What my Chickens Taught me about Racism

What my Chickens Taught me about Racism

By Bettina Shultz-Jobe and Kate Naylor


We at The Natural Lifemanship Institute believe deeply in the power of relationships and the need for felt safety in order for humans (and other animals) to flourish, and we also understand well the devastating impact of traumas, old and new. 


Our country is in turmoil right now.  The coronavirus is affecting everyone in varying ways; everywhere you look the pain is evident.  However, that isn’t the only unrest people are experiencing in our country – there are also powerful and growing civil rights movements happening all over, in response to generations of trauma experienced in the black, indigenous, and people of color communities. 


As a largely white organization, we have been watching closely, listening carefully, and reflecting deeply.  


In order for us to do meaningful work on the subject of racism and antiracism we know we have to move beyond predominantly cognitive approaches and dig deeper into subjects like implicit bias, the neurobiology of “othering”, cultural somatics, felt safety, and more. 


We believe experiential education on these topics is the role NL can play in dismantling oppression, hate, and divisiveness in our communities.  Planning this sort of work takes time.   We hope that our actions will speak loudly as we develop meaningful and transformational learning opportunities for all of us in the coming months and years. We hope you will join us. 


Here is our first endeavor – A Three-Part Webinar Series:  Embodied Conversations about Racism and Antiracism with Vanessa Timmons and Bonnie Badenoch


Or join the conversation at our virtual conference Interconnected 2020 where connection and compassion drive all we do!


In the meantime, we have prepared a series of blogs to begin the top-down process of understanding, that will set the stage for the bottom-up work to come. . . 



So what do chickens have to do with it?  


Years ago my husband and I purchased the sweet little chickens you see in this picture at the top of this blog.  It was the first time we had purchased dark and light chickens.  This picture was taken after dusk in the chicken coop when I realized that our chickens were, predictably, segregating by color each evening.


Just in case you don’t classify as a crazy chicken lady like I do, let me tell you a bit about chickens.   They go into the coop each evening around dusk on their own.  We don’t need to put them in there.  Female chickens, hens, tend to flee to keep themselves safe.  Like many animals, the survival and movement (brainstem and diencephalon) regions of their brains are quite developed, and the thinking and reasoning parts (neocortex) of their brains are very underdeveloped.  They flee to the safety of their coop each evening due to instinct.  Hens also tend to be quite submissive when they feel they can’t flee.  They do this little squatty thing and then they freeze.  They are prey animals that are at the bottom of the food chain, and their flight and freeze responses are pretty strong. 

 SO. . . when we first brought these little girls home they immediately began to do what their survival brains told them to do – organize for safety through establishing a pecking order. The lowest survival regions of our human brains (and my chickens’ brains) are wired to identify threat, this includes the perceived threat when someone is different from us.  This is designed to keep us safe. 


Our oldest and deepest survival responses push us to seek out group members who are similar to us so that we belong and blend in. Our brain scans the environment and others over and over, looking for anomalies.  It is an over-simplistic yet effective function when we consider physical safety.  If we see what we expect to see, our brains and bodies can rest.  If we see something unexpected, we have to evaluate it, which requires extra energy and takes more time.  


The 4 dark chickens immediately became their own little flock and the light chickens became their own little flock.  They began to segregate and be quite nasty and aggressive to each other – literally pecking at members of the other flock.  What is even more interesting is that when we bought these chickens they were already living in the same pen – they were not strangers to each other.  Non-rational survival impulses kept telling them that they needed to organize by ‘same’ and ‘other’. These behaviors were merely survival functions arising from the lowest, most primitive regions of the brain.   


However, within about a month they stopped segregating, which made me wonder…what had changed


What I realized upon reflection was that they had begun to ease into their new environment.  They knew where to find food and water, and there was never a shortage.  They had plenty of space to move and explore.  Quite simply, there wasn’t a shortage of resources.  


They also began to understand, in a very predictable manner, what the humans in their life would do and began to build a relationship that would engage higher regions of the brain.  


At the Jobe household, we strive to not expect or reinforce submissive behaviors with our chickens (or anybody else really) or do things that encourage our chickens to flee or freeze.  For example, when I walk close to a chicken and it does that submissive squatty thing I simply stay exactly where I am, while breathing and regulating, until the chicken stands up and relaxes and then I move on.  


The need to submit and appease keeps all animals, including humans, in the lower, survival regions of the brain.  A shortage of resources does the same.  Unpredictability in the environment, in general, does the same. 


I believe the chickens no longer felt the need to segregate and be aggressive to each other because they began to feel safe. . . or at least safer.   


The more safety they felt the less clear their hierarchy became and one night I realized that they were no longer segregating in the chicken coop. We also noticed that during the day they interacted more peacefully.  


What I take away from observing my chickens:


  1.     Segregation and aggression were not cognitive experiences – they were not a conscious choice.  It was the result of animals in the survival parts of their brain.  Segregation was a somatic experience.


  1.     Unity was not a cognitive experience.  When the survival parts of the brain began to feel safe, the divisive and aggressive behaviors subsided.   Period. Unity was a somatic experience.


  1.     Racist behaviors happened in the most lower regions of the brain and were healed in the most lower regions of the brain.  Racism is a somatic experience.


When I say segregation was not a “cognitive experience” I mean that I don’t think the chickens had belief systems that were driving their behaviors.  Therefore, cognitive therapy would not have been effective with my chickens.   Cognitive therapies operate on the premise that what we think or believe influences our emotions which, in turn, influences our behaviors.  Therefore, a basic tenet of cognitive work is that we must first change our thoughts or beliefs to change our feelings so we can behave differently.  This is a top-down approach.  We first address what is happening in the most upper regions of the brain (the neocortex) and move down.  


It seems to me that much of the racial justice movement is operating off of this same premise. . . If we can just get people to change their beliefs and their thoughts, their behaviors will change.  I do think this is a starting point, but in my personal experience, this is only a bandaid. Let’s discuss what I think happened for my chickens and what I think is a powerful alternative to cognitive work.    


What we know about the chickens is that their neocortex (the area of the brain responsible for thoughts) is very underdeveloped.  The parts of the brain responsible for body sensations, survival functions, and movement are highly developed.  My chickens were engaging in racist behaviors from the lower regions of their brain, and it was somatic work that was effective.  From a brain perspective, somatic therapies are exactly the opposite of cognitive therapies.  A basic premise is that what we sense in our bodies, affects how we feel (our emotions), which influences our beliefs and thoughts.  So, if you want to change a belief, you must first address the body sensations which are only addressed first through safety, given that body sensations are located in the parts of the brain responsible for primitive, reflexive, fast survival responses. 


Aggression, “othering” and hierarchies became practically non-existent when the chickens felt safe  – when repeated experiences of body sensations told them they could relax and trust.


Now, I realize humans aren’t chickens, but a brain is built similarly in any species – bottom to top and inside out – with survival existing in the deepest regions and reasoning and thought existing in the highest regions, with relational connections nested in the middle.  All brains use body sensations to inform those survival regions, which then send messages to the uppermost regions.  This means what gets built into our survival regions – both through biology and experience – will affect the uppermost regions (where our thoughts and reasoning exist).  


This means a sense of threat in our bodies will motivate us to make more aggressive, divisive, and hierarchical choices…whether we are aware of it or not.


Can divisiveness and aggression also be “trained” into our cognitive awareness and lead to specific choices?  Yes, of course.   We unconsciously learn what feels safe and what doesn’t from our repeated experiences in relationships with others.  Our caregivers, our families, and our communities tell us what is safe and what isn’t.  As we grow, these implicit biases can become explicit and more conscious. For most of us though, that is not the case.  Most of us fall into divisiveness unconsciously when our bodies or communities tell us we are not safe, and the choices we make then are based on the deep-seated implicit biases that are woven into the lowest regions of our brain.  Therefore, it is not just our individual body that needs healing, it is the collective body of our families and our communities, as well.


We ALL have implicit biases built into us – no one is exempt from this.  


Research tells us that babies start to distinguish between skin tone and prefer familiar faces/skin tones as early as 3 months old.  It is something that has been built into the deepest parts of our brains and bodies from the beginning.  In the moments we feel unsafe, our deepest survival instincts take over, including our implicit biases.  In order for us to be able to overcome these implicit biases, we must focus on helping our bodies feel safe.  


We are called to bring our implicit biases into our awareness so they no longer motivate our actions and choices unconsciously.  


For this, we need more moments of felt safety when our bodies can relax and trust – so that we may move more and more into a loving, connected relationship with ourselves and others.  The beauty of the human brain is that we can consciously choose to practice feeling safer in our bodies – while others will affect us, we can also give ourselves the gift of felt safetyOur felt safety ripples out into co-regulation and felt safety for others, and ripples back to us as safety from the community.  We feed the community and it feeds us.


At Natural Lifemanship, we have a powerful lineup of opportunities to explore our own somatic experiences as they relate to bias – we aspire to cultivate a safe and supportive format in the hopes that you will join us on this journey.  


Sign up for our upcoming Webinar Series:  Embodied Conversations about Racism and Antiracism with Vanessa Timmons and Bonnie Badenoch


Or join the conversation at our virtual conference Interconnected 2020 where we will dig deeper into subjects like implicit bias, the neurobiology of “othering”, cultural somatics, and felt safety!  PLUS 15 other categories!

Finding the Way

Finding the Way

One of my now-favorite yoga instructors leads her students through a series of poses several times at the beginning of each class, both by demonstration and verbal cueing, and then falls silent as she continues to move through the sequence without calling out the poses as we go forward.  At intervals, she reminds us, “Trust your body.  You know the way.”  

At first, I would become confused about which pose to do next without her spoken directions, and found myself constantly checking to see if I was doing the same pose as she was (which sometimes involved awkwardly craning my neck and twisting my body to observe her next move.  Yes, I did fall over a few times.  This is less painful than falling off a horse but no less embarrassing).  Over time, however, I began to trust my muscle memory, realizing that after a few passes through the sequence, my body truly did “know the way.”  I could close my eyes and allow myself to flow through the series from one pose to the next without having to constantly glance over at the instructor.  

I also accepted that sometimes I was out of sequence or off the pace but that this really didn’t matter so long as I was matching my breath to my movements and staying centered and grounded in my own practice of being mindfully present in my own body and in my own space on my yoga mat.  

Something about this phrase “you know the way,” caught my attention early on and kept me coming back to her class despite the initial awkwardness involved in her lack of cueing (I am a rule follower and want to “get things right.”)  

As a young immigrant with Dutch parents, I often found myself ignorant of the customs, idioms, and cultural knowledge that my American peers took for granted.  Halloween was a mystery (but a fun one. Who can beat the combination of costumes and candy?)  We opened presents on the 5th of December (Sinterklaas) instead of the 25th.  We put mayonnaise on our French Fries and chocolate sprinkles on our sandwiches (both are delicious, by the way).  I often found myself looking around to see how others were behaving, speaking, or dressing to try to fit in and not inadvertently relegate myself to social Siberia.  

In other words, I did not learn to trust myself to “know the way.”  Developing an eating disorder early in life further disrupted my ability to listen to and trust my body or my brain.  It has taken me years of healing and recovery to discover that I can know what I need and want and have enough value to take steps to seek for those needs and wants to be met.

Many of us are finding that we currently do not “know the way” forward due to conflicting information and differing opinions on how and even whether to re-open the economy and resume activities previously banned due to the coronavirus restrictions.  People are passionately divided over how to best pursue safety and sanity during these uncertain times.  The news coverage is full of angry confrontations between those with conflicting belief systems.  The confusion, chaos, and lack of clear direction can lead us to feelings of overwhelm, hopelessness, powerless, and even despair. No matter where you land in this ongoing debate about the collective good vs. individual rights and freedoms, however, there are certain principles that can help us “know the way” during this challenging time:


Compassion for ourselves and others.  Chronic stress can overwhelm our coping mechanisms and cause us to behave and speak in ways we normally wouldn’t.  Be quick to apologize and quick to forgive both ourselves and others.  


Kindness towards ourselves and others.  Now, more than ever, we need to have patience and grace as we all struggle to adjust to a new normal that we don’t always understand how to navigate successfully.


Patience towards ourselves and others.  Learning new skills and alternate ways of doing tasks takes time.  We learn everything new by trial and error, from walking to multiplication to riding a bicycle. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes.  Learning to ask for help and to laugh at ourselves can help defuse a potentially frustrating or defeating situation.


Acceptance of ourselves, others, and our new circumstances.  Acceptance is sometimes mistaken for liking or wanting or being “ok” with someone or something.  Actually, acceptance is simply acknowledging that the current situation “is what it is.”  It doesn’t mean we like it or want it that way, just that it is that way.  Until we accept that something is currently true, we cannot put any energy or attention towards trying to make any changes, because all of our energy is being channeled into defense mechanisms like denial, or minimization, or avoidance (my three favorites, personally).  Only once we accept, or acknowledge a problem, can we begin to consider ways to tackle it and make things better.  This extends to accepting ourselves, as we currently are, and others as well.  Acceptance is not resignation.  It is the beginning of empowerment for change.

I had to learn to stop looking around to see what everyone else was doing in order to fit in.  I realized my nervous system was designed to keep me safe and help me make decisions and take actions congruent with my own values, beliefs, needs, and wants. While it is important to consult trusted sources for guidance in areas outside of our area of expertise, is it also important to check in with yourself to see what feels right for your particular wiring, personality, moral compass, and situation, as well as considering your emotional, mental and physical capacity.  

Turn off the news, find a quiet place, close your eyes, and check-in with yourself (and your Higher Power if this is part of your belief system).  Don’t just look outward.  Look inward.  You know the way.

Kathleen Choe is an LPC-S and NL Trainer.  Learn more with her at the Natural Lifemanship Conference, Interconnected 2020!