‘Skinny white girl’ yoga story illustrates the perils of privilege

[Photo by Anna Furman/Shutterstock]

[Photo by Anna Furman/Shutterstock]

It was privilege – both white and class – that needed a wide berth, not the big black woman who darkened the door of Jen Caron’s all-white Brooklyn yoga class. Caron posted her efforts at racial self-awareness at xojane.com recently, following her encounter with the woman, who struggled with the pretzel-like yoga positions before sitting out the rest of the class. It’s no surprise Caron’s earnest yet ridiculous racial musings have gone viral, sending women of all stripes into fits of apoplexy.
 
While Caron exposed herself and suffers righteous public outrage as a result, her views are an object lesson for those of us who fail to check our privilege at the door. Lest you think you don’t have privilege, think again: You’re reading this on a computer. Check off a box for class. Privileged to write freely about race, Caron got the most racial results.

Let’s skip to the part where Caron fixates on the fact that a “heavy set” black woman has come to her New York yoga studio looking apprehensive about the task at hand:

“I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times,” Caron writes. “My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”

She continues: “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? 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. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse.”

When Caron got home, she cried, though for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Apparently, much of the blogosphere can’t, either.

Here we are in spitting distance from the Ani DiFranco plantation debacle and the myriad ways society writes black women out of the script, be it the reality of, say, unemployment or yet another crop of TV shows set in major American cities that feature no substantive black characters. Now, this writer transforms another woman into an object, fixates on her and transfers all of her insecurities about herself and her body onto someone seemingly intent to embrace her new year, new you attitude.

At first I dismissed Caron as one of those precious yogapeople, obsessed with their Lululemon yoga pants, caught in the cult-like mesmerizing pull of their yogi. At least that’s what I keep reading in Vanity Fair. Despite all the vitriol this post engendered and the thoughtful takeaways about invisibility, objectification, race versus feminism, this is really a celebration of the black woman who, in that space and time, had committed to at least start being a better version of herself physically and mentally through yoga.

I spoke to Dr. Nadine Kelly, a black Flossmoor yogi and former pathologist, who found her true calling to help people through yoga. “I was not feeling that well emotionally and spiritually,” says Kelly about her early years in yoga. “I began to understand there is a mind-body connection, not just hocus pocus. Breathing you do in yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system to allow the mind to relax.”

Kelly worries Caron’s article and the reactions to it further alienate women from the liberating benefits of yoga.

“I talked to my sister about this,” Kelly says. “Why was [Caron] paying attention to everybody else? She wasn’t really practicing yoga. She wasn’t focused on the practice.”

If Caron had a clue, and by now I’m sure she has several, she might know the world stopped accommodating that black woman’s body way before she hit that yoga studio. Consider: Clothing not cut to fit our curves (and butts).

She’d also know black women have strong body images and aren’t nearly as stressed about being thin as the larger society. The same is true for Latinas: One recent study of Latina girls shows when they have a strong, positive ethnic identity they’re also more likely to embrace their bodies.

That the piece resonated with at least one gatekeeper, an editor at xojane.com, is the real cause for concern. This particular piece of commentary exacerbates efforts to have a robust talk about race, gender and class among the very people — black, brown, white, rich, middle-class, poor women — who should be having a discussion of the intersectionality of these topics.

Compassion, not outrage, is the next step here. We are all in a gapers-block-like pose, shocked and staring at the likes of  Miss Caron — not the big black woman — and anyone who buys into privilege without asking if they’re paying too high a price. For the price you paid for your notions of racial and class superiority, Jen Caron, you should get your money back.

Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based writer and journalism lecturer at Northwestern University. She is also a facilitator for The OpEd Project, dedicated to amplifying diverse voices of women, youth and other underrepresented people.

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