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Oh, that xoJane post: awareness of race privilege in spiritual communities

"That yoga article" featured in xo Jane earlier this week said much, much more than it meant to. 

Most of us, these days, know exactly what to say not to come off as racist, and if we aren't sure we can pull it off, we won't touch the topic.  So I'm grateful to the writer of that article, for bringing the pervasiveness and subtlety of white supremacist thought in spiritual communities to light (pun!), albeit unintentionally.

 

White supremacy isn't a meeting of individuals in white hoods somewhere in the deep South.  It's the values system that the article, in its naiveté, lays bare -- a values system that privileges white bodies as desirable and legitimate, views black bodies as sad and incapable, and presumes ownership over Asian traditions in a way that is downright neocolonial.  

 

If you were born anywhere in the western world, you've been steeped in white supremacist thought since you were indiapers.  People of color have an experiential awareness of that. But white privilege is invisible to most white people unless they have carefully educated themselves on how to look for it.  In moments like the writer described, where she suddenly and awkwardly comes into awareness of her own whiteness (though she unfortunately remains unaware of her projections onto the "other"), she suddenly experiences too the trauma of white supremacy that affects all of us, all the time, no matter our race.

 

 

Although racism is an ongoing traumatic experience for all of us, it is primarily people of color who seem to be doing most of the work around healing it.   I suppose it's because we have the most at stake, for while white supremacy is hurts all of us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, it threatens the very life and livelihood of people of color.  But all of this work that people of color do towards undoing the trauma of racism -- individually and in PoC groups, so that we can show up in yoga classes and dharma centers and contribute to the diversity of these communities -- this work is also re-inscribing a pattern borne of racial injustice, wherein marginalized communities perform the labor and the mainstream reaps the benefits.

 

I want this to be a moment where we actually wake up to the ways that power and privilege manifest in western yoga culture and beyond.  If we can bear to be honest and take responsibility for our own hearts, minds, and actions, I believe we can slowly grow into a freedom we have not yet known as a diverse community.  

 

I wanted to share with you an email I got recently about that xoJane article from my dear friend Emily Kramer, a co-owner and co-director of Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn, and a yoga teacher who is white.  While these conversations around race are often embarrassing and unsatisfying, there are flashes of vulnerability and insight like the ones she shares that keep me coming back to the table.

 

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Hello community - 

I don't often send out emails of such length, but I was compelled to write this morning, which became today's practice. Now I'm sending it along to you all 

 

I'm sure many of you have seen this recent piece written by a white woman who describes her experience of becoming aware of race during a yoga class (I hope you've also read one of a number of smart, conscious responses like this one). It's all over Facebook, but I prefer this forum to issue my own response. To be perfectly honest, I actually didn't want to respond - it's uncomfortable, time-consuming, and it is work. It is also vital, necessary, growth-inducing work that propels me towards a world I believe in - where honest dialogue about a shared love takes place. So here I write, because I see that it's my ethical and yogic responsibility to push myself in these ways. 

 
What the author of this controversial piece glaringly doesn't mention is her white privilege - one fact of which is that she doesn't generally have to think about race when she navigates the world, because it's easier & safer to be white in the world, period (crass satire alert  / here's a classic educational article on the topic, and another author to explore, and yet another). The specificity of a race privileged experience is effaced in a culture where whiteness is the imposed norm. For this author, it's the presence of a black, large bodied woman in a space that is dominated by small white women like herself that makes her aware of race (as well as her size), and she becomes disquieted and uncomfortable. She goes on to expose her inner travails during this particular practice, which ultimately includes paternalistic concern and a paralyzing deep fear of the woman of color behind her. Myself, a white woman who has spent some time in self-aggrandizing agony about my own racial privilege - I would offer that she is, as well, deeply afraid of herself, afraid of uncovering and owning up to her own haunting inheritance of white supremacy. What is particularly difficult for me about the piece is that the author is clearly trying to be self-aware, but can't expand her mind beyond her own projections that come from a place of ignorance, avidya (the root of suffering according to yogic philosophy / Sri Patañjali's Sutras). The regard the author has for the woman behind her is narrow and presumptuous, cloaked in dehumanizing sympathy that further edges this individual out of the space. It is disheartening to read knowing that the author is trying to make a statement about racial inequality and her place in it, but spins out into a self-conscious tizzy that revolutionizes nothing. This scenario reminds me of C.S Lewis' great epistolary, The Screwtape Letters, wherein a dialogue between demons takes place about how best to manipulate humans into thinking they are doing good, when in face these humans (or "patients" as the book write) are coerced to follow the demon's evil ploy. How easily we can cause harm, even with the best of intentions, when fear is at the wheel.

I remember the time in my life when I was first consciously experiencing my own whiteness. It was painful and disorienting, I had a number of contradictory guttural responses - I wanted out of my skin, I wanted to ignore it, I wanted to exorcize it, I didn't want to love myself, I felt betrayed. It is terribly disturbing to uncover the subconscious implant of oppressive ideology; the world felt absolutely twisted from the inside. The revelatory, yet deluded internal state that I experienced during my own "racial awakening" - that perhaps this author is expressing in her piece - is not new or unique, and this state must be moved through, and moved through carefully. This presents as a challenge for someone with privilege who has not heretofore been called to think wisely about their privilege before acting.
 
And here, I gained some wisdom - I am not to blame for being raised in a culture that subtly and definitely oppresses ALL of us with the notion of otherness; a culture that has me yearning for an unattainable perfection, harming myself to save face for a reputation "goodness", a culture that deeply wounds us based on myth and archetype brought garishly, and condemningly to life. 

AND YET - what I am for responsible for are the actions I take with this profound knowledge and awareness. Fear won't bring me closer to the answer, but always draws me further into the illusive tangle of privilege. How can I be more conscious in the seat of a yoga practitioner and teacher? How can I remain teachable, humble and willing to change, willing to be wrong, willing to speak up despite fears that may be present!? My spiritual practice is about learning and re-learning how to distinguish between my true self (unconditionally deserving of love, creative, empathetic, inspired by the divine), and the thoughts, judgments, resentments,spiritually/materialistic pursuits that I mistake for my true self on the regular - that constitute avidya, the real root of suffering! I am responsible to look through and beyond the veil, and then through the next one and the next. The finger that points to the moon is not the moon. My practice is to return again and again in earnest.

I'll end with this -  what I appreciate about this piece is that it breaks open dialogue about an often taboo topic: identity and power in a space that is guiding toward truth, equanimity, and union. The answer is not of course to ignore power differentials or pretend these don't exist or have an impact, but to replace fear and ignorance with consciousness as our guiding principal
 
Onward,
ek
 
 
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