This is a continuation of my attempt to respond to a question posed: “How can yoga address social problems?”
On White Privilege.
– PART 2 –
It’s easy to judge a photo and make assumptions. We all do it, consciously and unconsciously. Judgement is a part of critical thinking, a method of discernment between that which we will choose to pay attention to, and that which we dismiss. Our brains have an impressive ability to process vast amounts of information quickly; so quickly, we are oftentimes completely unaware of when and where we are making judgments.
How does this judgement operate? If you begin to investigate this, you will see a staggering amount of human thought and research dedicated to this subject in areas like religion, philosophy, science, psychology, sociology and daily discourse. So as I prepare to tackle the complexity of White Privilege, I am acutely aware that I cannot even begin to do this subject justice in a short blog post. In a world of fast, quick and dirty media, we have lost the ability – nay – the ART of paying attention.
That said this is a blog post and we do live in an age of short attention spans, so it’s time to focus on what miniscule contribution I can make at this juncture. I decided to use a photo that illustrates my personal experience of White Privilege. Let’s examine this photo: that’s me, almost 10 years ago in Taiwan, shortly after completing my second yoga teacher training. At the time I didn’t really think about what this picture would come to symbolize for me, nor did I really comprehend the journey I took to arrive at that moment, or where I would go afterward. I simply wanted my ex-husband to snap a few vanity photos of me in one of my teaching spaces for my own personal enjoyment. Even then I was acutely aware that I was indulging in a frivolous and superficial yoga trend. While I was already certified and teaching for many years prior to this point, I never saw the need nor had the interest to participate an ego display of body contortions. This was me, in a moment of joining the fray, because I wanted to revel in the body beautiful too. I also wanted to capture my life at that moment, where I felt happy, secure and complete. Our lives at that time was a blend of stability, financial security, close friends, and a comfortable lifestyle few could afford. Little did I know that a few short months later I would be going on my own version of the “Eat, Pray, Love” journey. At that moment, I was content.
So what do we see? A curvaceous brunette in a backbend pose in a subtropical environment appearing blissful. On the surface that is an accurate statement, but some may not get how this is my epitome of demonstrating my white privilege in a yoga context.
1) I’m white. Lily white. Not too many people know I actually have both Native American Iroquois blood, and Hindu blood from Old Delhi, India. That doesn’t factor into anyone’s assessment, but I will come back to my heritage later. I know that being White has provided me with access and opportunity that others – who aren’t – don’t get. And if they do get access and opportunity it generally comes with a journey that I can’t even begin to comprehend how hard it can be. What I can share is an understanding based on witnessing firsthand what friends and colleagues have experienced. Growing up in Toronto, (in a predominantly Black, Asian and Indian-Caribbean neighborhood), I began to see the anger at how certain things I said or did carried with it a presupposition that this was something accessible for anyone to say or do. As I got older, I began to know that despite our unique multicultural environment, there were still invisible barriers that separated my life from that of my friends.A s this photo began to be published in bios or other social media to represent me as a teacher, I began to notice there was a disproportionate amount of White women in yoga postures. Doing a quick Google search on the keyword “yoga” produces a majority of White women on the image search option. My photo is one of literally thousands of a disproportionate visual representation of yoga.
2) I’m in this subtropical environment because at the time I was an English teacher in Asia. As a Torontonian coming from a lower middle income, single mother-turned-blended family, working was how I got to travel. I’m not wealthy enough to jaunt around the globe footloose and fancy free with trust fund yuppies or on someone else’s dime. So from my perspective I felt I struggled and scraped my way to a certain level of success at that point, rewarded through hard work and a good dose of moral fibre. Which isn’t untrue- it is just not the whole truth. The reality is my job was obtained based on my race and geographical birth location. My educational background was inconsequential (I knew some White men who didn’t even have high school diplomas who were able to teach there). I spoke Canadian English, I had a White face, so I instantly had a job and a paycheck that afforded quick repayment of student loan debt, travel to exotic locales, and a sense of entitlement I didn’t know I had until I began to befriend Taiwanese and other ex-pats of visible minorities. One of my friends, also a Canadian born ex-pat, is visibly Black. Not too many White or Asians knew she had a White mother and a Black father. And to them, it didn’t matter- she looked Black, so that’s all she was to them – Black.
Some of the racial stereotypes that exist in Asia around Black people can be shocking. For example, one day we were standing together, side by side watching our students play. A boy came up to us asked if we were American or Canadian. We replied we were both Canadian. He asked us why we were both “so tall and so fat” and if all Canadians were tall and fat. We were very accustomed at this point to this blunt exchange. It was a typical question asked by nearly every Taiwanese we encountered. Then the boy said, “But you are Black, and you are White. Why?” I was rendered speechless, for this was a question I had never been asked before in Taiwan. I simply was too stunned and incredulous at that moment to articulate a response. My friend, who later explained that she frequently received this inquiry, calmly responded that that’s how we were “made” in Canada. This is probably the most innocent and least shocking example I can share, but it sticks in my mind because that exchange came with an explanation from my friend. That many prospective employers required extensive proof of her educational background, that she started at a lower rate of pay (as did I compared to my White male colleagues), and that she was constantly explaining why her hair and skin color looked the way it did.
For anyone to pretend that those barriers don’t exist in North America is either lying or fooling themselves. To maintain that ignorant assumption in in a yoga context, is equally ridiculous. A lot of controversy has erupted over People of Color Yoga classes last year. An excellent blog written by Krista Lee Hanson offered a refreshing perspective on the debate (and since then, I have a feeling her blog post calmed the waters. I simply haven’t seen the level of vitriol aimed against it since). Two of my favorite quotations in that article was by Lauren Ash, “We live in this world where unfortunately some of us don’t feel like we can be our authentic selves. To really be able to go to a space that you know is for you and you can just show up and be yourself is really powerful and important.” and by Jacoby Ballard, “Ultimately, I hope that we can practice in the same room. But for now, we need spaces to heal, to gather the strength to have relationships and practice with folks outside of our own experience.” These statements discuss the powerful discrepancies between a White person’s experience practicing yoga in North America today, and a non-White person’s experience. A good friend of mine wrote me once: “When I enter a studio, I see a lot of White people. I’m not uncomfortable or anything like that, I’m just aware. I feel I have to act a certain way. I can’t explain it but I don’t feel comfortable like I do when I’m practicing alone at home or with my other [non-White] friends. And in some studios I just do not feel it’s a place I can feel included. It’s a place for young beautiful white people to hang out.”
It was important to me to bring two very powerful thinkers into our training, Dianne Bondy and Carol Horton. You can learn a little bit more about them in our interviews here. These two women recently posted comments on Facebook that is incredibly powerful, and worthy of attention, and offer a profound contribution to the White Privilege and Yoga discussion.
Dianne Bondy has been posting videos entitled “Mindful Mondays”. For those who haven’t seen it, she explores some great concepts around Mindfulness practices. To take a specific time, and set aside a practice dedicated to exploring thought and attitude IS YOGA. She recently posted a thought around bias here, and this Mindful Monday explores limitations on cultural perceptions. In it, one of my favorite lines is: “If your interactions or your examples of different cultures comes from television shows; like, you don’t know anybody who is different from you, and any peek into a different culture comes from what you see on tv – then you can’t help but be biased.” Indeed, I currently live in a community that for the first time in my entire life, is predominantly White. I hear a lot of ignorant views being expressed – not out of malice or true hatred- but out of a sheer lack of exposure. Recently I’ve seen an increase of diversity in our community, and it thrills me – because when we expand our community, and invite different points of view into the conversation/relationship of community living, we can grow. I also know that this sense of Privilege is not exclusively a White issue, but rather indicative of societies that have a majority population with a lack of respect or systematic marginalization of minorities. I think this is why Dianne’s comment is so relevant- because for those who believe White Privilege doesn’t exist, it tends to be expressed in the population that is White, and fails to have any empathy for how minorities may be impacted by issues of representation and accessibility. The people I know who dismiss the concept of White Privilege tend to point to media examples (that are glaringly proof of the very point they’re denying). In this one example, I wish everyone had a chance to live in a culture where they are the minority. As a minority, we learn really quickly how we’re viewed by the majority. A lot of it is based on stereotype and ignorance.
For many of my friends who discuss their thoughts, sorrows and frustrations around White Privilege, I’m glad none of us are concerned about “hurting feelings”. We can get together and really hash out issues, without being worried anyone is easily bruised by conscious debate, and we welcome diverse ranges of opinion. I hold these friends dear, regardless of age, race, creed, class, gender, or what-have-you, because we all conduct ourselves with maturity and refrain from hyperbole or aggressive antagonism. I find a lot of these specific friends have practiced yoga and meditation. This is why I believe yoga has the power to break down barriers. The deeper we explore yoga, the more we begin to understand our relationships. It is the power of understanding our relationships with both ourselves and others, that I believe we can start examining how yoga can be an agent of social change. It doesn’t have to be represented as an exclusive and White-only practice. For those of us who expand our interpretation of yoga, we see practitioners everywhere and anywhere. For those of us who explore, live in and interact with other cultural ideas and communities, we can explore our biases, our limitations, and hopefully expand our worldview.
Carol Horton recently posted a Facebook comment in reply to a thread discussing #BlackLivesMatter. Her words get to the heart of those who are White who want to debate the merits of the movement in a context of creating dissent, division and disassociation. One large complaint observed by those who are White who wish to deny White privilege, manifests in the complaint that the Black community fails to address Black-on-Black violence. She argues: “First: people who say that black people are not working hard to address black-on-black violence are either sadly misinformed, or simply don’t want to know the truth. There are countless community leaders, nonprofit groups, teachers, ministers, and many more who have been working every day for years and years with no public recognition or support to try to address these issues. There are countless families and individuals who are struggling to help others and improve their communities without burning out from exhaustion and despair. Everyone who is making claims and accusations about what others in communities that I’m quite sure you have never spent time in: what do you know, honestly? You know what you see in the news media, which is sensationalist and distorting. You know whatever prejudices you have been exposed to as part of being white in America. But you don’t know what’s happening, really. Until you live in the community or truly make an effort to educate yourself and perhaps even become actively involved – reading in-depth studies, connecting with people and organizations, working together – you have no idea what’s really happening in the black community if you are white.”
At this point in time, many people may still say: “Thinking about White Privilege isn’t yoga”. I have heard and read by (unfortunately) predominantly White people who practice and teach yoga say this. For me, I actually see the debate and lack of positive action as the bigger problem. To put my own personal take on what may drive those who seek to deny how privilege operates, I suspect it has more to do with their frustration that not enough emphasis is placed on the universality of the human condition, and that struggle exists for many people. This is true, and it can sound lovely and inclusive and expansive…. but here’s why it’s actually not: When you fail to acknowledge the existence of an obstacle, you cannot remove it. The consequence of ignoring a barrier means to diminish the experience of another human being, and that denial inhibits opportunity for growth for all.
How does one examine this in a yoga context? I posit that it is through the practice of Karuna that makes this examination of White Privilege inherently yogic.
Many people are unaware that there are actually Ten, and not Five Yamas, the first path of Yoga. Daya (Compassion) is one of these ten yamas.. If you know of the great animated site for kids, The Hindu Kids Universe, a really simplistic definition exists:
“Practice compassion. Be kind to people, animals, plants and the Earth itself. Practice forgiveness. Foster sympathy for those who are suffering and in need. Honor and assist those who are weak, impoverished, aged or in pain. Oppose family abuse and other cruelties.”
Karuna is one of the forms of Daya.. which best reflects the yogic view on how to begin to dissect White Privilege and formulate opportunities for change in my mind:
“Karuna is another word for compassion in Hindu philosophy, means placing one’s mind in other’s favor, thereby seeking to understand the other from their perspective.”
This ends Part 2 of the discussion. More to follow.