On June 15th, Anne Phyfe Palmer and 8 Limbs Yoga Centers hosted “A Conversation on Cultural Competency” workshop. This was the second in a series of conversations that began in April 2016. The following is my account of the teachings from the session.

What We Did

The facilitators started the conversation by framing its purpose as being able to find a middle ground where growth happens: outside of being comfortable, while not being overwhelming.

The facilitators created a list of ten “Brave Space Agreements” that outlined boundaries to foster a culturally competent conversation. Two of those agreements were “Speak from your own experience” and “Don’t assume you know others’ experience.”

The facilitators made clear that this was a conversation centered on racism, but to isolate racism specifically is an artificial distinction of oppression. We can’t fully understand oppression through racism without understanding the intersectionality of all forms of oppression. We used the definition of intersectionality as “interlocking oppressions that create a unique and specific experience of marginalization.”

We explored examples of intersectionality by making the conversation personal. The first step to being able to effectively address oppression caused by white privilege in our yoga spaces is to have an honest understanding of the intersectionality of all of our own personal privileges.We used the definition of privilege as “an unearned right, favor, advantage, or immunity, especially granted to one individual or group and withheld from another.” We were given examples of the following characteristics to explore how they manifest as privilege in our personal lives.

  • Class
  • Race
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Formal education
  • Sexual orientation
  • Citizenship / immigration status
  • Urban / rural
  • First language
  • Gender identity and expression
  • Healthcare access
  • Family
  • Body size
  • Income
  • Ability / disability
  • Homeownership
  • Mental health
  • Ethnic group

A third notable agreement was to “respect intention.” While respecting each other’s intentions, we also need to accept that having good intentions does not free us from the impact of our actions. If something I say is hurtful to another person, the hurt is valid even if the words came from good intentions.

The facilitators then divided oppression into 4 stages
  1. Internalized: self-imposed
  2. Interpersonal: imposed by another individual
  3. Institutional: imposed by institutions
  4. Systemic/Structural/Cultural/Historical: imposed on the broadest level of a societal or cultural system

We broke in to three smaller groups to work separately on each perspective, with Internalized and Interpersonal grouped together.

The questions that each group addressed were, generally:
  1. How does racism and white privilege show up in our own experiences of yoga on each of the levels of oppression?
  2. What solutions exist to address and alleviate the oppression?
The Takeaways

The reoccurring themes from the group discussions were to:

  1. Be aware of your own reality and the reality of others.
  2. Challenge yourself to become more educated on topics that are unclear.

“Racism” and “white privilege” are heavy words used to describe the actions of our institutions, our society and even ourselves. These open conversations on privilege can illicit shame, blame, and guilt. It also shines light on our realities through the engagement of difficult conversations that may challenge society’s deeply embedded norms. Growth comes from sitting with those uncomfortable feelings, rather than disassociating from them.

Rosa Vissers, the Executive Director of Yoga Behind Bars, states that we can “take responsibility as white folks, rather than depending on people of color to sort out [the implications of] oppression for us.” As a person with white privilege, the acknowledgement of responsibility is the first major hurdle to overcome in this journey into cultural competency.

Approximately 40 people showed up for the conversation. This demonstrates that there is a community eager for change. History has taught us that the change will happen faster if we work together. In a place like Seattle, where a social “freeze” can make it challenging to meet like-minded people, the evolution it took to get this room of people connected and talking about cultural competency is a major accomplishment.

The afternoon ended with an emphasis on how to continue this ongoing conversation with more ways to get involved:
  1. Join the Facebook group, tentatively named PNW Yogis for Race and Social Justice.
  2. Attend the panel on Cultural Appropriation in yoga, coming this Fall. More details to be announced.
  3. Mark your calendar to participate in the next training: Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment, on December 9, 2016 at 8 Limbs Yoga in Phinney Ridge.
  4. Attend a workshop or ask your employer to host a workshop on undoing racism. The People’s Institute for Survival hosts workshops and is a great resource for social justice and inequality.

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