4.4 - Developing our Emotional Capacity - Whiteness and the Body

4.4 – Developing our Emotional Capacity – Whiteness and the Body (1 hr 15 minutes)

— DESIGNED FOR GROUPS COMPOSED OF WHITE PARTICIPANTS —

— This section includes two exercises—

— You may elect to use only one if time does not allow for full implementation—

Materials needed: face mask (cut out in the shape of a face with eye holes cut so participants can see out when holding the mask up to their faces), markers or pens.

Purpose of piece: To reflect on our felt experience living in our white bodies. To acknowledge the variety of feelings we experience, develop appreciation for the skin we’re in, and to honor our ancestral lineage.

Room set up: If possible, arrange room with chairs in a circle. On a small table outside the circle (for the first half of this exercise), you might place items that have been utilized in the workshop series thus far, candles, flowers, stones, etc. Once the first half is completed, you might want to bring the table into the center of the room. You may also wish to include background music that has resonance to your community when moving to the second half, the contemplative practice segment. Other options might include instrumental music that is played softly in the background.

Say to group: In Living in the Tension, Shelly Tochluk shares some of the feelings she experienced living in her white skin during a time period when she was just becoming conscious of how deeply embedded racism is in our dominant U.S. culture. She writes:

“The depth of racism’s residency within white bodies is profound as well. This is something I know intimately. I recall feeling so disgusted by all that I learned about historic and contemporary racism and my unconscious complicity with it, that at one point I felt revulsion about my own skin and everything associated with it. This resulted in me pushing away from my white family, friends, and community for some time.” – Shelly Tochluk, (p. 113)

For those of us who are white, our response to understanding racism may leave us feeling a range of emotions, from mild discomfort, to revulsion, to embarrassment, to many others. We might want to push away what feels bad about being associated with whiteness. We might feel embarrassed in multi-racial spaces when we are associated with racist ideas and/or behavior. We might feel ashamed of our own family and friends when they do or say things we believe are racist.

As we think about how we relate to our bodies, we also need to consider that genuinely utilizing “both/and” as a skill set requires us to be psychologically grounded, appreciative, curious, and personal. These qualities require that we draw closer to our bodies and emotions if we want to truly be with another person. It may also require that we have the groundedness to draw closer to what might initially cause us discomfort or pain. This including ourselves, another person in the room, or our own families or ancestry.

In order to build the skillset that allows us to stay grounded, appreciative, curious, and personal, this activity includes two contemplative practices that invite us to be fully in our own skin or body. For some of us, this may feel awkward, uncomfortable, or provoke anxiety. For others, this may feel like a welcome opportunity to move out of our heads and into a more body-focused place. In any case, we hope this process allows us to open our imaginations and draw closer to our own body and ancestry.

And as we move through these exercises, if you notice yourself feeling anxious or uncomfortable, I invite you to focus on your breathing. (5 minutes)

EXERCISE A

Say to group: We’re going to start by focusing on our emotional connection to how it feels to be in our white bodies. What you’re being handed is a blank mask in the shape of a face. Please take about 5 minutes to write or draw the feelings you have when you think about being white, the color of your skin and the meanings you attach to it. Words, images, lines, anything you’d like to write or draw is invited. We will be allowing others in the room to see our masks a bit later. (8 minutes)

Say to group: At this time, I’d like to invite you to turn the mask over, and on the other side jot down short answers to the following questions. You won’t need to share these answers with anyone unless you want to, so feel free to be as honest as you can. (8 minutes)

In order, read each question aloud. Give 2 minutes per question for writing:

  1. What are you most afraid of about being in the skin you’re in?
  2. What hurts that isn’t healed about being in the skin you’re in?
  3. What do you really want and hope for about being in the skin you’re in?
  4. What is the gift hidden in being in the skin you’re in?”

Say to group: Now, I am going to invite you to stand up and place the mask in front of you. The drawing/image side should face outward. The answers you just wrote down should face inward. You’ll now wander around the circle, looking at each other’s masks. This is a silent activity. (5-8 minutes, depending on group size)

Pair share: Now that we’ve had a chance to see what others are carrying in terms of their feelings about whiteness and their bodies, we’ll move into a pair share. Feel free to talk about the following to the degree that you’re willing to share: (8 minutes)

  1. Why you wrote/drew what you did.
  2. What it was like to see other people’s masks. What stood out?
  3. Your answers to the four questions you wrote on the inside.

Large group discussion: (15 minutes)

  1. What are some themes that you noticed during this activity?
  2. What can we do to feel tenderness toward our bodies when in the midst of uncomfortable feelings?

EXERCISE B

Say to group: For the second part of this section, we’re going to do a contemplative practice meditation. (If you’ve created an altar space in the room, this would be a fine time to move that table into the center of the circle.)

Facilitator’s Note: Read this script in advance and find ways to say the following in your own voice. The only suggestion in shifting this script to your own language/voice is to continue to use language of invitation—“I invite you to…” “When it feels good to do so, ….” “As you are ready, you might…” or follow an instruction every so often with, “…if needed, just return to your breathing.”

Meditation Script: (10 minutes)

  • I invite you to get comfortable where you are—this might be staying in the chair, it might be seated on the floor, or laying down. Wherever your body wants to go.

[Once people have moved, continue…]

  • From wherever you are seated, begin by noticing your breathing. No right or wrong way to breathe, just breathe yourself.
  • As we breathe, we will begin noticing different parts of our bodies—just paying gentle attention to each part we name, and breathing with each noticing.

[The following in pace with breath, pausing between each…]

  • Noticing the tops of our head, and breathing….
    • … our forehead, cheeks, jaw, and breathing.
    • … neck, shoulders, arms, and breathing.
    • … chest and belly, and breathing.
    • … our spine, down our back, to our seat, breathing.
    • … our thighs, calves, and ankles, breathing.
    • … our feet, to the very tips of our toes, breathing.
  • From this place, we will notice our bodies again, while breathing…
  • … notice the top of your head, your mouth. In your life, what kindness in the form of words or ideas have come from your mind, your speech?
  • … notice your neck, shoulders, and arms. In your life, what care in the form of love shared or received has come from your arms outreached, or your willingness to shoulder heaviness with others?
  • … notice your chest and belly. In your life, what creativity and new life has come at a time when you tuned in to the passion of your heart, a sense of inspiration or creative ability to bring new life to the world—whether by a child, a project, an idea, or way of being?
  • … notice your spine, your back. In your life, what strength and resolve for justice or fairness has come at a time when the tingling of your back or spine told you a difficult or powerful truth?
  • … notice your thighs, calves, and ankles. In your life, what courage has come at a time when you were willing to be changed, to be moved to a new position or understanding?
  • … notice your feet. In your life, what new learning and deepened understanding has come when you carefully balanced multiple truths?
  • Notice the collective wisdom, power, and potential for care and transformation that is housed in your body.
  • Now, I invite you to notice the skin that holds all of it: your blood, your bones, and all of the incredible capacities for power, transformation, creativity, love, and justice that you have already directly experienced in your life. I invite you to feel your skin. (Pause and linger here.)
  • I invite you to notice the way that your skin holds you together. Notice the way that your skin protects you from harm. Notice the way that your skin feels when it touches someone you love, tingles at insight or truth. Notice the marks that are left on the skin from the story of your own embodied life: perhaps scars, piercings, freckles, tattoos. Breathe and notice your skin holding you together.
  • What does your skin want from you to continue the sacred/important task of holding you together at this time in your life and our history?
  • Breathe and notice if a word or phrase emerges when you ask your skin: “What do you need from me as we continue this journey together?”
  • I invite you to imagine all of the people who made it possible that you are alive today, specifically those who are your ancestors. These may be people you do not know, or these may be people you have never heard of, or these may be people you were told stories about. Feel behind you all of the people who made it possible that you are alive today—I invite you to feel in the skin of your back all of the people for whom you were just a dream.
  • I invite you to imagine all of the people around you now: the people in this room, the people beyond this room. I invite you to feel into the skin of your arms the people of this present moment for whom you are a co-creator of the world we now live in.
  • I invite you to imagine all of the people who are not yet born. Imagine, first, those who are closest to you—perhaps they are your own biological family, or the children of your chosen family. Imagine the great, great, grandchildren that you will not know—the children of your community and of communities in places you will never see. I invite you to imagine the ones whose skin looks like your skin. I invite you to feel into the skin of your chest and belly the aliveness of the future beings who are counting on you, counting on us, to co-create a just world that they may live in.
  • With people behind you, around you, and in front of you, feel your own skin. Notice the ways your skin has held you, protected you, made it possible for you to be alive. What does your skin ask of you in our racial justice work today? Allow a word or phrase to resonate with what is asked of you by your skin today.
  • As you prepare yourself to return to our room, you might give “thanks” to your skin for the wisdom it carries from the past, the present, and its longings for a more alive future.
  • I now invite you to notice your body
    • Your feet, your legs, your back, your arms, your neck, your face, the top of your head
    • You may want to gently move your arms or legs slowly, allowing the joints to bend, as you return focus to the room

Say to group: I invite you to turn to a person sitting next to you and share the word or phrase or image that came to you. (1 minute)

Large group discussion: (10 minutes)

  1. What was it like to experience this meditation?
  2. Were there any insights or surprises?
  3. What can help us hold onto the feelings of strength and resilience that our bodies provide?

Wrap up: As we close this exercise, I invite each of you to share a word or phrase out loud. It can be what you just shared with your partner, or any other word or phrase that captures how you’re feeling as we end this exercise. (5 minutes)

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