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Embodied Anti-Racist Practice for White People

The following is an outline of the embodied practice session I facilitated for the white-identifying members of my research seminar class on 3/23/21. It is a sequence of somatic experiences intended to guide white folx into noticing their bodies’ reactions to conversations around race, and to notice how those reactions are effecting their ability to support anti-racism efforts.

Below is a brief introduction to the work we did together and some discussion about why portions of this work are done in white working groups as opposed to among mixed company. Following the introduction is an outline of the somatic exercises we did together. If you are white and reading this, I invite you to slow down when you get to the exercises and try them. Notice the signals your body sends to you.

INTRO TO SESSION:

I assume that most of us know the experience of our minds wandering – we call it ‘zoning out’, ‘getting distracted’, or ‘getting lost in thought’. But our bodies wander too. Something in our field of sense data reminds our bodies’ of something – a memory, a fear, a trauma (sometimes not even our trauma, but an ancestor’s trauma) – and our bodies run off with that something, responding as though the circumstances were different than they probably actually are. Our shoulders tighten, our chests brace, our throats constrict, our scalps heat up or tingle. Most of us know this feeling – when we are embarrassed, or nervous, or angry, or defensive, or or or…

As white people, we have been socialized into fears that we might not even admit to ourselves. Our bodies have responses of nervousness, embarrassment, defensiveness, and discomfort when we enter conversations about race – especially when our own race is part of the conversation. Our bodies bristle. And this bristling causes us to react out of fear, rather than responding with our whole, ethical selves.

In the same way that meditation is a practice to become more aware of our unconscious thoughts, and in so doing, begin to lessen their control over our thinking; we can begin to practice being more aware of our bodies – especially through the lens of noticing how whiteness shapes our bodies’ reactions to conversations, situations, people.

Until I begin to notice and actively change how whiteness and white-body-supremacy live in my body, I will not be an effective participant in changing the status quo. The goal of this work is to treat my body as a partner in an ongoing process of deeply self-reflective, embodied learning and unlearning – to notice when my body is reacting to a perceived threat, and to develop ways to communicate to my body that the threat I am perceiving is not a reality.

Today we will practice being aware of how our bodies react to imagined scenarios. (Numbness, lack of feeling, and stillness are all reactions). This work can be triggering, which is why we do it as a white working group (I am beginning to use this language instead of ‘white affinity group’ because white people have work to do together). White people talking through imagined scenarios with racial components and voicing our bodies’ physical reactions to these situations has the potential to be harmful to BIPOC – and harm is exactly what we are trying to lessen by doing this work. We will hold each other accountable as we navigate our discomfort, without asking our BIPOC community members to do the emotional labor of holding space for the messiness of our whiteness.

If you sense that these exercises are for you (if you are white), prepare a notebook, a pen or pencil, some water, and try to find a location in space that allows for solitude and/or vulnerability.

Resources that are informing this work include, but are not limited to:

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem (I recommend this book. Resmaa Menakem also offers both free and reasonably priced online courses in cultural somatics and racialized trauma through his website: https://www.resmaa.com/).

-My experience participating in LISTEN IN White Working Group, facilitated by Practice Progress  https://www.practiceprogress.org/

Embodied Reflection #1 – Sensing Strength, Resourcefulness, Adaptability

INTRO TO EXERCISE:

  1. Ground lay the concept of white fragility (the guilt, shame, & over-sensitivity that comes up for white people when discussing race)

  2. Include the history of white fragility as a justification for the enslavement & continued abuse/laboring of black people (the enactment of white fragility pairs historically with the belief that black people are stronger or impervious to pain)

  3. This series of exercises is to counter the white fragility response.

  4. Explain that I am starting with this exercise because I have found it to be helpful in preventing the fragility response, so that I can enter conversations about race with a sense of self trust: a grounding sense that ‘I am going to be able to face whatever comes up in this conversation.’

BEGIN EXERCISE: (credit to Resmaa Menakem, this is an adaptation of his exercise)

  1. Find a comfortable seat. Settle your weight. Soften your focus. Take 3 slow breaths: in through your nose, out through your mouth. On your last exhale, I invite you to close your eyes, if it feels comfortable.

  2. To begin, think back to a time or incident in your life when you were especially strong, resilient, or resourceful. This may have been a short incident (for example, when you spoke up eloquently on behalf of someone else), or it may be a time period that lasted weeks, months, or even years (for example, when you put yourself through college or supported a sick loved one).

  3. If multiple times are coming to mind, choose just one that has heat for you right now.

  4. Now mentally relive that time—moment by moment (for brief events) or milestone by milestone (for longer ones). At each moment or milestone, pay attention to what you experience in your body and take mental note. You may notice strength or weakness, energy or drowsiness, activation or settledness, constriction or relaxation, purpose or uncertainty, sensation or numbness. Pay attention to any impulses that arise.

(Give 3-5 min of silence)

  1. On your own time, notice your breath and the sounds of the room, bringing yourself back to the present moment and opening your eyes.

  2. Let’s take 3 minutes to write in a notebook about your bodily experiences: making a record of the sensations, feelings, or impulses that came up when remembering a time of strength and resourcefulness. (Stay present with your body while you write).

  3. Give the group the opportunity to share their bodily experiences verbally or through the chat.

  4. I ask you to carry this embodied memory of yourself as capable and resilient into our next embodied reflection.

Embodied Reflection #2 – Sensing Reactive Whiteness, Discomfort

BEGIN EXERCISE:

  1. Find a comfortable seat. You may want to stay where you are or shift positions. Settle your weight. Soften your focus. Take 3 slow breaths: in through your nose, out through your mouth. On your last exhale, I invite you to close your eyes, if you feel comfortable doing so.

  2. To begin, think back to a time when you witnessed or took part in a charged discussion around race—particularly one in which you felt uncomfortable. If you are having a hard time remembering a specific incident, you can imagine one. As you return to the memory or form the circumstances surrounding your imagined conversation around race, consider your participation in this conversation. When did you speak, or not speak? What did you say or not say? As you were listening, what things did you hear/receive or ignore?

  3. As you mentally relive or play out this conversation, pay attention to what you experience in your body. Your body has internal checkpoints—physical sensations that activate when something feels unfair, frightening, dangerous, or otherwise uncomfortable. Those signals might include a tingle at the back of your neck, tightness in your shoulders, a sick feeling in your belly. Notice when sensations or signals arise and any impulses attached to them.

(Give 3-5 min of silence)

  1. Wherever you are in your remembered or imagined conversation, notice sensations, feelings, and impulses in your body. Then, let that conversation go. Return your attention to your breath. Take 5 full breaths: in through your nose, out through your mouth.

  2. As you flicker your eyes open, look around your space. Turn your head and spine to see behind you. Look above you. Look down below you. Orient yourself to your current place and time.

  3. Let’s take 3 minutes to write in a notebook about your bodily experiences in that reflection. Make a record of the sensations, feelings, or impulses that came up. What signals did you body send to you?

  4. Give the group the opportunity to share their bodily experiences verbally or through the chat.

EXERCISE OUTTRO:

  1. So briefly here, I want to bring to mind the vagus nerve (or ‘wandering nerve’). Resmaa Menakem calls it the ‘soul nerve.’ It is a highly sensitive part of your nervous system that attaches to your brainstem, then reaches into most parts of your body, including your throat, lungs, hearth, stomach, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, and into your legs through your psoas muscle. It regulates your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Its primary concern is safety. It tells most of the muscles in your body when to constrict, release, move, or settle in response to perceived threats. It does not know the difference between perceived threats and real threats. And it does not connect to your cognitive, thinking brain. It is responsible for your fight, flee, or freeze reactions, and likely many of the sensations we experienced today.

Embodied Practice – Tapping to Calm the Nervous System

INTO TO EXERCISE:

  1. Tapping is a somatic practice that I was first introduced to in the context of therapy, but it is something that I use regularly to soothe my nervous system when I am having strong emotional responses or when I am feeling triggered.

  2. We will be tapping on specific points on our body in a specific order while we make statements of affirmation to ourselves either mentally or out loud.

  3. Go through the tapping points: side of the hand, inside the eyebrow, outside the eye, under the eye, under the nose, under the mouth, under the collarbone, under the armpit, top of the head.

  4. You do not need to memorize these points. I will guide you through them.

  5. All of these statements of affirmation are suggestions. When you repeat them to yourself, please adapt them as needed to be statements that resonate with you and what you need right now.

BEGIN EXERCISE:

  1. Side of the hand:

  2. “Even though I am experiencing (sensation shared from the group earlier), I am capable of soothing my nervous system.”

  3. “Even though I am feeling (sensation shared from the group earlier), I know that right here, right now, I am safe.”

  4. Inside the eyebrow:

  5. “All this nervousness…”

  6. Out side the eye:

  7. “All this wobbliness and uncertainty…”

  8. Under the eye:

  9. “All this discomfort…”

  10. Under the nose:

  11. “It can feel scary.”

  12. Under the mouth:

  13. “It can feel overwhelming.”

  14. Under the collarbone:

  15. “But in this moment, I choose to thank my body…”

  16. Under the armpit:

  17. “To thank my body for signaling to me areas in which I can grow.”

  18. Top of the head:

  19. “I am grateful for my body…”

  20. Inside the eyebrow:

  21. “For being a partner in this work.”

  22. Out side the eye:

  23. “I am capable…”

  24. Under the eye:

  25. “Of staying present with my body…”

  26. Under the nose:

  27. “Even and especially when I feel uncomfortable.”

  28. Under the mouth:

  29. “Because I trust that with my body’s help…”

  30. Under the collarbone:

  31. “I can show up for myself…”

  32. Under the armpit:

  33. “And I can show up for the people around me…”

  34. Top of the head:

  35. “From my deepest embodied integrity.”

  36. Take a deep breath. Notice what your body is experiencing right now. Sensations, feelings, impulses.

#antiracism #somatics #physicalpractice #intentionaladaptation #whiteness #adaptation #antiracism #embodiment #whitesupremacy

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