Why is This Skinny White Chick in my Yoga Class Staring at me?


Now that I got your attention, let’s talk about pathological racism. It’s rooted in thoughts so deeply ingrained in our psyches that sometimes we don’t realize it until we’re confronted by a trigger that throws us off our equilibrium. That seems to be the case with Jen Caron, a woman who wrote a piece for XO Jane entitled, It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It

The piece was Caron’s attempt at acknowledging her privilege as a “skinny white girl” and how she had been so self-absorbed that the thought of true all-inclusivity hadn’t occurred to her until a “fairly heavy” Black woman appeared in her yoga class–something that according to Caron happens almost never–and sat down behind her.

She writes:

It appeared she had never set foot in a yoga studio—she was glancing around anxiously, adjusting her clothes, looking wide-eyed and nervous. Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class.

The writer continues explaining that she “had no choice” but to look at the woman every time her head was upside down (Side note: If you’re truly involved in your practice, you’re not thinking about the next person). She has seen people freeze in class before but it was impossible for her to stop thinking about this particular woman. Eventually, the Big Black Woman began staring at Caron, and her frustrated despair and resentment was now allegedly directed toward she and her “skinny white body” (Another side note: Big Black Woman probably wondered what the hell this weird White girl was looking at).

This is where the author gets really uncomfortable:

I thought about how even though yoga comes from thousands of years of south Asian tradition, it’s been shamelessly co-opted by Western culture as a sport for skinny, rich white women. I thought about my beloved donation-based studio that I’ve visited for years, in which classes are very big and often very crowded and no one will try to put a scented eye pillow on your face during savasana. They preach the gospel of yogic egalitarianism, that their style of vinyasa is approachable for people of all ages, experience levels, socioeconomic statuses, genders, and races; that it is non-judgmental and receptive. As such, the studio is populated largely by students, artists, and broke hipsters; there is a much higher ratio of men to women than at many other studios, and you never see the freshly-highlighted, Evian-toting, Upper-West-Side yoga stereotype.
I realized with horror that despite the all-inclusivity preached by the studio, despite the purported blindness to socioeconomic status, despite the sizeable population of regular Asian students, black students were few and far between. And in the large and constantly rotating roster of instructors, I could only ever remember two being black.

Girl whut?

Tamar Face

Yes, this is a blunderfuck. The piece reads in summary like a spoiled rich White (and skinny) girl who was so sorry that the fat Black girl struggled with yoga (as if yoga isn’t a challenge for everyone), but even more contrite about the fact that the girl was probably intimidated by her beautiful white splendor, and she didn’t take the edge off by doing her om’ly duty by helping out, whatever that would have entailed.

I have been the only Black girl in a yoga class on occasion and have been stared at and found myself wondering if the constant gazes I got from a few patrons was because of my race and/or because my body type was different from that of the other girls. In my culture I’m considered “thick,” which is a good thing (think along the lines of Biz Markee’s line, “9/10 pants and a very big bra”). In some other cultures, I’m probably fat. It’s all subjective but I digress. I don’t struggle with yoga so if anyone were to stare, that wouldn’t be the issue but I mean mug sometimes when I suspect that someone is perceiving me as this Other to be pitied because yoga isn’t for “us.” I’ve found myself wondering if I was just being hyper sensitive in such instances but this XOJane piece validates my suspicions.

I was exasperated after initially reading the piece, and not just with Caron. Where was the editor in this? Editors are responsible for seeing the writer’s vision and helping them to convey it in ways that are thought provoking and informative yet this seemed more vapid, arbitrary and along the lines of…click bait.

But let’s take the armor off.

Most people probably practice the more popular forms of  yoga (It wasn’t made clear in the XOJane piece but I think the writer in this case does Vinyasa) for vain reasons i.e. they focus more on the body not the mind, but yoga’s universal ideologies are all-inclusiveness, harmony, kindness and patience.

I think Caron’s point in this essay is to acknowledge that this Black woman’s presence in her yoga class forced her to confront the Lily White safe bubble she had been living in. It seems that the writer was regretful about the fact that she had been ignoring anything seemingly Other and that she had never allowed herself the chance to learn about life from another perspective.

She concludes her tale with:

The question is, of course, so much bigger than yoga—it’s a question of enormous systemic failure. But just the same, I want to know—how can we practice yoga in good conscience, when mere mindfulness is not enough? How do we create a space that is accessible not just to everybody, but to every body? And while I recognize that there is an element of spectatorship to my experience in this instance, it is precisely this feeling of not being able to engage, not knowing how to engage, that mitigates the hope for change.

Admittedly, I forced myself to continue reading beyond the second paragraph and when I did, I couldn’t stop hearing it in my head as if it were coming from Cher from Clueless. It came off as offensive and condescending and my initial reaction was, “Here we go with White people trying it again.” Then I got over my ego, read it again and I appreciated the writer sharing her perspective. There are several people who have these thoughts but they usually don’t share them out of fear of getting backlash, because they don’t know how to get the words out, or they don’t care enough to be enlightened, and so they just stare at the Others in their classes. The only way we can actually have a progressive conversation about race is by being honest with our conditioned way of thinking, and by listening…really listening to each other and using opportunities like this as teachable moments.

It’s disheartening that several of the responses to this woman have been snarky attempts to roast her. Yes, her message could have been conveyed better and again, the editor is partially to blame for that but now is the time to educate.

It’s important that we open progressive dialogue with those who seem willing to learn, even narcissistic racists. It doesn’t make you any less self-serving as a so-called progressive when you use what could have been a genuinely teachable moment to ridicule someone so let’s all keep that in mind in our efforts to make progress in how we all think in terms of race.



I’m still working on my salamba sirsasana (headstand) but damnit, I am arriving!