NOTE: To better share the context of this open letter, below is a voice memo Mark Walsh sent to someone (not me) in 2019, who asked Mark questions about the dominance of white male presenters in The EmbodimentConference 2019, and then was invited to present at the same conference in 2020.
A lot of my choice to participate by writing an open letter has come from hearing this recording and feeling that Mark has to answer the questions I have posed himself and the team at TEC needs to hold him accountable.
Hi Mark Walsh and The Embodiment Conference,
My name is Tada. I’m a somatics practitioner who works in a field we sometimes referred to as cultural somatics, an emerging approach to ‘embodiment’ that is distinctly concerned with the relationship between individual and collective change.
I’ve been invited by your team to speak at the conference and have been tracking your work to discern whether I should take TEC up on that offer.
My conclusion is that I’ve been invited to participate, there’s something important in the winds about that, so I would like to take the TEC up on that offer, but on my own terms. That is to decline the invitation to speak in the Trauma and Social Change channel, and instead offer this public letter that contains the bulk of what I would have to say in the first place.
A big part of this is that I do not want the ideas that I and my colleagues churn ourselves over to be tucked away in a channel that can be avoided — I believe matters of social justice, or whatever you want to call it, are foundational to what the conference is marketing as ‘embodiment’.
From this place, the first thing I would like to share with you (Mark), and the TEC community as a whole, is that ‘embodiment’ as a modern idea and industry has been directly born out of collective disembodiment, a result of historical traumas from inter-European imperialism (which also includes invasions from and of so-called Asia), followed by what we now recognize as modern colonialism, which can be mostly attributed to pale-skinned European descendants who we now refer to as ‘white‘ people’.
This history of white disembodiment is why the current embodiment industry is dominated by white people, and especially white men, who have acted as founder-discoverers, while the bulk of their actual practice has and continues to come from marginalized communities of color. Somatic Experiencing, Hakomi Method, Continuum, Strozzi Institute & Generative Somatics, Dance Movement Therapy … you name it, the core inspiration of these modalities comes from cultural practices such as yoga, qigong/energy work, indigenous ritual, internal martial arts, Afro-diasporic dance, and so on — all of which arise from communities that have been in opposition to Western/white Imperialism.
Simply put: there are no modern ‘Western’ modalities that we know of that do not find their origins in the white elite’s fascination with the cultures of the mystical other.
(Edited to add: with some guidance from people who have enthusiastically supported this letter, I also want to recognize that this isn’t just about race. The ‘mystical other’ also includes those marginalized because of gender and class in European society. The work of birth workers, herbalists, expressive artists, and so on, have been similarly extracted by dominant ruling groups that reflected the white supremacist central elite. Given the post-colonial world we live in today, I think it makes sense to center a strong racial-cultural analysis, but that doesn’t mean we should negate other underlying dynamics that even point further to the origin of how the embodiment industry internalizes oppressive dynamics. It’s also important to recognize that European doesn’t automatically mean white or only white and there are various people within European society that have been marginalized because of their distance from central white elite power.)
I have found the 2020 TEC conference’s Diversity and Inclusion statement and policy to be deeply dissatisfactory in this regard and I am certain I am not alone. While it recognizes the need for diversity, what it does not do is take ownership for the lack of balance in the embodiment industry and the imperial history it reflects, as a conference that is:
- Led by a white man
- Mostly staffed by white people
- Mostly featuring white people, and particularly, white men as major expert speakers
The result is a statement and policy that ends up deflecting the collective responsibility of embodiment practitioners, to tell the truth about the embodiment industry - that it was and still is a marketplace that has been formed by white/Western people importing foreign cultural goods, which has become majorly available to them via imperialism, into starving white/Western communities.
The lack of understanding of this has been apparent in how the conference seems to be marketed: by getting big-name speakers of the embodiment and related industries, most of whom are white and male, to attract a large audience, which including speakers with smaller followings, without critically thinking about why these people have such an audience in the first place — because they are not just practitioners and innovators but also tradesmen selling magical wares from foreign lands they know through the conquest and war of their ancestors.
In light of this, I want to let you know I am from Aizu, a small rural region of North-Eastern Japan. My family line goes back many generations in Aizu and my four grandparents as well as both my parents have all grown up there. We consider ourselves Aizu people.
As an Aikidoka you (Mark) would know Aizu to be the place where one of Morihei Ueshiba’s major teachers, Sokaku Takeda, founder of Daito-Ryu Aiki-Jujitsu, and his mentor, Tanomo Saigo (later Chikanori Hoshina), a Shinto priest who was originally a high-posted local samurai official before the dissolution of the samurai class through the modern Japanese civil war which he fought in and lost his whole family to, both come from. (There are some discrepancies to what the relationship was between Takeda and Saigo truly was in terms of technical teaching.)
This is to say, the people of my ancestral lands are keepers and founders of a lineage of practice your work derives direct benefit from in both material and social capital. That is how close to the bone these matters are. They are not at all abstract and distant, as popular social justice keywords like ‘cultural appropriation’ may sometimes make them seem.
Having said all of this, I would like to, on behalf of all people whose ancestral cultural practices have been adopted into the so-called embodiment industry, call you and The 2020 Embodiment Conference, by which I mean all staff, presenters, and participants, to reckon with the true history of the embodiment industry, tell its whole story, and think much deeper about how to address matters of racism and other ills that plague modern Western embodiment because of its very nature.
Thank you for your invitation to offer this to you and the larger embodiment community.
(Edited to add: Because I bring up the subject of ancestral lineage, authorship, and attribution, I want to make a special note that I do not see submitting, in a collapsed way, to anyone’s ancestral authority on a particular cultural practice to be a legitimate solution to these matters. This is important because the various arts we now benefit from for our healing often have contradictory and complex historical contexts of their own that involve classism, racism, misogyny, and so on. Particularly, it is important to remember that Asia is a unique cultural region that has seen various folk traditions survive alongside imperialism for many centuries and that this means many cultural practices of Asia reflect this historical reality in how they are structured.)