October 25 2021

Addressing Race in the Classroom: A Trauma-Informed Communal Embodied Practice

Leah Thomas, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

illustration of a group of masked people

In the classroom, topics of race/racism frequently arise, particularly in light of the ongoing social and cultural awareness of issues of racial injustice in the United States. Being a teacher at Christian seminaries for the past three years, I have yet to teach a course where the topic of race has not come up at some point in the class. No matter whether the conversations were planned or spontaneous, it became apparent to me that these conversations were frequently marked by palpable agitation, anxiety, and anger and sometimes the opposite, students withdrawing and/or shutting down. Some students had notable challenges with emotional regulation. Others would communicate helplessness, either verbally or through their body language. I also noticed the increased activation within myself when these conversations would ensue. As a white, cisgendered woman, I was extremely aware of my own embodiment, alongside the power afforded me as an instructor (and thus primary facilitator) in the midst of these conversations. As someone who studies trauma and trauma-informed care, my experiences with these classroom conversations led me to note a resonance between the effects of trauma in post-secondary learners and the reactions of students in my classroom on the subject of race. It also made me wonder whether a variation of trauma-informed somatic exercises that I had used in a variety of different settings might be appropriate in conversations regarding race.

Trauma and Race

My instinct related to the presence of trauma in race-related discussions is confirmed by the work of Resmaa Menakem, a trauma therapist, and other scholars who note connections between trauma and white supremacy. In Menakem’s book My Grandmother’ Hands, he asserts that while we have valiantly attempted to address white body supremacy through cognition—through reason, principles, and ideas—“white-body supremacy doesn’t only live in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies.”1

As teachers and scholars, we are likely aware of the harmful cognitive beliefs and values that white supremacy promulgates concerning people of color. Menakem pushes us deeper, prompting us to look at the embodied reactions that also accompany white supremacy. He argues that white supremacy frequently creates a traumatic bodily reaction (that of fight/flight or freeze) that results from racism experienced as a trauma that has been passed down through generations (also known as intergenerational trauma). He suggests that both white bodies and the bodies of people of color experience these reactions. Black bodies “don’t feel settled” around white ones, due to a sordid history of enslavement, racial profiling and murder, coupled with the perennial stress brought on by discrimination, disrespect and microaggressions that characterize a white supremacist culture. White people, on the other hand, also have embodied responses that stem from ingrained trauma. These frequently include a fight, flee, or freeze response that seems to occur “out of the blue.” These reactions stem from generations of white supremacist culture that has presented the black body as a source of danger (and therefore threatening), as well as from the trauma that many European white people experienced at the hands of other white bodies on the European continent. Given these dual sources of trauma, Menakem notes that there has been “a confusion of fear with danger and comfort with safety,” particularly among white-bodied people. When a white body feels frightened by the presence of a black one—whether or not an actual threat exists—it may respond by lashing out at the black body in what it deems as self-protection.

To navigate these challenging conversations that can trigger traumatic reactions in bodies of color and white bodies, Menakem, along with other scholars from the realm of somatic psychology and pastoral care, recognizes that somatic tools can calm and harmonize bodies. These tools include insights from the realm of mindfulness, which can aid people in moving through the pain of trauma (see Pat Ogden, Bessel Van der Kolk, Carrie Doehring). As Stephens notes in the introduction to this section, affective and embodied knowledge are as important as cognitive knowledge in trauma-informed pedagogy. Yet the question remains as to how to work with bodies in the classroom in a way that is trauma sensitive and invites engagement.

Contemplative Pedagogy Meets Somatic Psychotherapy

Much has been written about the use of contemplative pedagogy in the classroom, a technique that facilitates engagement not only with students’ cognitive, affective, and somatic habits, but also critical reflection upon course material and the world. Many scholars highlight the benefits of properly contextualized contemplative pedagogy, which include (without limit) allowing students to explore their deeply held thoughts/feelings and beliefs, enabling the development of empathy, fostering agency and resiliency, incorporating experiential knowing, and allowing there to be a dialogue between “critical first-person” knowledge and “third-person” knowledge.

There are some scholars, however, who advocate against the use of contemplative pedagogy in the classroom, citing ethical concerns of respect for cultural/religious diversity and informed consent of students. These scholars recognize that practices that have historical and ongoing associations with religion must be presented and situated as such, rather than as “secularized” practices which themselves can risk cultural appropriation and imperialism. In classes where somatic practices may be used, I find it important to situate these practices within their religious and cultural history. Teaching in a seminary, however, students expect not only to be taught about religion but also to perform religious practices. This context addresses some of the concerns of these authors who maintain that students in a state university may feel uncomfortable undertaking certain contemplative practices for religious reasons. Regarding the issue of informed consent, the values of trauma-informed pedagogy that surround this exercise (notably the primacy of choice and the empowerment of students) allow students to honor their experience and freely opt in or out of exercises at any time without penalty.

Contemplative experience is a central tool in the realm of somatic psychotherapy. Ogden uses the term “directed mindfulness” to explore the “five building blocks” of present experience: cognition, emotion, five-sense perception, movement, and bodily sensation. Within this, she suggests that the notion of “directed attention” is particularly helpful in working with those who have been affected by trauma. By “directed attention,” she refers to the practice of “deliberately selecting particular elements of present-moment experience on which to focus.”2 This practice can actually help us to “rewire” the brain toward new habits and/or patterns (referred to as neuroplasticity). For a person experiencing heightened anxiety, directed attention might choose to focus on the feeling of one’s feet grounding into the earth rather than the direct sensations of anxiety. This practice allows people to reorient their attention toward building blocks that are resourceful, while also enabling them to create space between their impulse and their response. Menakem addresses using these activities in a group setting. He notes that there are certain activities that “harmonize” groups of people; he maintains that healing is a communal endeavor and that a settled body invites others to settle as well. Some of these harmonizing activities include singing or humming together, breathing together, rubbing our stomachs together, rocking back and forth, and washing each other’s feet.

A combination of insights from contemplative pedagogy, directed attention, and harmonizing allows teachers to create trauma-informed exercises in the classroom, particularly in the midst of an activating conversation, such as one about race.

Trauma-Informed Communal Bodily Practice to Address Race

Below, I offer an example of an exercise that allows students to pause and tap in to bodily awareness in the midst of a highly activating conversation about race. This exercise attempts to incorporate the core values of a trauma-informed pedagogy enumerated in the introduction to this section: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment.

While the benefits of somatic exercises are many, a commitment to trauma-informed use of these exercises must both recognize and name the potential drawbacks of using somatic exercises in the midst of trauma. For example, consider those who may be struggling with body disassociations as a result of severe trauma. They may not be able to engage in mindfulness and/or follow their own awareness due to the depth of their traumatic experience. A teacher who endeavors to lead this practice must create safety by naming this reality. It follows that there also must be resources for the students should they not be able to engage in mindfulness. This can take the form of grounding and orienting resources such as connecting with the weight of the lower body, feeling the feet grounding into the floor (stomping them if necessary), imagining a safe place/person and/or orienting to external stimuli (either through finding something pleasing to gaze at or finding something tactile to squeeze/stretch). The instructor must also communicate that students have choice: they can engage in the exercise, but also they may return to these grounding/orienting resources at any point. Ultimately, participants must also be empowered to trust their own experience, to recognize that slowing down and/or even disconnecting from the activity all together are options that can be exercised without penalty. Naming these realities, coupled with offering resources should dysregulation occur, establishes an environment of trustworthiness.

Instructors must also recognize that what functions as a resource for one person may be de-resourcing for another. Thus, it is essential that teachers experiment with a variety of somatic resources—ones that include not only stillness but also postures, movement, and gestures. The instructor needs to be aware of the potential repercussions of the particular somatic work they have chosen to offer.

The following, adapted from “Guidelines for Working with the Body” in Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox, is one such exercise that privileges grounding and a gentle exploration of bodily sensations in the midst of a highly activating conversation, such as one about race.3 I have used these techniques in a variety of classes, particularly when I notice signs of activation/hyperarousal in the classroom (students becoming angry, anxious, and overwhelmed) as well as hypoarousal (those becoming disconnected, passive, and shut down). In race-related conversations, I have found that these types of reactions are most apparent when students who are not African American offer advice to African Americans regarding “appropriate” cognitive, emotional, and spiritual responses to racism (notably on topics like forgiveness, anger, and the like):

  1. I informed the class that I’d like to offer a somatic exercise, but did this in a way that included choice and permission: “With your permission, I’d like to take a pause. I’d like to explore an exercise that will allow us to come back to our bodies.”
  2. I explained that we would be doing an exercise that would help us to ground and reconnect with the sensations in our bodies. I also expressed that if this increased their anxiety or was in any way overwhelming, that they had the option to slow down and/or opt out of the exercise all together.
  3. I offered resources for safety. I invited the students to feel their feet on the ground and let the ground support them. I then asked them to connect with the feelings of themselves sitting, to notice the weight of their body in the chair. I invited them to orient to the room, to find something that was pleasing to look at, and allow themselves to drink it in. I asked them to connect with something they associated with strength/wellness, whether in their body or otherwise. In this way, I provided resources for safety and strength—both bodily and otherwise—that they could return to if needed.
  4. I invited them to bring attention to breath, giving them the option to keep eyes open or closed (whatever was comfortable for them). I followed this with an offer to notice any sensations in their bodies. If anything felt too distressing, they were invited to bring focus back to grounding sensation or to keep 90% of attention on their bodily sensation(s) and 10% on grounding.
  5. I offered students resources of support for any places of constriction in their bodies. I invited them to put a hand over the part of their body where they felt tension or constriction. I also presented options for a self-hug, and/or one hand over heart and one hand on belly. I repeated options to slow down and reconnect with grounding at any point.
  6. Slowly, I asked them to come back to this space, to open their eyes if they were closed, and to take a few deep breaths together to harmonize our bodies.

After the students participate in this exercise, they usually are more able to be present to one another and the material at hand. I frequently notice signs of release—they have space to take deeper breaths, and anxious energy seems to have settled a bit. After this exercise, I invite students to consider the conversation that we were having before the exercise, and to notice whether they have a contribution that they would like to offer. I also ask them to critically engage with resources we have read for that class. While this does not preclude expressions of emotion, the contributions that are shared are largely more thoughtful and intentional, and less reactive. The class is usually able to continue the classroom conversation, a conversation that risked being shut down due to intense emotional reactivity that signaled the presence of trauma.

When working with trauma and race, it is also important to engage in contextual analyses alongside exercises like the one above. While white students and students of color may both be experiencing reactions that point to the role of trauma, these reactions are rooted in drastically different experiences of white supremacy … social location matters! Menakem addresses this by offering different exercises for people of color and for white people. When using these techniques in a race-related context, it is important to offer students the opportunity to reflect on their social location as a complement to the above exercise. I usually ask them to consider the social/cultural messages they have internalized due to their race, gender, class, sexual orientation and to write about these. In a guided meditation, I invite them to explore the embodied sensations that accompany these messages. After offering grounding/orienting resources should the exercise feel overwhelming, I ask them to identify their embodied sensations and invite them to connect with a safe/healing place or person (this could also be an image of the Divine), and imagine that place/person “keeping company” with any areas of discomfort. I then have them talk with each other about the presence of racism (and sexism and classism) in their own lives. Students who have undertaken exercises like these report that it has helped them to engage with the ways that dynamics such as those above have become embodied. While this exercise usually follows a cognitive analysis about the presence of racism, sexism, and classism in the current context, the addition of attention to embodiment allows them to connect these cognitive realities to a “first-person experience” of these dynamics in their lives. This ultimately enables them to better empathize and engage with one another, both in the moment and in subsequent classes.

As Meredith McGuire, a sociologist of religion, reminds us, “bodies matter.”4 Bodies matter because our spiritual and intellectual practices—individual and communal—only occur in and through bodies. And bodies matter because social and cultural constructions of race and gender impact bodies, as well as heart and minds. To truly engage with these concepts, we need to be attentive to our bodies, as well as our minds and spirits. When the presence of trauma rears its head, particularly in relationship to an issue like race, it is essential that we offer a trauma-informed pedagogy that can both recognize this reality and provide resources to begin to address it. Since trauma is stored in the body, it is important that we address this trauma on a bodily level. Practices from the realm of mindfulness and somatic psychotherapy provide resources of time, space, and awareness in the midst of traumatic reactions. Since choice and empowerment are part of this exercise, it offers students the freedom to engage/disengage as they feel comfortable, while also addressing trauma on the embodied level.


Notes

1 Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press, 2017), 4.

2 Pat Ogden and Janina Fisher, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Interventions for Trauma and Attachment (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2015), 161.

3 Manuela Mischke-Reeds, Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox (Eau Claire, WI: PESI, 2018).

4 Meredith McGuire, “Why Bodies Matter: A Sociological Reflection on Spirituality and Materiality,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 3 no. 1, (Spring 2003): 1–18.

Select Recommended Resources

Barbezat, Daniel P., and Bush, Mirabai, eds. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Levine, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body Boudler: Sounds True, 2008.

McGuire, Meredith. “Why Bodies Matter: A Sociological Reflection on Spirituality and Materiality,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, vol. 3 no. 1, 2003, p. 1-18.

Menakem, Resmaa. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery, 2017.

Mischke-Reeds, Manuela. Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox. Eau Claire: PESI, 2018.

Ogden, Pat and Janina Fisher. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Interventions for Trauma and Attachment. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015.


Leah ThomasLeah R. Thomas is assistant professor of pastoral care and contextual education at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, where she teaches courses in pastoral care, contextual education, and spirituality. She was previously a visiting professor of pastoral theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary. She received her PhD in pastoral care and Christian social ethics from Drew University. She is the author of Just Care: Ethical Anti-Racist Pastoral Care with Women with Mental Illness (Lexington/Fortress, 2019). Her research areas include antiracist and intercultural pastoral care, trauma, culture, and the role of embodiment in caregiving and Christian spiritual practices. Currently, she is working alongside a biblical scholar on an embodied method of reading scripture entitled Restitutio Divina. Leah also has experience as a pastor, psychiatric chaplain, and is a 200-hour certified yoga instructor.