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Unlocking the Genius of Your Body

Why your logic isn't adequate when it comes to the violence of race.

Constantin Stanciu/Shutterstock
Source: Constantin Stanciu/Shutterstock

Somatic Abolitionism isn't a club that you can join. It's a living, embodied, ongoing effort that requires endurance and stamina. These can be built, day by day, through the repetition of antiracist practices.

The practices of Somatic Abolitionism are not strategies, tactics, tools, or weapons. They are bodily experiences. That's why, as you'll see, most of them involve moving, touching, holding, releasing, protecting, weeping, laughing, joy cultivation, eating, or singing.

The body practices in this blog all involve race, though this might not always be obvious at first. Race has a charge, a texture, a weight, a speed, and a direction to it. Through reps, you can develop a container that is able to hold all of these, so that when you experience discomfort around race, you are better able to stay with that discomfort instead of fleeing, freezing, fighting, or fawning. This is vital for everyone, but it is especially valuable—and especially necessary—for white bodies.

These practices are not things you do once and then forget about, like helping to push someone's car out of a snowbank. Their value is in repeating each practice time after time, until it can become part of your body's muscle memory.

When these practices are repeated collectively, with other bodies, their effects can ripple out into the world—and ultimately change it for the better.

This isn't a new-age notion. If you want to build muscle, you can exercise with weights, doing one rep after another. If you want to improve your cardio health, you can walk or run, repeating the activity day by day. If you want to play the saxophone, you can practice playing scales and songs. If you want to become an accomplished archer, you can practice shooting arrows over and over. In each case, through reps, good things can happen in your body—not just in your thoughts and emotions.

And they may not just happen to you. Your neighbor, who sees you walking briskly every morning, may get inspired and ask if he can join you. Your daughter, who watches you practice with your bow and arrows, may ask for archery lessons. With other folks from your neighborhood, you may form a jazz band. Over time, some of your personal reps can become communal reps.

There are two types of reps:

Life reps. These are the challenges—and opportunities for growth—that life unexpectedly presents to us. Life reps are usually unwanted, and they will almost always make us uncomfortable. That discomfort is a sign that you can pause, take a few breaths, check in with your body, and anchor yourself. Then you can lean into that discomfort rather than away from it—and act out of presence and discernment, rather than fear and avoidance.

Life reps often push us up against our developmental edge. They ask us to grow or transform. When your 80-pound dog breaks its leg and you carry it to the car for a ride to the vet, that's a life rep for building muscle. When you assist your neighbor with their own injured dog, even though that neighbor hasn't let their kids play with yours because of the color of their skin, that's a life rep around race.

Invited reps. These are the challenges—and opportunities for growth—that you deliberately bring into your daily life. When you do curls with a barbell weighing 80 pounds, these are invited reps that build muscle. When you go to work wearing a cap that says 1619 in large numbers—and when people ask you what it signifies, you tell them about The 1619 Project—that's an invited rep around race.

Invited reps help you get used to pushing beyond your limitations, and to leaning into challenges and discomfort, rather than reflexively recoiling from them. They can prepare you for times when, without warning, an opportunity for a life rep appears. They can help you develop a container to be able to hold the charge, the weight, the texture, the direction, and the speed of race.

In order to wholeheartedly practice Somatic Abolitionism, you need to practice both types of reps, because they reinforce each other. Some can further strengthen your existing strengths. Others can highlight your limitations and help you push beyond them. Sometimes, as in the body activity below, a life rep and an invited rep may work together to do both.

Please don't approach any body activity in this blog as a tool or strategy. Let go of any thought of adding a new tool to your toolbox. Instead, think of opening up a toybox and taking out a new toy—something to explore, investigate, and perhaps share with others. (My thanks to Dr. Leticia Nieto, who noted this important distinction.)

The body activity below can begin to temper and condition your body to respond directly to other bodies' energies—rather than to first scan, racialize, and react to them.

Nearly all of us learned this scanning and racializing process when we were young. For bodies of culture (i.e., non-white bodies), this can sometimes be a life-saving skill. Now, however, we all need to slow down, experience how this process operates in our bodies, and discover how and when to use it—rather than reflexively default to it.

Somatics at the Door

From now on, whenever you leave home to go to some other indoor location, bring paper and a pen or pencil with you.

Once a day, as you reach your destination, put on your mask and stop just outside the door. If you see that someone inside is about to exit, open the door for them, stand aside, and let them pass. Once they're at least six feet past you, you can enter.

If no one is about to exit, or if you can't see through the door, glance behind you quickly. If someone else is approaching the door from the outside, hold it open for them, stand aside, and let them enter. Give them a few feet of social distance, then go inside yourself.

No need to make eye contact, or say anything, or put on a smile. At most, give a small nod or make the briefest of eye contact. If you like, make a small motion with your hand and say, "Go ahead" in a polite, even tone. Don't make a big deal about what you're doing.

Do this in exactly the same way regardless of the person's age, gender, size, shape, race, smell, facial expression, demeanor, or manner of dress. Ditto if they're in a wheelchair, on crutches, with another person, pushing a stroller, or holding the leash of a service dog.

If possible, do this once a day. If you can't do it daily, then do it on any day that you travel from one indoor location to another. (During the COVID pandemic, be sure to wear a mask and stay socially distant.)

That's the life rep part of this body practice. Now for the invited rep.

Once you're inside, as soon as you can—the sooner the better—find a quiet place to sit. Anchor yourself in the present by taking three long, slow, deep breaths—inhaling through your nose, and exhaling through your mouth.

Take out your paper and pen. Then write down what you experienced:

  • when you first noticed that someone was approaching the door
  • when you first discerned the person's race, gender, size, shape, and approximate age
  • as they walked through the door
  • immediately afterward, as you waited for them to take a few steps

As you answer each question above, write down whatever you experienced in your body, including any:

  • physical sensations
  • thoughts
  • images
  • meanings or explanations
  • judgments
  • urges or impulses
  • movements or actions

After you've done this activity 10 times, look back at your notes from the first day. Compare what you experienced during rep #10 with what you experienced during rep #1. Do another comparison after 20 reps, and another after 30.

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