By Kelly Feder
Kelly Feder is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Teacher® and founder of the Feldenkrais Movement Academy of St. Louis. Throughout her career, Kelly has sought a diversity of teachers, completing Ruthy Alon’s Bones for Life, Chava Shelhav’s Child’Space, and MBS Academy’s Advanced Practitioner certifications. As a YWCA Witnessing Whiteness Facilitator, Kelly has participated in many courses, including CrossRoads Anti Racism/Anti Bias trainings, Non Violent Communication and Empathy trainings and the St. Louis Racial Equity Summit, which emerged from the commission on Ferguson. Kelly writes that she “brings the unfinished, imperfect process of my own transforming self into my teaching, inviting compassion in the midst of uncertainty to linger in and learn from the complexities of the habits that limit us.”
SenseAbility (SA): Kelly, tell us about the recent class that you taught titled, “MIRROR: Moving IN: Recognizing and Remembering Ourselves in Racism”. Can you give us the context for your idea for the class and how you were thinking about it?
Honestly, my plan and process were not fully formed as I began. For a long time, I had been thinking about racism as a neurological habit and ways the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education could be used to expose unconscious habits around race. For so long, I was in analysis paralysis.
In my general Awareness Through Movement® classes I often bring up the learned social habits of pushing oneself to be a good student, the binary thinking of a “good” knee and a “bad” knee, the need to be perfect before doing something, the reliance on an authority outside oneself rather than turning the lens inward to follow one’s own line of curiosity and inquiry. Today, I am exploring how to expose my habits of racism and asking how the construct of whiteness is limiting me. I didn’t realize until recently that these are all characteristics of white supremacy culture that sociologists have studied and named.* So why not name them as such?
When racially charged events were happening in my city, such as Ferguson or the election of the first Black prosecuting attorney, I’d point out the either/or thinking, the “othering” or judgment or assumptions we might be making about these events and how we do these same things in our bodies.
So I had been bringing issues of race into the room when it was on people’s minds because of an event in our community since Ferguson in 2014. But I wanted to find a way to help people grapple with their unconscious bias in a deeper, more transformational way. I knew the only way I was going to get a formal class with these ideas out of my comfortable white head and into the uncomfortable space of working with them through Awareness Through Movement® and deep listening was to advertise it: ready or not!
The group was a small one of Feldenkrais® students and another practitioner. We met four times weekly for two hours. I taught Awareness Through Movement lessons before or after watching a short video clip of content around certain topics such as: “Race is not biological”. Or “Segregation by design”. Or “What is white privilege?” The question I had was, how do we do whiteness in our body?
Moshe Feldenkrais wrote a lot about the body pattern of anxiety. That we can’t have a thought without a body. How do the words “racist”, “white supremacist”, “white privilege” land in my body?
SA: Describe your background experience in facilitating conversations about racism, what training you have had, and what insights and deeper questions you have gained through that work.
I’ve been facilitating conversations about racism for about six years through the St. Louis YWCA’s Witnessing Whiteness program. What I noticed is that the white people in these groups tend to stay in their head, tend to solve the problems of racism outside of themselves. I observed them jump to action, rather than sitting in the unknown or leaning into the discomfort of recognizing aspects of the problem within their own patterns and the discomfort of not knowing what to do. To be with the weight of these issues was easier if I simply reminded people to feel their contact with the chair or the breath inside their chest. Somehow grounding these ideas in their body invoked a different kind of responsibility and willingness to listen and eagerness to learn.
Prior to becoming a Feldenkrais® teacher while working in nonprofits, I participated and even facilitated many diversity, equity and inclusion trainings for staff. Looking back on them I cringe at the simplicity and avoidance of looking more inward. Then when Ferguson happened in my hometown, I was appalled and shocked at the white silence around me and how easily so many white people were able to dehumanize Michael Brown and excuse away the horror of a young boy lying dead on the street for four hours by analyzing his character or waiting until we had all the facts.
For much of my life, I thought about issues of race outside of myself. I was stuck in the trap of colorblindness and the belief that a racist was someone who actively disliked and harmed people because of their color. So I didn’t think of myself as racist and certainly never even considered whiteness as something I could define, unpack or about which to name characteristics. White “was” the norm. I didn’t see it as something that needed to be addressed. I grew up in a deeply segregated city where I was taught to lock my car door anytime I crossed highway 270 into the inner city. I noticed in my adult life after leaving St. Louis and living in seemingly more diverse cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Bay Area, Anchorage, AK, that I rode public transportation and moved in diverse space with ease and comfort but when I’d come back to St. Louis I was afraid of our MetroLink, riding the bus was dangerous. I’d feel myself hold my breath and tighten my jaw when I’d drive into certain parts of the city. The contrast of my experience being around an unfamiliar Black body in St. Louis compared to San Francisco was eye opening to me.
Similarly, much of our body patterns are dismissed as “something normal” and not worthy of our attention, or worse, not worth the effort to learn anything about until we have pain.
SA: So, you have been engaging in two types of work—the antiracism conversations and teaching Awareness Through Movement classes, and now you have brought them together. For the members of the general public who are reading this thinking about the Feldenkrais Method® as bodywork, how do you explain the connection between such a large conversation as race relations and Feldenkrais® teachings?
I don’t think of the Feldenkrais Method® as body work and right away when I meet someone new, I invite them to think about the work that we are embarking on as a partnership in learning to transform the habits that led to the issue that motivated them to call me. I listen to their stories and wonder with them how the story is shaping them.
One of the practices in antiracism work and many kinds of group facilitation work is to speak in the “I” voice. It is rare that people do this, even when they are telling their own story. So I started interrupting people mid-sentence in both my antiracism and Feldenkrais® work and asking them to say the statement again only with “I” instead of “it” or “we”, something interesting started to happen.
“It hurts when I do this,” becomes: “I hurt when I do this.”
“It is so frustrating when all I can focus on is this pain,” becomes: “I am so frustrating when all I can focus on is this pain.”
“The problem is that we don’t build bridges into communities of color,” becomes: “I don’t build bridges into communities of color.”
“We tend to focus on burning buildings rather than the message of pain and suffering,” becomes “I tend to focus on burning buildings rather than the message of pain and suffering.”
Even if the sentence didn’t make complete sense to change from “it” to “I”, I would have them say it anyway. Simply stating their complaint or concern from “I” produced an embodied response that made them pause and wonder and begin to take ownership over their situation instead of blaming something outside themself. I then observed that students’ curiosity and commitment to change began to bloom.
A MIRROR participant actually called me today and said she is so grateful I interrupted her so many times to invite her to speak from her “I” voice. She shared that she recently stayed silent in the face of racism out of fear. But when she came home and wrote herself a letter telling the story– inserting “I” in every place she wanted to say “we” or “they” –she could see and feel not only her shame, but the loss to the group from her actions and inactions, and the steps she now needs to take.
The Feldenkrais Method® provides an amazing tool of self education about how social/cultural influences affect us. Moshe Feldenkrais spoke about those influences in his book Awareness Through Movement. The movement lessons give us concrete experiences of cultural norms such as dependency on an outside expert, teacher, authority; the co-contraction of trying to do what we think we should do rather than learning to be aware of what we are doing.
Racism is embodied and through the body we can mature beyond cultural norms. In fact, you might have noticed that the words “white supremacy” and “white privilege” are creating a sensation in your body. What happens when you say, “I grew up in a culture that centers the white body”? Or that the “supremacy of whiteness is embedded in myself”? Do you feel the contraction of anxiety or the extension of defensiveness or dismissal? Do you hold your breath or tighten your jaw? Do you narrow your eyes and prepare for an argument or explanation about how you grew up different? Are you curious?
Resemaa Menakem, a somatic psychologist, who wrote My Grandmother’s Hands, says racism lives in the body. We can’t change it in our thinking alone. Do an experiment and discover what your body is reflexively doing the next time you are in the neighborhood you’ve been told is dangerous or in a room with People of Color you do not personally know. There is a wealth of information in our bodies.
Practitioners spend four years in a Feldenkrais® training rolling around on the floor to develop a felt sense of themselves and their movement patterns. It is a process we cannot rush as we are unwinding years of habits and creating new and better possibilities. We each have to follow our own timing in this creative process of discovery. This is the same for antiracism work. It is not something done outside myself. It is not something to fix. As my colleague, Darryl Commings, a Black man, wrote to me, “You can’t tell someone not to be racist…however, we can certainly help them ‘feel’ their way towards new ways of being that are anti racist.”
In the Feldenkrais Method® we are not very successful if a person comes to us and tells us they want us to fix their knee. We can’t fix their knee, but we can certainly help them feel better ways to organize their whole self to alleviate the problems in their knee.
SA: I have to acknowledge that I did have a visceral reaction to the words “white supremacy” when we began working on this interview and it felt uncomfortable, which is the point you are making. I am curious about what types of lessons did you teach in the class and how did you make those decisions?
This is a hard question, I think because it is the thing I am still grappling with. I’m not sure that it is important what kind of lesson I used. It seems to me it was naming what wants to stay hidden within the context of the lesson that was the key.
I sometimes think it will be impossible to change racism in America. I don’t think I’m alone. But then I recall how impossible I thought it would be to get rid of the chronic pain in my knee because of my confidence in doctors who told me they fixed my knee, but I’d never get full range of motion after six surgeries. Doing a squat was impossible, until it wasn’t anymore. If you asked me what lesson fixed my knee, I can’t answer that. It wasn’t the lesson, it was the process and a shift in my thinking and view of myself.
If I can help someone sense how they “privilege” one side of themselves over another in their movement, that can help them discover how they privilege some ideas and perspectives and neglect or dismiss others. And then together, we can wonder, “How is this one way of thinking or doing limiting me?” Or “What makes me think this is the only right answer?”
In my body, I can see that if I over exert in one place it creates pain or limitation somewhere. If I neglect some part of myself in my image it limits my creative repertoire for finding better solutions. If I give a pass to the side that doesn’t hurt or is seemingly working fine, as if it has no responsibility for creating the conditions that the suffering side is experiencing and therefore demanding all my attention; then I have set up an either/or binary of privilege and responsibility. Privilege is often invisible to those that are privileged. It feels like the norm. So my good leg is fine, normal and it is my bad leg that is the problem. Do I want a system that over taxes my low back or distributes work through my whole self? Until I feel the pain in my low back, that question might not even occur to me. Why should it? My life is fine. But is it?
We have to look at our country’s self image. For many of us it is fragmented and incomplete, or historically inaccurate. White people are often confused by the level of anger and destruction that emerges in uprisings like Ferguson. Those in pain are trying tirelessly to get our attention and suffering the ultimate cost to do so. Like my knee pain letting me know the system is not working for everyone.
If I think I am being a good person and making the world a better place by focusing all my attention on the soup kitchen that I volunteer at and give money to I might not see the connections to laws and policies and disenfranchisement that created the need for the soup kitchen in the first place. If I don’t look at the economic and political policies that created food and job insecurity in certain neighborhoods or the historical housing covenants that segregated us by design, I don’t recognize that my idea of a safe neighborhood with good schools is white. And that idea of equating whiteness with safety and goodness is something I didn’t even know I was doing when I was house hunting because it is unconscious. I might not also realize that this all-white-run non-profit with predominantly white volunteers feeding poor Black folks might make me feel good for doing something charitable, but doesn’t recognize the harm I am doing by continuing to create the untrue assumptions that Black people are poor, needy, uneducated, to be pitied and saved and that white people are generous, charitable, problem solvers. A white superiority frame that unconsciously lives out in people’s psyche.
And if I were to seek another perspective from the Black leadership in the community, I might find out that I could better use my power and influence by challenging policies that let a chemical company dump toxic waste in a neighborhood for decades, making growing a garden to feed one’s family impossible.
I think it was in his book Awareness Through Movement that Moshe Feldenkrais said something about how simply asking someone to observe what they are doing can be disorienting. Looking at whiteness is disorienting for white people. Because what we think we are doing is not what we are doing.
I played with language and asked people to feel the reaction in their bodies to words that often shut white people down or put them on the defensive. Words like racist, white privilege, white supremacy. If we can exaggerate the contraction and then find ways to continue to breathe and shift our weight, expand our attention, then the initial reaction to these important and uncomfortable dialogues becomes less charged, and we can be more available.
We can read a million books and articles, take a million training sessions to help us think better about these tough and deeply personal topics but until we start to recognize that initial unconscious bodily reaction to even just a word, can we really mature beyond the learning of our childhood around issues of race?
White supremacy culture flies in the face of organic learning, and the Feldenkrais Method invites us to act. It takes time, requires pauses to digest and integrate, involves many mistakes/variations and acknowledges we have to let go of the masks we wear to uphold our self image in a culture where maintaining the status quo is what is asked of us.
SA: How do you envision this work progressing? What is your ideal vision for using the Feldenkrais Method® to help people, groups, and/or society at large in coming to terms with large subjects like this?
I think Dr. Feldenkrais himself had a vision. He opened his Toronto workshop by saying that he was offering people a different way to look at themselves and the world. To do this he suggested that people would have to discover that what they believed to be true about themselves was not true. I would add, what we believe to be true about how the world works also is not true. And if we can get beyond the fragility of being called racist or having white privilege and actually get curious about what these terms mean and look at how systems of oppression are operating in the culture and within ourselves, we might actually begin to find creative ways to solve big problems. Until George Floyd lost his life on the national stage most white Americans didn’t feel any need to examine whiteness or to question our assumptions about what we believe to be true about the world.
A friend and Feldenkrais® colleague who is a Person of Color, when she started seeing all the Black Lives Matter signs going up in white neighborhoods all over the country, said to me, “What I see is white people waking up to a reality that I have lived my whole life. A more accurate sign would be White People Waking Up to Black People’s Lived Experience.” What she hopes is that we, white people, figure out HOW we have kept ourselves asleep for so long. How this sleep has contributed to her suffering.
Feldenkrais said, “What I am after is to restore each person to their full human dignity.” What I hope people come away with in exploring the Feldenkrais Method® and antiracism together is the recognition that racism has dehumanized us (white people) and rather than deny or blame something outside ourselves, out of our control, we might begin to get curious about why that idea creates such a strong reaction in our bodies.
SA: Are there any caveats or points of consideration about your experience that you would like to share?
Antiracism work is a practice, just like Feldenkrais® is a practice. If I am not practicing daily, I can easily revert back to habits of strongly held patterns that are inefficient, unpleasant and even harmful. This is Black History month, so for some white people it is the only time we think about these topics. It is not enough. I hope we can get curious about anti racism work every month of the year.
With the people who did the MIRROR series, one of the amazing outcomes has been that the ideas of whiteness and race and culture flow into their lessons easier. A student in her mid sixties was struggling with a frozen shoulder and a strong habit of blaming “the bad shoulder” and feeling an urgency to get something fixed, therefore forcing her shoulder to move over and over in the way she thinks or has been told it should. She began to notice that this was a kind of violence. It’s a kind of violence that we do to ourselves.
When white people feel the harm done by upholding the status quo of racism to ourselves we will be more invested in the internal work we need to do to dismantle the systems of oppression that only shock us out of our sleep when a George Floyd tragedy happens. And only when we get clear about our intention to change our own habits of racism can we effectively do the collaborative work to liberate everyone from the structures of oppression that limit our full human potential.
The writer, James Baldwin, asked white people decades ago, “Why do you need the negro problem?”
Today, I am exploring how to expose my habits of racism and asking how the construct of whiteness is limiting me?
Kelly Feder (Feldenkrais Movement Academy of St. Louis, LLC) has participated in multi-day workshops on Antiracism/Anti Bias training through Crossroads, Embodied Racism, Colorbrave, Unwinding Whiteness, and the St. Louis Racial Equity Summit. She participates in on-going racial caucusing to do the internal work of dismantling and recognizing my embodied white superiority and internalized racial scripts. When she was in the bay area she participated in many Non Violent Communication and Empathy courses. Kelly writes that “most helpful is my life partner, Bob, who challenges me to see my embedded racism daily.”
Certified Teacher of the Feldenkrais Method® of Somatic Education
Feldenkrais Movement Academy of St. Louis, LLC.
Master Practitioner, Mind Body Studies Academy
Individual Functional Integration® Lessons
Awareness Through Movement® Classes