Some of my more anxious moments as a Rolfing student included gathering as a group to watch a classmate walk while calling out what we “saw.” I rarely had a contribution, and sat in a mix of awe of disbelief that many of my classmates were able to identify patterns, suddenly intuit old injuries, or even conjecture about a person’s childhood traumas. My takeaways from these exercises--along with many stories about Dr. Rolf and other famous practitioners’ abilities to see--was that 1.) if I did not learn how to see properly I would struggle to be a skilled, efficient practitioner and 2.) it is acceptable, and potentially helpful, to make conjectures about a client based on observable features like body type, gender presentation, skin color, gait, gaze, and beyond.
At the time, I wanted to be the best student and willed myself to wake up one day with the ability to see. Now, I am satisfied that the ability did not reveal itself (and still has not over a year later). By not seeing I avoid the ways dominant culture teaches us to view the other. Moreover, since convening with colleagues to discuss antiracism and liberation, I have a new appreciation of how treacherous “seeing” the way it was taught to me can be.
Whether in a classroom setting or in our offices with clients, it is probable that as we “see,” we participate in long and fraught history of the visual observation of a body as being an indicator of a person’s character--and that the power lies with the observer. SI practitioners do not work in a vacuum outside of history. Rather, our visual culture and how we are taught to observe the world encourages implicit and explicit biases.
This history includes Eurocentric projects like pseudoscience, phrenology, colorism and racialized phenotypes. All of these are examples of scientific or biological racism--entire systems concocted to oppress non-white bodies by estabilishing the white European able-body as racially superior. These efforts were backed by violent data collection. Even prior to the Transatlantic slave trade, European nobles and scientists were keenly interested in providing justification--aside from imperialism and wealth accumulation--for the inferiority of non-white people. Studying, measuring, exhibiting, and dissecting non-white bodies were part of this project, so that everyone--both those in power and the people they oppressed--would have a visual understanding of what justified dominance.
Easily propagandized, documentation of brutal pseudoscience abounds from that era. An oft-cited example is Sarah Baartman, an indigenous Khoekhoe woman from what is now South Africa. Her employer exhibited her in Britain and France as an anatomical spectacle at freak shows from 1810 until her death in 1815. Europeans would pay to see and touch her, even her genitalia. After her death, a French zoologist named Georges Cuvier performed a dissection of Bartmaan’s body, and her remains were displayed in various natural history museums in France through the late 1970s. Cuvier is considered one of the fathers of biological racism, and used Baartman’s body, among others, to put forth an argument that white bodies were the most evolved. Clinging to the dregs of colonial power, France did not agree to return Bartmaan’s remains to her people until 2002, when she was put to rest at her birthplace.
Baartman is one of infinite examples of Black bodies being on view; observable; condensed into knowable information about their character, intelligence, and evolvedness for white audiences and so-called scientists for the purposes of gleaning and maintaining power. Growing up in a culture where seeing is believing, and whiteness is goodness because blackness is depraved has real, lethal consequences. Over 200 years after Sarah Baartman’s death, Black people in this country and elsewhere have been murdered based on what cops or, frankly, white men with guns see when they encounter a dark-skinned person.
Less fatal but nonetheless insidious comments regarding someone’s body as being a signifier of their behaviour and character happen all the time. Structural Integration is no exception. What does it say about our culture--in the U.S. or in the SI field--that a white classmate of mine at DIRI posited after a homework assignment to observe people in public that “Black men must have all kinds of problems because so many sag their pants,” or cavalierly stating that “Asian people just move and interact with the world differently?” While these examples may not be as overtly racist as comparing skull sizes as a way to prove white intellectual superiority, it is the 21st century version of believing another’s body is ours to view and access, and that the “information” we receive says something about that person and people who look like them. Within the context of Structural Integration, doing so under the guise of a therapeutic relationship and a journey toward embodiment makes “seeing” all the more treacherous.
As a new practitioner, I have yet to find an alternative to seeing as it is currently taught and practiced. It is necessary to our SI practices to observe how a person moves and is aligned, but it is also important to acknowledge that a Black, Indigenous, or person of mixed or non-white heritage may physically and emotionally navigate the world in a different way for their safety, to express themselves and their culture, etc. As practitioners we need to be aware of how we are participating in a wider culture of observation, and what our reference point is. We need to check ourselves to make sure it’s not the Vitruvian Man, or a model body based on scientific racism. Are we “seeing” or exercising power? And if we are white, we need to consider how it is that any non-white person can feel safe in observation by white eyes.