“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

Like most white people, I feel compelled to do antiracist work, but I’m not always sure if I’m doing it “right”. And while I don’t know all the answers, as I learn I see patterns of similarity between antiracist work and practicing yoga. So today, I’m here to share what I’ve learned and amplify the voices of people of color in hopes that it helps you have difficult, but necessary conversations. Beyond a willingness to learn, there are no prerequisites, no books to read, and no levels of physical bendiness to achieve – it’s accessible right where you are. 

Saying yes to learning about how you inadvertently participate in white supremacy is an irrevocable choice; once you say yes, there’s no going back. It’s a lifelong assignment with no due date. Unlike other jobs I’ve done, it can’t be muscled through to completion. Antiracist work requires willingness, steadiness, humility, and an open heart. It involves screwing up many, many times. It involves listening, apologizing, vowing to do better, and then actually trying to do better. These are universal whole-hearted skills to practice being better friends, families, and community members. In the spirit of Maya Angelou’s “Know better, do better” quote, as intimidating as antiracist work may seem, it starts within. It begins with a choice to learn more, adjust along the way, and make changes through actions. In this way, yoga is a complementary practice to antiracist work. Using the physical and mental practices of yoga, we can do the hardest, but most necessary part of antiracist work: talk about race. 

Talking about race is hard for white people. I know this because I’m a white woman and despite my best efforts, it’s still hard for me. I’ve watched individuals and groups of white people wring their hands and because they don’t know how to have conversations about race. What are we so afraid of? We are afraid of screwing up and making an uncomfortable situation worse. We’re afraid of offending and hurting people more. And as I’ve learned from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) authors, experts, and friends, white people often get very defensive and aggressive very fast when confronted about race. But just like any skill or habit, talking about race is something that can and must be practiced. As it turns out, white people’s avoidance of talking about race causes more harm and perpetuates more violence against BIPOC.

White Silence is Violence

The takeaway from BIPOC is consistent and clear: white silence is violence. Being silent when you hear a racist joke or remark is not overt racism, but it is subtle racism and it is still racism. If we truly want to be white allies, we need to follow the request of BIPOC: if you see or hear something racist, say something. The only exception to this rule is if a BIPOC makes it clear that he or she doesn’t want to push the issue further, at that moment or in the future, then take their lead and drop it. Instead, offer that person support later in private and ask if you can do anything to be an ally. 

Why do we choose silence over saying something? Because staying silent is easier. We risk less. If we hear a racist comment or joke and say something, we risk social and economic estrangement. For example, if you’re having lunch with a new client who makes a racist comment, how would you respond? If you say something, you risk the chance they won’t recommend you to their established professional network or hire you for freelance work. If you don’t say something, your white silence is complicit in supporting racism. And violence, whether viewed through the lens of “just be a good person” common sense compass or the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali which include an eight-limbed path sourced from Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina traditions, is something that most people agree should be avoided. To be non-violent in discussions about race is to choose peace. To choose disengagement from conversations about race is to choose violence.    

Following the request of BIPOC content creators, I’ve been doing my best to educate myself and not burden my BIPOC friends with questions about race. There are infinite perspectives and lessons to be learned from BIPOC who have taken their time and energy to share with white people how they can be better allies. There’s no shortage of books, podcasts, documentaries, webinars, blogs, e-newsletters, and social media accounts. Start by following any of the resources listed on my other blog Onward Woman or start by following a BIPOC creator whose work you admire and go from there. 

So You Want to Talk About Race? 

To use yoga to talk about race, I’m offering suggestions inspired by the excellent book “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo. She addresses white people’s reluctance to talk about race in the chapter titled: “What if I talk about race wrong?” with some valuable suggestions, many of which I think require active observation of what’s happening in your body and mind in the present moment. Ijeoma Oluo recommends staying tethered to these sensations in order to stay focused and heart-centered, not distracted and destructive. This chapter specifically provides useful advice for weaving skills learned in yoga and meditation to have conversations about race. 

1. Set Your Intention

In some yoga classes, the teacher will invite you to set an intention before class as a tool to stay focused. Ijeoma Oluo asks people to do the same before they initiate or join a conversation about race. Ask yourself: why are you choosing to have this conversation? What do you want to get out of it? When you know the answers, just like in yoga class, state your intention before you begin. By doing so, the conversation can have more focus and transparency and both people can understand the reason for this conversation. The hope is that the conversation won’t spin out of control with over-reactivity and white fragility. 

2. Focus on Your Breath

The quality of your breath reflects the quality of your mind. When we get nervous, we tend to breathe into the upper part of our lungs and not use the full capacity of our lungs. If you notice your breath is shallow and erratic, chances are your mind is exploding like fireworks. The sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as your “fight or flight” response is reacting to a perceived threat. If you notice this hot bursting-like quality of your breath, a simple and effective fix is this: 

  1. Deepen your inhales (e.g. inhale for two or four counts) 
  2. Elongate and double your exhales (e.g. exhale for four or eight counts)
  3. Repeat until your breath and mind more calm and steady. 

It’s a free, easy fix. It works, y’all. Science says so and so does my body and I believe both science and my inner wisdom. Slow your breath down. If you need time to steady your breath, tell the person you’re talking with that you need to take a break. If they continue to engage despite your request to take a break, leave the situation. Calm yourself down. Equally important: reinitiate the conversation when you feel calmer and your breathing is regulated. Apologize for walking away mid-conversation. If you both agree to continue your conversation, keep talking about race. 

3. Ground Yourself

This is a physical embodiment of mental humility and strength. 

When standing: feel your feet connect completely to the ground. Engage the muscles of your feet. Connect with all four corners of your feet. Spread your toes wide. Let your heels be heavy. 

When seated, feel your legs on the floor or the chair, let the base of your spine be heavy and firm. If you’re feet touch the ground, focus on that connection too.  

The purpose of these grounding sensations is to stand or sit upright. This doesn’t mean shrink yourself small. It also doesn’t mean overcompensating with big alpha movements to take up more space either. Stand firmly in who you are and what you stand for. 

4. Listen

Last month, I was having trouble focusing during meditation so I asked my teacher: “So when you say ‘Rub your mind on the Metta phrases… what does that mean?” It’s said that listening is one of the hardest communication skills to master and I have to agree. One way to keep you focused on listening is by giving a short summary of what you heard the other person say. You can say: “So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying…” and restate what you heard. Ask the other person to confirm your understanding. 

5. Keep Your Heart Open

Have compassion for the person you’re talking to. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best they can in this human moment. If they’ve said something racist and you’re calling them out on it, remember that they are in their own space of learning. This does not mean coddling or excusing their behavior if they insist on justifying their racist comments. It means seeing the person with equanimous observation, in their full context of being. The Buddhist word for this is Upekkha and it’s one of the four Buddhist brahmavirara or guiding principles. 

Bonus: Know When It’s Time to Stop

A few months ago weeks after George Floyd’s death, I had a conversation with a white person about race. This person shared something on social media about propaganda that quoted Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, and then shared images of black people hugging police officers. The implication I took from those posts together was that in this person’s perspective, the justified outrage expressed by the Black Lives Matter Movement was propaganda blown out of proportion by the media. 

So I took a deep breath, set and shared my intention (to say something when I see or hear something racist), and asked this person what they meant by sharing these posts. I asked if they knew who they were quoting (they did). I did my best to use the tools described above: I noticed my mind spinning, deepened on my breath, stayed grounded, and tried to listen with compassion. As we continued to talk, this person shared their beliefs which can be summarized as: “We’re all one universal family, race doesn’t matter” and that they weren’t interested in taking their posts down, learning, more, or changing their mind (which wasn’t my intention anyway; I only wanted to talk to them about race). When I suggested that this person consider that “Race doesn’t matter” to be a perspective that’s harmful to BIPOC, all of a sudden, the conversation got heated fast. The conversation shifted from “Race doesn’t matter” to “Here’s how my white family and I have been discriminated against” and “I was assaulted in public last year and here’s a video proving it” (it wasn’t clear to me that the person in the video was the person I was talking to) and “I’m tired of being told I should feel guilty for being white”. A very different message than “We are all one” stated just moments before revealed the white fragility laying underneath a falsely protective layer of spiritual bypassing. I witnessed white fragility go from zero to 100 miles per hour.  

Realizing at that point that our conversation was going nowhere fast, I decided it was time to stop. Continuing to talk wasn’t going to be productive. I told this person I was finished with our conversation and thanked them for their time and perspectives. It was lunchtime, so I stepped away. When I came back to my laptop, our chat thread was full of links and more defensive statements. So I went one step further and blocked this person. My time is worth spending on people who will actually engage with these conversations. Those who react defensively, I have to accept that’s where they are. I’m choosing to save my time and energy for more productive conversations about race. Is me backing out of this type of conversation an example of white privilege? Perhaps, but keeping that conversation going with someone who clearly couldn’t and didn’t want to listen didn’t seem like a productive use of my time and energy. 

Know Better, Do Better 

Wondering how you can know more and do better? Having conversations is the most effective way, as is learning from BIPOC. Here are two support your antiracism and yoga practices.

Read

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 and 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. 

Practice Yoga 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.

A flyer for Shanna Small's Yoga and Social Justice workshop October 2020 to use yoga to talk about race

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.