Almost four years ago, I invited a young Black woman, who I "met" through a fb group devoted to the study of Charles Eisenstein's writing, to participate in a four month Immersion Program I was teaching. She stayed with me each month during the long weekends of the program, and we came to know each other pretty well. I look upon her as one of my greatest teachers about racism and white fragility.
One day, over dinner after a long day of studying Ashtanga with me and about a dozen other white yoga students, we began to talk about social media, and I mentioned how “toxic” it had become in the era of Trump - the virulence, the hatred, the horrors I witnessed on it were so disturbing, I had to get off facebook, I told her.
She looked at me sadly and said, “You can get off facebook any time because it’s toxic, because the hate and racism distresses you. Do you realize, I can never “Get off”? Because I am Black, and for the rest of my life, I have to deal with the toxicity of being Black here in America." And, well, she let me have it. Because I needed to have it.
And, I told her I truly wanted to talk with her about it, if she was willing to help me. That I wanted to understand and learn from her. And so, she gave me a great gift, and we talked about “race” together for a long time.
She poured out to me her very justified frustration, anger and grief. She began to talk of her discomfort at being the only Black person in the studio during the program. She described to me some of the micro and macro aggressions of white people she'd experienced in her short life. She told me many things that, at the time, made me feel “triggered” and defensive. But, I remained silent, and quelled my white identity’s need to defend itself, and simply listened to her with empathy, nodding and encouraging her to continue. Finally, when she was finished, and quiet, I said, "I am so, so sorry. I thought I understood about this, but clearly, I never really have. I understand more now, and thank you for sharing this with me and helping me. I thought I’d be teaching you during this weekend, but you ended up teaching me. I want to learn more, and I want to help—what can I do to help?"
I know now this was not really a fair question to ask of her, because, although I truly wanted to help, part of me was maybe looking for a little bit of (white) absolution, too. (It’s only natural to want to “fix” problems you’ve had a hand in creating—or benefiting from. Alas, I ultimately learned that feeling of “wanting to help” - and I know many of my white friends want to help now - is just an initial step on a long road.) But, I realized my efforts at dismantling racism in America up to that point had been merely “being kind to everyone, regardless of their race” had never been enough. Not even close.
She patiently, wearily answered, "You have more power than I have, because you are a white woman. You have a privilege that I do not. You run a yoga studio. You have a following on social media. People respect you. Can you please use *your* voice and *your* power to help educate the other white people you know, and help awaken them to the suffering Black people experience every day?"
I said, simply, “Yes, I will do this.” So, I did. I began actively speaking out when I saw or heard micro aggressions and macro aggressions, too - making my fellow white people feel at the very least uncomfortable, and probably angry, too—both IRL and out here on social media. As part of that vow to her, I started learning about the necessary work of dismantling my own whiteness, too.
I am sure that a lot of people unfollowed me on social media when I started posting about racism and white supremacy. In fact, the lack of response to my agitating made me feel very lonely at times. I'd post photos of my dogs or kids, and people would respond. But, photos or essays about BIPOC/social justice issues? Mostly silence. Outside of the fellow teachers at my studio who supported my efforts, and the students who did too, most of the yoga teachers I knew did NOT show support. Most of the yoga teachers I knew remained silent when I shared something like a story about police yet again murdering a Black person. I was tone policed and subtly shamed by folks close to me—once even by one of my teachers, who laughingly referred to my “passion about these issues.”
But, I felt that it was part of the process, and knew that the loneliness, sense of ostracism and feeling of exhaustion was something Black people had to deal with every day, as my friend who’d started me on this path told me during that pivotal conversation: “I can never escape this.”
I made sure to ask other BIPOC people I knew what and how to do this work, listened to them and learned from their guidance how to educate myself more about racism. I read a lot of great books that helped me understand more. I offered a book club, where the studio read the beautiful, brilliant and raw "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin (highly recommended) and I began giving and raising money regularly to groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU. I watched movies like “13th" “12 Years a Slave” “Get Out” “I Am Not Your Negro”. And, to feel less lonely in this work, I made friends out here with other yoga folks who also were working at educating themselves and becoming more outspoken about racism and social justice. In other words, I began to really walk the talk of ahimsa that yoga teachers have been blathering on about in our yoga classes all these years.*
Practicing ahimsa - true empathy - I like to say, doesn't always come with a cookie and a pat on the head, people. Sometimes you have to suffer, too.
What I am trying to tell my fellow white yoga friends who are really feeling a deep sense of shame, sadness, remorse, and empathy right now about systemic racism and the murders of Black people in the hands of the police, to the folks who are finally using their voices of white privilege to foment justice and needed change, is thank you, but also this: the real work of deconstructing racism lies in dismantling it in yourselves FIRST. We have a long way to go. It is work which will never, ever end, because our whiteness has been imbued in us since our births here in this country—it is generational. But, until we begin to deal with our fears, delusions and own trauma around racism as white individuals, and express that process as teachers, as white people of influence and privilege, we will never see it end in our nation.
As James Baldwin wrote, “The white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being…the price of the liberation of white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.”
So, my fellow yoga teachers, in this time of COVID, when we are learning new ways of teaching and creating community, we must also learn this vital work, too. It will be part of your sadhana now. Ultimately, it is much more fulfilling than yoga practices - as long as you let go of the fruits of your efforts that is...because we may never see the real shift we need in this country for many generations. But, it starts with us, my friends, to work to create this healing, seven generations back, and seven generations ahead. Welcome to the work which you have been preparing for all of your life.
EDIT: Now, I wrote all this a couple of days ago, knowing that it was an act of "centering myself" - but I did so in that knowledge to prove a point to the folks who are only now starting to "wake up", which is: I thought I was "awake" then when I started doing this work. I WASN'T. You think you are "awake" now. You are NOT. Again, what you are experiencing in these past few days is just another step on the path.
Do not feel you have done your job because you are kneeling at protests, or posting about racial injustice for the very first time out on social media, and other white folks are responding to you positively (and fulfilling a mutual need for exoneration.)
We white folks, ALL OF US, including me, have a VERY long way to go. Besides using google to locate the exploding plethora of anti-racist resources (and there are thousands available, from books to movies, to essays, to free online courses created by BIPOC fols) I offer this excellent essay on how yoga teachers specifically can "Convert Hidden Spiritual Racism into Activism" .
Finally, I highly suggest that white folks de-center themselves now, while simultaneously putting their money where their mouth is, because change requires organization and organization requires money. DONATE to Black Lives Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, or any number of organizations bent on dismantling racism and white supremacy, organizations that want a more just world for all of us. At the risk of virtue signaling, I will share that I donate to all three; I share this because I want white folks to see my example and FOLLOW IT, not just admire it. If you're a local student or teacher who knows me IRL, in Western Mass, DONATE to WMSURJ, which provides direct reparations to Black Americans in Western Massachusetts. Learn how to amplify the voices of BIPOC leaders, artists, writers, and most importantly for the culture of Western Yoga, BIPOC yoga teachers.
There's so much more that you can do about racism that doesn't involve making your own limited egoic self stronger, which, after all, is the point of our yoga practice: to dismantle that which veils our truest Self and causes suffering.
May we all find our way.
Michelle Ryan, yoga practitioner and teacher.