Pathways Toward Wholeness: Calling in White Folks

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By Aryeh Shell

(From the perspective of a white cis woman, third generation descendent from Eastern Europe)

White supremacy carries trauma and disconnection within its core.  Trauma is caused by the deliberate exploitation and theft of the bodies, lands and labor of people of color.  It is activated through the genocide of Indigenous peoples, slavery and extractive capitalism. Dehumanization is essential to this enterprise and cuts off the humanity of white folks in order to deny, justify, perpetuate and be complicit with the violence. The official narrative of post-settler colonialism in the United States deliberately omits the  foundations of white supremacy, the truth of the past and stories of resistance. History is retold through the voice of the conquerors who whitewash their hands of blood.

White privilege creates a layer of protection, an insulated bubble, a nice clean shiny trance of normalcy in which the experience of whiteness can be universalized.

For white folks, this narrative of silence has wedged itself within the physiology of bones, tissue and nervous system.  White privilege creates a layer of protection, an insulated bubble, a nice clean shiny trance of normalcy in which the experience of whiteness can be universalized.  White society doesn’t have to see or feel the horror of black bodies swaying in the poplar tree or shootings by police every 28 hours. White families can go on and eat their picnics, smiling and laughing, as if nothing smells of death.  Even well-intentioned white folks who do not actively deny the existence of white supremacy or colonization can get caught in the trance of universalizing whiteness, which makes invisible the experience of people of color and causes harm. While harm may not be the intent, the impact is still felt.

Centuries of embedded and institutionalized denial has created a thin skin for white folks to look directly at the realities of racism.  The insulation of privilege limits the capacity of the nervous system to engage effectively under “race-based stress.” As humans, we have evolved to be vigilant and responsive to potential danger in the environment. If we perceive an external threat, our nervous system is wired to survive by fighting for our lives, getting the hell out of there, or if those options are unavailable, freezing and disconnecting. Nature developed a merciful strategy to disassociate from the body if one is getting their flesh ripped apart as prey.  Disassociation becomes maladaptive when we need to stay present to our world, know the truth of what is happening and change our destructive ways.

White fragility — a term coined by Robin DiAngelo — refers to one way that white folks freeze or get nervous when racism comes up.

White fragility — a term coined by Robin DiAngelo — refers to one way that white folks freeze or get nervous when racism comes up.  We perceive threat to the constructed narrative of who we are, to our social existence and sense of belonging, to the protective layer of privilege that has kept us “safe.” While our literal survival might not be at stake, our collective white ego survival is, and our nervous system still locks into the evolved strategies of fight, flight, and freeze. If we don’t cultivate resilience, we can fight back with anger and defensiveness, shut down, walk away or get paralyzed by the grip of shame and guilt.

Thanks to an unknown photographer.

The Work that Reconnects calls us out of the freeze and back into our deep ecology and radical interconnectedness with all life. To live up to its promise of reconnecting us with each other and the Earth, the Work that Reconnects must center the voices of people of color and the systemic and historical realities of white supremacy, capitalism and colonization. We must recognize that the Great Unraveling and Business as Usual have been going on for a very long time. We need to grapple with the fragmentations, erasures and violence of white silence and build pathways to overcome the anesthesia of white fragility.

To reweave the web, we must call white folks into loving accountability and radical responsibility for the ways we are complicit and perpetuate the suffering. In social movements, there has been a history of “calling people out” for ways they enact oppression. This can often create a sense of being exiled, shamed or blamed and activate the nervous system’s strategies to deal with threat.  It’s hard to learn — and unlearn — ways of being when we are in a panic zone of reactivity.  

“Calling in” is a practice that holds someone accountable for their actions and impact with compassion and invites them back into integrity, community and wholeness. “Calling in” acknowledges that mistakes will be made and that people are more apt to respond appropriately and stretch beyond habitual or unconscious behaviors when they feel valued and loved. While there are aspects of healing and reparation that are done within integrated groups, much of the learning and unlearning of racism needs to be engaged within white spaces so as not to burden or retraumatize people of color with white fragility, ignorance, defensiveness or shame.

“Decolonizing” the Work that Reconnects is in part a “calling in” of white folks to develop the capacity to stay present in our bodies and dismantle the tangled web of white supremacy wherever it shows up.  This happens in a variety of ways: understanding racism as a systemic issue, a sickness that impacts everyone in different ways within the living system of earth; studying and centering the historical context of colonialism and white supremacy, along with the social resistance movements and grassroots leadership of communities of color; and taking action as allies and co-conspirators to make reparations and re-membering the ancestral legacies, cultural traditions and indigenous wisdom that have been assimilated and erased.    

We need to reconnect to the living intelligence of the breathing body which knows what is needed to heal and be whole.

These are all paramount and necessary but not sufficient.  Another manifestation of white supremacy culture is the separation of mind from body.  We need to reconnect to the living intelligence of the breathing body which knows what is needed to heal and be whole. A state of wholeness includes and integrates the places that are broken, fragmented and unconscious within us. This wisdom is also wired within our physiology and can be accessed through somatic practice, awareness and deep listening.

Developing resiliency within the nervous system is key for white people to break through the fragility that holds us captive to the lie. A healthy nervous system is able to register the environment through the senses and stay present to what is.  A resilient nervous system oscillates naturally between states of activation and deactivation and can integrate experiences of high stimulation or stress. There are a variety of somatic practices that can support our ability to stay present to the pain caused by white supremacy and be accountable to the ways we, as white people, cause harm.  The Work that Reconnects is one source of embodied practices that can be used in service to addressing white fragility and building resilience.

In February 2017, a Decolonizing the Work that Reconnects workshop took place in Oakland with white facilitators of the Work to delve into ways we can personally and collectively engage in dismantling white supremacy and colonialism.  The objectives were to build the awareness, skills and capacity of white facilitators to center these issues, cultivate a culture of “calling each other in” and critically reflect on the Work itself.   

We grounded in gratitude for the stewardship  and resistance of the Ohlone people, for our own ancestors and the work of anti-racist white folk who have inspired us along the way. We centered on the historical and current realities of colonization, white supremacy and environmental movement within the United States to situate deep ecology and the Work that Reconnects in this larger context. We examined, challenged and reimagined some of the frameworks and exercises in the Work that Reconnects through the lens of decolonization and radical responsibility to ensure deeper inclusion and analysis. We explored four common states of white fragility — denial, fear, shame/guilt and internalized superiority — to understand how they diminish our capacity to engage in the world and how we can find our way back to center so we can take effective action.

One somatic practice we worked with — informed by Theatre of the Oppressed and Somatic Experiencing —  invites an exploration of these states through movement and then embodying a physical image that represents the expression of denial, fear, shame or the internalized sense of superiority. Once inside that shape or image, the practice is to recognize and allow the experience, staying awake to the felt sense of how these different states of white fragility show up in the body. What sensations do these states awaken and where do we notice them? What postures or physical stances do we take? What happens to the breath?  The heart? The mind? How does the body shut down, fight back, or attempt to flee? What are the physical impulses and thoughts that emerge?

We then invite the body to move slowly toward a state of resource or wholeness, tracing the pathway along the way.  Do you lift the eyes to see?  Touch the earth? Reach out for support? Unclench the jaw? Hold your heart? How do you center, ground and reconnect? The wisdom of the body guides each step once we learn once again to listen.  From the physical shape of wholeness, we shift back to the original shape of white fragility — embodying denial, fear, shame/guilt or superiority once again — for the grooves of white supremacy run deep. We move back and forth between these states of white fragility and resource, deepening the pathways toward wholeness and building a map of resilience, following the subtle whispers of the body to come home.

We will fall back again and again into the trance of white supremacy because it is embedded in the culture, the institutions and the law of this land.

We will fall back again and again into the trance of white supremacy because it is embedded in the culture, the institutions and the law of this land.  There is not a one-shot weekend workshop to freedom. It is a lived and daily practice to rewire the neural pathways, stay present, develop authentic relationships of love and accountability with people of color, attune to the myriad manifestations of white supremacy, and engage our bodies to resist, heal, and transform. The practice of finding physical ways to explore the places we get stuck and let the body move us toward states of wholeness can be a powerful resource for building resilience over the long haul.

Waking up has become a biological necessity to our collective survival on this planet. Because white fragility keeps the whole game of colonization and white supremacy in place, white folks need to cultivate somatic strategies and embodied practices of all kinds that reconnect us to our humanity and ability to stay awake. The Work that Reconnects can provide many resources for our healing and liberation, but it must center the realities of white supremacy and colonization so as not to perpetuate the harm of erasure or universalizing whiteness. It is our work to reconnect the dots and cultivate the courage, capacity and compassion to call each other into the true nature of our wholeness — and to truth itself.

Aryeh Shell is an educator, coach, and cultural activist who has studied with Joanna Macy and facilitated the Work that Reconnects since 2001 with communities throughout the US, Latin America and Africa. She is the Education and Training Director with Creative Action Institute and has led anti-racism, arts activism and creative leadership trainings and projects for the last two decades in schools, communities and social change organizations around the world. She has MAs in Education: Equity and Social Justice and International Relations: Peace, Conflict and Security, and brings deep knowledge of somatic practices, theater, trauma resiliency, mindfulness and an integral approach to human development and transformation.

One thought on “Pathways Toward Wholeness: Calling in White Folks

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