“The truth is, we live in a society where the color of your skin still says a lot about your prognosis for success in life. This is the reality right now, and ignoring race will not change that. We have a real problem of racial inequity and injustice in our society, and we cannot wish it away. We have to tackle this problem with real action and we will not know what needs to be done if we are not willing to talk about it. So let’s all get a little uncomfortable. If my mom and I can do it, so can you.” -Ijeoma Oluo
I believe every white person who wishes for peace must commit to doing antiracist work. Antiracism work and yoga require self-reflection, dedication, humility, and no prior experience. To be a yogi means one must also want to dismantle white supremacy. We can do this by decentralizing white perspectives and uplifting the voices people of color.
Confronting racial injustice can be a jarring and intimidating challenge. But as with any complex undertaking, it helps to approach it in terms of individual steps toward progress – just like practicing yoga. Through self-reflection and humility, we open ourselves up to expanding our knowledge base through the stories and perspectives of people of color. By listening to BIPOC perspectives rather than centering whiteness, we can dismantle white supremacy and create a more equitable society where everyone is safe from harm.
Taking on the challenge of antiracist work is to embrace imperfectionism. It demands that white people have dedication, resilience, and a genuine willingness to learn more – without reservations or shortcuts. We must brace ourselves for mistakes along the way; accept them with humility and earnestness to improve our relationships as friends, family members, and as part of local and global communities. As Maya Angelou said: “When we know better, we do better.” Ultimately it all begins by acknowledging that we have an active part to play in considering how we are actively or blindly complicit in racism.
When it comes to conversations about race, white people often feel paralyzed and uncertain – which is understandable. I know this from my own experience as a white woman trying her best but feeling scared of making an awkward situation worse or offending someone by saying the wrong thing. But white fear cannot be the priority: safety for BIPOC is. The work begins within each of us inquires within, not by closing our eyes and wishing violence, injustice, and horrible news to vanish.
Just like anything else, having tough discussions requires practice. When we do antiracist practices, fears can dissipate and lead to engaging in dialogues around racism.
The first step is acknowledgement. Once we accept that this work is necessary, we can never go back to silence. And if we do, violence will continue in perpetuity.
White Silence Creates Violence
BIPOC have made their mandate to white people clear—being silent in the face of racism is an act that reinforces oppressive power structures. If white folks want to be allies, we need to speak up and challenge racist remarks instead of ignoring them. We are complicit in white supremacy if we stay silent while witnessing or hearing racism of any kind.
The decision to stay silent or speak up in the presence of racism can feel risky. Standing firm against injustice involves risk – we could lose our job prospects and connections. But on the other, choosing not to say anything makes us complicit in supporting oppression through white silence. The wisdom traditions of yoga have an ethical compass available for guidance: whether it be “just do what’s right” common sense ethics or spiritual principles from Yoga Sutras that employ Hindu, Buddhist & Jaina traditions; both illuminate true compassion towards others as something which should always take precedence over convenience or comfort.
I’m searching for new ways to understand and support the perspectives of people of color. Thankfully, a wealth of podcasts, webinars, books, documentaries, and social media accounts are available to learn from. One of the most incredible books I’ve read so far is “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo.
Yoga Takeaways from So You Want to Talk About Race?
Conversations about race can be challenging and Ijeoma Oluo’s book “So You Want to Talk About Race” provides insightful methods for navigating these difficult dialogues. In the chapter titled: “What if I talk about race wrong?” we are encouraged to stay mindful of our body language and reactions by grounding ourselves in yoga or meditation exercises- allowing us to remain sincere yet optimistic as we confront a challenging subject head-on.
Here are the mind-body race conversation takeaways from Ijeoma Oluo.
1. Set Your Intention
To ensure effective, respectful dialogue around race issues, Ijeoma Oluo encourages setting an intention before engaging. Before initiating or joining in the conversation,, ask why you are choosing to have this discussion? What do you hope to gain from it? By pre-defining your objectives and making them clear up front, both parties can stay on track for a meaningful exchange with focus & transparency – without centering white fragility.
2. Focus on Your Breath
When we feel overwhelmed, there is a powerful tool that can bring us back to balance – our breath. The quality of our breath reflects the serenity or chaos in our minds. As stress takes over and our minds race at warp speed, we may miss a critical calming signal from our body: breathing deeply into our bellies, not just our chests.
When your mind starts racing, try taking steady breaths as an easy yet effective way to reset yourself. Here’s a simple science-based trick:
- Deepen your inhales (e.g. inhale for 2-4 counts)
- Elongate and double your exhales (e.g. exhale for 4-8 counts)
Repeat until your breath and mind more calm and steady.
In short: lower your stress response by lengthening your exhales. You can do this without anyone knowing, but if you need time to steady your breath, tell the person you’re talking with that you need a break. If they continue to engage despite your request to take a break, leave the situation. Calm yourself down by lengthening your exhales. If it feels safe, reinitiate the conversation when you feel calmer, and your breathing is more regulated.
3. Ground Yourself
Tether yourself to the Earth. This is a physical embodiment of mental humility and strength.
- When standing: feel your feet connect with the ground. Engage the muscles of your feet. Find all four corners of your feet. Spread your toes wide. Let your heels be heavy.
- When seated: feel your body connect to the floor, chair, or whatever you’re sitting on. Let the base of your spine feel heavy and firm.
As you breathe in, focus on the sensation of grounding. As you exhale, allow yourself to lengthen while staying connected to the Earth.
The key to feeling confident and secure in yourself is maintaining a simple grounding presence that physically radiates your core values. Take up the space you deserve without trying to overcompensate or diminish who you are, physically or mentally.
Listening is one of the most essential qualities to have when it comes to effective communication. Summarizing what we hear is an excellent way to stay engaged and truly comprehend things from another’s point of view.
The next time you struggle to listen, try summarizing by saying: “So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying [a summary of what you heard].” Not only does this helps confirm our understanding but also shows others that we are actively listening.
5. Keep Your Heart Open
If possible, try to see the humanity in someone who you disagree with. Try to look at them through a lens of equanimity, providing space for the process of learning without condoning their remarks. This practice comes from Buddhism – the idea of Upekkha — one of four Brahmavihara principles that provide a lens for interacting with challenging others.
Bonus: Know When to Stop
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, I had a sobering conversation online with a white yoga teacher I knew in real life about race. This individual shared unthinkable sentiments on social media: they likened posts about racial injustice to Nazi propaganda. Then they posted pictures celebrating harmony between African Americans and law enforcement as proof of point. Their implication was clear – the outrage the Black Lives Matter Movement expressed was liberal propaganda in this person’s perspective, saying racial justice was blown out of proportion by the media. It discredited Black perspectives. It was the equivalent of saying, “All lives matter.”
I stepped into the conversation by inquiring what this person meant by sharing these posts. This individual justified their comments with the detrimental spiritually-bypassing phrase “We are all one” – all connected and racial identities don’t matter. As our dialogue continued, it became clear that while they claimed to crave discussion, they did not want to listen to my perspective, which was vastly different than their own. In fact, moments later, this individual sent me a social media video of a white person being brutalized by the police, saying it was them (which wasn’t clear to me) and discrediting the idea that Black lives are disproportionately lost to police violence because they were also brutalized by the police as a white person. This person said they didn’t hold any grudges against the police, so why do Black people? At this moment, I witnessed white centering, white fragility, and perhaps some white tears occurring in mere seconds.
After realizing that the conversation had become unproductive and was getting us nowhere, I decided it was time to stop. After thanking them for sharing their perspectives, I closed my laptop and ate lunch – only to return later on with a chat thread full of links in an attempt to prove their point further. Knowing how best to spend my energy in this situation was important; rather than further engaging defensively or ignoring red flags altogether, it became clear that this person wasn’t someone I could productively engage with. To invest in conversations around race which can help move us forward, is paramount – and may also mean knowing when to walk away until a more constructive discussion could be had.
Know Better, Do Better
Wondering how you can know more and do better? Ending silence and having conversations about race is the most effective way, as is learning from BIPOC. Here are two ways you can practice antiracism through the lens of yoga.
If you haven’t already, I urge everyone to read Ijeoma Oluo’s book “So You Want to Talk About Race.” Her writing style is personal, eloquent, and direct. Her chapters are organized into brilliant FAQ-style questions that many people have, such as: “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?”
This book is available in paperback and audiobook formats everywhere books are sold.
Practice and Learn
If you want to practice yoga and learn more about the connection between yoga and racial social justice, Shanna Small will be teaching a virtual yoga class and giving a lecture on the connection between yoga and social justice on Saturday, October 10, 2020, from 8:30 – 11:00 AM Central USA.
Click the image above to register and attend online via Zoom or sign up for one of seven in-person spots at Delta Groove Yoga’s studio in Memphis.
Now I want to hear from you. Is talking about race difficult for you? Were any of the tips above helpful for you in having conversations or anticipating conversations about race? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Breathe, believe, and keep practicing.
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