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Embodied Practice to Examine Whiteness

During our week 3 meeting for LISTEN IN, our white working group discussed and worked through some somatic practice focusing on our symbolic bodies. Our symbolic bodies as in what we, as white bodies, represent in a context of racism and white supremacy. We conceptualized this by thinking in scales: if 1 is the personal body (who we are on a personal level), then 5 is the symbolic body (all that is attached to our body including history, culture, race, social positionally, privilege, stereotype). The personal body is who I perceive myself to be and the symbolic body is who a stranger or distant acquaintance perceives me to be. At 5, my symbolic body is perceived as the ultimate stereotypical Becky: persnickety, picky, privileged.

As a warm up through physical practice, we scaled our walks and mannerisms—our home mode/way of being. As we scaled through 2, 3, 4, and 5, we began to exaggerate our normal ways of being, becoming caricatures of ourselves. Then, we did this scaling exercise with explicit racial stereotypes/symbols of white people in mind:

First, we focused on meritocracy—ownership of the space/taking up space. For me, this one was incredibly telling. It felt good to exaggerate this one. I enjoyed the level 5 of this one, strutting around my house, smearing my body all over the walls, sitting on everything and claiming it all as ‘mine’ out loud. This is something I never do. Perhaps this has to do with my own internalized misogyny/patriarchy, but how good it felt to do this was telling. It felt liberating, empowering, freeing to occupy space with no shame, no shrinking of self. It highlighted to me that I’m often aware of the space I’m taking up in the room, and maybe I should find times (at least in my home) when I let go of that shrinking. Also, it highlighted to me that it feels good to behave as though I own the space—there is a seduction to existing in the world that way. It feels important to be aware of that temptation, and to deeply acknowledge that there are people for whom existing in the world that way is not possible. Walking through life as though you own or have access to all of it is not only insensitive to people around you for whom that is not the case, it also further increases the inequality of access.

Last, we did the scaling exercise with a stereotypical quality of our choice—one that we would easily fall into. I chose to focus on dietary restrictions. At level 1, I have allergies that require me to be careful about foods that I eat. At level 5, I am the white woman picky eater who expects the world to make accommodations for her ‘needs’ (which are not dire needs, but preferences of comfort). This one felt uncomfortable to exaggerate—I am highly aware of the likely perception of me as a privileged picky eater and am often negotiating how much I hide or make visible my auto-immune-related dietary restrictions. The scaling here is effective because these perceptions exist on a spectrum. While I have some control over how much I play into my symbolic body, there is truth beneath the stereotype. Even with a diagnosed auto-immune condition, it requires a great deal of privilege to be able to make choices around dietary restrictions.

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