A few minutes before I was scheduled to record an online interview with the renowned body-centered therapist Resmaa Menakem, I sat in my office, excited and nervous. I had thorough notes and a detailed agenda, meant to guide us through a rich discussion of somatic abolitionism, his groundbreaking work on unearthing and confronting the racism we carry in our bodies. As a Black therapist from Trinidad and Tobago, I had found this work to be seminal, both personally and professionally. But just as we were about to go live, a voice from deep within me said, “There will be no performance today. You will not perform.”
Any sense of confidence or stability I’d been feeling evaporated. In its place was confusion. I asked myself, “What does this confusion mean? What impact will it have on my conversation with Resmaa?” As he appeared on the screen dressed all in black, with images of famous Black entertainers and icons adorning the wall behind him, his smile was welcoming.
“Right before you came on,” I blurted, “I heard a voice tell me that there will be no performance today.”
As I got the words out, my chest opened, and I understood things more clearly. “Sometimes when we discuss issues like what we’re about to talk about today,” I explained, “if we’re not careful, it can feel like we’re performing. And I don’t want to perform today.”
Without missing a beat, Resmaa said, “Even if you are careful, you’ll perform. Performance is a protective mechanism for the Black body. It’s the way that the Black body survives white-body supremacy. It cuts off part of itself in order to—even if it can’t really do it—perform comfort for white bodies. So what came to you as the phrase, We’re not going to perform is the ancestor saying, ‘Just be here with your brother. Don’t worry about the white gaze right now.’”
I exhaled, feeling my muscles loosen, and we proceeded to have a deeply meaningful conversation I’ve come back to many times, both as a therapist and as a Black body who’s repeatedly had to rumble with the impulse to perform for the white gaze.
I define performance as all the ways I’m called to step outside of myself to fit into a world that doesn’t hold space for the entirety of my being. Performance is the means by which I deny my Blackness and my Caribbeanness, so that I can be certified and valued by the white North American gaze. As a child, I was taught by my elders that my local dialect, with its rich cadence and unique vernacular, was not the proper way to speak. As a graduate student, I was taught to use evidence-based approaches that are often culturally irrelevant to people of the Global South. Even as a seasoned therapist presenting at trainings and conferences, I found myself using those North American models to teach about the experiences of my Caribbean clients.
In front of my peers, why didn’t I feel comfortable leaning into the therapeutic wisdom of our own traditions, like gayap, a Caribbean term for working together to lift our communities and tackle projects for the common good? What about our oral stories, laden with deep life lessons? The more that I performed for the white gaze, the more these stories and traditions were silenced, and the more I felt myself shape-shifting to be heard.
How powerful would a therapy practice be that made room for indigenous knowledge, like the healing energy of our African dances, the bongo and kalinda? Or indigenous knowledge that embraces the continuity between humans and the elements of nature and shows us how these elements can bring restoration? In today’s Western therapy world, can you imagine these practices as anything more than adjuncts to so-called proven methods of talk and medication?
The Kenyan-born philosopher Omedi Ochieng notes that imagination refers not only to faculties that help us expand our perception of the possible, but also to capacities that help us view the familiar in new ways. He says that imagination in the African-Yoruban tradition can be understood as ashe, the ability to command and make things happen, yet imagination can sometimes feel like the sole territory of the powerful and privileged.
This displacement of our knowledge systems, known as epistemicide, is nothing new to those of us in the Global South. Our media and education systems have ensured that our indigenous epistemologies have been overlaid by what Resmaa calls the white-bodied offerings of the Global North. There’s a world caste system wherein the Global North still lords over the Global South, and I’ve been taught to know my place within it.
Leaning into PRIDE
As I’ve assumed a professional place in a Western space, it’s been painful to witness the suffocation of imagination in my BIPOC and Global South clients. I think of Yvette, a 40-year-old Black woman, who came to me for help with persistent depression and anxiety. When we talked about what she imagined for herself, she told me, “I don’t know how to imagine; I’ve been too busy trying to survive.”
Yvette’s daily experience was rooted in white imagination, a place where white bodies continue to create and oversee the world. Such a place is a cemetery for Black imagination, a place that bubbles with intergenerational and ancestral wisdom. It’s an imagination that centers on our resilience and sense of pride.
The word pride has long been in play for marginalized bodies fighting back against the dominant imagination. My clinical work has allowed me to tap into my own sense of pride and, inspired by teachers such as Resmaa, develop a technique I call PRIDE (Pivoting, Rumbling, Imagining, Developing, and Evolving) to help my clients in marginalized bodies, including those in the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities, discover and imagine different ways of being in the world. Sensing that Yvette might benefit from this type of exploration, I invited her to take the journey with me.
Yvette was born in Trinidad and Tobago to an Afro-Trinidadian mother and an African American father. She migrated to the United States when she was 12 and moved to England to study at age 20. Over time, her nervous system had become overwhelmed by repeated experiences of racism and xenophobia, especially in her university, where her white peers often spoke to her condescendingly and questioned her ability to perform academically. During one therapy session, she told me about an incident that had taken place in her early 20s, when she was working as a copy editor and mistakenly edited some documents that weren’t assigned to her.
“I really just wanted to help,” she recalled. “But my white employer let me have it in front of everyone. When I tried to defend myself, he said that I should remember to be grateful that he’d given me a job, like I needed to be reminded to know my place.” Memories of this encounter still sickened her.
A year later, Yvette moved back home to the United States and was further traumatized by experiences of racism, including being followed around in stores and hearing about the horrific deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. “I feel like my body is always waiting for something bad to happen,” she said.
I nodded. “I can sense some activation in your body, in the way you’re holding your arm and balling your hand into a fist,” I replied gently. “It’s as if you’re trying to contain some deep discomfort. I get that. Because marginalization doesn’t only remove you from society, it removes you from yourself, it might help if we rediscover your own ways of knowing the world, explore the internal resources you already have, and reignite the imagination you’ve lost.”
I paused to let her take all this in. “PRIDE is a technique I use to do that,” I continued. “It involves going inside and asking ourselves hard questions about what we find there. The answers that emerge will determine how we can imagine other possibilities for you.”
By way of encouragement, I told her about a trans client who’d gleefully yelled “Celebration!” when we started to tap into his imagination. “As the exercise deepened, he saw himself being celebrated in the world,” I told her. “He saw balloons, pom-poms, and cake.” At that, Yvette broke into a grin. “He used that imagining to craft how he could live in a marginalized body and also walk into spaces feeling celebrated,” I continued. “When he left that day, he was positively beaming. He embodied that imagination from head to toe.” I focused back on Yvette. “Are you ready to try this process?”
“I’m ready,” she said, smiling.
I invited her to consider what she might imagine for herself.
Concentrating, she bit her lip, then after a while said, “I want to respond in better ways to what part of me knows is racism and not a reflection of me.” She sighed heavily. “But the stupidity of it, and the cruelty of it, and the way it can sometimes feel never-ending makes it hard. I have trouble just letting it wash over me and not soak me through.”
Although this process isn’t necessarily sequential or linear, a good place to start is with a pivot, which involves turning and looking within. “Pivoting can show us how and where difficult feelings—pain, resentment, helplessness, sadness, and anxiety—rest in our bodies,” I told Yvette. “It can point us to the untold stories that occupy our being—and lay the foundation for a new way to understand them.”
In my own experiences of race-based trauma, pivoting has allowed me to see how ancestral pain lives in my nervous system. I’ve been able to witness how feelings of helplessness and invisibility, going back to the brutalization of my foremothers by white men, lay beneath my moments of disorientation, crying, and sometimes fawning over those who harm me.
As I invited Yvette to pivot, with pen and paper in her hand, I told her that I’d support her by concurrently doing a pivot myself. I find that during this process, paying close attention to the implicit knowings, impulses, and feelings that stir within me can help me stay in authentic engagement with a client. Pivoting escorts me into the realm of curiosity, a necessary place from which to perform liberatory work. I picked up my own pen and pad of paper, and began. Over the course of our process, I’d share some of what I discovered with Yvette if I felt it would benefit her, but my focus would be on listening and guiding her discoveries.
My own pivot involved considering the questions: What is happening within me right now? How is my body responding to what I’m experiencing? What knowledge is being activated? What ideas about how to respond are emerging? What are my impulses? What old and new stories are emerging within me?
I ended up jotting down: As I sat with Yvette’s desires to respond in “better ways” to racism, I noticed a heaviness in my chest, indicating a deep concern for her and a fear that she could fall apart from the effects of all the racism she’d experienced. But along with this discomfort, I noticed a strong desire to help her become more integrated, so that she can better manage all she’s faced and will continue to face.
Yvette wrote: I notice that I don’t believe myself to be a real person in this society. I feel a hollowness in my body and an emptiness in my belly. I feel like a performance piece. It’s like I can only see myself through their eyes. I want to run away, but I also want to stay, because there’s nowhere that’s truly safe anyway. Someone once said that being Black in this world is like being behind glass in a museum. That’s how I feel: like I’m being watched by others who believe it’s their right to stare at me for their own amusement. I just want this feeling to end.
As a clinician, I try to veer away from the burden of certainty. In fact, I believe that getting lost can help me become a better therapist, since certainty can keep us stuck and compel us to silence other voices that might stretch our imagination. Therefore, as I sit with all I’ve discovered in a pivot, I like to open up to a sense of lostness. It’s not a coincidence that I use the word lost; it’s an acronym that helps me and my clients characterize this valuable state that allows us to rumble with our discoveries.
Liminality: I acknowledge that I’m in the middle of a process—a stage of transition—and that by the end, something new will have surfaced. Openness: I remind myself to be receptive to whatever emerges. Space: I imagine myself having space for whatever appears. Timelessness: I embrace that the process will take as long as it needs to.
Once we embraced being lost, Yvette and I could start the process of rumbling by considering: What social, cultural, historical, and personal dynamics are driving what I discovered in my pivot? What’s responsible for the way that I think or feel, and is it helpful to my healing process? Whose way of the world am I living in? What ways of thinking about or knowing the world have I ignored in my life and in this situation? What ways of knowing have I privileged in my life and in this situation? Who or what is at the center of my story?
I noted to myself: After sitting with all that I was thinking and experiencing, I became curious about my need to have my client move toward integration. In my training, I’ve been taught that being integrated is a symbol of health. But I began to wonder: Who defines what’s healthy? Does this definition serve others who occupy other social locations? I could feel the discomfort in my body as these questions kept coming. I realized I felt a bit lost. I wasn’t sure that I was serving Yvette with my training. I wondered if I was performing further subjugation, policing her adaptive response with knowledge from a field that’s dominated by people who don’t look like her. The hardest piece was when I felt uncomfortable rumbling, even though I knew it could lead to insight, because the rumble might be thought of as a departure from proper therapeutic protocol.
I shared some of this with Yvette as a way of infusing authenticity and egalitarianism into the space. I hoped that witnessing my rumble would enable her to give herself permission to share authentically and equally, which I deemed pivotal to her liberation as a Black woman in a healing space.
As she began sharing her own rumble, Yvette started to cry. “I just can’t deal with this anymore,” she said. “Over and over, I feel like I’m circling around, looking and looking to find a better way to handle all this.” She shook her head. “Everyone wants me to find a better way, but to be honest, Akilah, even you can’t figure it out for me. I feel like it’s because that shit isn’t me. That circling round and round to find the one, right way to heal—that’s not African woman shit.”
I leaned closer. “You’re doing so well,” I said softly. “You’re walking into your truth. You’re doing the hard work of unmasking the things that bind and contain us while we fight for our healing.”
What does it mean to steer yourself away from reproducing someone else’s ideas and templates and begin creating your own? This process of imagining involves a consultation within, accessing the wisdom of the body.
As Yvette and I witnessed the diamonds and debris unearthed from our rumbles, I invited us both to imagine new ways of being, unshackled from the grip of other models. This included asking: What is my body saying to me about what my next move should be for myself and my healing?
“Let’s close our eyes and pause,” I said. “We’ll follow the sensations within that emerged as a result of the rumble and wait for any shift.” I’ve found that the lesson is always revealed in the pause and the shift. As Resmaa Menakem often says, “Black women’s growth edge is in not doing shit.”
Yvette paused. She waited. I paused. I waited. And then the following came to her: I like this invitation to imagine. I’m sensing something happening. In my mother’s Trinidadian culture, there’s something called picong, a unique style of humor filled with wit and sarcasm. My mother would talk about the struggles of growing up Black in Trinidad right before independence. She spoke about racism and the Black Power Revolution. As she and her friends moved through the struggles of the time, their picong kept them going. That picong is often heard in Trinidadian calypso music. It’s a form of resistance and survival. I’ve used it when I felt overwhelmed. It’s kept me sane.
“This is your theory of healing,” I affirmed.
She sat up straight, exuding confidence. “This is how I do my thing.”
The development phase of this process is the manifestation of our imagination, in which we reflect on what we’ve encountered in the session and figure out how to implement it. We ask ourselves: What are the healing steps we either took or generated today? How can we continue to use them? At this point I’m facilitating Yvette’s solo process, opening space for her to craft something new.
As Yvette developed, she said, “The good news is I know exactly when and how to use picong. When I feel that behind-glass-in-a-museum feeling, that’s my cue. I can pause. I can do nothing. I can shift, and my wit emerges. I can use it to take care of myself. And it comes naturally to me, just as it did to my mother and other Calypsonians.”
She was relieved to know that she’d had this capacity—her thing—all along.
Renowned American science-fiction author Octavia Butler once said, “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” It’s important to examine how we’ve evolved or shifted as a result of the process of imagination and development. To do this, we can ask: Who am I now? How has this work shifted me?
When I posed these questions to Yvette, I could feel my own desire to have her identify something concrete and definitive that had emerged from our time together. But her answer didn’t come right away—and that was okay. “Something has changed,” she finally said. “I don’t know what it is, and I don’t need to figure it all out now.” She paused. “I can see that this work of imagining never ends.”
What Yvette said resonated with me then, and it came to me again as I sat with Resmaa on the day my body told me I wouldn’t be performing. We had an honest conversation about the ways in which systemic marginalization has wounded me as a Black practitioner from the Global South. I grieved the times when I sacrificed my voice for acceptance. I grieved the pain of my ancestors. But as I grieved, I got a clear sense of my purpose. I was born to imagine—not live in someone else’s imagination. And I was born to help others be able to imagine, so they can locate possibilities for themselves.
Akilah Riley-Richardson, MSW, CCTP, is the founder of the Relational Healing Institute, and creator of the PRIDE model of practice and supervision. An individual and couples therapist and certified trauma specialist, she’s dedicated to the healing of BIPOC relationships and BIPOC mental health. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.