Ok community let’s all breathe deep and sit in the discomfort that yes racism and white supremacy show up on and off the mat. It is in our studios, who we hire as teachers, our pricing, our advertisement, our teacher trainings, and it shows up in countless micro aggressions in our language as teachers.
If anything the recent problematic incident involving Savitri and Melissa Hagedorn-Phillips (and the community‘s responses to this incident) at the Northwest Yoga Conference has taught us that we all need to sit, breathe, be uncomfortable and listen.
In passive-progressive Seattle, one of the worst things many of us white folks can imagine being called is a racist. It immediately gets our defenses up and we seek to disprove what we see as an accusation/attack against our character and moral fiber. We might think or even say something to the affect of “I am not racist some of my best friends are black, I voted for Obama twice and I vehemently speak out against Trump!” The problem here is that we are so afraid of being called racist we are less willing to look at how the impact of our words or actions has caused harm and supported the system of oppression: white supremacy. As soon as we get called out on the impact of our words or actions hurting an already marginalized person or population we think we need to defend our intentions to prove we are not racist. This is white fragility.
One of the issues is many white folks don’t really understand the terms racism and white supremacy. We think of hatred and ignorance. We picture tiki torches, swastika tattoos and lynchings. That is the extreme and a relatively small portion at the top of the white supremacy pyramid (see chart by Ellen Tuzzolo below) but as the diagram shows what is at the bottom, the foundation of the construct of white supremacy is where we can glean understanding of how we all participate in holding the structure together. Please take a moment to review the chart below:
White fragility also shows up as indifference and minimization (commonplace in our Seattle yoga scene). Colorblindness “we are all one” is pervasive in yoga communities and can make a person of color feel invisible and forced to leave a vital part of their identity at the door in order to feel welcomed in the space. It is up to us white yoga teachers and studio owners to educate ourselves on how to hold inclusive space so that more people across more of their differences can succeed more of the time without the need to give up part of their identity.
In the responses to the incident at Northwest Yoga Conference, we see many examples of minimization and indifference “two sides to every story” “prioritizing intention over impact” “tone policing” “victim blaming” and “denial of white privilege” to name a few, highlighting white fragility.
I lost track of how many comments I read that said something like “well something more must have happened, there are two sides to every story. I am waiting to hear what Melissa has to say.” and “to reduce this to a racially motivated incident is false.” Or “Bob Smith is a really kind person, please don’t judge him.” This to me feels more like refusal of white folks to see just how common it is for white privilege and oppression of non white folks to show up in our interactions. Placing more value on time and efficiency than content and wisdom is an example of how we contribute to the culture of white supremacy. As is choosing to not speak up because it doesn’t directly affect us. The latter is why I am writing this article. For the past few years, I have been digging deeply into looking at our collective shadow of racism oppressor/oppressed, power over/power under and how this shows up in me and my interactions and wish to call us into more awareness and share some resources that have helped me unpack my own privilege, biases and the unconscious harm I have caused. I have learned that our intention doesn’t really matter and taking accountability for the impact of our actions/words is an absolute must. This is what I have not yet seen in the responses from the Northwest Yoga Conference and the teachers/presenters who chose to speak out in support of the conference. In order to have the dialogue necessary to understand the impact of our actions/words we have to address our white fragility. One of the barriers that keeps us stuck in white fragility is defensiveness. The thing we tend to defend is our intentions.
I would like to speak to intention versus impact, with an example from my lens as a yoga teacher and student who is outside the “yoga norm.” When I say “yoga norm” I am speaking to how colonized our minds are to see able bodied, young, thin, flexible white women as the “norm” in yoga, especially as teachers. I am continually working to dismantle my colonized mind and see my blind spots.
Yoga teachers, for a moment picture yourself teaching at a studio that has two rooms and two different classes happening at the same time. You are leading a level 2 flow class and another teacher is in the second studio room teaching an intro to yoga class. Now imagine a student you have not yet met coming in who is large bodied and seems to be anxiously looking around this new environment for a place to put their mat. With the best of intentions, you walk over to see if they should be in the next room for the intro class. The student replies “no, I am here for the flow class.” You say great, introduce yourself, welcome the student and walk away thinking all is well. Yet as more students, many who are obviously regulars and know each other, come in the room this student feels more alone and only sees how they are the biggest person in the room and their mind reels on how you assumed they were in the wrong room and meaning to take the intro class. This student may either “over perform” every pose to prove they belong in your class or feel diminished and a sense of not belonging. Then as you cue the class you cue without regard for a larger body. You say things like “more advanced students can take a bind here” without realizing this large bodied student has been practicing vinyasa for 15 years but the bind is not possible with their body’s proportions. Again, they feel diminished and unseen. Then at the end of practice you walk up to this student visibly impressed that they kept up with your class, and you say something like “you did really well or you have a beautiful practice” well intentioned yes, but all that student thinks is “yeah I am strong for a fat person.” Do you think that student will come back? Your impact was very different from your intention. Now imagine, this student against all odds has the audacity to speak their truth and tells you that they felt uncomfortable with some of your language and you immediately say “oh wow that was not my intention at all.” You just diminished the experience of this student and the courage it took for this person to speak to how it feels to be marginalized.
Now, imagine this story was about race instead of size. (Two very different lived experiences) How likely would a person of color be to speak to the micro aggressions they heard in your words or actions? Truth is probably not very likely because white folks are so defensive and fragile about any mention of race we immediately jump to justifying our intentions and dismissing that race had anything to do with our words or actions. That defensiveness shuts down any chance for conversation and learning. This is the emotional labor Black/Indigenous/People Of Color deal with all the time. I can imagine it is utterly exhausting. White folks are the ones responsible to change the dynamics and remain open to conversation by addressing our fragility and receiving criticism as an opportunity to learn and do better.
The construct of race has hundreds of years of silencing the voices and diminishing the experience of black/brown folks backed by laws and policies and institutions. Our inability to truly hear that our words or actions were racist and caused harm because we are so busy defending our intentions and rejecting that it was about race causes more harm. Period.
As Ijeoma Oluo says in her book So you want to talk about race: “It is about race if a person of color thinks it’s about race.”
We all bring our identities to every interaction we have, some of us have just not had to think about our racial identity and the impact that has on someone who always has to think about their racial identity. Do I believe Melissa was thinking about her racial identity when she grabbed the microphone from Savitri’s hand and asked her to leave the conference? No, I definitely think she was not. Does that mean Melissa’s racial identity did not play a role in the interaction? No, it does not. Her racial identity absolutely played a role in the harm caused. Whenever someone whose racial identity has held power/privilege in our society silences the voice of a person whose racial identity has been marginalized in our society it supports racism and white supremacy. Does this mean Melissa is a horrible person and we should all villainize her? No, we need to start calling each other in versus calling each other out; Calling in to awareness how our actions have caused harm and how a lack of accountability creates even more harm. Calling into awareness resources and tools to further our understanding, learn from and do better.
I call us all in with love, empathy and awareness of my own fallibility, positionality and privilege. I call us in with the knowing we can all do better. I call us in to dismantle the systems of racism, white supremacy, and white fragility one chaturanga at a time. Yoga is a practice of self discovery, think of how much more we will discover about ourselves when we drop our defensiveness and truly listen to another perspective.
This is by far no comprehensive guide but simply my effort of keeping the conversation going. I am continually learning, dismantling and looking at the ways in which I cause harm. My hope is for you to do the same. Here is a list of resources I hope you will take the time to learn from:
- Article: Intent vs. Impact – Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter
- Blog: Decolonizing Yoga
- Podcast: Seeing White
- Book: So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo
Cover Photo credit CEB Imagery
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