It Happened To Me: I Read An Essay About A White Woman’s Yoga Class/Black Woman Crisis And I Cannot

Your experience starts a dialogue; sure. But not every conversation needs to be entertained without you doing some homework on your own first.
Publish date:
January 29, 2014
racism, bodies

ICYMI, here is Jen Caron’s original piece from yesterday.

Hey there, Jen. My name is Pia. I’m a black woman, but I don’t want you to be scared. I write for xoJane too, among other things. I am not inexperienced with having my words infuriate others, and NONE of us is immune to it. Still…just like you were sharing an experience on this site yesterday, I’m going to share one now too; my experience of reading your piece.

Your essay about your emotional crisis triggered by the presence of a “heavyset black woman” in your yoga class was pretty tough for me to read. You may not even be aware of the level to which you dehumanized the Unnamed Black Woman behind you. You see, unless you are an FBI profiler trained in reading facial expressions, there’s a chance you imagined her “panic and despair.”

You crossed every line from describing your experience into assuming hers, despite having had absolutely no direct contact with her. Unless you have some sort of futuristic closed-captioning software in your brain, you took every liberty in identifying her thought process and went above and beyond by declaring yourself the victim of her obvious-in-your-mind “resentment and contempt.”

I could never quarrel with your experiences. They may be different from mine, but I respect that they are yours. What I do have trouble respecting are the experiences of Unnamed Black Woman as written by you because with no word from her they are wild conjecture at best and pure fiction at worst -- and if you want to write fiction about black women's psyches, go submit it elsewhere and I wish you the best of luck.

Nary a verb nor a noun in what you wrote indicates for certain that she was as obsessed with you as you are, but hey, let's say that she was! So here you are in YOUR yoga class at YOUR studio, when in walks an interloper who is (in the scenario we're imagining) roasting in a bubbling moat of her inferiority and close to drowning in her hatred of her own body and pure jealousy of yours. She is attacking you, non-verbally but loudly nonetheless, and OF COURSE such a direct attack would warrant a response, right?

Sure, you did mention the thought of talking to her, saying “If I asked her to articulate her experience to me so I could just listen, would she be at all interested in telling me about it?”

…Well, why didn’t you? Not that she or I or anyone really owes you a conversation to help you understand your discomfort with a black woman, but why not give human interaction a try anyway? Instead, the next things you describe are more of your existential ponderings and then your tears. If you were having so many thoughts about Unnamed Black Woman in Your Yoga Class, why not make direct contact?

Could it be that the music started playing during the speech and you froze oh no wait, sorry, I was confusing you with Macklemore, who said those words in an apologetic text message to Kendrick Lamar after winning four Grammy awards on Sunday, two in categories where Lamar was highly favored to win. We know of the text because Macklemore shared it publicly on Instagram.

By the way, I swore up and down I wouldn’t write about Macklemore, but as I read your piece he kept coming to mind.

You see, I don’t think either of you have anything but good intentions, and yet you are using them to pave the road to hell. Further enacting a societal ill in your efforts to call it out is the worst kind of white privilege. It is why we need messages of progress but the messenger matters. Otherwise, we’re left with something like this:

Hey, Oppressed Person, I feel bad for you but what’s most important right now is that we make it all about Me, even though it is your time of need. How do I know it is your time of need? Why, because you’re not me, of course! You’re you and that is Less Than Me. But I’m thinking of you! So let’s get back to Me and My Thoughts now…

Your experience, if we can possibly set aside the (non-)fan fiction of the imagined mindset of the woman behind you, starts a dialogue; sure. But not every conversation needs to be entertained without you doing some homework on your own first. I am taking the time to write this because as a black woman who shares this space, I won’t stand idly by and watch you use it as a platform to climb to the mountaintop of alleged racial progress by stepping on the humanity of another black woman.

If we discard the green, moldy outer layers of the rotting onion of your thought, there's a little part at the center that OF COURSE we agree on. You very accurately state that “even though yoga comes from thousands of years of south Asian tradition, it’s been shamelessly co-opted by Western culture as a sport for skinny, rich white women.” I believe that you dream of more ethnic diversity at your yoga studio and for the whole country, even. And you have no idea how loath to participate in that dream it would seem that you are.

The self-centeredness you employ in describing this class at your "beloved donation-based studio…[where they] preach the gospel of yogic egalitarianism" as a solar system revolving entirely around you is not quite in keeping with the yogic principles you espouse, is it? If you really believe that yoga is for everyone, why would you describe the woman on the mat behind you in such alien terms? And your little soupçon of self-awareness does not mitigate your dehumanization. Without full understanding of your privilege, you can never be a true ally.

Black women are continually treated like animals in a zoo, our bodies on display for you to marvel at or pity, but ultimately walk away from, none the wiser and having affected no positive change for all of your tears and hand-wringing.

Again; you have every right to describe what you observe of the world around you and how it makes you feel. But what purpose does it serve to gaze down from your White Privilege Penthouse upon this unfortunate creature to say, “I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her?” AND THEN MAKE ABSOLUTELY NO EFFORT TO HELP HER OR EVEN JUST ENGAGE WITH HER AS ANOTHER HUMAN BEING IN THE WORLD?

You continued, “If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me.” C’mon. Even if it were her first yoga class, even if she were physically struggling the entire time and through YOUR observation her physical size SEEMED to impede her movement, what right do you have to present another human’s experience as “despair” framed as an inconvenience to your yoga practice that ultimately made you cry? This woman could have had the good sense to want to be noticed if she were, in fact, in over her head, to get some assistance.

Also, what if she wasn’t actually jealous of your “skinny white girl body?” What if—and I’m going out on a limb here, I know—what if it were possible to love oneself and not shoot envious eye-daggers at skinny white girls all day even as a “heavyset black woman”? I know; it’s too wild to even imagine. And ultimately, I don’t know what was in her head and I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of making random guesses at another person’s state of mind just to fit a scenario I’ve created. (See what I did there?)

Non-verbal communication is a real thing, and maybe you are more justified in your tears than your article led me to believe. And perhaps had you stuck to describing your personal experience of occupying a space that excludes us despite having an inclusive intention…well, it still might have been tough to read, but it would not have been yet another labeling of a black woman’s body as inferior to yours. It might not have been yet another collection of words where someone who could have been me is reduced to a color and a shape to be scorned. But hey, here’s a bit where you did stick to your experience: “I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of…my skinny white girl body.”

That’s on you. You could have left us out of it. And yes I say “us” because we black women face judgment like yours as a community. We are living and being. You are evaluating and recoiling and running home and crying. We are simply in the world with you and you are terrified. And people wonder why we're “angry.”

In the universe where this piece takes place, you've set up a standard according to which I could now be concerned when I walk into my next yoga class that I might look a certain way and make a white girl cry. Does that sound right to you? Meditate on that.

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