Marianne Hunkin

Building an Embodied Anti-Racist Practice

12 min read

Intense physical pain has a way of demanding your presence. It can take your breath away and dim everything else around you. All that is left are the physical sensations: cramping, stabbing, aching, nausea, ripping, and pulling.

It is through chronic pain that I remembered what it meant to be in my body. I couldn’t be anywhere else.

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Over time, I noticed that certain things could shift these sensations. If my jaw was clenched and I was bearing down, the pain would intensify. If I could move slowly and rest, the pain was more manageable. When I took time to breathe, I could make more space for my experience. It dulled the pain to be with this breath, now this one, and this one. When I accepted what was happening, despite the discomfort, I was able to listen and learn from the wisdom of my body.

We need similar behaviors in our anti-racism work. Working toward liberation can bring up painful truths and open wounds. It can reveal things about ourselves we do not want to face. Our work for justice must also engage our bodies. Practicing embodiment is about noticing the feelings and sensations we experience in our bodies.

Consider this: what does anger feel like in your body? Perhaps you experience a clenched jaw and fists, racing heart, narrowed eyes, shallow breathing, or sweating. That is the embodied experience of anger. Embodiment is to be aware of our bodily experience.

As such, we’ve got to get honest about how we have internalized and embody dominant culture. How are we embodying white body supremacy? How are we embodying settler colonialism? How are we embodying fatphobia, transphobia, ableism? And most important: how can we use embodiment practices to disrupt dominant culture within ourselves and within our communities?

To answer these questions, we must grapple with our identities- those that are privileged and subjugated. Part of my journey toward embodiment is the recognition that my white body shields me from the immediate threat of violence experienced by Black, Indigenous, Asian American Pacific Islander, Latinx and all Bodies of the Global Majority. I am also safeguarded by my thinness, my status as a straight-passing queer person, and as someone with a disability that is not visible.  We’re all affected by white body supremacy regardless of our identities but experience the impact differently. The further our bodies are from the standard body (white, thin, able, cisgender, straight), as dictated by white body supremacy, the heavier the weight to bear.

Additionally, it’s important to say that there are really good reasons to not want to be in our bodies. Some bodies need culture and systems change in order to experience safety. It is unjust to ask individuals to be resilient and not address the oppressive and violent systems that traumatize people. It is also true that we can make choices for ourselves and our communities that move us toward healing. That’s no small thing. As adrienne maree brown teaches us: “what we practice at a small scale can reverberate out to the largest scale.

Photograph taken by the author, Marianne, in New York City. Artist unknown.
Photograph taken by the author, Marianne, in New York City. Artist unknown.

Why Does Anti-Racism Work Need to Be Embodied?

Fighting for justice is an activated state that also requires us to settle ourselves

We need to be activated at times! If there is an emergency, if we are putting pressure on the city council, if we are protesting, if we’re in danger. Dismantling systems of oppression and fighting for justice activates us.

“Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy.” Quote from the Nap Ministry
“Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy.” Quote from the Nap Ministry

It is equally important that we know how to come down and regulate our nervous system after these moments. Our bodies need rest. Rest is not about retreat. It’s not some bougie trip to the spa. It’s about giving our bodies time to digest what has happened and move through it.

If we don’t move through emotions, they can get stuck in our bodies and lead to states of shut down or burn out. A prolonged state of stress is also bad for our health. Learning how to rest and regulate our nervous system contributes to our individual and collective wellbeing.

Systems of oppression require us to be disembodied

White supremacy does not empower any of us. It functions to divide us. It is by design that what happens in our bodies mirrors systems of oppression. For these systems to function, we need to be divided not only from ourselves and each other, but also the earth. Being disconnected from our integral connection to the land and earth has allowed for settler colonialism to thrive and for climate change to continue to unfold. Embodiment is an act of resistance to those systems and individuals who try to disembody us from our birthright to thrive.

This $h#!t lives in our bodies

We carry intergenerational and historical trauma in our bodies. Both new and old stories live in our bodies. We carry our own individual stories and the inheritance of historical and generational stories. Our bodies remember what our minds cannot. Feelings of being frozen, immobilized, stuck, can be indicative of both our own survival under oppressive systems and the survival of our ancestors. Fight, flight, and freeze responses that our ancestors experienced still live in our bodies. Some of what happens in our bodies is informed by how our ancestors could and could not move.

Some of the young people who inspire and sustain Marianne in liberation work
Some of the young people who inspire and sustain Marianne in liberation work

We also don’t hold this alone. We hold this history collectively. We experience collective trauma. This shows up in our bodies in feelings of numbness and being cut off. We might not be able to recognize the resilience of our community. We may withdraw from our relationships to each other and the earth. We can get in a loop of feeling hopeless, powerless, and resigned. It is difficult to see our resilience from this place. We become exhausted and burnt out.

If it is true that we inherited generational and historical trauma, it is true that we can unintentionally pass it on to future generations.

We don’t want to pass white supremacy or any legacy of domination to our children. This is why it is not enough for us to just be anti-racist in our heads. All of our bodies hold the trauma of white supremacy. Our bodies remember.

To break free, we must work with our bodies and embody liberation.

It’s how our brains and bodies are wired

We imagine that we can think our way out of everything. In reality, that’s not how our minds or our bodies work! It’s true, thoughts are one of our brain’s many functions. The youngest part of our brain, the cortex, manages our thoughts. What many of us don’t realize is that we experience sensations and emotions before thought. Before our brain can create a thought, information gets passed through older parts of the brain, including the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain controls our fight, flight, freeze response. Its primary function is to keep us safe. Sensory input about what is safe and what is dangerous passes through the reptilian brain before it reaches our cortex and becomes thoughts. When the reptilian brain perceives danger, it overrides the cortex and moves into survival mode. We feel things in our bodies before our minds can make sense of what is happening.

Disembodiment allows violence

When we are disembodied, we are disconnected from ourselves, each other, and the earth. To maintain the status quo, to uphold systems of oppression, we lean into disassociation and numbness. These are trauma responses that allow us to survive but in the long term, without healing, they perpetuate violence. If we are able to see harm and violence happen to other people and to the earth and not feel it, we let it continue. Systems of oppression thrive on this!

How can we be more embodied?

I remember learning the importance of embodiment and thinking, “great… now what do I do?” How do we integrate our liberation work in our bodies? We can feel the possibility of liberation in our bodies. Every moment we have a choice to be in our bodies, to find freedom in our bodies, to find joy and pleasure in our bodies. Below are some ideas to get us going.

1. Identify what you’re already practicing.

We are already engaging in practices every day. Do you have a cup of coffee in the quiet of the house before anyone else is awake? Do you grab your phone first thing every morning? Do you write in a journal everyday? Do you collapse on the couch at the end of the day and watch your favorite show? Do you go for a walk or run everyday? All of these are practices.

Take some time to reflect on your daily routines and ask yourself:
  • What am I practicing? Is that what I want to be practicing? Is this what I am committed to?
  • Do my practices help me return to myself? Do they help me connect with my body?  

2. Find what works for you!

No one body is the same! There isn’t one model that works for everyone. Bodies are complex and their experiences vast. Try lots of things and remember, no one can tell you what to do with your body. If a particular practice is not working for you, try something else!

3. Connect with an anti-racist embodiment buddy!

We love buddies at Embracing Equity! Find people who can help you build an anti-racist embodiment practice. Make time to talk about what you notice in your body and share your learning. How does your body respond to disrupting oppression in the moment? How did you feel when you were talking with your coworker about racism at your workplace? Have you figured out what regulates your nervous system?

Gardening is Marianne’s favorite way to move her body
Gardening is Marianne’s favorite way to move her body
4. Move your body.

There is also an assumption that embodiment means internal work. It brings up images of meditation cushions and sitting still. It doesn’t have to be that way! Dance, garden, sway, rock, wiggle, lie on the ground, go for a walk, sing, hum, hug yourself… do what makes you feel present in your body!

5. Find stillness.

Pausing and being still can give us information about places where we need healing. You can stand, lay down, or sit. You can keep your eyes open and notice the world around you. Notice what you hear, see, smell, and feel.

Here’s a caveat: interior work can be overwhelming. If for any reason, being still sends you into panic, let it go for now. If you’re interested in trying meditation, check out the resources below:

  • No big deal sit Regular community meditation practice via zoom w/ Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams + Team.
  • Liberate An app that cultivates a safe space for the Black community to develop a daily meditation habit.
  • Insight Timer Free meditation app for sleep, anxiety, and stress.

6. Breathe.

We breathe all day, but when was the last time you noticed your breath? When we experience stress, our breath can become shallow and we do not get enough oxygen in our bloodstream. This can send the body into a fight, flight, or freeze response.

Breathing doesn’t have to be elaborate. We can find small moments to pause and notice our breath. If it feels okay in your body, you can experiment with deepening and lengthening inhales and exhales. This can calm our bodies and minds.  

Another caveat: Some of us may have difficulty breathing. So bag this one if it causes you any stress. You can always come back.

7. Remember joy and pleasure.

Our bodies have all kinds of amazing capacities: sight, touch, smell, taste, sound. Explore what makes you feel whole, what makes you feel free and expansive, what brings you pleasure. Make time for those practices. Honor what is, without shame.

To learn more check out these beautiful books:

8. Learn more about embodiment, why it’s important, and how to practice.

Many brilliant people have written about this work. To learn more, check out their work:

9. White people, make time for discomfort.

We need to get real about how we embody white supremacy. Our embodiment of white supremacy without interrogation kills People of the Global Majority. It’s what was activated in Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin.

White people, hear this: WE are not exempt. WE embody white supremacy. We were born into this. It is past time that we get honest about our participation in oppressive systems. It is essential that we do this work in our bodies. We need to know ourselves deeply and intimately to do the work of liberation. That means looking at the ugly parts of ourselves.  

White bodies are oriented toward seeking comfort. As long as we’re comfortable, we’re not disrupting. We need to learn the difference between discomfort and danger. They are not the same. We will not die from feeling discomfort. It’s not helpful to regulate every time you experience discomfort, especially when it comes to anti-racism work. There is a gift in getting thrown off center. When we get activated and immediately seek regulation and soothing, we miss an opportunity to learn and process. Instead we must lean into the feeling, get curious about it, and unpack it with other white people. This is where culture shift can happen.

Here are some questions to consider:

Before you are activated

  • When you are activated, who do you become? How do you behave?
  • What patterns of soothing and regulation do you notice? How do you move away from discomfort? What are your escape routes?
  • What can you do to build stamina for leaning into discomfort?
  • Who are the people you can process with?

When you’re activated

  • What is your experience? What sensations, emotions, thoughts, do you notice?
  • Who can I connect with to process this?
Watching a sunrise or sunset can be a way to find stillness.
Watching a sunrise or sunset can be a way to find stillness.

Take a Moment to Pause and Settle

It is common for people engaged in justice work to burn out. It is common for white people beginning to wake up to bury their head back in the sand when they realize the work of liberation requires a sustained effort. It is worth our while to make sure we are engaging in practices that keep us on the path toward liberation.

Embodiment is a humanizing practice. It allows us to see how we show up. It calls us to the parts of ourselves and our collective that need healing. We remember that we can embody liberation right now.

Before moving into the rest of your day, I invite you to pause. Take a moment to settle. What is your breath like? What do you notice in your body? Where do you notice constriction and tension? Where do you notice freedom and expansion? Do you notice numbness? Just notice what is true for you. Release any judgment that arises. Whatever comes up is information.

Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams reminds us of the magic of attribution and the importance of naming where wisdom comes from. Many people have influenced the thinking in this piece over years of listening to podcasts and talks, reading books and articles, and attending trainings and courses. I am grateful to be listening to and learning from Resmaa Menakem, Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, Bonnie Duran, Dr. Angel Acosta, Prentis Hemphill, adrienne maree brown, Sonya Renee Taylor, Nkem Ndefo, Hala Khouri, Carlin Quinn, Leticia Nieto, Elizabeth Hancock and David Dean of White Awake, Karuna O’Donnell and the other students in the 2018 200 hour yoga teacher training @ 4 Corners Yoga Studio, and the Embracing Equity facilitators and other learners in the WAID and IRD cohorts… to name a few.

About the Author

Marianne Hunkin (she/her) is an educator committed to collective liberation. She believes that her role as a white person is to be active in dismantling white-body supremacy, in which she is complicit and can always do better. And she needs a community grounded in compassionate accountability to do this! Marianne is grounded by the work of those who have come before her and is motivated by her commitment to younger and future generations. They're counting on us. We cannot wait.

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