Trauma lives in and impacts the physical body. So does hate and white supremacy. Theater director Sarah Bellamy has spent a lifetime observing bodies and how what’s inside manifests itself physically. In this excellent, impassioned essay at the Paris Review, she implores us to pay attention to the ways racism is expressed in even the smallest physical actions and reactions — actions and reactions that seem involuntary but can be deadly, and that can be understood, interrogated, and changed.
As a stage director I am trained to watch how people move and to interpret meaning—to read their bodies. As an American I am also trained to read bodies and see race. And, like looking through a pair of binoculars, these two lenses perfectly aligned in the moment after Ahmaud fell, magnifying the embodiment of white supremacy in his murderer. The way that man bore up. The way he turned and walked back to his truck, to his father, a shotgun slung low in his hand. It was in his shoulders, his jaw, his waist, his hips. I saw it come over him and I saw him stand up in it and move with it and, though he didn’t say the words, they were all over him: Take that, nigger. I realized I was watching thousands of white men throughout American history standing over a broken Black body, their breath ragged, adrenaline cresting, spent, feeling legitimated by the proof of their violence. It is more than a rash decision; their bodies betray an assumptive birthright. Their bodies firm up and swagger into a ritualistic circle of savagery. It is a possession.
White folks, you must dig into your embodied racism, even—especially—if you think it’s not there. And this is not just to shift what you say and how you shape your arguments, questions, Facebook posts, tweets. It’s not about performing your wokeness. This isn’t about what you say—it’s about how you act; how your body might be predisposed to rely on a racial inheritance that endangers the lives of others. What’s in your guts, in your muscles, in your blood? What are you carrying dormant in your body that springs up when confronted with Black joy, Black power, Black brilliance, Black Blackness in the world? How can you train your bodies to respond differently when you are triggered, when you’re in fight-or-flight mode? How can I help you stop yourselves from killing us?