White Fragility in Yoga: Privilege, Power, and Posts

Today I’m breaking off from my usual blog, and sharing a post I wrote for a social media group. I’ve only recently (within the last year or so) discovered the use of facebook groups in the yoga world. I think on a whole they can serve as excellent resources for yogis and as a way to build community. There is power in groups! But, this is also the point of this post, which is about how these groups (as things that are both made up of individuals but also bigger than individual members) can be a site of power and privilege, and how the nature of posting itself can be a learning opportunity as well as a means of oppression.

For those who aren’t on the Yoga and Movement Research group, it’s a new facebook group with the intention to share and integrate movement research into yoga practice (particularly asana practice). Over the weekend, there was apparently some serious drama as someone brought up the fact that some of this practice of integrating functional movement systems and biomechanical research into the practice was appropriating the practice and perhaps not adequately representing the roots of yoga as spiritual. The topic of privilege and cultural appropriation were brought up, names were called, all hell broke loose, and as anyone who has been on the internet long enough to imagine, it got ugly.

After this drama happened, the entire thread was deleted by the administrators and the “bully” who had originally broached these topics blocked from the group. Then there was a post from the admins that was even more epic drama, as many people hailed the “victory” over the “bully,” who had been added back into the group by a friend, ensuing discussion of how the person should be banned and any of her friends “closely watched” and potentially blocked too (for the sin of adding her back in and apparently being friendly). To see this post (which gives a good sense of what went down in the group earlier), go here. However, it turned out that not everyone was okay with the post being deleted and the few people who spoke up with concerns were pretty much either ignored, told to “go away” or “get a life.” In other words, further silenced and marginalized. Drama!

I wrote a post in response to this explaining why I was concerned about this reaction from administrators. What follows is my discussion of white fragility in the yoga world, how white fragility applies here, and why discussions of power, privilege, and cultural appropriation are important for all of us yogis, especially those interested in movement research, to have.

Even if you aren’t interested in the specifics, I think this post grapples with a dilemma every yoga should have in their practice. How do we make the practice relevant and meaningful to us, in other words, make it uniquely “ours”, authentically “ours,” while still remaining true to the heart of the practice? How can we modify the practice to be more just, equitable, and modern even as we acknowledge and honor the roots of the tradition of yoga? Read on, if you dare to. I hope you gain something from what was for me a therapeutic way to deal with the emotional disturbance and frustration I felt upon learning about what occurred.

A Plea for Dialogue

Hi y’all. So I missed the drama on this group, but feel like I should express some concerns I have about what went down, and try to explain why I have these concerns. I wish I could find the original thread to get a better understanding of what happened. I was out of town this weekend and unfortunately missed the drama, but I have read what’s around since then and have got the gist from various comments and posts since. So I want to clarify that I know I am coming to writing and responding to this experience that happened in ways that emotionally affected all involved without a perfect understanding of everything that was said. I know this. But I still think we need to reflect more deeply on what happened as a group and why it is important for all of us to reflect on and educate ourselves about these topics.

Because here’s the thing: I can no longer go back and see what happened as the post was deleted. So there is no record. Although, I understand there are screenshots (garnered from reading other posts since then). As someone who cares very much about the issues that were addressed and would have liked to learn more through the thread (if only in a “what not to do on social media to avoid drama” way), I think this it is a shame it was deleted, and am actually quite grateful there is a record somewhere. I would love to see those screenshots, because this record is important and is a testimony to us as individual people who we may be experiencing moments of challenge and difficulty and growth (one hopes, for everyone involved); these threads and moments like the one that happened are a testimony of our community, to this group, and ultimately to the yoga world as a whole, because we are a microcosm of this world even as we are unique within it. The issues that were discussed were powerful, emotional, and important. How else could they spark such reactions? Such passion? So I am saddened by the fact that the post is no longer available given that these are topics worth discussing and that this group is for and made by all of us, even though it was started by Diane (thank you!), and as such the thread was a valuable record for all of us to learn from. I’m especially concerned that it was deleted so quickly, before many people in this group even had an opportunity to view it at all, myself included.

I have some thoughts I would like to share about why I am disturbed about this situation. Please realize that this post is coming from my heart and that I have contemplated and grappled very deeply with the topics I am about to write about here for many years as an educator and researcher on these issues. I think that this group, and all of us (myself included) need to be able to think critically and deeply, and dare I say meditate in a truly yogic way (aka, deep absorption per yogic philosophy) about what we are doing in our attempt to integrate more biomechanical and movement research into our practice. And I think that part of this meditation must include critically thinking about what it is we are doing, how we are doing it, and the way in which our actions may be appropriative.

This group, Yoga and Movement Research is about integrating movement research into our yoga practice. It’s about increasing safety, and about yoga as more than asana in that integrating current movement research can help us better align with yogic philosophy, including the practices of ahimsa, non-harm, and so on. In application to the body, this means utilizing functional movement and biomechanical research to insure that we practice safely in ways that do not harm us across a lifetime. These are valuable and noble goals. But we have to recognize that what we are doing isn’t just “fun,” or “safer,” it is also political.

What we are doing is political because it ties into the yoga industry and the ways asana has become commodified, tied to a type of practice that can be potentially injurious across a lifetime for many people. Clearly many people have experienced this in this group, including Diane, whose story is a powerful reminder of why what we are doing here is important and potentially life changing for many. Ultimately what we do in many ways aligns us against an industry that is set up to sell a style of practice to people who may actually be injured by that same practice. It aligns us against the tradition, against the commodification, and against the mindless perpetuation of practices that may not be serving us. Many members in this group have talked about the push-back you have gotten from mainstream yoga. This push-back is because what we do is political. There is no denying it. It is revolutionary.

More importantly for this discussion, what we do is also rooted in and tied to issues of cultural appropriation, because in many ways the integration of functional movement research and systems into our practice is changing the practice, and is changing what we think of as yoga. So to say, “I am not particularity interested in politics as it pertains to yoga, the decolonization and appropriation of yoga,” (this is a direct quote from an admin in this group) just cannot and doesn’t make sense to me, because that’s a complete denial, purposeful ignoring, and misunderstanding of the fact that what we are potentially doing in this very group and our interest in yoga and movement research IS political and is also potentially culturally appropriative (#noshadejusttruth). We are trying to change the practice, and anytime we do this, especially when we are coming from places of privilege (which most of us in this group are, #noshadejusttruth) we are in danger of engaging in cultural appropriation. As such we have to be EXTRA careful to ensure we don’t unintentionally cause harm and engage in appropriative practices without intending to.

We have to make the extra effort to learn about these issues, especially if we want to take our practice off the mat and use it to transform our lives and our selves, which is what yoga asks of all of us. It means we must be open to difficult, challenging, and disconcerting learning opportunities. It means we must seek truth, not just in terms of research on the body, but in research on how privilege and power ARE embodied. How we enact power and privilege through our bodies, and our voices, through our language and the way our fingers type words into the keyboard. It means we have to be aware of how what we do can affect bodies in deep and emotional ways, that will then show up in the way we move, which ties back directly in a crazy and complex and profound cycle to the purpose and intention of this group, rethinking movement. The body, trauma and history are intertwined. We cannot separate these things. Separation is an illusion. Cultural appropriation is a topic we should be open to addressing in this group, and I hope that we continue to discuss. Issues of cultural appropriation are important to what this group does, because we have to be very careful as people of privilege about the ways we take this practice, reinterpret it, and change it can actually reproduce and perpetuate appropriative practices that have been very prevalent in yoga during the last 100 years as the practice began to enter the West under colonialism.

All this means we need to educate ourselves on these topics, to avoid doing harm and damage (because, hey, ahimsa). And this is where I am disturbed by this conversation thread being deleted. Because deleting this thread is, at its heart, an act of privilege, an act of power. I understand we need to regulate spam and actual, justified and legitimate threats (like real, legal harassment). But I would probably, by utilizing a more removed perspective (pratipaksha bhavanam, anyone?), call the thread that occurred a pretty typical lively social media debate from what I have garnered about what happened, although I can’t be sure, because again the thread has since been deleted, which is part of the problem. Let’s face it, it’s social media, and it’s just impossible to get our points across clearly so there is usually a heightened tension and ease of misunderstanding on the internet. This is not new, it is not surprising, and ultimately if you think someone’s comment is rude the best course of action is simply to ignore it, not try and delete every rude thing that is ever said. I think it’s illuminating that across the history of this group, and the many heated debates that have been had, it is a conversation about appropriation and privilege that is the one that is deleted. It says a lot about the underlying, likely unconscious reasons why this post in particular made people uncomfortable to the point where erasing the record seemed to be the appropriate response.

The point is that the ability and decision to remove a post is an act of power and an act of silencing, which is by definition an act of privilege. In fact, research shows that in discussions of race and/or privilege, those who are privileged often react in one of three ways. This is discussed in a piece by DiAngelo that the person who has been called a “bully,” “troll,” and so on in various comments has since then shared in another thread (you can access DiAngelo’s work here, with a more succinct summary here). I get that a lot of name-calling was from both sides, and I think that’s on both parties (in all fairness, #noshadejusttruth). But the reactions where people with privilege often feel bullied and attacked when these topics come up is one of the most common reactions DiAngelo found as part of what she termed “white fragility.” And the act of deleting the post afterwards is similarly another common reaction DiAngelo discusses (and ironically enough, a klesha, or obstacle identified by Patanjali, avoidance).

DiAngelo defines “white fragility” as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” And this is exactly what happened in this group. People with privilege are almost always in a position of comfort, and when they are challenged, whites “typically respond as if something is ‘wrong,’ and blame the person or event that triggered their discomfort… [resulting] in a socially-sanctioned array of counter-moved against the perceived source of the discomfort, including: penalization, retaliation, isolation, ostracization, and refusal to continue engagement” (DiAngelo 61).

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly the response that occurred in this group, where those who were challenged to think critically and reflect on their privilege instead penalized the supposed “offender” (blocking them from the group), retaliated (by name calling, etc., by openly requesting that the person be “nicer,” and also threatening to block the friend who did nothing but add the “offender” to the group and then readd them, which honestly I think is fair considering conversations were still going on about that same person that if it were me, I would have wanted to at least be able to see). Members of this group also isolated others who brought up concerns about what happened (such as the numerous examples on the threads since where people have spoken up with concerns only to be isolated and told this isn’t the purpose of the group and that they just need to “live with it” or “get over it” or “move on”), and most obviously a complete refusal to continue engagement (by deleting the post and blocking the “offender”).

I want to make a couple more points. First, I want to make it clear that cultural appropriation is not a simple thing, and is a term that is often misunderstood and misused in our society. Please, y’all, just because you have heard this term does not mean you understand what cultural appropriation is, how it works, and how to avoid it. Just because you know the definition of the term, doesn’t mean you understand the concept.

Let me explain. I teach sociology at the university level, and cultural sociology is my particular expertise and area of study. So I teach about cultural appropriation in my college courses. It takes me a whole week of lecture to adequately introduce this topic. Which means it takes me a good three hour lecture just to barely scratch the surface of this concept. My students often still struggle to understand this topic even with the lecture and additional reading assigned. And note that this is three hours of a lecture that I have carefully compiled and concisely organized to allow my students a general overview of this concept, and that pulls from material based on untold hours I have spent studying, reading, and researching these topics (e.g., I have a peer-review paper coming out on cultural appropriation of body positivity in yoga within the next month that has literally been in the works for almost two years). I am not saying this to brag, or to try and make you all feel like this topic is unapproachable. With a good teacher and when you take some time to do that reading and studying it is completely possible to understand, apply, and begin to overcome cultural appropriation in our lives and practice. It is my sincere hope that you all will seek out this knowledge, as again, it is very relevant for this group and all concerned with integrating movement research into yoga, even if you aren’t actively dealing with issues of racial diversity, etc. in yoga. But know that this topic is complex, and takes time to learn about, and we have to be willing to be students and to say “I don’t know” and to listen to those who are trying to educate us on these things. If you all are interested I’d be willing to put together an online course on cultural appropriation in yoga, PM me if you are interested. I have had a few requests in the past to do so, but never enough people to justify the time/energy/work on my end, but if there are enough people who may be interested I’m open to doing so despite how busy I am because I do care deeply on these issues and feel they are important.

Also, I think it is ironic that the person who was blocked is an expert on the very issues discussed, but can no longer serve as a resource if she is blocked. So not only is deleting the thread problematic, but so is blocking the person as there aren’t as many people out there who study and teach on these topics. I get that the debate got heated to the point of being irrelevant. That doesn’t mean the entire thread was. It doesn’t mean other conversations with that person can’t be educational. We all need to be able to see things from multiple perspectives, and please realize that anti-oppression work can be exhausting, frustrating, depressing, angering, and overwhelming because we see this type of thing everywhere, all the time. It drains our energy. It leaves us depleted. And many of us engaged in this work are coming to the practice to heal, and we come to it only to find that we see the same things and end up engaging in the same work in spaces where we hope to feel supported and listened to. This can be double hurtful, as we are often made to feel unwelcome in the yoga world as well, called “unyogic” for being critical, and that this is a constant, constant battle we face in a practice where all we want is to find peace.

Sometimes when we say things nicely, no one listens. Sometimes the only way to be heard is to be loud, is to be rude. Niceness is not a requirement of yoga, although many people misinterpret ahimsa as being “nice.” Ahimsa is “do no harm,” not “be nice”. Sure we should strive to be respectful and kind in all our interactions to avoid doing harm, but we are human, and sometimes we mess up. In fact, the requirement of being “nice” that many people of privilege try to require when talking about these topics often serves to reinforce the status quo and silence marginalized voices. The requirement to “be nice” puts your own comfort before the lived experiences of others. It is denying the upsetting reality of oppression. And if you want to learn more, please see this article on “White Niceness as the Enemy of Black Liberation”. The claim to “be nice” is good, and we should all strive toward that, and I’m sorry that thread became a crap shoot (hello social media! No surprise there, in all honesty), but now we have potentially lost a critical voice who has a great deal of expertise in these areas and who could have served as an educational resource for many in the future (after tempers died down on both sides, cause we are human).

Finally, one of the things that disturbs me the most is the way in which these acts of power (deleting threads, blocking people, etc.) are likely to make others feel silenced and less likely to speak up on these topics. I know personally that I’m less inclined to talk about these things on this group now because I’m not sure what will happen if I do. I’m honestly a little leery of sharing resources now, because god knows what responses I’ll get when I bring these topics up. If I call someone out on privilege, even with the best of intentions and even making an effort to be “nice” (though as I mentioned that whole idea of niceness can also be deconstructed), what will happen to me? Will I be blocked too? Will I be called names? Will my threads and resources be deleted? Why should I bother spending time and energy to try and educate when I’m not sure anyone is even open to listening? And this is the real root of the issue I have with what happened, because it speaks to a larger issue of privilege and power going on in this group that frankly makes me think of just giving up and leaving the group entirely, because at a certain point it’s just angering, frustrating, and depressing for me to see these topics being met with defensiveness and white fragility (per DiAngelo’s work). Who knows! Maybe this post will be deleted later this day, and if you don’t hear from me again, maybe it’s because I was blocked from the group. (Joke, I think?)

I am curious why the thread was deleted so quickly (including comments that were not rude) and why the person was blocked. Did admins make an effort to reach out privately to discuss their concerns with that person? Did they let emotions cool down before trying to do so? Because from what I gather of the situation, that decision was done in the heat of the emotional reaction without trying to dialogue with anyone privately, and without a thought for how that decision itself is representative of privilege and power dynamics ongoing in the group, or how that decision might be seen by other members of the group who may already be marginalized in the yoga world at large. And that’s problematic. Because ultimately, who is deciding to do this? And based on what? It’s one thing to be rude and a completely other thing to threaten to kill someone, folks, and we shouldn’t be silencing people just for rudeness.

I’m not sure where to go from here. All I know is that voices are people, not just words on a screen, and our habits and defenses are deeply ingrained; from the time we are born we are taught to lean into privilege, and to ignore oppression. These habits become rooted in our bodies, our brains; literally our physiology contains our cultural bias and predispositions. As DiAngelo notes, “fragility and privilege result in responses that function to restore equilibrium and return the resources ‘lost’ via the challenge–resistance towards the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or ‘hurt feelings,’ exiting, or a combination of these responses.” And I’m sad to say that this is what I saw in what happened, and rather than learn from the experience, there has been a continuation of the very privilege and practices that the “offender” was likely trying to draw attention to (even if it did devolve into a crap shoot).

Ultimately the art and act of yoga is to uproot these samskara, to see beyond bias, to uncover how this bias influences our actions, reactions, and defenses in ways we may not even be aware. Yoga challenges us to find truth, to use our pain to learn and grow and fuel our selfless devotion and service, to eliminate suffering. And we can’t do this if we avoid what makes us uncomfortable. I’m not saying don’t monitor. But please, please, please consider how the way in which this group is monitored reflects larger issues of privilege and power. Please don’t delete things that can be education and meaningful and learning opportunities unless they are actually dangerous and harassment. And please let’s continue talking about these things, because they are important and relevant to the mission of this group.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

And to end on some humor, here’s a Letter to My Yoga Teacher.

 

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9 thoughts on “White Fragility in Yoga: Privilege, Power, and Posts”

  1. “But we have to recognize that what we are doing isn’t just ‘fun,’ or ‘safer,’ it is also political.”

    That’s the thing. People don’t like being political unless it’s around those they agree with. It’s scary! As someone who studied political science as an undergrad, it makes me so sad that many people aren’t willing to be uncomfortable in important POLITICAL discussions. :/

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  2. thanks for writing this, it is the third online dust-up i’ve heard of from last weekend (the others on bruenig and #thronesyall), all with complicated personalities and racial/group/power vectors, and are being resolved by isolating and tribalizing. these are important discussions, but take place as chaos outside of formal settings. i’ve been following the yoga appropriations discussions for some years and want to add my 2 cents.

    i am not part of the fb group but know who the “bully” is here, and i think “agitant” is better, and why they’re met with such resistance. the agitant is there to ignite, not to heal or hand hold, be there tomorrow, or educate. they are essential because they don’t do niceness, but, move on to agitate elsewhere when their first bit is done. it’s all agression and with-against, and not someone to compatriot with unless you’re also going to be agitating.

    the next bit, where people are learning and processing, i think the agitant is a hinderance (name-calling, outing, and haranguing), and initially too the ‘white’ (or whatever the descriptor is). “fragility” people can relate to, like male/female fragility etc, then they can seek the ‘white’ aspect as it applies. i’ve seen people talk about white supremacy and then deny brahmanical supremacy exists; supremacy is the issue, and needs to be included as such. press and discuss the intersectional, but to deny the general is to deny shared humanity; aparigraha as fencelessness applied to the semantic, if you dig. including the general also gives space to explore and be wrong with some buffer.

    hope you post your paper’s findings or where to find it when it’s published, and thanks for pressing these issues.

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    1. Hi Pal, great adds! Yes. I love the word agitant! Such a great descriptor for this type of work. Because it is this person/these people who are the ones who often bring things up that no one else with broach. This takes great courage, and often takes a louder voice as they are less likely to be listened to (usually). So they ignite, as you say. And I agree that sometimes this isn’t always the best way to educate, and then often after agitation is done, what is needed is someone who can help people learn and process in a way that isn’t so confrontational. Both sides are so necessary, but they sometimes require different skills/processes, as you note. Thanks for the insight! I will definitely share a link and summary of my paper to my blog when it is out. ❤

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  3. A lot here, but the most obvious problem is I think that you label the fragility “white”, which may be partly true – but I think it misses a lot of deep structural discontinuities that are shaping peoples behavior online and in the sorts of groups, networks and organizations we are designing. A lot of your comments and observations are spot-on – but possibly may also be moot. You are right to categorize the knee-jerk response of blocking described as “fragility” but the motivations to block on FB groups are as a result of multiple factors, although the result is (generally) to privilege the dominant consitituency – not surprisingly (generally) white, educated and physically able females. The research I have done has led me to the hypothesis that most of the harm that is done to people in these spaces is actaully quite simple – it’s incompetence. Firstly yoga groups and orgs. simply don’t have (and don’t attract) people with the right competences to do the job they’re charged with doing. Incompetence is almost hard-wired into these groups because people “don’t know” what they “don’t know” – that is – they don’t even know that to conduct a useful meeting on cultural issues requires a good grasp of the social energies at play in that sort of discussion – and so forth. FB groups utility is in their democratic model – but democracy is very poor in areas of information asymmetry – so that’s typically anything requiring a degree – or the something better – a lot of expertise from field research – which probably takes at least ten years of really hard work. So, this is a great use case for an epistocracy – although what “counts” as authority would be up for a long and protracted debate. There IS fragility, but it’s not so significant in terms of individuals own sense of self-identity (though that also does contribute). The main fragility is because our culture doesn’t support yoga the way it supports, say – manufacturing or retailing. In Asia the monasteries and ashrams still have a lot of political clout, and the sadhu’s and other observable practitioners work as powerful cultural objects. In the euro-american mind – yoga is just an interesting fitness and exercise regime competing alongside aerobics, zumba and pilates and all the rest of it. Culturally, it’s been put in the wrong category by the United Nations industrial classification system, and until we get the communities and groups that are not in thrall of the market – and start building communitities based on things like trust, respect and competence in the basics (like culture) then this sort of result is inevitable because the moderators see the attack against their fragile livelihoods and the ideas that lie in the background – uninterrogated – AS an attack against the person – and what would otherwise be an intersting opportunity to diversify and learn from someone else – the person is lablled a “bully” allowing the same structures of tyranny to stabilize themselves – albeit on fragile ontologies spearheaded by the UN. If you’re intersted my prelim. thesis about the fragility of our (“post-kantian”) categorical thinking as it relates to yoga is available for free download here: http://docs.yuj.it/people/matwitts/archive/pamphlets/fragile-ontologies It’s neither fully developed nor comprehensive but some parts might feed into further discussions about how we set about constituting new groups and organizations and our own practice through the (fragile) concept of “shared interests” ?

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    1. Thanks for the very insightful and deep comments! And for the share of your work, I will check it out when I have some spare time.

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