‘We, as humans, are simultaneously social beings and biological organisms, the notion of ‘‘embodiment’’ advances three critical claims: (1) bodies tell stories about—and cannot be studied divorced from—the conditions of our existence; (2) bodies tell stories that often—but not always—match people’s stated accounts; and (3) bodies tell stories that people cannot or will not tell, either because they are unable, forbidden, or choose not to tell. Just as the proverbial ‘‘dead man’s bones’’’ (Kruger, 2005, p.350)
Brexit as a White man
When I think of Brexit, I think of a White man.
The day after the referendum, I woke up not quite knowing what to think or do. Vaguely worried about the future but in truth, still in a state of disbelief. Perhaps even of daze. But I had ran out of milk. So, I headed to my local Tesco, perhaps too this was an attempt at burying myself in the mundanity of everyday life, amidst the xenophobic and racist triumph that was Brexit. Once there, I got the milk and waited at the self-checkout. Someone was checking their items out. I positioned myself right behind them and, a small queue rapidly formed behind me.
Once my turn came, I took one step or two towards the machine. A White man jumped in front of me. He placed his items on the holding area and proceeded to check out. Uncharacteristically, I said nothing and I watched him in silence. I felt something violent had been done to me. The sense of stupefaction and ‘out-of-placeness’ amplified. I turned and looked around for a friendly face to connect with. Everyone in the store was White, averting my gaze and eye contact. Without a word or glance at me, the White man left. I had been disappeared. Twice. First by the White shopper, then by the White crowd.
What better representation of Brexit than this White man?
Both as a messenger of the future but also as the personification of a dormant beast awaken. This was the first time in well over 15 years in the U.K. that, I had ever experienced anything like it. I immediately linked this incident to the referendum and became even more anxious about what was to come. Of course, though I did not know it at the time, hate crimes took a hike immediately post-referendum. And, I would find myself increasingly invisibilised in queues.
Bodies, space and racism
I have always been fascinated by how bodies occupy space. How we move, how much or how little space we take. The distance and/or proximity between bodies, the relationship between our bodies and particular locations, the merging of bodily movements with socio-political and historical movements. There are various ways to assert and communicate dominance and superiority. And, the ways bodies move through space often become reflective of political discourses, social struggles and psycho-historical configurations. They are good indicators of power relations. Indeed, our embodied stories are meaningless if divorced from the ‘conditions of our existence’.
Body, space and subjectivities are intrinsically connected. It is through space that bodies express themselves, that therefore they come to be. Without space there is no subjectivity and, communication cannot exist either. This interconnection means of course each ‘entity’ has much to offer us in terms of understanding the others. Racism will thus become manifest and experienced through bodies and through space; both of which will tell us something of our subjective/psychological and, socio-political worlds.
I have observed various forms of racial bodily struggles. I have no doubt that anyone who pays attention has. Public transports are rich sites for such enactments. When a Black body and a White body bump into one another, the White body will usually stand firm on the spot; expecting to be navigated around. I have observed that when White bodies exit a train carriage and face a crowd of passengers who anxious to board, obstruct the exit door, so often they will move to push the Black or Brown bodies out of the way, if they are amongst those waiting to board.
Once, in a busy central London bus, full of White bodies with no seat available, an older White woman got on and went straight to a Black woman to ask for her to get up. The Black body she displaced was disabled. This only became apparent when she got up and struggled to stand with a walking stick. A Black woman was asked to make space for a White woman amidst the sea of White bodies. The entitlement to space also reflects the entitlement to Black bodies, particularly to Black women’s bodies. As can be observed through overfamiliarity or through physical touch without consent.
I doubt very many people of colour will be unfamiliar with the body dynamics described above and/or, would not have observed or experienced them. If you are White though, and doubt that racism manifests insidiously through bodily gestures and movements, I suggest you start paying closer attention to your body. The data is here for all those who care to pay attention. From the spreading of legs, to subtly elbowing us out of proximity, to the disregarding of physical boundaries and the invisibilisation of our bodies. It is all there for those prepared to observe. Having little or no awareness of how whiteness operates in space, of how White bodies may infringe on the space, bodies or boundaries of others (something I have previously referred to as micro-colonialism), is most likely indicative of this body-mind split.
Splitting and racial violence
No understanding of racism can ever be complete without an examination of racism’s bodily, affective, pre and para-verbal manifestations. Here, the Eurocentric split between mind and body and its associated epistemic disowning of the body, is a massive stumbling block. Despite phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and feminist epistemologists who have challenged the notion that bodily conduct and psychological conduct are separable; the mind–body dualism, or mind–body split which proposes that psychological phenomena are, non-physical, or that the mind and body are distinct, remains strong; reducing our apprehension of the embodiment of racism and indeed the embodiment of all socio-historical forces.
This splitting goes much further though than mind and body. It is also present in the separation of bodies from social structures, and the extraction of the past from the present. Splitting as a result does more than just sustain white ignorance. It is a vehicle for whiteness thus white violence. Once you learn to split as your primary defense when navigating the world, it becomes almost automatic not only to disconnect from your own body, your embodied experiences but also from that of others, including the pain and violence you inflict upon them. The centrality of splitting in the reproduction of racial violence cannot be overstated. Whiteness survived all historical atrocities it produced by splitting.
It is splitting that allowed White people to hang Black bodies on trees and take selfies or have picnics on lynching sites. It is splitting that enabled slave masters to cherish Black children ‘as their own’, then inflict the most horrific sexual violence and torture upon them for the most minor of ‘infractions’, seconds later. It is splitting again that meant colonialists could hold onto the bible in one hand and, a riffle in the other; say a prayer then go on mass murder sprees. And it is splitting that makes it difficult for White bodies to be aware of themselves in space.
But our bodies tell stories that we cannot or will not tell.
Understanding our body goes a long way in helping us understand the world and the contents of our thoughts. Even those thoughts we dare not think ‘aloud’ or say to ourselves. Similarly, bodily and affective experience help us understand the racism that is not only enacted through the occupation of space but also at discursive and symbolic levels, arguably evidencing the existence of an embodied racial (sub) consciousness or bodily memory which is inseparable from our social and historical consciousness. I guess there is a case to argue then that helping White people connect and reclaim their body may be an important step in reducing splitting and thus racial violence. Particularly more insidious and subtle bodily manifestations of racism.
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