Holding Space for Discussing White Racial Trauma in this Here and Now

Considering how fierce of an advocate Holly Truhlar is, ally-ship is not a strong enough word. Perhaps, we can resurrect the word: abolitionist. Yes, that fits her. Holly wants to abolish racial trauma, animosity and 

Holly was the first white person to speak to me about Nia Wilson’s death in Oakland. As we explore what to do following her death to prevent or intervene on future deaths, here is an interview with Holly.

How did you arrive at grief/trauma-releasing work? Please define each term.

Holly Truhlar: When I was 21 I was run over by a drunk driver. My pelvis was broken and I had over 200 stitches in my head. As well, the social and legal structures in place at the time couldn’t hold the experience in any healthy way. As a result, for two to three years I had un-diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I knew something was wrong, I couldn’t figure out what. No one, none of my doctors or therapists, were telling me that the heart palpitations, loss of sleep, depression, anxiety, flashbacks, startle responses, and headaches were trauma. This was fourteen years ago, the understanding of trauma has changed a lot since then.

Once I figured out that what I was experiencing was trauma, I ended up studying it on my own, reading every book I could find and seeking out experts, mostly so I could understand what was happening to me. It wasn’t much of leap to see that nearly everyone in our civilization is traumatized. I saw that the array of symptoms every client and person in my life was displaying almost always had to do with trauma. So, I ended up doing somatic-based trauma training alongside my Masters in transpersonal counseling psychology.

I would define trauma as something that is too much, too soon, or too fast for our bodies or nervous systems to integrate. This is the definition that Resmaa Menakem uses in his book My Grandmother’s Hands. Another definition I’ve used in the past is terror in the face of helplessness. No matter how someone defines trauma, it’s something that effects and stays in the body. Until it is processes or released it will block up and ramp up our nervous systems.

And, all trauma contains grief (not all grief contains trauma). Grief is the act of loving something we’ve lost. I particularly work with foundational grief, ancestral grief, and collective grief–grief over living in a dominating and domesticated society, grief over what our ancestors, our lineage, has done or had done to us, grief over the murder of our planet.

I suppose I was drafted to the grief-work team when I was going through my own series of losses and realizations about civilization. This was 3 or four years ago. I saw that, given the unprecedented and sorrowful times we’re in, one of the most important skills I could develop was the capacity to hold space and bear witness for grief. And, in many ways, grief has been my life’s work because of the deep losses I’ve experienced since I was a young child.

Explain what you mean by holding space? How is this done for you? How do you do it for others?

Holding space means presencing fully to a situation  in order to support the unfolding of a process. Other ways I might articulate it are: lending a regulated nervous system to the space, bearing witness and fully engaging with what’s emerging, and de-centering one’s experience in order to allow another person’s experience to integrate fully.

For me, this is done when someone is fully present in order to support my process. This someone is often a mentor, friend, mountain, tree, or group of people. I do this for others when I am able to settle my body and stay with someone no matter what they are sharing. I also do this through ritual, grief rituals in particular. I do this as a person, friend, therapist, partner, and community-member.

Do you know if Black women, en masse, have much experience with “holding space”?

I don’t know about en masse though my basic answer is YES, and this is a complicated question. I do know that the Black women I’ve spent the most time with have very high capacities for holding space. I believe that the amount they’ve had to hold in their lives, coming up against racist systems and people every day, has given them a courage and ability to bear witness to situations I can’t even fathom. And, I want to be clear, they’ve been violently forced to build that capacity, that’s unjust and horrific.

How can you, as a white woman, hold space?

For me, this is situational. Meaning, it depends on who’s in the room and what we’re working with. If I’m working with other White people I can hold space by having a regulated nervous system and being fully present (always), helping unpack their biases and trauma, and sometimes educating them on how they may be causing harm to someone else, particularly to people with more oppressed identities.

If I am holding space for people with marginalized or oppressed identities then I still aim to have a regulated nervous system and be fully present, I just make a lot more space for what needs to unfold. I follow the other person’s lead or the group’s lead to a much higher degree. I also try to hold an awareness of how my identities, as a White womxn and beyond, may be impacting the situation regardless of my intentions.

No matter who or why I’m holding space I always try to cultivate compassion. Self compassion, compassion for the other people involved, and compassion for the collective.

What do you do to hold space for race/racism and identity politics when they arise in your interpersonal interactions?

Much of what I wrote above answers this question. I suppose I would add that when racism and identity politics comes up I try to stay engaged, regulated, and aware. In other words, I try not to fight, flight, or freeze. When I am with other White people and White supremacy enters the conversation or room (as it regularly does) I speak up. When I’m with people of color, I try to make space for their experience and deeply listen. I’m also really dedicated to the path of humility–the willingness to be humiliated–and so I try to stay open to when I get it wrong or hurt someone I care about. Especially when it’s someone who’s been more marginalized than me.

Have you found, in your work, that individual grief sessions and collective grief sessions work for different situations or types of grief?

Not really. I would say that grief always benefits from being witnessed in village. I have seen all kinds of grief come out at rituals, in large groups, and it seems like people can hold it better when there’s others appreciating the grieving that’s being practiced.

That being written, I think there are times when someone needs to start in individual therapy because there’s so much trauma in their system they just can’t grieve, or be in group, with others. I also think there’ some grief that MUST be witnessed in a group. I think, for example, that some collective, ancestral grief has to be worked with and welcomed within a particular constellation of people.

Do you think culture has a role to play in the expression of grief?

Yes. Mostly, I think that dominant Western “culture” is grief illiterate. There’s very little expression or awareness of grief in dominant culture. When there is grieving, it’s quite often privatized in therapy, with the nuclear family, or completely alone.

As well, different cultures have different grieving practices: ways of wailing, grief songs, specific rituals, methods to talk to the ancestors, and mythology. It’s important to me to practice cultural humility and only use grief practices and rituals that have dreamt through me or a group of people that have given me permission to use them. This is so important because ritual comes through the land, people, and collective psyche of group and place. Meaning, meaningful ritual is specific to who and where we are, we can’t take ritual from other cultures and expect them to “work.”

How do you think (so-called) White people process grief and trauma around race/racism?

I think most White-bodied people don’t process grief and trauma around race and racism. Having a dominant identity often means you don’t even know you have that identity, or that it impacts you, because the world is centered around you. Plus, processing the trauma and grief around that identity would literally threaten that identity and the privileges that come with it. So, most White people project their trauma and grief onto everyone else, particularly black, indigenous, people of color.

That being said, I think some White people are processing their grief and trauma around race by  practicing somatic-based nervous system release and regulation, engaging in reclamation and grief rituals, and doing work to connect with and heal their ancestors. One of the first steps, in my experience, is acknowledging the harm and violence that has been done, and is continuing to be committed, by White-bodies on other bodies, particularly since the invention of race.

What tools/techniques are you exploring with persons right now around race/racism and the grief/trauma it inspires?

I use a process I call Radical Attunement Work (RAW) that helps move people from a place of dominance and exploitation to relationships based on true attunement and cooperation. The four phases are acknowledgement, awareness, activation, and ascension (expansion). As people go through these phases they learn how to de-center themselves and pay close attention to the other people or beings involved.

As well, I am really interested in ritual as a tool for collective nervous system regulation and trauma/grief work. I have lead and participated in rituals that absolutely delve into race and racism work. I am interested in going further. I am interested in creating ritual that grieves Whiteness and all that it’s destroyed. I think if we can’t grieve what Whiteness has done, the violence it continues to perpetuate on black and brown-bodies, as well as the soul-loss and emptiness that inflicts White people, than we’re going to keep perpetuating violence and dominance. I know this has been true in my own life, as a White womxn.

This gets tricky though because it centers Whiteness. Big time. In some ways, I am more interested in supporting people of color to get the resources they need. Wealth redistribution, particularly to Black and Indigenous people, is really important to me as we inhabit this phase of late-stage capitalism.

Basically, there’s so much here for me, and I don’t have the answers, I’m just starting to experiment. I’m also really open to my ideas being off-base or unhelpful as far as facing and grieving Whiteness.

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Do you think the new lynching museum helps America deal with its emotional blockades?

I think it’s an acknowledgement of what’s been done, what many of us, in different ways are holding. I suppose that’s a first step. The next steps–awareness and activation–working with our bodies, doing a deeper analysis, and taking action, will tell us if the museum is helpful. I, personally, am glad the museum exists. I think it tells a part of a story that must be told, that I, as a White person, must listen and respond to.

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