White Fragility & the Nervous System

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

My grandmother, my mom’s mother, died a few years ago. My mom and her spent a lot of time in those final years working on our family’s ancestry. But it wasn’t until my grandma died, and my mom was helping her siblings clean out the house, that she found a box with some papers that she had never seen.

My grandma, in the final year of her life, was asking the tough question: “Did our family own slaves?”

The papers she found showed that our family owned many more acres in central Georgia prior to the Civil War than she thought–pointing to the obvious fact that our family did indeed own slaves.

There was a reason my grandma hid those papers, and did not have this conversation when she was alive. The shame about our legacy is strong and unrelenting.

Robin diAngelo coined the term white fragility describing the defensive moves white people make when even a minimal amount of racial discomfort surfaces. Why? Well, I don’t have time to write about this here, but read Robin’s book!

The past few years of my healing & spiritual journey has been about exploring ancestry, my illness & how it affects my body, racism, white identity development, my creativity & writing.

And when my mom told me that story, I know that there were layers there for me to explore. You see, I’m also the fifth generation who has a thyroid related disease. Mine being the most severe in a low-thyroid autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s, and leading to a complete lack of life force by the time I was 19, and almost an inability to get out of bed when I was 24.

There’s a lot of writing about thyroid diseases broken down by gender however there’s only one study I can find breaking it down by race.

It’s far more likely for a white woman to have Hashimoto’s, and far more likely for a black or Asian woman to have Grave’s disease. Both of these are thyroid disorders, however Hashimoto’s consists of an under-activated thryoid gland, while Grave’s consists of an over-activated thyroid gland.

The explanations given are due to genetic factors & environmental triggers, which is my opinion includes about everything! There is much study to be done in this realm, but there are questions that I am asking.

And I want to point out that I’m not a scientist, a historian, or a trauma-specialist. This is not a post, where I claim to be any of that! This is more of a post of my spiritual wonderings and questions, and is still very much in process!

I was in a class about a year ago, when a healer stated, “One usually contracts a thyroid disease when one is silent about their truth when it is time to speak.”

And that phrase gave me pause. Intuitively, it rang with deep truth & yet I was also asking, “What was the truth that I needed to speak when I was 18?”

As I asked that question, over the course of a few months, I realized that question was too isolated. “What is the truth that my family has been silent about over the generations, whose physical manifestation has resulted in sluggish energy & a blocked thyroid?”

Almost as soon as that question formed, the image of my grandma’s hidden box of papers came to my mind. “My family owned slaves. We are ashamed about it, because it was been hidden. It is not a story we have passed down, but have kept that energy in our bodies and our cells. Letting the secret grow, even though no black person would be shocked by this story. We have not chosen to heal, we have not chosen to speak. And it hurts ourselves and people of color every day.”

I’ve been reading the book My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem in community over the past year. In the book, he states, “For America to outgrow the bondage of white-body supremacy, white Americans need to imagine themselves in black bodies and experience what those bodies had to endure. They also need to do the same with the bodies of their own white ancestors. And they need to ask themselves this question: “If we don’t address our ancient historical trauma, what will we pass down to our children, and to their children and grandchildren?”

I can’t help but wonder if the majority of people with Hashimoto’s, including myself, are white–how does the sluggish energy, the unrelenting fatigue, the body start to attack its own tissue, reflect the white ancestral condition? We hurt people of color by not choosing to heal, and we also hurt ourselves. Our nervous systems remain fragile, feeling like any ounce of conflict derails our healing.

I can’t help but wonder if a majority of people with Graves are black because the thyroid must be over-active, hyper-vigilant in order to navigate a racist society. The weathering effect was coined by Arline Geronimus and can be read about here.

As I come to the end of the post, there are no next steps. I think that the question, “What do we do now?” is a disembodied question stemming from guilt and fear, and trying to “get it right.” My practices may be different than yours. My questions may be different than yours. Maybe you hated this whole post. I will say though that developing a relationship with my gut has been key. Healing my gut is a huge piece of healing autoimmune disease, and discovering all the emotions, and questions, and insights that reside there. Check out Tada Hozumi’s work to learn more.

Lastly, to all the people who are white & sick, I see you. We can do this. We can heal. Our idea of healing may need to shift. We need to bring ancestral resources forward that we didn’t know that we had. And we don’t need to take up more room as we do this. And we can be supported. I don’t believe that blaming ourselves for being sick has any place in our community. And I think that while continuing to hope and search and advocate for a cure–is needed and crucial, on multiple levels, I also believe in all the emotional and spiritual resources inside us. It’s time.

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One Reply to “White Fragility & the Nervous System”

  1. Interesting! I imagine there are many people whose families engaged in slavery in various ways; it was the economy of the times then. Of course, that in no way defends it or lessens its horror. History is how we learn, evolve, grow & improve! Also, as you probably know, Louise Hay’s work supports your idea about the throat. Her belief was throat issues stem from not speaking your truth. And the throat chakra is about communication/truth, as well. Keep digging! The Truth is within! B

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