interrupt the vagus nerve’s normal, parasympathetic function, and chronically disturbs the physiological activity of the body through this dysregulation. 

Audre Lorde wrote in her poem “Afterimages,” reflecting upon the murder of Emmett Till, that “my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock; tied to the ghost of a black boy.” As a Black woman mourning the loss of Till, she felt the violence of white supremacy as hollowness and exhaustion in her body. I also call upon and feel grateful for the words of Resmaa Menakem, whose thoughts and practices made me more aware of embodied white supremacy. In his book My Grandmother’s Hands, he explicitly stated, “White body supremacy doesn’t live just in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies.” 

These examples and notions are experienced uniquely by all of us in different modes, depending on where our identities lie in the US’ racial power structure. However, in the capitalist logic of the US, one can be unaware of embodied white supremacy because of practices in which we are often detached from our bodies. We can be conditioned to treat our bodies as objects or even obstacles, rather than vessels of wisdom and healing. I am from a white-majority, Republican county where 70 percent of the population voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The days following the election, I felt my breathing quicken and had more panicked moments, with my mind and heart racing. Instead of tuning into my body’s reactions, I told myself to put my “mind over body” and resume my daily activities. However, my body needed me to slow down, breathe, and process. 

All people in the United States have embodied white supremacy, but I focus on the accumulated, historical damage and trauma done to bodies of color, particularly to Black and indigenous populations. The body is a tool of insight, and we must take time to intimately listen to it. I have started to notice my body language, how I cross my arms, bring my legs as inward as possible when I sit, and slouch my posture, as if I am trying to make myself physically smaller as a person of color. In an interview with Karunavirus, Menakem said, “Bodies of culture are uncomfortable every day.”

Racism damages the body through many other biological mechanisms too, like accumulated chronic stress. The cardiovascular reactivity hypothesis postulates that a relationship exists between cardiovascular responses and exposure to stress. NPR reports that a study of Black women reported having constant low-grade fevers in response to racially instigated chronic stress. Chronic stress can also lead to hypertension and heart disease. Through the expectation and internalization of racism, the body’s new, resting “normal,” or homeostasis, operates at higher levels of stress, and it becomes harder for the body to respond to new stimuli. 

White-bodied supremacy breeds trauma that is intimate, violent, and intergenerational. The US was built on colonialism and slavery, which have caused systematic violence, death, and abuse to Black and indigenous populations. The traumatic history is embedded in ancestral DNA, passed down and inherited for many generations. Psycom reported that trauma can make a “chemical mark” on our genes through epigenetic changes, affecting the very process during which genes are translated into proteins. As Menakem wrote, “Our very bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.” 

Structural and historical racism create and maintain intergenerational trauma that has physiological consequences, which demonstrates that white supremacy is embodied. The body’s immediate response to trauma is disconnection from the body as a coping strategy. The continual experience of racism, both in present life and through past generations, creates a hyper-vigilance and hyper-awareness in which one feels unsafe in their own body. The body’s response is autonomic and frantic, and can be interpreted as shutting down, reverting to whatever survival instincts it has in its toolbox. 

In addition to institutional acknowledgment that white supremacy damages the body, we have to take our own journeys to address the trauma it causes. Notice the way your body reacts just reading about racism and white supremacy in this article. Where does tension and discomfort lie in your body? Is it a tightness in the chest, a certain pain, or maybe a gut feeling or instinctual emotion? For folks of color, be gentle with yourself and make sure to focus on breaths to activate the vagus nerves’ effects on the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) system; for white folks, acknowledge and interrogate these bodily instincts. 

I would also highly recommend reading My Grandmother’s Hands as a guide on how to recognize and work through white-bodied supremacy. This article shares snapshots of how white supremacy sits in the body and damages bodies of color in the context of the United States. 

To truly be an advocate for justice and liberation, one must look within the body first to heal. As Menakem wrote, “Healing from White-body Supremacy begins with your body—but it does not end there…As we engage in collective action, we need to do so with settled bodies.”