Systemic and structural: racism in our tissues?Jun 28, 2020
Warning: this post is not for you if you haven’t accepted systemic racism as fact. If you are white and haven’t acknowledged your racism, then my ideas here won’t make sense to you. For us all to get the memo, I’ve included links out to two influencers of many in the BLM conversation that have helped me level up my understanding from basically zero to where I’m at now (which is still beginner level).
My training is in yoga, art, and anatomy. I did not study social justice or feminist theory or any related fields at a scholarly level sufficient to inform my views on systemic racism. This kind of reflexivity is important at a time when everyone with a blog feels compelled to project their inner journey of accepting racism for what it is.
It is now just over one month since the brutal murder of George Floyd. We have never been so dead to rights confronted by our complicity in systemic racism. For my own part, I have never in my life thought so deeply and personally about privilege as I have in the last month. The BLM issue exploded like a seed ball in my mind, and I was at pains to get to sleep with the unraveling of my world view. It is bitter and confusing to see that even ceding wealth to people of colour would not undo the mechanism of racism that is so dyed in the wool. My white guilt is a flood of frustration that leaves me embarrassed and washed up on the shore of ambivalence.
What can we do?
I heard Dr Robin Diangelo loud and clear when she said (I'm paraphrasing here), unless you have studied the impacts of racism for a long time, you are can't know the extent of it. I'm not proud of my inner response to these words when part of me feels like giving up and letting the people with master's degrees carry on with the discourse about racism.
But I'm owning it. It’s like seeing the mountains of plastic choking our oceans and feeling utterly useless. Part of me just shuts down when I'm confronted with the tsunami waves of realisation coming thick and fast as I wake up to systemic racism. Because as soon as I hear of injustice, I feel an instant urge to look for the bad guy, to take immediate action toward making it right - but the message we are hearing is that the proverbial bad guy is ME. And that it is so deeply ingrained within ME, I can’t possibly see it clearly without sustained introspection.
Scurrying to action isn't the medicine here and indeed there is no quick fix. I wonder if there’s any fix? This question is at the heart of my post: where are the roots of racism, and how can we rip it out of ourselves for lasting change?
Who can we be?
First, what I’ve learned is that there is nothing we can do to not be racist. In a systemic sense, everyone is racist because the system itself is racist. The more you try to project your non-racist identity, the more blind to racism you must be. That is deeply disconcerting for a sector of sincerely well-meaning do-gooders who identify and monetise as non-racists. Throwing our energy into genuinely engaging in right action to support the BLM movement in some way feels like the best of a bad lot of options. Many of us have been incredibly conflicted about the right way to express our solidarity, to show that we’re in it for the long haul.
But at some point, we have to get back to work selling our progressive self-care services. For me, that's when the problem space gets really troublesome. You see, the more I study this issue, the more it dawns on me that I am invested in an eroding identity. White progressives, such as yoga teachers, embody a persona that has established itself in the marketplace based on the scaffolding made possible by white supremacy (cultural appropriation is the stuff of another blog post). This fills me with frustration, then a kind of shame sets in because I'm essentially angry about a loss of claim to my own identity. Then there's a secondary wave of guilt for not realising this sooner. Another helping of shame smacks me down in the realisation that the machinations of the dominant culture have deprived millions of their dignity, livelihood, and safety for centuries and longer.
What's more, we can't readily admit any of this to ourselves because it sounds as paradigmatically devastating as it is. Is it the erosion of my privilege that frightens me? My loss of credible market share? I'm quite sure that I am afraid, but it isn't the fear in particular that blows my mind. It's that the mechanism of racism is so pervasive, it is in our tissues, it has become like gravity or atmospheric pressure: taken for granted. What's even worse is that as we all "get back to work," the suggestion is that the discomfort of making ends meet in the world's worst-ever recession will eclipse the paradigm shift initiated in the events of the past month.
What can I do?
Nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. So, far, not talking about this personal journey has been my way of expressing respect for those with degrees and leadership roles in the BLM conversation. Hashtags such as "tokenism" and "virtue signalling" gave me pause, and then listening to influencers like Layla F Saad talk about white progressives colonising the revolution really knocked the crux of it home. There is no way to make ourselves feel better about this.
The point is that white people born into established economies with access to education are blind to racism to a degree that is directly proportionate to our projection of anti-racism. It's like the more we have identified personally as anti-racist, the blinder we have been. And white women like me who have worked tooth and nail for everything we have are probably the most defensive about it. That conversation is worth exploring in the discourse of intersectionality.
Thinking hard about my own behaviour as a white progressive is compounded by my role as a community maker at Meadowlark. My views and actions are coupled into an entity that overtly and implicitly advises, supports, and informs group behaviour. As hyperlocal and small scale as my studio is, it still multiplies collective beliefs and, as such, I feel intensely responsible not just for doing the right thing on social media, but within the power structure of my team. I’m also very concerned about getting it right in my family to ensure my kids develop the right tools for dealing with the flawed system they’re inheriting.
To start, I have to take a long look at my personal relationship with diversity in language that is genuinely meaningful to me.
As a person deeply interested in the behaviour of tissue, I see connections everywhere in nature and consider our bodies as nothing separate from the rest of nature. I believe that concepts remain merely abstract unless we can feel them in the round through personal experience. As such, a concept must live within us and then be experienced consciously if it is to have a chance of growing roots for lasting behavioural change. If we consider the nonlinear nature of biologic tissue, it becomes clear that structuralised racism goes way beyond colour.
Power dynamics are endemic as behaviour is rooted in the actual flesh. But how does doing become being, being become doing?
Fascia comprises the matrix of structure that we co-create through a nonlinear cocktail of inheritance and behaviour. Collagen is a major constituent of this structure. Like the cellulose in plants, the fibres that make up our bodies unravel in a spiral story in the earliest moments of embryonic development. Fascia is a fibrous web synthesised and secreted by the cells and forms the scaffolding where our cells continue to feel the influence of their creation. Cells “feel” our movement through mechanical attenuation of forces that influence cellular life at every level: regeneration, maintenance, movement, immune response and the secretion of new fibrous matrix. Our tissues are, in turn, reinforced into their patterns by the accretion of previous experiences. In yoga, this phenomenon is known as samskara.
Human behaviour balks account, but one aspect is certain: behaviour becomes written into the story of our tissues over lifetimes. Generational trauma is handed down through networks of coupled behavioural patterns that perpetuate systemic mechanisms such as abuse in general and racism specifically. Because development is a nonlinear process of factors interacting across timescales that are hard for us to conceptualise, each of us can only see a tiny span of the full story. Science measures mostly linear phenomena in reductionist terms, using highly specialised jargon that makes it difficult for the snapshots to link up organically. The results often show up in a tangle of conflict that seems so much bigger than us, we can feel helpless to change it.
Now, I like tidy resolutions, clear learning outcomes, and pathways for right action. In this particular case, none of those results are available. The lesson appears to be: get comfortable with discomfort.
My intention in this text was to join the conversation, to add volume to the tide of change. I want my community to know that I’m thinking about racism. I acknowledge my privilege; beyond that, I am acknowledging that we can’t just change our minds and our behaviour for the length of a news cycle. In order for the paradigm to truly shift, our bodies need exposure to change for a long period of time. Beyond that, our bodies need a new model of architecture, so we see ourselves as interconnected with the rest of the Universe.
This is where I feel the conversation around yoga anatomy is contributing to the longer-term shift toward to diversity. Because we are creatures of habit and comfort, how likely is it that we’ll hold ourselves in the fire for long enough to see sustained change? That our world is waking up to abuse and calling it out publicly is bittersweet evidence that the paradigm is shifting. In addition to the immediate behavioural changes we’re seeing on social media as our feeds fill with more colour, we need to update our ideas about physical interconnectedness at the most basic level: in the fibres of anatomy.
About the photo
I contracted the model, Fadzai "Fudge" Mwakutuya, to work with me on an anatomy body painting project in 2017. I had her back in the studio for asana photography in 2018, and this photo came out of that session. We have used some of the photos on our studio social media over the years since. I was conflicted about continuing to use the images for studio posts because on one hand, it is important to feature those of BAME origin... but on the other hand, such features need to have a balanced root in the day-to-day culture of a yoga community. The truth is that while we've got a comparatively multicultural client base (relative to the Scottish population at large), our teaching faculty and admin staff are mostly white. We are working on that.
I've used this photo here on my own blog because I'm proud of the work Fudge and I have done. Although I'm working on the internal matrix of systemic power dynamics from the structural point of view in a longer-term perspective, I do also think it is important to get more BAME images out there into the conversation related to anatomy and yoga. I was relatively late in doing this, because of my interest in self-awareness... I had to sit with my questions of "why" and "how" while I did some research and introspection. I had long chats with Fudge and we decided it was good to keep using the pictures in this context.
Here's to continued friendship and learning!
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