Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tough Love

So I'm sitting on an uptown F train, on my way to either an ill-fated open-workout (it got canceled) or my husband's work so we could take off for small-town Ohio (I don't remember which trip this was). Business as usual, crowded train, reading a book, wondering why the MTA thought the subway cars needed to be cold enough to hang meat from the bars overhead (bet they'd save a ton of money if they'd just crank those thermostats up to something reasonable), when a young man standing by the door with an acquaintance said, quite loudly,

"What's with all these white bitches? Where are the black girls??"

I live in New York City. I hear stupid, ignorant, foolish, or just rather odd things on a daily basis. But this one stuck. I think that it might have landed in the category of odd things had it not been for the discrepancy of words used to refer to females used. I was a white bitch. A white bitch who apparently wasn't supposed to be on the F train running under Soho?

Allow me to digress.

Having grown up in a very small town, with very limited exposure to anyone other than white Christians (the Greek-orthodox Christian church was considered super-exotic), I had very limited opportunities to learn acceptance of differences. When I moved to NYC I kept hearing these recordings in my brain about people who weren't like me that I didn't realize I thought, that, in fact, I was pretty sure I didn't actually think: Associations between minorities and poverty, and not as a sad statistic; negative thoughts about gay people blaming them for proclivities that didn't match my own; utter dismissal of religions I hadn't been raised in, it was down-right humiliating to realize how much ignorance and close-mindedness had snuck into my manner of thinking without my realizing it.

Well, there's only one cure for ignorance: I sought out friends who weren't like me, and I made a massive fool of myself asking inappropriate questions. I think my favourite was directed at a black friend: "So...when you close your eyes, does it look darker than when I close my eyes?" Apparently my good intentions shown through, as nobody accused me of being a bigoted asshole. Owning up to your ignorance is a powerful thing.

This process continued throughout college, in fact when necessary it still continues, and now two years after graduation, I am proud to say that I have overcome my ignorance and conditioning and now habitually seek to understand others, to see how we are the same, and to embrace how we are different. I do want to add that this is not a hate-letter to small-town Ohio. My family is not racist. But you cannot know what you aren't taught. Humans fear the unknown. Humans hate what they fear.

So my point is, I know why and how racism happens, and even a prejudiced person is someone I seek to understand and accept, without accepting his or her misguided beliefs. The young man who made the afore-mentioned comment was black, and was wondering where in the hell the people-like-him were: the people he understood and felt safe around. I would venture a guess that he hadn't spent much time talking to 'white bitches.' He had little understanding of them as human beings with feelings like himself. On the other hand maybe he just didn't feel comfortable hitting on a white woman and was on the prowl. It amounts to the same thing.

I say a good deal of this in the name of total disclosure. If you haven't already put together the yoga tye-in, then take a moment and picture a yoga teacher in your mind.

Is this person...

Probably not. The question of race pops up pretty rarely in yoga teacher culture because we're a pretty homogenous population: young, white, straight, slender, 'spiritual' women. Plenty of yoga teachers do exist that don't fit into those narrow lines, but a surprisingly high percentage do fit into those parameters. What gives?

The concern that yoga is being priced out of the reach of all but the relatively wealthy is a concern that definitely figures in here: Guess who's likely to be able to afford yoga classes at a high-end studio with a teacher training program several times a week or more. I think largely though, it's a self-perpetuating stereo-type. I can see that the perception of yoga as not 'tough' enough for men is changing, but so far only among white men as far as is presenting itself to me. The fact that we often don't see the many talented instructors who don't fit the image in our head reinforces this theory. I know, just off the top of my head, three male teachers, among other less common representatives of the trade, and yet the stock image in my head for 'yoga teacher' doesn't include them. So maybe I have some new de-programming work to do. In the name of doing just that, I'll include pictures of what could be called 'atypical' yoga teachers throughout the remainder of the post.
On the other end of the spectrum, I find it really frustrating when racial tension prevents me from speaking my mind when I'm only making an observation. It would have felt loaded to me to even refer to the young man with the comment as black before explaining what his comment was. On one hand, that information wasn't really relevant before the comment was stated, but on the other hand, it's not sexist to state that he was a man, and not a woman! I sometimes think we're hyper-sensitized to percieved discrimination. Maybe I shouldn't even have been offended by his comment at all. Maybe I was just being nit-picky.

I want to feel like we're all held to the same standards, but I see over and over comments similar to his in the sense that one can say nasty things about those in the majority, or those in the minority but percieved as being in the more fortunate situation, with impunity. When I refused to respond to a black man's street-hastling, he called me racist. Girls who don't carry a larger percentage of body fat, who aren't voluptuous, get referred to as "skinny bitches", "prepubescent", "anorexic". Ever hear, "Real women have curves"? News flash: real women have curves, and real women also don't have curves, and women who aren't over-weight have curves also. I often hesitate to talk about my religious beliefs to other yoga teachers. It doesn't feel exactly ok to be a practicing Catholic among my anti-patriarchal, pro-sexual freedom sisters and brothers. Is it really so hard for all of us to just love and respect one-another?
Apparently, yes. When you percieve judgement from someone, it's incredibly difficult to resist wanting to throw judgement right back. I can admit that my mental response to the comment that started this discussion included a reference to the absurdity of expecting to find black women in Soho. And when the perceived judgement is coming from society as a whole, it gets a whole lot harder to see the real live white people, slender girls, loving Christians, straight people with legitimate concerns about changing marriage laws, wealthy individuals, etc. who are capable of having their feelings hurt.

I'm not saying there's no longer a need to stand up for groups that have been historically, that are still being, discriminated against in ways big, small, systematic, and subtle: minorities, gays, the over-weight, etc. I am saying that in the midst of fighting that battle you are only shooting yourself in the foot if you turn to the same weapons being used against you: ignorance and nastiness.
We all want to be loved and accepted, and we can all work toward loving and accepting others, regardless of whether it seems like those others are doing the same for us. What do you think? Shall we give it a try? You're ok, Black-guy-from-the-F-train! I hope you found your black girls!

Live Omily,


  1. Interesting post. Maybe he just assumes "white bitches" don't want anything to do with him. I'll bet was being a total jerk out of his own insecurity.

    I experienced reverse racism on the subway recently too. Two black girls and a black guy got on the train and stood right by where I was sitting. They proceeded to rant loudly about how the only people who get ahead at their law firm were white people. Obviously, I have no idea if what they were complaining about was real, but I was amazed they'd rant so loudly about "the white man keepin' them down" right next to a white guy (me). I'm not personally keepin' them down. I feel sorry for black people in any sort of situation concerning racism, but they didn't see that I guess. I suppose I was just another white man on the subway they felt needed to hear their complaints.

  2. I don't know why non-white people get to have a monopoly on racism. "Reverse-racism" is the same thing.

  3. I feel like "reverse-racism" should mean thinking another race is better than your own race. I STILL see engrained sexism in our society everyday, so I get the demand for affirmative action from other discriminated groups in the same boat, but I'm still with you. It only breeds resentment, and an attitude of not needing to address the problem personally since it's being legislated.

    And Justin, I know that feeling: like you're 'guilty until proven innocent.' racist/sexist/etc. until you make a big show of how un-racist/sexist/etc. you are just because you happen to be a member of the non-discriminitory group. Give me a freakin' break. I deserve to be assumed not an asshole until I blog otherwise :-P