Earlier this week, a writer for xoJane, a website best known for publishing personal essays by American women, published a short piece by a yoga enthusiast that has elicited a fearsome backlash. The author explains how her yoga studio has served as a refuge from the wider world, and how appealing she finds its bohemian egalitarianism. Yet during a recent yoga session, the author was confronted by the ways in which the yoga experience she values so highly might actually be very intimidating to people who are not of a certain race or body type. These thoughts were prompted by the presence of a young heavy-set woman who, unlike virtually all of the yoga practitioners who regularly attend this yoga studio, did not appear to be white or Asian. According to the author, the woman in question seemed uncomfortable in her surroundings, and chose not to take part in the exercises. The author imagined that the woman was sullenly resentful of the experienced yoga practitioners around her. This made the author feel uncomfortable, and mindful of the privilege she enjoys by virtue of her appearance and her social and cultural capital. The most controversial passage comes towards the end:
I got home from that class and promptly broke down crying. Yoga, a beloved safe space that has helped me through many dark moments in over six years of practice, suddenly felt deeply suspect. Knowing fully well that one hour of perhaps self-importantly believing myself to be the deserving target of a racially charged anger is nothing, is largely my own psychological projection, is a drop in the bucket, is the tip of the iceberg in American race relations, I was shaken by it all the same.
Many of us will find this essay to be the height of self-caricature, and perhaps we can leave it at that. But I’ve been struck by the “two-minutes hate” quality of the response to the article. Essentially, the author is thinking through the question of what we owe each other, and how we isolate ourselves from each other. She was addressing, fitfully and imperfectly, feelings that many people have when they encounter strangers experiencing discomfort or distress. It is difficult to know who will want an unsolicited kind word, and who will resent it.
In 2000, Barbara Diggs-Brown and Leonard Steinhorn wrote a book on “the illusion of integration.” They argue that one of the chief barriers to interracial friendship is the fear that members of one group have about offending members of another group, a fear that makes it extremely difficult to establish trust and intimacy. Once trust has been established, a careless remark can be interpreted as something other than malicious, and perhaps as an opportunity for an exchange in which friends share their experiences. Before trust has been established, however, a careless remark can be seen as confirmation of all kinds of assumptions, including misplaced assumptions. The yoga incident strikes me as a pretty good illustration of why many people steer clear of writing about some of the complexities of navigating a multiracial environment, in which there are asymmetries of cultural privilege and power. If you try to write about the subject sincerely (and awkwardly, and even self-reproachingly), you will be mocked to the point that you’ll feel obligated to make use of a pseudonym. One predictable consequence of this kind of response is that thoughts like those articulated by the author will be pushed underground, guiltily expressed within “safe spaces” of culturally similar friends.
(I will do my best not to subject you to amateur cultural criticism on a regular basis.)