Performing Whiteness


First Person

Original illustration © Otto Steininger

When the weather warms up I feel two things: excitement and trepidation. My body longs for the warmth of sun on my skin and my heart remembers that summer is the season of death. It has been this way for a long time, but I think I started counting when I was a teenager. That’s when I learned of the “Red Summer”; in 1919, white supremacist terrorist attacks and riots resulted in mass murder of Black civilians in more than three dozen cities across the United States. Often in the summer I am in the presence of young people who, as teenagers, are just coming into their awareness of the brutality that is cyclically enacted against Black people. Often I need to hold space for their rage, their grief, their fear. I am tired of summers beginning this way.

A short while ago, as I was nursing my son, I scrolled through the New York Times. Reporting about Ahmaud Arbery caught my eye. I clicked on a video link. Though I didn’t intend to, I saw the cell phone footage of his murder. I saw him running as pickup trucks bore down on him, I saw armed white men jump from their vehicles. I saw the buckshot disperse into and out of Ahmaud’s body. I saw him turn to run and fall.

I thought of how we often see Black bodies running, bodies like his in particular—peak fitness and youth and promise. Sprinting, turning on a dime, twisting and perhaps catching a long pass to run a touchdown. Instead, Ahmaud turned, picked up his knee to run, and fell forward, succumbing to the wounds of shotgun blasts to his chest.

I felt my spirit crumple as his body did. It stole my breath and ignited a raging panic in my flesh. My heart pounded with a drumming that goes back generations. My body remembered nursing my firstborn son while protesters marched past my house to demand justice for Philando Castile. My body remembers.

But then something else caught my eye. It was the white man who shot him. It was how he looked down at the human being he’d just mortally wounded. It was the conviction on his face. The posture eerily reminiscent of so many white men who have walked away from the violence they’ve enacted against, in particular, Black men. Black men who, in a fair fight, would’ve wiped the floor with them. But this fight, since the beginning, has never been fair. The deck has always been stacked against us. This fight goes looking for our young, proud, strong men. It hunts them. It runs them down in pickup trucks. It demands their attention, even when it has no authority to do so. It is staggered by the grace and beauty and freedom it sees in what it chases. It wants it and extinguishes it instead.

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.

I am not absenting this man from his choice or his personal culpability in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. I am trying to acknowledge that part of what motivated the chase, the sense that he could command Ahmaud to stop, the murder itself, was racial inheritance.

He walked away feeling more manly, more righteous, and more like a cowboy than he’d ever feel in his life again. That’s what keeps them after us. They need to feel their groins contract. They need to feel big in this world and they can’t seem to do it without killing us. The feeling doesn’t last and so they come for more of us. It is a voracious, depraved need. It is old and it is still here.

In my work I focus a lot on the body, on embodied racialized trauma and embodied racist sentiment. This work reveals how our bodies are raised into a history so rife with violence that more than half of us won’t look at it, don’t really know it. This is history buried in our flesh, in our ancestry, in our shared nationhood. It works differently on Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color than it does on white folks, but we are all disciplined by it, made smaller by it. Over many years I have worked to exorcise it from myself and from others. I use a blend of theater and healing techniques to examine, excise, and suture.

Epigenetic research focuses on how the body responds to generational trauma. We evolve to survive. But how does a body respond to generational expressions of racial power?

What happens to white bodies in these encounters with us? It is in them, too, this racial past. Perhaps even more than it is in us. Perhaps that is exactly the problem. Perhaps because they refuse do the work to purge that embedded racial inheritance, it keeps lurching blindly outward, like a parasite that’s eaten what it can of its host and needs another and another. Insatiable. Adaptable. Extant.

Shortly after viewing the murder footage, I read a story about a woman who tried twice to kill her child and, upon succeeding, suggested that she’d been carjacked by two Black men who stopped her for drugs and, inexplicably, took her child and her cell phone. Soon we would learn that it was in fact she who pushed her own child to his death in a Miami canal. That feeling that the life of her son, a child with a disability, was expendable is the same brutalizing force that would allow her to scapegoat two imaginary Black men with zero concern for the hunt that her claim would initiate and the innocent lives it might end.

This disease is evidenced in all kinds of unspeakable violences and there are telltale signs before it erupts to claim lives. We’ve just become so accustomed to allowing, ignoring, and avoiding them that we permit the host to become too proximate to another victim.

Days later I watched yet another performance of racial inheritance, this time from Amy Cooper, who called the police to report a fabricated threat from Christian Cooper, a Black bird-watcher, after he asked her to obey the law and leash her dog. I watched her performance escalate. Her initial threat—“I’m going to tell them there is an African American man threatening my life.” How, as the dispatcher asked her to clarify her words, she doubled over, her voice changed pitch, her breath became short. I saw her body lean into a legacy of white fragility and white femininity and in this she expressed a malignant power. I saw her brutalize her dog as she brutalized this man with her words and I realized that in that moment of possession by her racial birthright she didn’t care what she hurt. She needed to feel this power, this control. Or perhaps she needed to feel out of control and assured that the system would service her, the whole thing built around protecting her word, her honor, her fragility.

And finally, in my hometown, a white police officer drives his knee into the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed Black man, forcing his body into the asphalt as he begged for breath. We all know George Floyd’s name today, not because of how he lived his life but because of how he died, at the mercy of another white man determined to demonstrate his authority and control, emboldened by the racial violence perpetuated by a white supremacist administration, enabled by a feckless Republican party, and tolerated by hamstrung Democrats.

If I’m gracious, which I am trying to be, I will acknowledge that the bodies and psyches of these white people have been subjected to white supremacy as well—that they’ve been disciplined to show up this way, to believe that this is the ultimate expression of their power. That perhaps, crushed under the normalizing and brutalizing forces of white supremacy and gender normativity in this country, they feel this is their only available expression of strength. I will acknowledge that these people were once children who did not know hate, who learned dehumanizing lessons from their parents, their elders, their community, and their media about who they should be in the world and how they should treat others in relation to their whiteness. I see their wounds and I want to excise the poison eating away at them. This is not magnanimous. I want to do this because it may save Black lives.

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?

White people may not realize it, but white supremacy causes disruptions between their psyches and their bodies. These disconnections are both literal and metaphorical. Literally, when white people are racially triggered, they have reported feeling numbness, experienced ringing ears and tunnel vision, a faster heartbeat. Metaphorically, it disconnects white people from the pride of cultural ancestry, which they sacrificed for the fiction of race. When white people risk leaving the cult of whiteness, they find meaningful connections to their own cultural wellsprings that are affirming, nourishing, and empowering.

James Baldwin mused that “one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I will acknowledge that white folks may be in pain. They need to find healthy ways to express their rage, sadness, disappointment, and fear, ways that would bring them love rather than admonishment. Too many white people are fine with what they see as “benign” racism until it is outed by video footage and then they scramble to distance themselves from it. Those who are “caught” find that after having expressed the ultimate performance of their racial inheritance, instead of receiving accolades and awards, they are abandoned.

In 2020 with so many video cameras, I worry about the psychic recognition of witnessing embodied racial inheritance. I worry about how seeing racial violence emboldens hate. I wonder how we can fill our consciousnesses with more love.

Here is what I know: hatred is heavier than love; ambivalence is less rewarding than action. We are diminished by the man occupying the presidency. We are diminished by those who enable him. People who have spent most of their adult lives on the sidelines are moving to the center. White folks need to move past their fear and call each other into deep, authentic, and embodied learning and unlearning around what it means to be be white in this country. All of what that means, both the history and the present.

White police officers in Brooklyn recently took a knee with protesters and since then the gesture has spread among white people who once characterized kneeling as an affront to America itself. This simple and powerful gesture cost Colin Kaepernick, one of the NFL’s most talented quarterbacks, his career. When Donald Trump yelled for the league to “get that son of a bitch off the field,” or when Laura Ingraham suggested that LeBron James should “shut up and dribble,” they essentially called for owners to get their “bucks” in line, reminding Black athletes of the social and contractual limits of their agency. They want bodies, not brains; performance, not people.

As a director I do not practice “color-blind” casting. Bodies arrive written with racial scripts that inform the meaning of gesture, stillness, and movement onstage. It means something different for a Black man to take a knee than it does for a white police officer. The difference is in the risk. We have yet to see whether officers kneeling represents a pledge of accountability or merely an attempt to quiet the furor over police brutality. Rather than break, power will bend. Three white men in uniform kneeling with Black protesters shouldn’t be remarkable, but in America it is. In light of the “blue lives matter” campaign, acquiescing seems profound. A simple gesture; a powerful message. It isn’t nearly enough, but it’s a beginning.

Stating that Black lives matter is a very minimum acknowledgement of humanity. The tenacity of the fight against this statement should absolutely stagger Americans and signal how far we have yet to go. Statements of solidarity must be actualized. We need more gentleness, compassion, and courage embodied by white people. We need people, not performance. We need for expressions of Black freedom, joy, grief, and rage not to cost us our lives. We need to get free.

The body is a powerful thing.

If it can breathe.


Sarah Bellamy is a stage director, scholar, practitioner of racial healing, and the artistic director of Penumbra Theatre Company. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and two small children.