This past week a lot of people have been asking me to comment of the U of O “yoga scandal”. The controversy is being framed like this: there was a yoga class at U of O and it got cancelled because of concerns related to “cultural sensitivity”. Basically people are saying it got cancelled because there were concerns that yoga is appropriative.
To be honest, up until today I really had no interest in responding to any of this. I stopped teaching yoga over a year ago and I’m not really interested in weighing in on these issues. I know where I stand and I don’t feel like I need to re-articulate my views.
And then, my article about why I quit teaching was linked to a piece in the globe and mail written by the ever measured and reasonable, Margaret Wente. I could quote her, but I honestly don’t want to subject anyone to her garbage. The point to take home is she made many cheap shots (typical of her style) against me and everyone else who takes issue with appropriation.
After friends and family posted the link to her article on my Facebook I looked at the stats for my old site and realized hundreds of people were reading the piece I wrote about quitting teaching. And then I googled the UofO scandal and saw hundreds of articles written about it. I have to admit I was initially in a bit of shock.
I couldn’t help but wonder – why do people care about this class so much?
But really, the answer is pretty obvious.
The public reaction to this class being cancelled isn’t about yoga at all. It’s about white insecurity.
You see, as my friend Liz (who used to work for the student federation of U of O) points out in her recent blog post, the class was cancelled for a number of reasons. One of the main ones was that no one was coming to the class. U of O actually still has a yoga class, it was the student federation that cancelled their yoga class, not the university. So no, yoga has not been banned from the university. And the class has not been permanently cancelled, it’s just under review til next semester, which starts in a couple weeks. And as Liz rightfully points out, the decision to keep or cancel the class is really about how the student union, and specifically the Center For Students with Disabilities who was hosting the class, seeks to meet student need. From Liz’s perspective It’s not actually anyone’s place to be commenting on the class being cancelled other than disabled students and south asian students.
This seems like a fairly sound and factually reasoned position, no? And yet it’s literally the exact opposite of how the media is treating this issue.
How many yoga classes have been cancelled that have caused this much of a maelstrom?
But here’s the thing. People are not getting upset about this because of yoga. They are getting upset about this yoga class because it is making them think about their whiteness. And more broadly it is making them think about racism.
And thinking about racism makes white people uncomfortable. Like really uncomfortable.
Personally I think reacting to this yoga class being cancelled is acting as a pressure release for white folks. It’s a way for us to scream at the top of our lungs, “I AM NOT RACIST!!!! THESE PEOPLE ARE JUST OVERREACTING!!! THEY NEED TO STOP BEING SO SENSITIVE!!”. Screaming about this class is acting as a way for us to recenter white feelings, white guilt and white fragility and white apologizing – rather than actually dutifully learning about the issues at hand. Let alone actually understanding the facts.
And us white folks feel are motivated to behave like this because thinking about how we are racist is making us feel really awful about ourselves. Realizing that racism exists and that we are complicit in it is like taking the pill from the matrix. You know, the pill that lets you see the matrix exists. It’s not a pleasant experience. And yet – it’s totally necessary to acknowledge our racism. Denying that’s it’s real is rapidly becoming harder and harder to do. Just look at the Syrian Refugee Crisis; the slanted reaction to the Paris bombings that excluded the suffering of many nations of Muslims and folks of colour; the rising violence against Muslim and Black people all over the world – not to mention that all of this is happening over American Thankstaking weekend.
Talk about timing.
Basically we’re all just fetuses covered in goo having no fucking idea what we’re doing and we’d rather be comfortably back in the matrix, thank you very much.
At least, that seems to be how we’re reacting to this yoga class. We’re kicking and screaming and crying and yelling, “I AM NOT RACIST. LOOK AT MY DOWNWARD DOG?! I have a RIGHT to my yoga class!!!!”
But the thing is, we can’t go back to the matrix. It is crumbling all around us.
Racism is real and it is killing people. White supremacy exists and it is killing people. It’s just way easier to deny these things are happening when talking about a lower stakes issues like a yoga class.
And that is why people care so much about this yoga class.
So maybe, just maybe, we all need to take a minute and .. dare I say it: take a deep breath and calm ourselves? Because we won’t be able to attend to the work at hand, of unpacking all this violence and meaningfully and responsibly responding to it, unless we can step away from our defense mechanisms and into our ability to listen and find compassion.
I mean fuck, isn’t that what yoga is supposed to be teaching us to do?
Cause here’s the thing. I’m not into shaming white people. I’m a white person and I’ve done a lot of work to release the shame and guilt I felt about my complicity in racial violence. That complicity is real. I benefit from racism. That is undeniable. If you disagree with me, please, read a book about the history of Turtle Island (North America) from the perspective of an Indigenous Person. Or \ read about the history of the slave trade. Or you know, watch the news and think about it critically for half a second.
The point I’m trying to bring home here is this: feeling guilty and being reactive isn’t going to solve anything. What does begin to address racism is white people taking responsibility and being real about the benefits we have because of our whiteness. So maybe we need to stop complaining about yoga classes and start listening to and meaningfully showing up for folks of colour.
And maybe, just maybe, we need to start turning to our own ancestor for spiritual guidance. Why is that such a scary idea? There’s actually some really rad things we can learn when we start to complicated, contextualize and historicize our European roots. And no, those roots are not all about Christianity and hurting people. So just let that idea go right now.
If you go far back enough we all have, as my friend Mel Bazil has reminded me, “beautiful origins”.
I understand that looking at our racism is scary, trust me I do. But it’s not as scary as actually experiencing it, which is something we white folks will never truly understand. Exploring our own roots and unpacking our whiteness is rich and necessary work if we want to change the tide of violence we have benefited from for generations.
So get a tissue, put down the yoga mat, stop complaining about this yoga class and go read a book or help a refugee.
You’ll feel better for it, trust me.
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