“The health of tracking verses the illness of shame”
~ Barri Malek ~
Part One ~ Meeting somatic educator and author Resmaa Menakem and tracking my early years of whiteness (16:53 mins)
Part Two ~ Whiteness as un-metabolized ancestral trauma and why the overculture’s dominant approach to “body” suppresses our intuitive knowing and animal body intelligence (5:44 mins)
Part Three ~ Tracking the weaponization of the idealized white body through the somatic cultural body conversation (13:58 mins)
Part Four ~ Antiracism in relationship to my animal body’s longing to be rewoven into the larger field of Humanity (3:57 mins)
Sitting across from Resmaa Menakem was an honor. Here is a man who I recognize from my 45 years of exploring core awareness, integrity, and agency embodies all three. He leaned in and looked me in the eye while I voiced what was on my mind. White bodies are complacent, I quietly said, because “it just feels like too much work.”
It was fall 2018 when I began organizing my teaching schedule to include flying into Minneapolis to meet Resmaa in person. I don’t remember exactly when I found his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, except that I do remember it was after completing Stalking Wild Psoas. I was receptive to what was coming next. Never before had I read such a direct weave of somatic awareness and racism. No one I knew in my field of sensory perception had specifically and viscerally located and named racism in the body, and definitely not in the way Resmaa had. When I first saw his photograph on the book’s back flap, I recognized a soul embodied in bones. Here was a man I wanted to meet. Reaching out that fall I congratulated him on writing a seminal book and requested an opportunity to meet him in person and potentially share a bit about my work with the primal core psoas. He accepted.
Over lunch on a crisp spring day in May 2019, he spoke to me about systemic racism. I still perceived myself somehow separate from any such construct as after all I am a white woman, I am not a racist; I believe in unity, peace, and equity. Hearing the idea of spending the rest of my life building an abolitionist/anti-racist culture within white bodies felt exhausting.
To be honest I’ve never been socially engaged. Simply put, I struggle with the way human beings function. I guess you might say I never attached or simply that my birth sign is Aquarius. I started stepping back from authority figures and social groups at a very young age. I don’t like labels or group dynamics. I belong to no tribe. I actually feel concerned when I hear the word belong as it pertains to groups. For me, it indicates that to belong to one group means not belonging to something else. There is always an other who/that does not belong.
School proved difficult not only because of the inner workings of my family’s trauma which kept me in a whirlwind of fear but also because I did not respect my teachers. Top down authority rubs me the wrong way. I still remember feelings of anger by the intimidation of my 1st grade teacher and repugnant with my 5th grade homeroom teacher who wanted his female students to punish male students with a paddle board in front of the class. Although singing in a Protestant church choir touched something deep within me, my spiritual inquiries were often met with a wave of disapproval and dismissal. My family’s sense of social responsibility came in loud barks such as “eat your food, children are starving in China.” I will admit to dreaming about becoming a missionary and traveling far away from home as I aspired to be of some help. I did move away at 17, but just an hour and half from Cleveland where I began attending the only college that would take me, Kent State.
During the mid-sixties and early seventies I dropped out. Although I sniffed out the racial/political justice groups in college, their outrage and passion overwhelmed me. I could not get behind any cause. My hackles were up by the limitation of them versus us, black versus white, good versus bad… all of it smelled incomplete and of desperation. Simply choosing not to belong, I spent much of my time listening to Jimi Hendricks and reading Albert Camus. I lasted all but a total of two years at Kent.
Like a seed pod blowing in the wind, I was a scatterling struggling to find fertile ground. I spent a winter in the wild winds and water swept art colony of Provincetown on Cape Cod playing chess with weathered fishermen and worked for a time in Atlanta Georgia watching incredible black and white films like Orpheus at an inner city art theater by myself. Returning to my ancestral roots that track back 300 years into tilling soil, I spent a year making do in the countryside of Massachusetts. It was here that I began rooting and gathering. Composting the complexities of life and being nourished by the community of non-humans – beings who welcomed my landing and locating.
Leaning in towards Resmaa, I read his animal body alive and coherent on the other side of the table, my animal body’s ears were pricked up like radar locating and tracking his words… “you have to.” With these vibrational frequencies I received a visceral message: I must do whiteness. It is not bodies of culture, as Resmaa calls racialized people of color, whose job it is to dismantle white supremacy. It is my privilege and my inheritance as a white body.
“My inheritance was particular, specifically limited and limiting:
my birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives,
and to everyone, forever. But one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance.”
~ James Baldwin ~
Raised in segregated Cleveland, everyone in my world looked like me. My parents struggled their way from poverty to middle class. When I was born my mother already had three children to care for. An RN by training, she had an unwanted pregnancy 5 years after her youngest child, which was me. Unable to work, she took in the neighbor’s laundry just to keep us fed. My father worked at the same blue color job since the age of 16 slowly climbing the ladder to white collar. I was raised to believe everyone is equal but that there is simply never enough to go around. I was ignorant to the privilege that bestowed my family an HOA loan that gave us a leg up to move into a beautiful tree lined neighborhood on the Westside, while other families were denied these same loans by the United States government on the basis of their skin color. I met no one that wasn’t a white body until I moved to coastal cities: Boston, Cambridge, and eventually San Francisco. I worked as a conceptual artist at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts never questioning why there was a scarcity of bodies of culture in the student or teacher population. Relishing the creative arts and foods of diverse worlds, I still continued to live in a white flurry of relationships.
My main focus as a young woman was handling harassment. One of my many jobs was with the distributor of smiley faces – maybe even the guy who first manufactured those ugly yellow stickers. I still have a knee jerk reaction whenever I see a smiley face emoji as I flash back to that creepy boss who came onto me while I was working as his receptionist. Reality for me was centered around keeping my job and not being physically attacked. News of race riots intermingled with my moment to moment terror. What grabbed my attention later after I moved to California in the late ‘70s and worked as a waitress at a seafood restaurant called the “The Bearded Clam” was not racial disparity or how systematic systems were based on white supremacy, but on my overweight, over-sexualized white owner. It was only on my work breaks while reading that I turned towards a deeper sense of self. One book in particular; HARA: The Vital Centre of Man lit a fire in my belly.
When the chance to move to a mountain town in California appeared I focused on scraping together the money as I so craved to once again live close to the land as my grounding. Doing so afforded my kids a wild, natural freedom. To live in the mountains was to also live among white bodies that were very different from myself: Vietnam vets hiding high in trauma up in the mountains, fundamentalist Christians who supported alternative education, meth producers whose children attended the local public schools and worked at the local bank, Hells Angels raising money for the homeless, foster kids and food shelters, and wealthy dot.comers just looking to secure a good life. Only when our source of water was purchased by a global conglomerate did we band together to claim our basic rights and the rights of the natural watershed. As I begin to track whiteness, I ask myself the question whether I was colorblind by choice or if this was simply a product of my early conditioning. For me, the realization is that this white body had never met or talked seriously with any black body until I met Resmaa.
Even with 45 years of teaching across the United States, Europe, Australia, and Canada the majority of people attending my workshops have always been white bodies. It was only after relocating to the Midwest that I attended locally sponsored focus meetings on race and place and began listening to stories spoken by bodies of culture where I heard how implicit biases and power structures systemically perpetuate racism. It was here in the Heartlands that I became aware that by benefiting from this systematic construct, I too inherently perpetuate white supremacy. To be truly against the artificial construct of race I must actively become an anti-racist.
My lack of awareness and self-education regarding the outright historical lies told to me through family, church, and school about the foundation of the United States definitely created an intellectual dissonance but what really strikes home is recognizing how comfortable I have always been in my whiteness. I wonder if the process is a bit like detoxing from substances. Perhaps only in recovery can one take stock of the mayhem. Coddled in a white body I have been able to simply ignore what for others has continued to bring extreme suffering.
It was a year or two before meeting Resmaa that the concept of whiteness became real for me. It was during several extended visits with my daughter in the inner city of St. Louis that a felt-sense of a deep warmth in this extremely poor neighborhood marinated this white body in otherness. I began recognizing that it is my animal body that roams ravenous. Words began to shape the tangible objectification I was experiencing internally. Something I broadly name as an industrialized dehumanization; a desensitizing coldness within that keeps me isolated. I literally was sensing how I was a “product” of the materialistic world. Packaged in a white body, in a white culture, I was programmed, marketed, and stamped as a useful tool of consumerism. I think it was at this very moment my soma began to thaw a bit. I felt a stirring that was scratching the hardpan of my being in search of a different seeding to take root. Daoist healers speak of psoas as the muscle of the Soul. Marking my sensations a feeling arose of my soul longing to decolonize.
“Hospitality invites the stranger to have different values, ideas, experiences
than our own…surrenders to the reality of the other
rather than expecting the other to be a mirror of ourselves.”
~ Holy Spirit Retreat Center Los Angeles – card placed in each room ~
It was New York author and psychologist Natasha Stovall’s article “Whiteness On The Couch” that furthered my explorations. She was questioning why white people in therapy do not speak about their race and how this dissonance affects every aspect of their well-being. I reached out and over dinner in New York’s Flatiron district, I invited Natasha to join me in exploring the psychological entanglements of sensory perception that fosters the complacency in white bodies to ignore the obvious. She accepted my invitation and we planned through recollections, dreams, ancestral stories, movements, and sensations to explore how “whiteness” comes to be in our bodies. When COVID hit we moved our explorations onto Zoom. It was the larger zoom audience where I began having the opportunity to visually track white fragility. How does it display in gesture, posture, and expression?
Our wild animal bodies, first classified as mammals and now as civilized, have been in captivity for centuries after being tamed by disciplined trauma. Tortured, shocked, and shamed, our white bodies have been conditioned to abhor the wild in all its varied manifestations. In an attempt to separate from the living world, our elemental nature has been captured and conquered. This is referred to as the colonization of body. Dominated, fragmented, and powered-overed, we carry a deep fear of otherness without and within which validates and justifies suppressing, eradicating, and commodifying all life for the benefit of progress. Our colonizing lineage not only has classified and objectified the human being but also systematically has cut us off from natural processes through both language and deed. Ultimately I believe that power-over is a top down construct based on fear, loathing, and disgust of the wild. I encourage you to look up the definition of wild in the English dictionary. It is perceived as a threat to civilization. Negating our animal body perpetuates this disrespect of all living systems while putting us surely on a path of self-destruction. The arrogance in separation is the dysfunctions and illnesses of our time.
“One of the things we know about trauma
is that trauma becomes decontextualized
and over time can look like culture.
And over time can look like family traits.
And over time can look like personality.”
~ Resmaa Menakem~
I believe isolation and hyper-individualization normalizes separation of the white body from all others including each other. It is in the nursery that we first offer the newborn a chemically stuffed lovey instead of our body, and where we begin teaching our children to separate from other. By categorizing and naming things rather than sensing into our inter-connectivity, we grow in a colonized field of influence forgetting to sense into our biological responsibility. Severed from place we seek commodities of comfort rather than our birth right of pleasure.
Our whiteness is unmetabolized ancestral trauma. Uprooted from our ancestral homeland and our past, white bodies walk among ghosts. When we gather, what I see and sense even across the ethers of zoom is a range of ungroundedness – a dissociated presence. With an inability to sense land, there is no reciprocity and little expression of spontaneous knowing. It is as though the wild instincts have been bred out us. Unable to experience and sense our direct knowing of perception through movement, white bodies in particular depend upon the cognitive brain to make sense of life.
When George Floyd was murdered in front of the world by a white body, I saw the killer posturing whiteness by claiming dominance over. I wrote my first blog acknowledging the profound disconnect and lack of responsiveness I see inherent in white bodies. I wanted to link this horrific posture to what Resmaa refers to as the idealized white body for which all other bodies shall be measured – asking white bodied readers to question whether this really is who we want to be.
After publishing my thoughts on my Core Awareness website I shared my blog on Facebook and the Vagus Study group page to acknowledge that white bodies must begin to look at not only our part in white supremacy through our internalized complacency but also how supremacy is being regenerated within the conditioning of our soma. It was a call to reclaim our humanity and consciously decolonize our soul by examining why we idealize the unresponsive posture and misread it as noble and expressive of inner strength. I was attempting to put into words what years of studying core psoas has made clear to me: that rigidity reinstated and reinforced through western approaches to fitness, yoga, and dance are actually part of the colonization of our animal body and are holding hostage our integrity, coherency, and perhaps even our soul.
Signaling coherent or incoherent,
integral or compromised,
safe or not safe,
psoas as messenger
communicates both our longing to survive
and our desire to thrive.
~ Stalking Wild Psoas ~
It is not the first time I have called out the unresponsive core as a threat to life but it was the first time I recognized it as a valued social construct, exemplifying our white bodies’ place in the world. Writing about the action potential of psoas in Core Awareness was my attempt to help readers stop recruiting their psoas and appreciate the bio-intelligence of the animal body. I was pointing out that the standardized recruitment of psoas is doing harm to our ability to fully develop our kinesthetic sensory system and our capacity to be present and alive to a full range of emotions and expressions. This was; however, the first time I recognized core recruitment as a seed sown by and for white supremacy. By describing how the over stabilized spine — witnessed in the military stance, the idealized fitness industry, and in traditional ballet — idolizes the idealized white body, I argued that exchanging a “soulful” psoas for a performative expression limits our deep connection to ourselves as agents of change and creativity while simultaneously reinforcing and therefore maintaining white superiority. By removing any personal story this recruitment of psoas whiteouts responsiveness and replaces it with posturing. We are exchanging our intuitive bio-intelligence for control and power-over. This perpetuates our capacity as human beings to annihilate, albeit unconsciously, our animal body’s direct and perceptual instincts of knowing. Listening to psoas has always been a felt-sense instinctual animal body response. Wild animals do not isolate and perform superficial abdominal crunches to be strong; instead, it is their whole being that expresses their core coherency and which fosters our ability to experience the felt-sense of being kin. I believe this is the inherent affirmative message directing sent to white bodies that Black Lives Matter.
Only recently have I begun to perceive how the idealized white body has been weaponized socially, politically, and culturally. I first picked up a hint of this through Tada Hozumi’s murmurings after spotting him on Menakem’s FB friends list. I felt curious. I liked how he sported a cap and his wily smile so I began listening to an interview where Tada, a self-proclaimed cultural somatic educator, was the guest on Chris Cole’s podcast. Cole is the author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness and these two men were tracking mental health in the “cultural body.” Chris was observing that his struggle with a healthy male body cannot be separated from the cultural white body’s illness of supremacy.
The idea of a larger coherency of connectivity intuitively resonates in me. Many years ago when my oldest sister Janet was given shock treatments for her grief and despair, I knew her collapse emerged out of our family’s immediate and ancestral lineage of trauma. Attempting to make sense of my confusion and outrage, I volunteered at an unlocked psychiatric unit on the outskirts of Boston where no one wore uniforms and so it was impossible to know who were patients and who were staff. I found myself soothed by those who had put themselves in the hospitals care more than the professionals who were over-seeing them. My animal body could distinguish other animal bodies from those performing social posturing. It was an intriguing human experiment. I viscerally understood that mental health is predicated on a larger field of influence – what I believe Hozumi refers to as the cultural body. Periodically I check in with Tada’s blogs. I especially liked reading one he wrote about his relationship with his father and how COVID was bringing these two Japanese men, who lived worlds apart, closer. Another was an inquiry into the precarious world of being a male teacher fawned over by female students (my description) and how the larger field influences and shapes this predatory dynamic.
After publishing White Bodies, Psoas & Gesturing Power Over, Tada reached out on messenger. He wanted to ask me about the source of my work. We talked back and forth and eventually made a date on zoom. I told him how influential the concept of HARA was in developing my professional teachings. He shared that he had read the book in its original Japanese. He spoke specifically to me about honoring his Japanese ancestors where these concepts are literally rooted. I assured him I reference the book in my work and thanked him. He requested I become quiet along with him and feel into the presence of the ancestors. We did. He encouraged me to speak directly to the ancestors as I continue this work and request their permission by acknowledging their lineage. He also pointed out several articles he had written on Whiteness back in 2017 for which I knew nothing about. His calling out was gentle and encouraged me to honor the ancestors and the cultures that embody our present practices not just with a mental note but with a deep rooting back into the cultural soil of life itself.
I also received a call-out from Sa’ada Abu Bakr asking for more clarity on the Vagus Study Group page. I understood this to be her way of asking me why I did not go full circle in writing this piece and acknowledging Black Lives Matter. Sa’ada is a self-described doula focusing on end of life work as well as a manual therapist. We ended up moving our conversation off the page and onto messenger because I felt I was not keeping with the posting stipulations on the group page. Sa’ada offered a different perspective. She explained “I don’t agree with keeping a hyper focus on one subject as that obscures interactions between different subjects as I believe it comes from a colonial or white way of thinking similar to how white culture categorizes, and delineates limits. But everything is intertwined with everything, and in America everything is intertwined with racism/anti-racism.”
My approach so far had been to only write to white bodies thus centering whiteness. In her words “the problem I see is that the article only centers whiteness, it doesn’t move on to something concrete and useful to nonwhite people. I can see using centering whiteness as a hook but I would suggest not stopping there….lead the audience to anti-racist action.” Her gentle admonishing was taking place during a powerful moment within the larger field of humanity. By questioning why I chose to keep centering on myself rather than giving space to BOC I recognize a colonizing over – a sense that I freely dominate. I deeply appreciate Sa’ada offering her time and attention to these corrections. I am wondering at this moment if I can escape my white conditioning and break open to pour myself into a world where otherness is all of us together.
Surrounded by the usual white noise, Mark Walsh showed up. I could say this was a deviation from tracking whiteness but he represents the self-centering that smacks of advantage and privilege. A highly esteemed colleague in the field of movement and somatic education recommended that Mark pay attention to my new book. Her relationship to Walsh was just in the early cautious stages as she wanted to know how her work with movement and cancer survival might be cast into a wider circle of influence throughout Europe. I know for myself, being a part of the elder generation in the somatic education field, it can feel refreshing and even mandatory to turn towards younger influencers for new creative pathways for connecting.
Walsh did reach out and request an interview to promote my new book. I found him smug but also found myself game for the match. I approached our conversation from a position of fight fire with fire. I was demonstrating how psoas is really all about showing up, standing ground, and having the audacity to be fully present or at least that is what I thought. During the interview I knew I might be irritating him by not acquiescing so I attempted to simply argue for clarity and just enough to be entertaining like catching the take down on a garish wrestling match on MTV in hopes of offering something of value to our listeners. It was not my cup of tea, but the interview resulted in me questioning how to bring a sense of urgency to white male readers, specifically regarding core integrity. At the time, I was contemplating writing a book for the “common man” that would potentially land in the airport bookstores. Tentatively entitled Deeper Than Abs, this book would recognize that core integrity, power within, strength, and agency are all possible within a responsive core. I wanted to redefine power not as the socially accepted “spine of steel” metaphor but explore true strength, shifting our attention away from creating density toward igniting dynamic resiliency.
Shortly after the interview, Walsh followed up and asked if I would review his new book and I accepted, stating it would be an honor. My thinking at the time was that it might help me understand how to support the vulnerability I sense behind and within the fragile white male core. I never completed his manuscript and never wrote an official review. My brief notes report, “…Walsh offers up a mac and cheese belly full of suggestions for the everyday man… pitching embodiment as a radical art.” The second half of the book fell too short and I simply let it sit unread.
I just need to say that for the past 20 years teaching in the UK has been truly delightful. I’ve come to love their common use of the word fuck. No one uses it better than the English. Fuck off, no fucking way, fuck it. It is not sexual or directive but rather an expression that spits out an inner potency. A delicious wordplay in the mouth and with the English accent to top it off, it feels down right soulful to my ears. So swearing does not bother me. I come from the belly of a redheaded, angry ancestral Irish, Ohio farm girl who worked on her father’s rented land as a hand and hung out with toothless, ruthless uncles who chewed tobaccy and worked on the railroad. Thus, Walsh’s working class Englishman’s crassness simply rolls off my back. I figured if such a man had achieved a black belt and was helping male soldiers in Eastern Europe stop berating themselves and abusing women, he might be doing some good. I am an anarchist at heart and definitely a rebel without a cause.
We say use this unique, flexable word more often in your daily speech
It will identify the quality of your character immediately
Say it loudly and proudly!
~ George Carlin~
So when Walsh circled back around to ask me to join the embodiment conference, I saw it as fodder for my new book.I agreed to be part of what I misconstrued as a small but experienced group of educators. Although I got it that Walsh was marking his territory by “charming elder educators,” I whitewashed the impact it would have on everyone participating. My work was offered for free with no intention of benefiting from this conference. I imagined that during COVID it might even provide a way for people studying bodywork to have an opportunity to interact with specialized teachers and I especially liked that the presentations were going to be translated into multiple languages. What my white butt did not realize until I actually sensed into a familiar pattern was that what I had signed up for was an Amway type pyramid scheme that was turning into a Mega-Mall Mc-Embodiment Event by a man who had absolutely no intentions of holding space for core integrity.
When Tada wrote his open letter to Mark Walsh and the Embodiment Community explaining why he declined the invitation to present, I reached out to Mark via messenger …I am tracking an important conversation that I invite you to just sit with and metabolize as you feel into the embodiment conference from other ways of being – no reaction necessary just requesting an openness …i.e. to women who express how it feels to see their sexual perpetrator(s) presenting, BOC responding to this largely white male led dominant presentation style with the top in a colonized field of authority leading the origins of work (such as Levin’s somatic embodiment) but where there is no acknowledgement of the profound ancestral lineage. Mark’s response was swift, basically writing that there was too much going on that he just couldn’t deal with any more at that moment.
Tada’s letter to the embodiment community requested that everyone please pay attention. Posting his letter on the EC facebook page, I too was informed that it was removed. As complaints began to come in, the ridicule and shaming of Mark Walsh began. I first stepped back to take stock. The nature of Facebook is a mob mentality, often eliciting dissonant shout outs. But among the chaos, I did begin tracking … Sh*tposting and The Embodiment Conference that reviewed Walsh as a “case study” of how the wellness world can confuse acting out for freedom, somatic dominance for discipline, and allow charismatic men to weaponize unhealed wounds in the name of authenticity.
Tracking also led me to Susan Raffo’s incredible blog: Aligning the relational field: a love story about retelling the creation of craniosacral therapy (and a lot of other touch-based bodywork as well) which was not written as a review of the conference but directly addresses one of the major grievances. Raffo writes directly to the dissonance of white men taking indigenous cultural wisdom and packaging it as their own. As colonialism has demonized our animal body leaving us wandering dissociated it is easy to understand the lucrative incentive for selling “embodiment.” Embodiment however, denotes body as a container to be filled rather than an elemental being of belonging…a re-membering.
I not only hold myself accountable but also wish to express my appreciation to everyone who brought forth their knowledge as genuine educators to the conference. One such presenter Nkem Ndefo’s life work makes embodiment practices relevant. In an attempt at making embodiment accessible to all humans, Ndefo chooses to go where bodies need to be: at workplace, school, street, and the shelter to teach remembering. Doing so Nkem helps bodies of culture find their strength in situations that are often untenable. She clearly delineates the vital difference between so-called diversity, often a part of the colonized corporate conversation, and creating space where all bodies feel safe. heard, and collaborative.
Listening to indigenous voices, including Dr. Anita Sanchez, author of the Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times, offers sustenance. Reading indigenous writers such as poet Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave and biologist/environmentalist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, restores essential gestures that nourish a sense of elemental balance. I believe it will be those who already instinctively know and remember in their bones who will reweave those of us in isolation back into reparative wholeness. Resmaa’s words, however, remind me that white bodies must also come together with other white bodies to dismantle our inner supremacy. Feeling uncomfortable, white bodies do not easily stay with each other tracking whiteness…yet doing so helps to decolonize our hearts and replenish the muscle of our soul.
“What the “overstory” of colonialism tried to suppress is surging.
It is the prophesied time of the Seventh Fire,
a sacred time when the collective remembering transforms the world.
A dark time and a time filled with light.
We remember the oft-used words of resistance,
“They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer ~