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Oct 17
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Race and The Body: Why Somatic Practices Are Essential for Racial Justice

Illustration by Alicia Brown

This article was originally published as part of an issue of The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture, and Politics. The issue can be found here.

by Kelsey Blackwell

Within this fathomlong body and mind is found all of the teachings.” – The Buddha

But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

You’ve been invited to be part of a think tank to discuss how an organization that’s important to you can adjust its infrastructure, culture, and practices to be more equitable and racially inclusive. You arrive eager to begin the work of dismantling the structural racism that’s thwarting the organization’s potential for positive impact. At the first meeting, a woman of color you have not seen before steps up to lead the conversation. Notebooks are out and pens are in hand. You can almost hear the hum of action items to come, and you and your mostly white colleagues are ready. The stakes are high. If this team can’t get this right, it means losing more people. It means resources and a message you believe in won’t reach marginalized populations. It means your organization won’t be enriched by the voices of the diverse many. This must end. You can tackle this thing!

“You can put away your pens and notebooks,” the woman says. “We’ll begin this dialogue by being in our bodies.” You look around at your colleagues. Some eagerly put their things away while others look to each other with a quizzical glance. What thoughts run through your mind? Excitement? Fear? Incredulousness? Something in-between? What do you imagine happens next in the room?

I’ve been this woman of color in front of a mostly white audience encouraging us to come into our bodies around racial justice work, and here’s what I’ve experienced:

1. Revolt. The most empowered in the group challenge a decision (especially from an unknown woman of color) to start a serious conversation about structural racism with embodiment. The typical sentiment is some version of “we don’t have time for this.”

2. Break time. Participants decide it’s a good time for a break. People go and make phone calls, head outside for fresh air or find a couch to nap on. Having been in previous meetings where embodiment practices were the fluff sandwiched between the “real” meeting, this work is not seen as “the work.”

3. Reluctant participation. There’s a sense that if we’re going to take time away from the meeting for body stuff, then its usefulness better be made apparent—and soon. The embodiment practices and their worthiness are judged using the cognitive, linear model that deems the worthiness of any idea in our society. If embodiment doesn’t square itself into this frame, or if we don’t immediately make connections to the task at hand that help us get to our goal, it is deemed a waste a time.

4. Jumping In. Some people eagerly jump in. I’m happy to say that in every space I’ve invited folks to be in their body, from corporate offices to Buddhist sanghas, there is always at least one person who seems eager to do so. Thank goddess for this, as it’s a reminder that embodied learners (who are often starved for this kind of teaching) show up in the most unexpected places.

Does any of this sound familiar?

The thing is, racism is about bodies. It’s a reality that can be tasted, seen, and felt. The restrictions to access to nutritious food and adequate healthcare; the over-policing of low-income neighborhoods and profiling of Black and brown bodies; the insecurity of being excluded from voting booths, good schools, good jobs, “good” hair, property ownership, business loans, media portrayals of success, and more all land, as author Ta-Nehisi Coates has named, as physical and psychological blows to the body.

When we are witness to these actions, a pain is felt in the body. When we are perpetrators of oppression, our own pain is the genesis of our actions. As Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed reminds us, people who cause pain are in pain themselves. How is it possible, then, to undo the results of this dis-ease without first addressing the root? Not only is including the body essential in our work towards racial justice, it is the primary path forward.

Writes Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies:

“For the past three decades, we’ve earnestly tried to address white-body supremacy in America with reason, principles, and ideas—using dialogue, forums, discussions, education and mental training. But the widespread destruction of Black bodies continues.… We’ve focused our efforts in the wrong direction. We’ve tried to teach our brains to think better about race. But white-body supremacy doesn’t live in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies.”


Racism is about bodies, but as a bi-racial Black girl who grew up in Utah, this was not readily apparent to me. In truth, I hadn’t considered the physicality of discrimination in my own life until I devoured Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, where this physicality is so honestly and vividly conveyed. As I read, I felt a curiosity arise in my own body. What was my physical experience of racism? The violence, ineffective schools, and codes of the streets that Coates describes of the Baltimore neighborhood of his youth was not my reality. I grew up in the suburbs. I was a cheerleader. Neighbors brought over bunts and peanut brittle during the holidays.

Seemingly buffered from the harshness of the hood, my ruminations on racism were nil. White privilege? My 14-year-old self had never considered such a thing. Plugged into the larger social consciousness of my white community, I often forgot I was Black. Race relations? No problems here! Everyone gets along. Everyone is white.

Except, we weren’t.

Racism didn’t show up in my white upper-middle class neighborhood the way it did for Coates. It was subtle, sneaky, and innocently sure of itself.

It was the planted false rumors that the (only) other Black kid at my school and I had a crush on each other.

It was being told with full conviction that I was on the Devil’s side.

It was being asked if I was in a gang.

It was my best friend singing the N-Word on our routine walk home from school, because “it was such a funny sounding word.”

It was a neighbor, after learning that my Black father’s family all lived nearby, asking, “How many of you are there?”

It was never getting asked to a school dance.

It was the endless requests to touch my curly hair and questions of how I got it “like that.”

But I didn’t see any of this as racism. It was just life. And the cost of my Blackness—years spent in silent psychological prostration to one day be good enough—was not something I realized I was paying.

While overt acts of racial oppression and physical violence certainly must end, it’s this sneaky, subtler form of discrimination—what Rev. angel Kyodo williams names “a kinder, gentler form of suffering”—that, because of its pervasiveness, I believe is truly the most dangerous. Like a noxious fume that we’re breathing in and exhaling on each other, this kind of othering not only infiltrates our everyday lives but in fact structures our own belonging. “To be othered is to be denied the fullness of one’s humanity. It’s about reminding people, either by the barriers we put up in social spaces or the barriers to opportunities to advance our well-being, about saying through words or actions, that ‘you’re not one of us,’” observes Wizdom Powell.

We know racism is bad. We know othering is bad. I can’t name a single individual in my sphere who doesn’t believe that they’re doing their part to address these social issues. And yet, petrified of “not belonging” to the group of “woke” do-gooders with whom we identify, we continue to embody and play by the rules of the very systems perpetrating the harmful patterns we detest. This is because conventional activism means “going along” with our social conditioning. It is approaching our organizing in a linear, conceptual, future-oriented way without prioritizing feeling and the here and now. It’s sitting at the table trying to use the tools of patriarchy and capitalism to “win”, when really what’s needed is standing and upending it all. The body brings us to this reality if we’re brave enough to listen.

To read the full article, please visit The Arrow here

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