So when Jen Polacheck, aka Jen Caron, a self-described “skinny white girl” posted about the realization of the impact of her white privilege for the first time while in a yoga class with a “young, fairly heavy black girl,” it didn’t make me feel like we’ve made progress on this subject.
In her blog post on XOJane, Polachek recalls the “resentment” she felt from the newbie, who struggled and eventually gave up trying to do poses. Polachek said, “My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me – or so I imagined.” After having the profound epiphany that yoga has been “shamelessly co-opted by Western culture as a sport for skinny, rich white women,” she felt so helpless and devastated that she went home and cried.
Say what now?
Now, before you go telling me I made assumptions about Polachek making assumptions, no, I did not. She outlined them clearly in her blog by using words like “seemed” and “looked” instead of “was.”
The internet backlash was so swift, Polachek changed her blog byline to “Jen Caron” and began scrubbing her presence from the internet. Rebecca Carroll, the XOJane editor who assigned the article and happens to be black, said she wished she proofed the article better and had not posted it so quickly. Pia Glenn, another XOJane writer, posted a thoughtful response to Polachek’s piece. Glenn cut Polachek’s post down to the marrow and said what she felt Polachek was really trying to say was, “Hey, Oppressed Person, I feel bad for you but what’s most important right now is that we make it all about Me.”
Polachek’s blog is problematic mainly because of the assumptions she makes about a black woman who she was so concerned about she did not even bother to get her name. To assume yoga is not a safe place for a fairly heavy black woman really offends me, this not-so-skinny half-black woman who practices yoga.
My dear friend and colleague, fellow Connecticut Health Foundation (CHF) Health Leadership Fellow Jenn Whinnem said about this post, “I have found that in the US, yoga equals white privilege. This article did not help me think otherwise.” And even though people of all colors practice yoga, myself included, in America, generally speaking, people associate yoga with white women. Yoga is included on the popular, snarky website Stuff White People Like. And I’ll admit, I’m often the only person of color anytime I go to a yoga class.
If you want to learn more about white privilege, Jamie Knapp explained this perfectly in a comic: “White privilege is the privilege to be ignorant of the world around us.”
Jenn and I began joking about taking the yoga out of the health equity fight last summer. This has become a genuine mission for us. We have difficult talks about race often, conversations where Jenn says she has to check her white privilege. We talk about race because we have a mutual respect for one another and we have the ability to speak candidly without fear of offending each other. This fearlessness is seriously lacking in the health equity world. We want to make a change, but we don’t want to upset people while doing so. So we do yoga and adhere to respectability politics when we need to be having these hard conversations about race.
I feel like this sensitivity about white privilege has made us invested in the health equity fight complacent and non-confrontational about assumptions and race, the proverbial elephant in the yoga class. But race is the first thing we should be talking about.
I want to be uncomfortable. I want you to be uncomfortable. I want to be angry and overwhelmed because that will make me do something about it. I want to take risks, fail, try again and get the win.
As Audre Lorde said, “your silence will not protect you.” Understanding the psychology behind racial stereotyping and assumptions will help us. Feelings will get hurt, but this will only help us in the long run.
So, talk to me, friends. I won’t bite. Why are we so silent about race when it comes to health equity? Say something so we can do something.