The real crime in Jen Caron’s xoJane essay is calling out a woman for ruining yoga with her large black presence, when in fact, it’s Caron’s attitude that is ruining yoga for everyone else.
I can’t decide whether to link you to Jen Caron’s xoJane essay exploring how guilty she feels about being white and skinny in a yoga class in the presence of people who aren’t white and skinny. I want to send you her way for the sheer pleasure of dispersing my anger and frustration amongst sympathetic and like-minded readers, but I won’t. Google it if you must; I’m not giving xoJane any clicks for publishing this scarily misguided missive that does nothing but alleviate the white guilt of one privileged yogi.
In a yoga class overwhelmed by New Year’s resolutioners, Caron spotted a demographic anomaly; the lone “fairly heavy black woman” unrolling a mat beside her. What follows this OMG OBSERVATION is a load of ambivalent, guilt-ridden, presumptuous speculating about what it “must feel like” for this woman to struggle with the postures and be in a “system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body.”
The clues that she claims fuel her speculation are nothing more than that this woman has stopped following along in the postures and is scowling. First, people take yoga breaks during practice for 8,000 different reasons, from injury to exhaustion, hangover to an emotional moment knocked loose by all that stretching. I have certainly spent more than a few classes in child’s pose. Second, scowling? Really? Ever heard of angry black woman stereotypes?
Regardless of why the woman paused or what she’s actually feeling (and how could we possibly know?), Caron is pretty darn sure it’s all about her,
“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. 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.”
Forget the lazy writing—“surely” and “or so I imagined” directly contradict each other—and focus instead on how Caron has made herself the center of this story. It gets worse:
“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.”
Caron is gunning for deep revelation about “American race relations” and privilege, but what comes out is nothing more than self-involved melodrama. Yes, sometimes small moments are illustrative of big systemic problems, but sometimes they are not. This woman testing out a downward dog is just a woman testing out a downward dog. She is not capital-R Representative of what it feels like to be a large black woman in America, because there is no singular large black woman experience.
As Cate Young wrote at Batty Mamzelle last week,
“What white people always forget is that one of the privileges of whiteness is individuality. One white person’s actions aren’t seen as a reflection on all white people. Minorities don’t have that luxury. That’s why after 9/11, all ambiguously brown/Muslim/Arab people are considered terrorists, but no one pathologizes white male teenagers as school shooters.”
What Young explains so eloquently is that, as a fellow white girl (albeit not a skinny one) in a neon spandex yoga top, I will not be judged by what Caron wrote. Just because we are both white and female, it is safe to assume that our experiences and insecurities are not identical. And thank god for that, because if I were held to this pretentious, faux-concerned garbage, well, I just might never want to go to yoga again for fear I’d be conflated with the author.
Yoga is hard, and it is supposed to be hard. I didn’t know that when I started three years ago, assuming that I could handle it because I could handle the elliptical machine. It is a different kind of challenging, as anyone who’s tried it knows, requiring a mental focus, emotional openness, forgiveness for yourself, body awareness and respect for your limitations. Yes, it also requires strength, flexibility, and endurance, but those are secondary and, importantly, in proportion to where you are in your practice.
Some days I feel like I can chaturanga forever, like my legs are steel cables that flex and support me in whatever I try to do, like my hamstrings will open on command. Some days I feel full of sand, heavy and stiff, and every posture, including standing still, is the hardest thing I have ever done. Sometimes I just want to lay on my back and let the heat and breath wash over me while I focus on relaxing the muscle between my eyebrows. But that is the beauty of yoga, my mat, my space, my breath, my practice. Despite sometimes practicing in groups, it is at its core a personal and private endeavor.
The real crime in Caron’s essay is not the lack of self-awareness, or the racist undertones, or the assumption that everyone wants to be as white and as skinny as she is. The real crime is calling out this woman for ruining yoga with her large black presence, when in fact, it’s Caron’s attitude that is ruining yoga for everyone else.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.