Helping white men lose control

Susan Raffo
Apr 19 · 14 min read

Everything has a history. Every pattern of power and oppression has history behind it. These patterns are held in our bodies, passed down from parent to child, turned into culture, protected as the ways in which we survive. Everything started somewhere. Everything has a before.

The word “control” was first recorded early in the 14th century in England. It was a concrete and specific word. It referred to a form of fact checking; a way of comparing two wheels with the same information in order to fact check your accounts. This was a time when English cities were getting too big to be self-sustaining. This was a time when trade relationships were developed and then deepened between town and countryside. When towns were first becoming the center of a web of relationships based on trade rather than mutual survival and interdependence. This was also the beginning of money; when trade began to move outside of natural barter and relationship exchanges. This was an unsettled time: the Great Famine and the Black Death decimated the population. The Black Death killed 60% of Londoners and between 20 and 60% of people in towns and villages all across England and western Europe. This destabilization of population led to peasant revolts and eventually civil war. With so many dead, strict gender roles were turned on their head with women sometimes the only surviving adults in a community. For a brief period of time, women traveled more, earned money, and generally more often ran things than women before or for many generations after. In the midst of all of this, the word “control” was born. Unsettled and shifting gender and class relationships, the development of trade relationships between town and country, and a movement away from relationship based trade and towards a cash economy. Control.

There have been a few times in my practice when I have spent 90 minutes with a straight white cisman* supporting him to learn how to physically emotionally and mentally let go of his control and his power. This means helping him to experience shifting some very early conditioning, to take the “stuff” of power and control and physically hand it to another person, in this case, me. I am not talking about control over any particular thing. These are not organizational or a political moments. This is about something deeply felt; something within a body that wants to shift and heal.

One man in particular had come to do work on his relationships. He wanted to know why, no matter how hard he tried, his partners didn’t fully trust him. As with many of the white folks with class privilege I work with, his first practice was to learn how to feel his own body. After all, if you can’t hear the impact of life on your own body, then you have a hard time hearing the impact of your life on others bodies. This man got this part fairly quickly, could feel an increase and decrease in his respiration, a shifting in expansion and contraction within his body. After that, we started to listen to how his body was responding to what his partners were saying. Each time he got close to anything that was difficult or uncomfortable or confusing, he immediately self-settled.

Self-settling or self regulation is our birthright. It’s our ability to bring our own nervous system down when we are overwhelmed. It’s what self care supports. It’s what trauma derails. Self settling can be, like all things, both a tool and a weapon. Self-settling, in this case, is when the person you are sitting with suddenly, in the midst of pain or chaos, is ok. Not ok in a grounded connected way, like deeply with you and what is happening, but ok in their little self enclosed island. You can feel them leave you and when you reach out, attempt to connect, they act as though nothing has changed. Because for them, nothing has. Unconscious self-settling. It’s one of the ways that different forms of supremacy are conditioned into bodies: the ability to leave relationship and retreat into a separated isolated self without actually feeling a sense of disconnection. It’s that kind of moment where the person is saying, “I’m fine over here, all good, the skies are blue, why are you still so upset?” and meanwhile, the world is burning all around them and you are starting to smolder.

This, of course, is what trauma does, this separation into an isolated self. The moment of disconnection when the mind actually wants connection or when it feels as though there is no other option. I deeply believe that raising babies to become white or male or other dominant culture adults who isolate in this way is a form of developmental trauma. It’s an attachment disorder, a disconnection from the unhealed nature of the original wounds on this land which means a deep and generational form of disconnection. For white folks, it’s an attachment disorder tied to European histories of violence and separation that congealed into culture and then shaped empire. And because of this, I use the word trauma carefully. While dominance starts with a kind of developmental betrayal, supremacy then orders the world around itself to make sure that nothing can ever contradict, harm, or just plain get in to the other side of that separated wall. By ordering the world, I mean using forms of violence and control and minimization and disappearance to keep those with power safe and protected from anything that might be, well, uncomfortable. This ordering and controlling the world is not trauma, this is domination. And it is called normal. Think educational systems, prison systems, media representation, the expectations of the so called American Dream, gender roles, beauty standards, and on and on and on. Cue white fragility and male fragility and all other forms. The early attachment betrayal that creates supremacy is a contradiction: it’s both a tool and a weapon at the same time.

Before I go any further, I want to say directly: this piece is talking about white cisgender men within a US context. I know that some of these same patterns show up in the bodies of men of color and of other forms of masculine expression and they show up in men outside of the US. But here, I am talking about US white cisgender men. What it means to “lose control” is not the same thing for a Black man, a Latinx man, a Hmong man, or for a person whose masculinity is perceived to be suspect in some way and/or who wasn’t raised as a boy before identifying as a man.

Over the last year, I have had three different practitioners reach out to me to talk about how the hell you work with ciswhite men. These three other practitioners have NOT been ciswhite men, they have not all been white, and they have all been bodyworkers. They have had men show up who want something different, who want to get to the other side of this thing that the people they trust are calling out in them. They just have no idea what to do or how to get there. They can’t even see what is being pointed out, but they trust the people doing the pointing.

I don’t know what it’s like to be raised as a boy. I don’t know what it’s like to have the specific physiological and cultural experiences that most often show up in people defined as male. I assume that there are men who have done their work who are able to help other men with this power unpacking, but if they are there, we can’t find them in the Twin Cities. And so, these men are coming to us. To a range of women and nonbinary folk, asking for help.

A few times, with the men I have worked with, getting them to let go of control meant, for a moment, becoming what I imagine a boot camp sergeant is like: getting very close, getting in their face, and actually pushing hard until they let go. The first time I did this, I felt off center. This is not what a bodyworker does. We listen and support the body itself to find its own way. But here was a situation with full consent and someone who deeply wanted to lose control and had no idea of how to do it; no sense of what to listen to inside that could then be the clue to follow. They were not vulnerable or overwhelmed. They didn’t know HOW to be overwhelmed. They shut down before it even got there, like a wind that is starting to rise and then suddenly, disappears and leaves a vacuum. And so I got close. And pushed and yelled and there it was, a raw wounded place that did not immediately close up and hide away. And these men felt. A lot. And it was big and huge and overwhelming and lasted for about three minutes before it all shut down again.

And when it shut down, things were not the same.

“Oh, oh, OH, that’s what you have been talking about!” one said. “That was awful and wonderful and then it went away.”

Many years ago, I worked for a community foundation. We didn’t have a big endowment so the money we put into community was money we raised from community members with cash. Because wealth is all about race and class and gender and access, we had a lot of conversations with wealthy white men, asking them to give to our work which focused on wealth redistribution — making sure that cash got into communities of color, to trans and nonbinary communities, to rural poor and working class communities. We had deep conversations. We worked to build relationship and alignment. We struggled over very different experiences of life and understandings of the world. In conversation, I did that mix of mental body ideas and vision with a more body-based what-is-your-life-telling-you-at-this-moment kind of work. What became clear was not new or revolutionary, but it felt deep to me.

Within the context of the work of this foundation, these men were socially centered, protected by their race, gender and class. They had a lot of extra wealth. And they used that wealth and their access to either bulldoze their way through community or to ignore the parts of community they didn’t like. They were giving their money to their interests and this felt like, to them, a fair and rational choice. As we went deeper and I asked them about where they felt a sense of belonging, basic kinds of attachment questions, there was grayness. When I listened for compassion or empathy from these men, an awareness that they were choosing to say no to people in struggle in order to say yes to giving more dollars to large art organizations, there was nothing. It’s a very different thing to feel the truth of someone else’s pain, stand in your own dignity and life, and make a choice than to make a choice without any felt sense of the life of those around you.

There has been a fair amount of research over the last few years on the effect that power has on the brain. They all name a similar thing: individual power or significant individual success numbs out a part of our neurochemistry called mirroring. Mirroring is, for most bodies, the basis of compassion; it’s also the way we learn things as small children without ever directly being “taught” them. Mirroring is the nervous system’s way of saying: I am you, you are me. The experience of “winning” at a large scale can actually turn off mirroring; it removes the individual from evolution’s gift of helping us see and understand each other. This, in turn, impacts the neocortex, it impacts the right hemisphere of the brain, it impacts the body as a whole. Because identity and culture emerge out of experience, the longer that this impact is unchallenged, the longer it feels like normal. And once something feels “normal” to the body, then the body will fight to maintain that “normal” by bringing the survival system on line when “normal” feels threatened. And thus fragility is born. And thus dominance hijacks the body and the body’s sense of its own survival. And then we raise children.

What works to shift this disconnection? To remember, and not just as information but as a felt sense, an experience of feeling powerless. For those of you reading this who have never had to search for a feeling of powerlessness, this can raise an eyebrow. For those who have been so deeply protected by social structures, it can take a minute to get beneath the layers so that this memory can come through, but it always does. By bringing this feeling into the body and staying with it, really sensing in to it and body-remembering what it was like, those numbed out systems begin to come back on line. A sense of connection to others begins to tendril out to the world around. There is a glimmer of mirror returning.

This is not a one time thing. To shift this more deeply, to transform, is about doing this work again and again. If you are someone with social dominance, like a white man who started life as a wee baby, just as we all do, and you do this power shifting thing in a healing space, you build capacity for feeling these things within that healing space. If you don’t make changes in the outside world, then that outside world is going to reshape you, bring you back to the shape you are most used to being, the shape of control. Your mind will do all kinds of clever things, telling you how different you are as a result of what you did in that healing space. And there will be things that are different, but the different will not be as big as you think. You will become someone who lets go of control in private held spaces but who maintains control in the rest of your life. Transformation is an all or nothing deal.

Here is the ultimate contradiction, the place where politics and healing crash against each other. Politically these men are absolutely centered by systems of supremacy, cultural conditioning and their own internal sense of entitlement. Politically, our work is to uncenter them, to move them from the center to the margins as part of the process of creating a space where we have enough shared access that something else can emerge. It’s the same way the nervous system works in the body: when a nervous system is stuck in depression/oppression, it has to ramp up to activation and presence, take up space, before the nervous system can settle into the present moment. Too many kin have been oppressed for too long. Our collective nervous system has to shift power roles for awhile before we can find a new collective way. I believe this uncentering has to happen with every breath I take. I also believe that for any of what I am talking about here to happen, direct violence has to end first. I am not going to take the time to talk about feelings if someone’s legal, financial or physical control is about to cause direct harm to another person’s body.

And approaching from a healing lens asks for something additional. Violence is not always happening right now. And not all men are involved in direct violence. There are a hell of a lot of white men, straight and gay, who want things to be different, who want to step away from what their fathers and grandfathers before set up as the normal of their childhood. I believe that without white cismen changing who they are on the deepest inside, and who their children will grow up to be, then we will always have to fight at the borders, to make sure our own surveillance systems are set high so that they don’t come crashing back through again.

The contradiction is that our beloved babies, those white children who grow up to be men, have to have the space to do this deeper healing. They actually have to be supported to do it because, on their own, very few of them know how. And we need more who do. We need more white cismen who know how to let go of control which means to let go of what protects dominance and go into those hard nasty places and then turn to other white cismen and help them figure out how to do it, too. We need more white cismen to do this in front of each other and not only in front of women and nonbinary folks. Every time I hear of a story from a beloved in my life or a stranger on the web who is doing some form of this, my heart relaxes a little.

But there aren’t enough. I don’t know where to send these men who come asking for help. I don’t know where to send the boys and young men I love if and when they ask for this kind of help. None of us do, which is why we bodyworkers then reach out to each other asking questions like: how do you hold what happens when they want to step back to let others step forward but still resent it and need some place to bring that resentment? Do we support them to just have their emotions? How do we help them shift so that they can feel connection while they are stepping back, instead of needing to be in the middle to feel alive? How do we help them trust each other, when they keep turning just to us for the hard and scary conversations?

The three practitioners who reached out to me have all made intentional decisions to work with white cismen because they believe that someone has to or nothing will change. After emailing one of them, I picked up my computer and started to write this piece. I am remembering mixed gender spaces I have been in, one very recently, where as soon as our conversation turns to sexual violence, to sexism and transphobia, there is a lot of confusion about how much the cismen in the room should or shouldn’t talk about their own experience. There is this fierce call for them to just listen; to not self-settle; to not leave the relationship we are all trying to be in together. We want them to listen, not just with their minds but with their whole beings. And, again, here is the contradiction between political spaces and healing spaces. In order for them to listen, there has to be the space for them to heal what gets in the way of listening. And as long as there aren’t enough of them able to help each other, a bunch of us need to step in to help that space emerge.

This is not the work of all of us impacted by these men. This is the work of some of us impacted by these men.

Everything I am writing here could be written about every other form of dominance. Every single thing. And right now, I am writing about ciswhite men. One of the most influential pieces in my early politicization was a piece called Coalition Politics by Bernice Johnson Reagon. She was not talking about white cismen, she was talking about white feminists within the context of women’s studies in the early 1980s. I go back to this piece often, like a touchstone, a reminder of who I want to be in this work because I often forget. But her work is here, woven through every sentence on this page, and so I end with her words, because they say quickly and directly what I have taken pages to reflect:

The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who would possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way you can figure you can stay alive.

The image at the top of this page is of the muscle of the heart. It, like every other muscle, can tighten and loosen.

*For the most part, this entire piece is about cismen. For those who don’t know this term, “cis” stands for cisgender which is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. So “cismen” are people who were named as boys when they were born, largely because they have penises, and who identify as men now that they are adults. I know that some of the experiences listed in this piece are shared by people with a range of other gendered identities. I know that this is about toxic masculinity. For my own comfort with language and for the point I want to make, I move between naming cisgender as part of the identity and just naming “men.”

Susan Raffo

Thinking about the healing in justice and the justice in healing.

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