I’m doing an “inclusivity training for yoga” right now, because Bhav Brigade is a nonprofit yoga platform built on the tenets of accessibility and inclusivity and as it’s co-founder (one that happens to be all the things we tend to welcome in with open arms as a society) it’s important that I walk the talk. And mostly because the world needs us to do hard things, to embrace discomfort, to ask the tough questions, to listen and to try to understand even if we never fully will. You need it and I need it too.
In addition to wanting to connect with and learn from others in this community with a shared interest in the topic, I realize that I’ve been born into a life of immense privilege, and therefore believe it’s my (and all of our) responsibility to be a part of the solution. To be human is to be inherently biased and the only way we move forward is by continually and honestly assessing and re-assessing in an effort to hold ourselves accountable.
Yesterday someone posted a question that asked whether there is ever a time to be exclusive in yoga–stating that she wouldn’t want non-black students in a workshop she held primarily for African Americans and wondered how to deal with cries of ‘reverse-racism?’
I felt triggered by her question and immediately decided I would keep my feelings and thoughts to myself. I usually shy away from controversial conversations and instead prefer to read & process without contributing, not wishing to open myself up to the attacks & hatefulness that are sure to follow these days from someone somewhere regardless of your stance. In this instance in particular I felt dread at the idea of responding–I am a white woman after all and she is a person of color (POC). But the dread and fear I felt at engaging in this discussion also signaled to me that maybe I’m on to something–pangs of resistance, I’ve found, sometimes are useful as guideposts signaling to us when we’re on the right track (for our collective evolution, that is) and maybe responding is exactly what I needed to do. So, I did. Reluctantly and fearfully, but with hope in my heart that somehow this might be useful. I spent close to half an hour carefully, compassionately & sensitively concocting my question in response. And this is what I said:
“Hi ***! A little on my background to put this into context – I co-run a non-profit pop-up yoga platform built on the tenants of accessibility and inclusivity and am also a new emergency medicine resident physician where relating to diverse populations is an integral part of the job. The disparities you’ve mentioned here are SO important and I love that you’re seeking to use yoga to bridge the gaps. First off, I think it’s phenomenal to be holding a yoga workshop specifically geared towards a historically marginalized population. To actively seek such populations of people out is often times necessary, I think, for the yoga community at large to ever be truly inclusive.
If you don’t mind, let me start by asking–only because I don’t want to make assumptions, what is your reasoning for not wanting non-African American students in your workshop?
In my humble opinion (which is by no means the “right” one), I haven’t found it to be helpful to exclude people from a yoga class (unless it’s for their safety, which is another can of worms and still I wouldn’t think of it as “excluding”). To play devil’s advocate, let’s suppose in the situation you mentioned, a Caucasian/Asian/Hispanic/Native American/etc. person reached out wanting to join your workshop because they genuinely saw value in your offering and wanted to broaden their own understanding of inclusivity as an observer. What if the person was turned away and then became discouraged or less likely to engage in such outreach that might be necessary for the desired evolution of this community in the future? While the decision to target a specific audience that has been historically “left-out” of this yoga community is indisputably wonderful, do you think there could be some merit in allowing space for those outside of your target audience, but who wish to learn from it and resonate with your mission? From my limited perspective, It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of inclusivity being born from exclusion, particularly in yoga. That being said, I do understand the sensitivity you’re wanting to ensure and that the well-being of the targeted audience is understandably your primary concern. I realize as a white woman there is much I don’t understand on the topic and I appreciate this space to learn. Having a space to engage in discussions like this are what, I think, drew many of us here, so thank you so much for sparking the conversation.”
The response I received was that when it comes to wanting to learn, an individual should seek out other ways to get educated. That the woman who posted the initial question is interested in creating a space “for us, by us,” and didn’t understand why for some reason, that seemed to be a controversial radical idea. Also, that if a group telling an individual that their help isn’t wanted or needed enough to discourage them from being an ‘ally’ ….then they need to address the hard truth that they were never interested in being an ‘ally’ in the first place and aren’t practicing yoga in its entirety. Adding that she wouldn’t want a non-black person in her workshop for the same reasons she wouldn’t center herself in an AA meeting, a cancer support group or a men’s workshop.
And then there were a few who had similar questions or who connected in some way with what I’d said.
And then another who replied “It is frustrating to even have to explain the whys of creating an exclusive space” and then in the same breath, “people should be seeking to understand why you would want to create a space for people of color.”
“So we should seek to understand but it’s out of line to politely ask for someone’s opinion “if they don’t mind” in a space explicitly designed for just that? A platform created for the pure purpose of engaging in thoughtful discussion on inclusivity from all perspectives? The only reason I’d asked “why” in the first place is because I didn’t want to make assumptions, because I’m well aware that any inferences I make about what it is to be a POC fall short at best. Well, then what the hell am I doing here? Why on earth did I pay money to be a part of this?” I thought to myself.
After a quick response thanking her for taking the time to respond and specifically commenting on her comparison of an African American-exclusive workshop to Alcoholics Anonymous (in which I said, in full disclosure: “I agree with you that it would be counter productive to have non-African American people come into a workshop targeted towards that particular community and center the workshop around themselves, but what if they were simply there to learn? It’s interesting the examples you gave actually, particularly about AA – an organization which I have both personal and professional connection. Quite often non-alcoholics ARE present at these meetings and it’s been my experience that it’s highly encouraged (again not to give input, but to learn). It was something that was actually required of all medical students at my school before entering the field–in order to help be a part of the solution, we must first understand. I asked you “why” to begin with because it seems it isn’t the same as with other populations (addicts, the disabled/those with special needs,the elderly, women, men etc.), so it’s not enough for me to simply draw inferences. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.”), I decided I was done engaging and I’d just listen instead.
After that, there were some more comments about “all white people bearing complicity for ongoing racial and social injustices” and that “many white people are not at a high level of understanding.”
I was feeling sad and discouraged at my failed attempt to seek understanding and then also guilty for being sad, because what right do I have? What right do I have as a privileged, white heterosexual middle class white collar female, to be hurt or to feel unwelcome? I wrote something a while back for Thought Catalog called “Can we all just agree there’s no monopoly on suffering?” And now I don’t know. Is there? Is suffering ALLOWED to be relative?
It strikes me that I experience far more animosity when I engage than if I were to remain silent. And this realization makes part of me want to curl up into a ball and hide. And makes the other part of me want to try harder.
It also strikes me that none of the things we learned in grade school in relation to how to interact with our fellow humans seem to apply to those surrounding race relations–things like “treat others the way you want to be treated,” “you can’t fight hate with hate,” “the moment someone becomes defensive everyone’s lost.”
All of this is hard for me to un-learn. And maybe I never fully will.
There was a moment when I wanted to leave the group–actually lots of moments and we’re only one week in–if I am unable to openly and respectfully admit my shortcomings and ask questions then why am I here? What good is it doing?
But when I spent a few moments meditating on the experience I realized: if I am unwilling to endure even six weeks of the discomfort that made this group necessary then perhaps I’m being a part of the problem, not part of the solution.
So I’m staying.
I spent the better half of the day yesterday trying to process the experience thus far and all night my head was swirling with questions in an attempt to work though my own biases and assumptions and to more fully understand where others were coming from.
“Is it unfair of her to meet my attempt at kindness and understanding with irritation and resistance?”
“Or, is it unfair and ignorant of me to expect her to react kindly towards a discussion about her own experience of trauma and oppression to a person who is a part of the population inflicting the trauma and oppression, regardless of their intention?”
“Growing up, I never felt like color (or lack thereof) was a big deal and oftentimes I still don’t. I see humans as humans and beyond that I see them as spiritual beings having a human experience. Is what I thought was inclusivity and acceptance actually dismissiveness and privilege?”
“Will divisiveness ever breed anything other than more division?”
“This woman had also stated earlier that she had been unable to relate to white students in her yoga class–that they didn’t seem to want to come to her classes and of those that did show up, some chose to walk out before the class was finished. That they interrupted her often and were visibly uncomfortable around her. My initial thought was “God that’s awful, I can’t believe someone would react that way.” And yet here I am, cautiously engaging in my first discussion with this woman ever, and I’m feeling the urge to do the exact same thing. To walk away, to remove myself from the situation because I feel unwelcome and devalued. Why is that?”
“It’s not the persons of color’s job to educate white people on the experience of being a POC. Also, trying to understand the experience of being a POC from anyone other than a POC requires inferences and assumptions to be made and is thus fundamentally flawed and inherently inadequate. How can both of these statements be true? Where does this leave us?”
“Am I damned if I do and damned if I don’t? If I say nothing, I’m complicit. If I say something then I’m out of line and I feel I should just sit down and shut up. Is all any person of color ever going to see is that I’m white? Should I just give up now?”
And then I realized, THIS IS EXACTLY HOW THE POC FEEL. But worse, much worse. Because the oppression is systemic and sometimes subtle and thus harder to see and therefore combat.
Regardless of how lovingly and hard I try, there are simply parts of what it means to be a person of color that I will never, ever understand.
I cried myself to sleep last night, mostly because there is so much pain in the world that this woman was completely justified to respond to me in the way that she did. And then I woke up today and I felt better, calmer, more at peace. And I got on my phone to check messages and I saw something from my friend Susie that said, “In a state of bliss, everything is loved.”
In a state of bliss, everything is loved.
I was angry at this woman, I was angry at her experience of life that triggered her to react like this, I was angry at the systems and individuals who caused it both knowingly and unknowingly. I was angry at myself, I was angry at all of us. It feels as if we’re moving backwards rather than forwards sometimes, but maybe that’s because we’re just starting to wake up to the realities of injustice that have always been. The ability to stretch myself to find love in these places, to realize that her actions come from love for POC, to realize that the only reason I was so upset by this situation is because I care–because I also love, to realize there is love in this and there is love in everything but especially this.
Life will always give us whatever is most helpful for the evolution of our consciousness. As Eckhart Tolle asks and then reminds us, “How do we know if this experience is what we need? Because it’s the one happening.”
Everything I experience in this life happens because I absolutely needed it to in order to wake up. And for that, I feel pain but also love.
And therefore bliss.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is not to argue anyone out of their truths, it’s just to admit I don’t know–that there’s so much more to black and white race relations of which I’m not even aware that I fail to grasp–and to initiate dialogue. I’m walking you through my thought process, not trying to persuade you that it is or isn’t wrong, and the whole point behind any of it is to ask, “HOW THE HELL DO WE MOVE FORWARD in the midst of all of these mutually exclusive truths?”