Guest Reflection: Andrea Wright
Andrea is a multi-disciplinary therapist and founder of Integra Health. She uses evidence-based approaches within a core team of person-centred physiotherapists with clients. Integra Health offers a wide range of integrative services to enhance health and well-being. They include; physiotherapy, sports-related rehabilitation, pain management, manual therapy, yoga, and somatics.
It’s a usually warm March weekend in England, I’m attending a small three-day workshop for practitioners familiar with embodiment, and bodymind practices under the general umbrella term somatics. We the attendee’s number five in total with two facilitators, all white women (WW). I am the only person identified and racialised as black. This is a familiar observation in such workshops here in the UK which I choose to mark somewhere in my consciousness. I named on the first day my identity as a black-identified woman, as a means to bring the whole of me into the room and the politics of that revelation into the space. This often isn’t named and ‘it’- race remains in the shadows. And it is also true that sometimes it doesn’t feel necessary to name my blackness explicitly, it isn’t a rule, but rather a ‘feeling sense’ that is made in the moment. And this time intuitively it felt important. How does it land- in space? In the white bodies that hear me; that see me?
It is the second day and we’re invited to share specifically our intentions and desires for engaging in the learning. We are invited to take turns, to each speak our intentions for how we wish to curate the next section of the work. As my turn arrives and I begin speaking, a woman begins to cough repeatedly in which I pause to let the interruption pass. It stops. I start speaking and the woman begins coughing again with increasing signs of intensity where at one point she was gagging. This occurred after three attempts to finish what I’d started. I stopped to ask her directly if everything was OK as I noticed that every time I spoke, there was an interruption. She replies she has a sensitive constitution and is experiencing a strong visceral effect that she is unable to control. I point out that this didn’t occur with the two other speakers and that it is not lost on me that I am the only black person in the room. At this point, she proceeds to become emotional and she begins to cry. She states that she feels I am attacking her, and she doesn’t feel safe. Somewhat amused by this textbook response, I look around the room to verify if everyone else is witnessing what I am and ask if I appear threatening; the co-facilitator denies this. I point out her racist accusation and invite her to reflect on the discriminatory politics of her presumption of threat.
It didn’t surprise me that whiteness showed itself when her racist behaviour was challenged directly. She employed the old tactic of crying to reverse the dynamic of being seen as the victim rather than the person who instigated the harm. I am however curious about her response; a particularly visceral and demonstrative reaction that brought her close to vomiting. What was it about my speaking and/or vocal presence that activated such a strong response? A response of repulsion; embodied material that demanded elimination.
This example is one of many such reactions of resistance to my presence and/or the naming of race I’ve experienced in the field of somatic practices which are dominated by white practitioners. In my naivety, I had a fantasy of the discipline and hence its practitioners, that principles of ‘awareness’ and ‘becoming conscious’ are the key principles that underpin the array of practices within the field. These core ideas seem to disappear and escape deployment or ownership when a race-related situation is raised. It is disappointing when in such spaces within the discipline, the tenets of whiteness are maintained despite having frameworks and the skills to develop greater self-awareness and disrupt its prevalence.
Somatic practices bring together elements of the self (physical, emotional and cognitive/psychic) to conscious awareness to support integrative healing.
They utilise one’s capacity to notice embodied experiences through proprioception (the capacity to know your joint/s position spatially); interoception (sensing the interior of the body i.e. urge to urinate, sexual libido, feeling hungry or thirsty etc.) and kinesthetic awareness (awareness of the moving body). Each of these ‘sensing pathways’ enables you to gather information from the soma (body) about your physical reality which is further processed in the brain and related back to the body to respond/behave accordingly (Meehan & Carer, 2021). The constant flow of information relayed from the body to the brain and vice-versa is vital to maintaining life.
Parts of the affective, cognitive and physical aspects of being can become shut off for reasons of trauma, social conditioning, cultural norms and early childhood experiences. Central to somatic practice is ‘seeing’ both in metaphoric and literal ways to become aware and be in conscious relationship to emergent material in order to positively transform it. Examples of somatic practices are yoga, Body Mind Centering, Authentic Movement, Feldenkrais method, Continuum, Tai Chi or Qi Gong, to name a few. It is true and problematic that the roots of many somatic practices have their lineages in regions of the Global South, where the popularisation and appropriation of these disciplines largely by white people in the global north have done so without due acknowledgement and recognition of their historical and spiritual lineages (Eddy, 2002).
In the UK, somatic practices are largely held in ‘white spaces’- that is to say, the spaces are largely dominated by white-identified individuals, more often than not, mainly women.
This essay aims at storying my experience as a somatic practitioner engaged in the field of practice and how whiteness manifests itself in the ‘visceral othering’ of those it perceives do not belong. I deliberately employ the metaphors of digestion and metabolic processes as illustrative and literal ways we can understand how both material and psychic dynamics might interact as neurobiological responses in the body and how this can illustrate racialised and sociopolitical entanglements which I suggest the field of somatics fails to embrace in constructive and explicit ways.
I centre an auto-ethnographic method, situating my embodied experience as validation of and value for, the information my body affords me, which as a primary source of data, counters the dominant scientific method that devalues and dismisses emotion/feeling and the subjective as unreliable, most specifically from the black body.
I use the term ‘de-colon-isation’ in part with tongue in cheek but as a metaphor for the work this essay speaks to. Having recently undertaken an intense colon cleanse this year, it seemed evident to me whilst thinking about writing this piece, how waste material needs to exit the body for the brain to have access to all the rich information that previously was either blocked or suppressed and not available to the body’s system. It has been a long-held understanding of the connection between the gut, the brain and affective/emotional states. The gastrointestinal system has intimate connections with the brain’s limbic system (emotional center) the autonomic system and the prefrontal cortex (higher executive functioning) which acts bio-directionally, such that a person’s intestinal or stomach distress can be the cause, or the product of anxiety, stress or fear (Mayar, 2011).
The connection between the brain and gut has been known since the late 1900’s (Mayar, 2011). Contemporary theories of ‘bottom up’ cognitive processing such as Craig’s ‘homeostatic emotion’ suggest interoceptive interactions shape our behavioral and decision-making processes (by the connections to the executive functions of the brain (Craig, 2002). Antonio Damasio’s ‘somatic markers’ also contributes to re-address the historical ‘top-down’ scientific understanding of human neurobiological systems, by proposing multiple level processing of response stimuli to ‘markers’ that include bioregulatory systems as well as cognitive ones. Some of those processes are conscious (mind) and other unconscious (bodily). He states:
“The key idea in the hypothesis is that ‘marker’ signals influence the processes of response to stimuli at multiple levels of operation, some of which occur overtly (consciously, ‘in mind’) and some covertly (non-consciously, in a non-minded manner). The marker signals arise in bioregulatory processes including those which express themselves in emotions and feelings but are not necessarily confined to those alone. This is the reason why the markers are termed somatic: they relate to body-state structure and regulation even when they do not arise in the body proper but rather in the brain’s representation of the body.” (Damasio, 1996).
The WW response to my presence suggests an ‘interruption’ to either her ‘somatic marker’ in the brain or the image of the ‘homeostatic state’ of her body in that moment, which was likely initiated (we cannot know which came first for certain) by a gut reaction triggered by her fear or anxiety to my speaking. These signals would confirm cognitively and physiologically to her that her system deviated from a baseline homeostatic state. In bell hooks ‘black looks; race and representation’, specifically the chapter “eating the other- desire and resistance”, hooks outline’s how whiteness enacted by white liberals can be used as a device to lessen the gap with and change one’s proximity to ‘the black racialized other’. She attests white progressives seek to transgress the racial divide in their desire to ‘consume’ the black racialised other, often through sexual activity or other commodified instances in their attempts to somehow be transformed in the act and assuaged of their white guilt (hooks, 2014). However, this is a myth as these delusional logics still inscribe white supremacist ideas of otherness that continue to perpetuate and consume distorted stereotypes and representations of blackness. All of which are conducted on the oppressive terms set by the limitations of the white imagination. Desire is important here. Desire premised on the basis that the black ‘other’ is consumed and therefore ‘seen’ in representational forms only if they maintain the continuation of white power dynamics and distorted stereotypes of the other in the imagination of the white psyche.
The WW here metaphorically was unable to ‘consume’ me as I presented because the representation of my image/presence disrupted the homeostatic state of her system by the assertion of my agency, naming race and in essence making her own whiteness visible. She didn’t have the choice to relate to and/or take-in psychic representations of me on her own terms in view of her visibilised whiteness and my agential blackness. Her response provoked anxiety and a visceral reaction to the point of nearly vomiting (or vice-versa). The outcome was to want to expel the mismatch of my presence (I defined for myself), felt in her as a nauseating experience that didn’t match the distorted psychic representation of my being-hood. The incompatibility of these two competing realities determined the indigestible response.
These ‘unwelcome’ somatic responses are not unique to white people when cultural complexes are activated. Black or brown racialised individuals can be exposed to such reactions. In a different scenario, I have engaged in recent discussions with a group of somatic practitioners, three mature in age WW who are experienced psychotherapists. Our discussions revolved around hard conversations exploring my negative racialised experiences within the practice. Suffice to say, the range of receptivity and resistance in exploring whiteness and racism was perhaps as to be expected in an international organisation that has no teachers identifying from the Global Majority. At the end of one such ZOOM meeting; I experienced an unexpected and sudden nausea. There was no obvious reason to understand its emergence having not eaten anything around that time. In response, I remained still, resting my head in my hands hoping it might pass. I didn’t realise until I woke up that I drifted off for about ten minutes, with the nausea still present, but somewhat diminished. I immediately recognised my somatisation in that moment was likely to be a ‘somatic countertransference’ from the group.
The difficult material the WW were unable to process or ‘take in’ was projected onto me, the ‘othered’ black body; uncomfortable material which must be eliminated: that which is ‘not-self’. In group psychoanalytic terms I became the ‘location of disturbance’ where the troubling collective psychic material that unconsciously cannot be named or brought into consciousness is projected onto the person (often the person of difference) who the group unconsciously desire to be eliminated as the cause of the discomfort (Barnes et al 2017). It is possible that the onset fatigue was my own trauma response to this projection by way of dissociating from the unconscious perceived threat of the interaction. Stephen Porges polyvagal theory, posits a theory of trauma where a dorsal vagal response, the unmyelinated and oldest evolutionary part of the vagus nerve connected to the gastrointestinal region would shut down functioning of vital organs when faced with a determined life threat (Dana, 2018).
It is true as I’m sure many of you reading this would appreciate, that working through such racial dynamics in any interaction where you are the minority non-white person requires an enormous amount of labour on all levels, particularly landing heavily on the body whether it is ‘felt’ consciously or not. Working and practicing in the UK with predominantly white people, the irony in denying racialised responses that are somatised within the rational field amongst practitioners is striking and can constitute ‘indigestible’ dysregulated responses/behaviors such as denial, isolation, nausea, emotional outpouring, separation, dissociation, anxiety and stress.
We are faced then with a ‘hard problem’ of disrupting the persistence of whiteness where black and brown bodies are not the somatic ‘norm’. As Puwar asserts, “white people are differentiated and defined by what they are not i.e., sub-persons” (Puwar, 2001, p655).
If whiteness is defined by what it is not, where foundational to its own existence ‘otherness’ or ‘not self’ serves to make it exist, how can this ‘hard problem’ of whiteness be deconstructed within these binary formulations?
I watched a panel response online of notable black feminist thinkers in conversation with Avtar Brah’s launch of her new book ‘Decolonial Imaginings: Intersectional Conversations and Contestations’. She discusses how solidarity might be built in the fight against oppression, requiring us to forge connections across differences. Gail Lewis, psychoanalyst and writer offered an important reflection on alterity. Lewis describes ‘alterity’ as ‘not-me’, slightly different from ‘the other’ which denotes a separateness, whereas ‘not-me’ is always-in-relation-to-and-with-me and I am always-in-relation-to-and-with ‘not-me’. There is a reciprocal entanglement, which provokes an “ethical understanding” for the politics of building alliances across differences. That is to say, I cannot know ‘me’ unless I know ‘not-me’.
Returning to the first example of the WW response, we might begin to see how an a-priori understanding of a black racialised body might be ‘not-me’ and me simultaneously. This displaces the ‘desire’ hooks speaks of from the need to consume the ‘other’. Alterity also offers a state of humility in grasping the knowledge that ‘I’ cannot come to know the self, unless I approach with interest and inquiry into the ‘not-me’. A position that emerges from curiosity with desire to know ‘not-me’ and not one that mis-uses desire to gain power-over or domination. Audre Lorde also advocates for solidarity across difference, where she goes further to encourage naming the distortions in categorising difference rather than the differences in and of themselves. This requires a critique and re-examination of our social conditioning and logics of stratification around race, class, gender and sex. She states, “For as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt.” (Lorde, 2017. p99). Escaping white guilt and its corollary shame might be mitigated if these distortions of ‘other’ are re-signified to be embodied as ‘not-me’. This seismic shift requires ongoing reflexive practice, care and humility individually and collectively, where racialised healing can take place through co-regulation held within the ethics of accountability.
Somatics offers the possibility to help recognise, name and regulate those responses that emerge from our whole selves in race-related encounters. The impacts of whiteness which perpetuate racial violence on black and brown bodies, could be countered by shifting the perception and thus cognitive representation of ‘the other’ to ‘not-me’. Such a shift could provide valuable information for white society to address whiteness and thus build an a-priori acceptance of those racialised differently fostering more ‘digestible relations’ in the work towards our present and future collective liberation.
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