What is a White Body?

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Most of the conversation (if we could even call it that) about race in America centers on identity, the most superficial designation. Then we talk about whiteness and blackness, imagining characteristics of those identities, drawing ever finer distinctions between ethnicities, behaviors, modes of thought, rituals, treating them as if they’re intrinsic–ontogenetic. When we speak of yet another proposition– white bodies– the conversation hardly ever touches the truth. Whiteness is a construct, nothing quite as fixed as it seems. We’re talking about conditioned bodies, bodies manufactured by culture. 

Part of what white-skinned people have been conditioned to become–at least in America and most likely everywhere else– starting more than a handful of centuries ago, along with scientific materialism and the supremacy of epistemology over ontogenetics, relies on subjugating intrinsic wildness. Just as external ecologies have been transformed, disrupted, or wiped out altogether, our internal ecologies have been tamed, altered and subjugated to conform to ideology rather than biology. Manifesting whiteness in the world, the expression of whiteness, has become, with the rise of colonialism, capitalism and Puritanical Protestantism, the exercise of that supremacy over every form of wilderness, including land, people and especially the untamed within. Whiteness is trained since birth to be the face of modernity in that body, as a body. It’s almost entirely unconscious because we have so few (and rapidly disappearing) alternative models. 

By inference, there is also a corresponding Black body, not necessarily the intrinsic Black body or the indigenous body, but the black and white bodies undergoing perpetual remodeling by the culture, the culture whose structures and hierarchies of authority and validity seek a monoculture of conformity to the essential structure of the slave ship and the plantation.

White skinned bodies have been cultured by modernity to hold, move, express or deny themselves in particular ways, forging psycho-emotional armor, all of it entangling the prevailing definitions of authenticity, dominance and power relations, somatizing the source code, if you will, defining the internal relations, rationalizations and compartmentalization necessary to maintain the social structure. Likewise, black (and other ethnic) bodies are also cultured to aspire to that model of whiteness, entrained to a different source code (locking them outside the ramparts of white supremacy and privilege) to disconnect and so far as possible immunize themselves from the legacy of their own trauma (in the same ways white-skinned people are conditioned to immunize themselves from the trauma of racism and genocide), the experience of forced submission and every possible form of loss, passed down through many generations—to aspire to transcendence and at the same time to internalize the submission.

This is the systemic duplicity of whiteness that continues to be visited upon non-white people (with police as the enforcement arm), sustaining the presumption to define and hold an aspirational standard which is then, by a thousand cuts, rendered unattainable. In psychology this would be the classical definition of schizogenesis. The cultured body, regardless of color, conforms to different social expectations, behaviors, responses, modes of expression, movements, postures and even patterns of attention to make its way in the world. The character of that entire assemblage is conditioned in a multitude of subtle and not so subtle ways in schools, the workplace, by the institutions of governance, in the hallways, C-suites and interior spaces that define law, public character and acceptable social behavior. 

Liz Koch describes the cultured body (regardless of race) as the balletic pose, the military stance or, I might add, the hyper-tensive image of the tightly wound gym rat whose abdominals scream defensive aggression, as the body modeling power over. An image that springs to mind is all the CEOs of the oil majors standing side by side with their right hands raised as they take an oath before testifying to Congress (this week!), the disembodiment of the tucked-in gut, insulated by the protective paunch, the shallow breathing, the clenched jaw and the taut pelvic floor. We know they’re going to lie. They know they’re going to lie. And they fully expect to get away with it, just as they have for decades. There will not be an ounce of authenticity to it. That’s patriarchy. That’s whiteness. 

Along the way, those expectations and behaviors become conditioned in the flesh, even from childhood, as boys are taught to ‘be a man’ and girls are subtly steered away from authentic expression. These patterns become embedded in the character and communication within the physical structure itself. They are reflected in the windings and asymmetries of physiology and movement. The history is in the flesh, in neuro-muscular patterns, conditioned sensitivities and in the storms of neuro-transmitter release. The body tells the tale. The body speaks its mind. We are consciousness as structure. These patterns form the corral of embodied modernity, the colonized body expressing and perpetuating itself in qualitative patterns of attention, what we notice, the creeping (and creepy) narcissism of what we feel and what we do with all of it. 

There’s a great deal I agree with about Liz Koch’s understanding of whiteness in the body, but I think the historical context could be expanded, going back to the 15th-16th centuries or even earlier: the extreme greed cloaked in religiosity, Church-sanctioned genocide for the glory of God’s Kingdom, the integral nature of capitalism, racism and the Church. The denial of the flesh and mostly the denial of the feminine, the ascent of rationality, the glorification of abstract thought, intellect, and the separation from nature are all included. The roots of whiteness run deep, even into the conformities of the microbiome, what we regard as legitimate sources of knowledge, how we understand human development, what we define as sanity. They also run deeply into the flesh, into our bones, our diverted, co-opted and contorted values entrained and reified by the state, fueling the disparities and polarities of our time, now even threatening our very fertility. 

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