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Letting Go of Thought Worship: Embodied Racial Healing by Libby Smith

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Hello! I’m Libby Smith (@work_with_libby), an educator and evaluator at the University of Wisconsin – Stout. My work focuses on building equity and accessibility in evaluation through holistic personal growth & embodiment practices.

As evaluators, we love to think that we can analyze our way out of any problem. In Western culture, we hold rational thinking as a supreme value. If we collect enough data, operationally define every construct, and follow a 22-step checklist, we can make anything better. We take the same approach to social justice. We read the books, take the workshops, & pledge to be culturally responsive. This approach, while valuable, is incomplete.

White supremacy lives in our bodies, specifically in our traumatized nervous systems. We have seen significant advances in the scientific understanding of trauma and the need to be trauma-informed in our work. My own perceptions of trauma have been transformed as well. I once thought war veterans and abuse survivors were the only people who experienced trauma. I’ve resisted seeing myself through that lens, minimizing my own life experiences. How could I claim my own trauma when others experience far worse than I do? To claim racial trauma as a white person continues to feel fraught, but I’ve come to understand that our culture of White Supremacy creates a trauma response in all bodies. 

Now that I’ve learned that I have a traumatized nervous system, what do I do about it? That brings me to my HOT TIP: Become an observer of your own body. You can begin by simply developing an awareness of how your body reacts to experiences around race. While reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo I experienced tightness in my chest. I’ve also noted that I’m more likely to become distracted when reading this book, I feel compelled to step away. Both are signs of a distressed nervous system. This book requires me to confront the ways I am complicit in racism and my body responds.

Simply learning about white fragility will not heal my nervous system though. I have discovered several embodiment practices that have helped me, primarily breathwork. However, there are many forms of somatic healing that can soothe and strengthen our nervous system, and with intention, address our white fragility. This individual level healing is critical to our ability to do culturally responsive evaluation. We can’t simply think our way out of White Supremacy. We must let go of our thought worship and begin the work of embodied racial healing. Healing practices create new neural pathways that will allow us to react and respond differently in the future. 


Bessel van der Kolk’s – The Body Keeps the Score provides scientific background on Polyvagal Theory and how trauma lives in our bodies. Listen to him on the On Being Podcast.

Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies provides historical insight on racial trauma in American culture and practical advice on how we can heal. Listen to him on The NWI Podcast.

The American Evaluation Association is exploring White Privilege Week with our AEA colleagues. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from AEA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

3 thoughts on “Letting Go of Thought Worship: Embodied Racial Healing by Libby Smith”

  1. Thank you, Libby!
    Learning to cooperate with our nervous systems is so tough! And so worthwhile.

    Trauma-informed practice is a key component of the culture we are creating in the new accountability community for white antiracist evaluators, researchers, and data geeks.

    I’m so excited you are a Founding Member of White Stability: Accountability Beyond White Fragility, Libby, and I look forward to hearing from the readers who recognize themselves in your blog post!
    Click here to learn more: https://whitestability.mn.co/share/hzRyq1zE9ReiMBNI?utm_source=manual

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