Yesterday, an xoJane writer documented the harrowing experience of seeing a black person in her yoga class. While she was trying to be sympathetic to the woman in question and point out how overwhelmingly white yoga classes tend to be, her eagerness to make herself a victim overshadowed any benefit-of-the-doubt one might give her. The backlash was unsurprisingly swift (the best of which, in my opinion, is right here), because the thoughtful liberal inadvertently came off like a total assclown.
xoJane is basically the easiest target on the Internet these days, given its tendency towards publishing recycled Livejournal posts from 2004. Its famous “It Happened To Me” series seems to have completely spiraled from what may have started as a relatable column into incredibly bizarre, click-baity bullshit. In fact, I’d believe any one of these fake IHTM titles. And so I’m not surprised that XO Jane ran an in-depth personal exploration called “IHTM: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It.“ Unfortunately, the post could have more aptly titled “I Had To Look At A Heavy Black Woman And It Made Me Cry.”
I do believe that author Jen Caron (whose real name is Jen Polachek, though her post’s byline is now changed) started out with good intentions. The piece describes her experience realizing that her donation-based yoga class was not the inclusive, yoga-for-everyone Eden that she had originally thought. It seems like Caron was suddenly made aware of a number of privileges during a yoga class, which changed her way of thinking. Except that Caron somehow turned herself into the victim of the situation.
Careful to mention her own whiteness and thinness, Caron expounded on the person doing yoga next to her: a “fairly heavy black woman.” Inexplicably, Caron spent most of the class staring at this woman, noticing that she wasn’t participating in the class.
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…
I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her?
Confronting your privilege can be an uncomfortable process, because it forces you to admit that there’s a problem and you’re a part of it. Except that probably the first thing you don’t want to do is make assumptions about anyone whose experience you do not understand. Or assume you can help. And then Caron sort of went the other direction:
If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same…. If I asked her to articulate her experience to me so I could just listen, would she be at all interested in telling me about it?
I’m pretty sure that if Caron asked this woman to articulate her experiences, she would have said “Excuse me? Why are you staring at me? Are you crying?” Furthermore, Caron confirmed everyone’s worst suspicion that the skinny yoga chicks are in fact judging everyone else.
Finally, Caron gave us this to work with:
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.
Jen Caron figured out that she has white privilege (and also thin privilege) and found that very, very upsetting. See? She’s the true victim.
XOJane isn’t exactly defending the story, which is either admirable or screwed up. Her editor, Rebecca Carroll, tweeted that she “didn’t give a hard enough edit, clearly.” The site changed Caron’s byline (Caron is a psuedonym), which seems to indicate that even she didn’t want to be associated with it. Pia Glenn wrote a rebuttal on XOJane called “It Happened To Me: I Read An Essay About A White Woman’s Yoga Class/Black Woman Crisis And I Cannot.” It basically agrees that this whole thing is a train wreck.
XOJane may have published this post hastily and without thorough edits. It’s the internet–that happens. But the post gets to a more important problem with these victim-y posts that the site loves to publish. It’s a lot easier to make yourself the victim then to do something constructive about an unfortunate situation.
Inventing a scenario in your head wherein you speak for someone else’s experience, lament not being able to save them, and then somehow finding yourself to be the injured party is not a solution to any type of prejudice. It’s digging the hole deeper.