Embodied Anti-Racism: How Mindfulness Practices Combat Racism

“Each of us is carrying racism,” said Gabrie’l Atchison, “and the way that racism exists within societyis carried within each of our bodies.”

Last Sunday, Atchison, who serves as both missioner for administration on the staff of the partnership dioceses and president of the Bishop James Theodore Holly Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, offered a Zoom workshop to explore embodied antiracism, a set of practices that can help people—both people of color and white people— cleanse their bodies of the harmful effects of racism.

Racism impacts all people psychologically and physiologically, she says. But while the impact of racism on Black people and other people of color has been examined and explored, the impact of racism on white people can be more difficult to understand.

“Racism shows up as internalized superiority for white-bodied people and internalized oppression for people of color,” she said. “Both are rooted in feelings of anger, resentment, guilt, shame, and fear that live in our bodies often as anxiety and stress. And this anxiety and stress if left unresolved, is then unconsciously embodied within our interracial interactions.”

Even well-intentioned encounters, she says, can provoke anxiety and stress on all sides. “A lot of problematic interactions that involve white-bodied people experiencing people of color in predominately white spaces are really about a desire to understand something. ‘Explain your hair, explain why you are speaking, explain why you are here, explain why [fill in the blank].’”

When Atchison learned about embodied anti-racism, which integrates social justice work and somatic therapies, she realized that they could be an important part of the diocese’s grant-funded Becoming Beloved Community initiative. “It is clear to me that people are just not aware of what they are doing,” said Atchison, “and these practices just might be the thing that really helps the situation.

“In addition to understanding and exploring with our minds,” she says, “we need to also begin to work on ways to become more aware of our bodies and feelings and learn how to work through them instead of projecting them onto a person or situation.”

The practices of embodied antiracism, such as body scanning, breathing exercises, and journaling, can aid people not only in understanding how they themselves are impacted by racism, she says, but also in disrupting what she calls “the unconscious cycle of socialization” in our own lives.

“In short, embodied anti-racism is the ability to stop, breathe, and take an inventory of yourself,” Atchison says. The steps can include:

  1. Notice – What am I feeling in my body and where?
  2. Safety – Do I feel uncomfortable/overwhelmed/unsafe?
  3. Identify – What am I feeling?
  4. Replay – What happened that made me feel this way?
  5. Tune in – Why might I feel this way?

While most embodied antiracism work is internal and individual, she says, “the crux of this work is not just about trying to improve or make individuals better. That’s great, but at the end of the day it is about all of us working together towards something different. Our work as Christians is bigger than just us.

“For me, the connection is the Body of Christ,” she says. People of color represent “parts of the Body of Christ that have functions but we, as a society or church, decided they are not important.

“We all need each other and if we can’t be together without experiencing all of this stress, anxiety, and hurting and harming each other then we are never going to be able to do what we as the Body of Christ, as Christians, are called to do together.”


Further Reading on Embodied Antiracism:

My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

Somatic Abolitionism by Resmaa Menakem

Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

The Politics of Trauma by Staci Haines

Building an Embodied Anti-Racism Practice by Marianne Hunkin