What Role Can White Folks Have in Healing Justice?

Reviewing: Liberated to the Bone by Susan Raffo

Liberated to the Bone is an excellent book on its own, but I particularly love the way it fits into AK Press’s Emergent Strategy series, as well as into conversation with a number of other recently-published titles. At a meta level, there’s something deeply refreshing about how all these books that are recognizing a deep need for humanity to re-enter into relationship (with ourselves, with other humans, with lineage, with land, with non-human kin) are also in relationship with each other, filling in different perspectives within a larger theme.

Like Emergent Strategy itself, this book operates from a healing justice lens and prioritizes relationship and practice, blending learnings from movement organizing with learnings from healing and nature. What is different is that “healing” here zooms in on the physical human body and focuses on the responsibilities of white people (and especially white women and non-binary people in healing professions). This book will have a lot of resonance, I believe, for white folks (especially queers and feminists) who’ve operated in both movement spaces and healing or spiritual spaces, and who have struggled to figure out an ethical approach to justice that is both accountable and loving. I would especially recommend it to bodyworkers and current organizers.

Author Susan Raffo is a craniosacral therapist in her sixties with deep roots in so-called Minnesota, and is a queer white woman whose work is informed by indigenous teachers. She has significant history in organizing spaces and in the healing justice movement, with strong ties to local community efforts, and wrote some of the pieces in this book originally as a blogger, receiving feedback from her audience before eventual publication. All of these things clearly inform her writing, as does a tone that ranges from nurturing and poetic to unflinchingly direct in naming the sins of capitalism, colonization, and white people in general.

Raffo provides a lot of detailed information about the body in a lyrical, inspiring format, reminding me of Emergent Strategy but also Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Undrowned in how she uses natural metaphor to write about our present context and urgent work of liberation. While the metaphors here do also include references to non-human kin as those two titles do, Raffo focuses primarily on what our own bodies can teach us about liberation. She explains that “the body communicates in poetry,” approaching anatomy not as a hard-and-fast set of rules but as a poetic language or a cultural understanding that can shift and vary according to context and personal experience.

We learn about the role of cellular membrane, for example, and how every single cell in our body holds a kind of memory, making decisions in a vast relational network. We learn about the lungs and all the crucial roles of the breath, and I especially appreciated how tenderly Raffo addressed this for those of us who are actually struggling to access a full breath due to COVID and feel very disconnected from our somatic practices because of it. We also learn about how our lives begin and how embryos start life surrounded, as pretty much all living bodies are surrounded, by multiple layers of support and protection. Each of these lessons are woven seamlessly with more conceptual considerations around relationship, human nature, and change. Raffo also suggests practices from these body-based teachings that we can try in the moment as we read, for example consulting all three of our “brains” (thinking mind, heart, and gut) and holding their contradictory truths as wisdom from a body-based community.

I love the way Raffo brings a dialectical approach to her work and acknowledges the importance of what is emerging, and thus by definition unfinished. I mean dialectical here in the sense of acknowledging contradicting things to be simultaneously true—white people on Turtle Island are colonizers and perpetrators, for example, and humans deserving of love and care and holding our own traumatic wounding. Individual healing is necessary to collective change and we cannot center our healing, especially if we are white. Campaigns matter to stop a crisis, and campaign work is necessarily reactionary and insufficiently relational to sustain a movement. We can be both oppressors and oppressed.

One fascinating example of this as applied to the body comes up in the context of considering chiropractic vs. craniosacral therapy (and similarly, deep tissue bodywork vs. a lighter touch approach that encourages the body to do its own shifting.) Raffo acknowledges that sometimes deep, forceful work is required to re-align our bodies, but we also require a more gentle, consistent approach over time to address lifelong trauma. The same is true when it comes to approaching justice—she emphasizes in several contexts that a lightbulb moment through a bodywork session or in another healing or organizing space may be immediately transformative, but it doesn’t actually change much unless it becomes part of a consistent practice over time.

While most of the overall themes Raffo presents are not new to me, I found lots of new context and specifics, as well as plenty of instances of timely remembering. In the opening sections, which provide the most coherent structural frame before topics begin to wander a little more throughout the rest of the book and read more like an essay collection, Raffo lays out the basic groundwork of the anti-Black, anti-indigenous history and overall context of the United States, as well as the importance of the body and relationship. But through an emphasis on her own context, I learned more about the specific history of Minnesota, as well as a somewhat surprising background to the foundation of genocidal boarding schools that I hadn’t considered before—one that shows how the women running these horrifically abusive institutions actually started out focused on Native sovereignty. Similarly, Raffo’s focus on craniosacral therapy brings in a perspective that I haven’t seen in other books written by healers and bodyworkers (e.g. Hilary L. McBride’s The Wisdom of Your Body or Laura Mae Northrup’s Radical Healership).

I was more familiar with Raffo’s topics around movement spaces, including the depressing shift in the late 90s towards a focus on same-sex marriage, but I appreciated the vulnerability here of continuing to hold the dialectic and appreciate the perspectives of those we might prefer to write off. Raffo considers a range of topics from the concept of moral injury to a framing of triggers as time-travel. She gets specific about the dynamics of justice-oriented spaces, addressing how both grounding and activating practices have their place, what it’s like to organize in a space without relational context for the participants, and the balance between communication as a plea to be seen and as a form of self-expression. She also describes how cis white men learn to “self-settle” to unconsciously avoid taking on any responsibility or experience of being out of control, which is a concept I think could be broadly applicable to understanding how movement work gets sabotaged. This is very much a starting point to a conversation, and I didn’t agree with every take, but there is something important in how she connects our personal experiences of trauma and embodiment with how we come together and attempt to make change.

The book does a lot of heavy lifting, but it’s also clearly written from one woman’s perspective, without any claims to broader authority. It’s hard to read about some of the really fascinating radical efforts Raffo has been a part of, around mutual aid and care for example, and then to realize that these movements have either never really gotten off the ground or are still in their infancy. That said, it’s an honest accounting of where we are right now, in this moment. You’ll likely bounce between deep grief, frustration, and hope as you read. At the same time, Raffo guides you through this by encouraging the reader to take a somatic approach in the framing chapters at the beginning of the book. She regularly suggests that you take a pause, attend to your breath, and check in with your own inner knowing, trusting that knowing to guide you beyond the actual words you read. She also suggests other body-based ways to absorb the material as you go, rather than simply reading about the body, grounding your learning and your emotion.

For white readers, Raffo strikes an unusual balance between the sort of “here is what you must do” list of homework and a vulnerability that is not simply “let me tell you how I fucked up before I knew better” but is more “let me tell you how I am continuing to struggle, and how I can often be both right and wrong.” The ambiguity here is critical, as this is never a linear or complete story. I often feel exhausted when reading large piles of suggestions that are both super important and incredibly daunting to attend to alongside struggling to meet my basic needs. I then end up doing a lot of self-tending, reminding myself that trying to jumpstart any significant sense of interdependence at nearly forty in the middle of a pandemic is hard work to try to undertake alongside all these suggestions that are best implemented in relationship and alongside an existing community, that the point isn’t to punish myself, and that it’s only internalized whiteness that creates a sense of discomfort when I can’t really achieve or resolve anything in this work, as it is meant to remain open.

I’ve done a lot of the kinds of reflection Raffo describes, and I also know that I will have a lot more work to do until the day I die, always holding the very real responsibility in one hand and the exhaustion and need to not enact counterproductive self-punishment strategies in the other. While I in some ways agree with Raffo’s essay in this book that suggests we stop using the term “empath,” as if being sensitive to the energies around us is an abnormal experience rather than remembering what is very, very natural, and I have found trauma-processing useful, I do also think that for some neurotypes it is simply a fact of how our bodies operate that we will always be a little extra sensitive to criticism, others’ pain, and the reminder of our own legacies of harm. That’s something we may never fully learn how to hold in a capitalist, colonized world.

That said, while my nerves did on occasion feel a little shouted at, Raffo didn’t abandon me to do my own work but instead contributed some of that caring, self-tending voice as well. She reminds the white reader that we start doing this work from a place of both privilege and almost total deprivation around some of the things that matter most, like community and relationship, and that each of us can only be one actor in a collective movement. These realities are often either just given lip service or overemphasized in abdication of responsibility, and it’s rare to find an author that simultaneously holds the voice of fierce advocate and genuinely caring peer. While I certainly don’t believe that white folks shouldn’t be coddled around racism or that any of the facts should be tempered to feed our egos or meet our fragility, I do think there is perhaps the most transformation to be found in an approach like this that blends rage with compassion.

The way Raffo describes the history of white folks and our carrying of trauma from generation to generation is hard to sit with, but it also helps the white reader to understand why we are so disconnected and deficient, and not to expect significant change in this lifetime, given our distance in some cases of many thousands of years from an intact culture. Through the language of trauma and relationship betrayal, Raffo demonstrates that oppression is at the core about cutting ourselves off from relationship, which is at the center of everything. Like coyotes, humans have the ability to survive without a pack, but we aren’t supposed to. And since white folks are never taught the actually useful skills that children learn in an intact culture, we are likely to simply perpetrate cycles of harm, over and over again.

Raffo suggests practices that might break this cycle, such as trying to reconnect to and know our lineages, build relationship with elders, and learn to protect our communities’ children, but I also get the sense that given the state of pandemic, many of us will not be able to do that work in our lifetimes, and that’s something we simply have to make peace with. Perhaps we are in a generation of simply starting to fumble towards desire for connection, and pass on that desire, even if we will not all have the opportunity to be in presence and relationship with each other again. “Shifting the soft tissues, the nonlinear aspects of the fluid self, shifting our habits and patterns: this is slow work,” Raffo writes. “It takes a long time and it does not ascribe to a rigid strategy, because what shifts over a small period of time then shifts everything that happens afterward. There is no map, there is just living.”

ARC provided through Edelweiss. Purchases using the above link support me, as well as local bookstores!

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