Yoga, Toxic Twitter and the Shared Thread of White Supremacy

Several years ago, I shared in this space how terribly difficult it is for me to have honest and real friendships with the vast majority of white women that I know; the only exception being white women who hail from working class backgrounds similar to my own where we can meet at the intersection of class.  To admit such a thing is not comfortable but as my own knowledge of systemic and structural racism grows from both a personal and professional perspective, I now understand the awkward dance that exists between myself and most white women.  It is the same awkward dance that exists between many white and Black woman in a nation founded on the backs of enslaved Africans.

Despite the lies that we tells ourselves and the truths that we are not comfortable uttering and the false belief that some of us cling to that race is irrelevant, the fact is that even in 2014, race matters. It matters because ours is a culture very much rooted in white supremacy and whiteness is the default setting for acceptability in the eyes of many. White supremacy is not just people in hoods burning crosses on the lawns of non-white people, but it’s also a system that privileges whiteness and white ways of being over all others regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred. In other words whether or not you like or dislike non-white people, ours is a culture that values whiteness. Whiteness and white ways of being set the tone for how our culture operates. The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that uncomfortable truth creates a myriad of problems for all of us. We cannot and will not move forward and dismantle systems of unfairness when we cannot even name said systems.

This past week, several stories came across my mobile device that left me shaking my head and made me realize that any forward momentum as a whole will be halted until we (and to be frank, when I say we, I mean white people) start to move beyond talk of just acknowledging white privilege but start to become intentional in dismantling the systems that work in their favor. 

XO Jane, an online publication published a piece “It Happened to me: There are No Black People in my Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Uncomfortable with it”, this piece was horrible and on a personal note as a yogi, I felt that the writer needs to spend less time on asana (poses) and more time learning the eight limbs of yoga.  However the writer in sharing her personal feelings and observations on seeing what she describes as a heavyset Black woman struggling with the poses juxtaposed against her own skinny white girl body and her imagined feelings revealed not only a sense of personal ignorance but the insidious nature of how white supremacy operates: “Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body. I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”

The question is how did she know any of this to be true? She didn’t; but in a culture that promotes the idea that whiteness and thinness is the desired way of being, the writer assumed that the not thin, not white woman must clearly be upset to not be the writer.  This piece is an extreme exaggeration of what white supremacy can look like and chances are that if you are reading this piece, you are thinking what a stretch?

Later in the week, The Nation  published a piece “ Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” where the writer talks about the changes in the feminist movement as more nonwhite women enter the movement and utilize tools such as twitter to create change, give voice to our struggles and to connect. However the tone of the piece is less than complimentary towards women of color. As the face of feminism changes and more marginalized women come forward, the rules of acceptability in the feminist world are being changed as the marginalized create and make spaces that address our needs. This change is unsettling as change often is and more so when the old ways of being suddenly end.   In theory as women, we should all just be able to get along but the reality is that we are coming from vastly different places. Middle class white women want women of color and other marginalized women to play by their rules lest they be seen as bullies but to quote Audre Lorde “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” To ask women of color to bend in order to be accepted is just another subtle way that white supremacy lives on in our culture. We use language that describes social norms but who created the social norms that dictate how we are to engage? The norms come from a white perspective and in our culture we either adapt to those norms and as people of color are seen as “safe” or we don’t and we wear labels that “others” us. In my case as a Black woman, that often means being seen as an Angry Black Woman.

In the end though, we can move beyond this but as I stated earlier it takes intentionality and a turning inward to examine ourselves and the ways in which we are held hostage by systems we didn’t create but that we still live with and in some cases benefit from through no effort of our own other than being born a certain color.  Of course the flip side is that some of us are held back by these same systems through no fault of our own, other than being born a certain color.

I am reading a book, Waking Up White that I would highly recommend to any white person interested in moving beyond this matrix of race that we all live with in this culture.


8 thoughts on “Yoga, Toxic Twitter and the Shared Thread of White Supremacy”

  1. I am a very slow thinker, so it’s taken me until now to know what I want to write.
    When I read the article, I first noticed that the white writer was describing something I, another white person, have experienced: having my mind unsettled by the presence of a POC. Being practitioners of yoga, the writer and I both looked into our minds to find the source, the origination of the unsettledness. And we both found racism and that made us both cry.
    When I read the article, I noticed that the writer was describing her experience of racism, what racism feels like in her life. In this case, racism manifests as an unsettled mind and a barrier created by the writer’s mind, barring her from connecting with another yoga practitioner. Being white, she can avoid that bad experience by avoiding POC. But being a yogi she knows that avoiding discomfort only masks her problem. And I think she realized that if many white people feel that discomfort there will be an unspoken message of unwelcomeness going out to the POC in the yoga class.
    I think the article is about racism and yet one more way that it negatively impacts us.

  2. As a person whose got a wrist/thumb fusion that prevents me from opening my left hand flat and thereby denying me access to quite a number of asana yoga poses, I’ve mostly, but not entirely, steered clear of it. I’ve learned about it and welcomed the reference to the 8 Limbs of Yoga, as I do practice Pranayama and try to follow the 8 limbs as best I can with with my limited asana capabilities and my attitude fluctuations around that. A yoga class is just beyond my imagination, but I found the young woman’s narrative dully typical of what happens to young white minds coming from homes that apparently did not weigh on the issue of race in an educational way. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X because my mother bought it when it was released and put it on the family bookshelf. I was in high school. Previously, I’d read “Manchild In The Promised Land” (Claude Brown). These books were not brought to my attention, I simply checked the shelves often being an avid reader as a youngster and found them. I’m not writing about this to brag, only to say that none of my classmates or I received any kind of introduction to the ongoing legacy, particulars and consequences to real people (and real classmates) of racism in 1967 in school. Only a few us lived with families that emphasized social justice. I suspect this last hasn’t changed much. Soccer games and play dates that essentially target the social and competitive skills learned in relative isolation that are needed to succeed in corporate amerika are apparently deemed more important than the success of the social justice movements that liberal white Americans claim to embrace. Pretty sad, when what is learned in school can only be academic and only parents can round that out school by teaching a family moral commitment and “content of character” level of concern. Anyway, just IMHO.
    Finally, having watched SNL, I find myself wanting to send you a huge hug and a really heartfelt apology for the cruel monsters who invented and perpetrated chattel slavery on your ancestors. I know the legacy continues and I hate it. I’m committed to somehow making a difference, as you so evidently are. You are an inspiration, a font of honesty, exceptional character and the deepest and most moving kinds of kitchen table wisdom. And humor. We shall, someday.

  3. I just read the article and was also appalled. I’m an overweight, middle-aged woman. Although I’m white, I’m sure that she would’ve scorned me too. Perhaps, because my workout wear was bought at a bargain bin not Barneys. I’ve practiced yoga, and have encountered similar scenarios involving “skinny chicks doing downward dog.” I did some online research and discovered that the author is Jewish. Frankly, I think that she needs therapy for her guilt complex! I appreciate your pertinent post and will check out the book. Thanks.

  4. Another possibility I would like to entertain…maybe the author was confronted by her own deep-seated inner prejudices at the sight of that woman in her yoga class, and it was unsettling for her to realize this about herself. Maybe until now she viewed herself as “colorblind” and oblivious to differences in others. But now she couldn’t pat herself on the back because here was a big Black woman in a mostly white space and it made her uncomfortable somehow. Confronting racism in oneself can be ugly and daunting.

    There is so much in the article to consider…the binary between Black and White women, racism, stereotypes, beauty/femininity, and weight. Part of the reason I’ve chosen to embark on my fitness journey is, I will admit, because I’m afraid of being hit with the “mammy” stereotype. I already have to deal with some people thinking I have an attitude problem simply because I am a WOC. Being fat might add more to the stereotypes and I have no interest in being anyone’s “sassy Black friend”. I’m trying to shed this weight so I can be more healthy and so I can wear cute clothes like I used to, instead of covering up all the time.

    I’ve never done yoga before and I don’t work out in a gym. I prefer to take long walks outdoors and to run with my husband. Sometimes I catch people looking at me, but whatevs…they can deal with my sweaty face and nappy hair. I’m about whipping myself into shape and having fun while I do it.

  5. Just ordered that book for my library. I am learning more and more about my place of privilege and recognizing the aspects of my life where that lack of privilege informs my experience. I would say I enjoy your writing, but that wouldn’t really convey the wrestling, self-examination, and work I put into the growth I get from your writing. Your writing continues to enrich me, perhaps that’s a better way to put it.
    Thank you.

  6. Lawd, that piece made me roll my eyes and chuckle. I’m not outraged or offended…I simply find it ridiculous that she wrote that junk in the first place.

    The Black woman was trying to enjoy yoga class and mind her own business, while this lady was engaging in mental hand-wringing and emotional angst over a complete stranger. Who does that? I’m a pretty sensitive person but even I found her reaction (and the article) bizarre. She didn’t know the woman from Adam but that didn’t stop her from making judgments about her size, race, etc.

    It reeks of white privilege, white guilt, and it just failed. I hope the Black woman mentioned in the article never reads that. I don’t see why the author felt it necessary to even write that piece. Talk about making assumptions and over-analyzing, seriously…it’s not that deep. Seeing a chubby sista at the yoga studio doing her own thing should not prompt anyone to burst into tears, then write some weird article about it.

    I mean, Jesus. I weigh 160 at only 5’1″. I wonder if I would have received the same silent judgment from this lady? I don’t think the author had evil intentions in writing this, I just think she might want to ask herself WHY she felt compelled to write this. The Black woman didn’t need pity and she certainly didn’t need somebody judging her while she was trying to do yoga. The author made a lot of assumptions that this woman was focused on her and maybe even wishing to be her, i.e., like a white woman instead of her Black self.

    It reminds me of white women who have made comments about my hair, as if they’re trying to make me feel “less than” due to my texture compared to theirs. Eff that noise! No disrespect to my white sisters (I am half white myself) but certain experiences, and articles like this piece, are part of the reason why it is so hard for us to trust one another.

    @Dorothy…I agree with all of your points, but I will say that it’s not entirely true that people of color are far less judgmental about weight. It depends on a few things. In some circles, if a Black woman is thin, other Black people look down on that even if she is naturally built that way. Within my family/community, I’ve been called “fat” and criticized for my body type. This happened when I was a size 0 at my smallest and it still happens now at a size 10-12. Some people of color can be very judgmental about things like hair, weight, complexion, and body shape. But sometimes I wonder if these attitudes stem from centuries-old brainwashing in a Eurocentric society.

  7. Wow. Very powerful piece. You’re right, we are not beyond race in this country. While the writer focused on a heavy Black woman in her yoga class, I wondered why she mentioned race at all. The words she used, the descriptions, read far more like fat prejudice than racial to me, and yet, she chose to link race and weight. As an extremely overweight white woman, I see fat prejudice as fully acceptable in this country, and I wonder if the writer was trying to link race to it to justify her feelings. I think the white social norms are to blame for the acceptance of fat prejudice as well. People of color are far less judgmental in matters of weight, yet (white) social norms continue to emphasize thinness, using such code words as “fit,” “healthy,” etc. I’m not against being healthy or fit; I just think the extreme emphasis on thin is unhealthy for all of us.

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