Recently I watched a documentary called “Dark Girls” produced by Bill Duke, in which various shades of brown-skinned American women of African ancestry described their experiences of being shunned, bullied, and made to feel inferior because of their dark skin. These women were beautiful, but had been made to feel unattractive and unwanted in a culture that regards certain differences as odd, foreign, threatening or, even worse, repulsive.
Whether or not we know it, like it, or believe it, deviations from deeply embedded, culturally accepted stereotypes shape our attitudes toward what is acceptable and what is not, as well as who is acceptable and who is not.
Americans have been acculturated to regard certain types of beauty, usually fair skin, straight blond hair, blue eyes, toothpick thin, no curves (except maybe for large breasts), as the standard by which to evaluate women as worthy, beautiful, smart (or not), pleasing, and acceptable. And there are other stereotypes that shape our consciousness and affect our attitudes toward race, ethnicity, religion, body type, gender, political affiliation, gun ownership, physical ability, intellectual prowess, age, and more.
Attitudes operate on two levels – consciously and unconsciously. They reflect our thoughts, influence our words, and manifest in our actions. Our conscious attitudes are made up of what we are aware of, what we choose to believe. Our unconscious attitudes are those knee jerk reactions and automatic associations that lurk beneath the surface of our awareness. These unconscious attitudes could be entirely incompatible with what we say we believe.
We don’t deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes; we’re obviously not aware of them, and therein lays the problem. Unless you become aware, the unconscious may cause you to say or do things that embarrass you and unintentionally harm other people. We see this all the time in media reports of people falsely accused of wrong doing based on their looks alone, or the latest high-profile politician, celebrity, or religious leader who has to publicly apologize for making outrageously offensive remarks about a group of people or an individual who doesn’t fit their stereotype of acceptability.
There is an ongoing national conversation about how to cultivate inclusive attitudes and behaviors that embrace and celebrate all types of difference, and that challenge cultural stereotypes. The yoga community in the United States is an important part of this conversation.
The word “yoga” means to connect or to join with. Yoga really is for everybody, not just for those who look a certain way, think a certain way, and act a certain way. We can easily forget this and be lulled into thinking of union as sameness, ignoring the reality and the value of difference.
Some of us have been taught to ignore difference, learning that it doesn’t really matter and shouldn’t exist in our minds. But that’s delusional. Any observant human being knows that difference does exist and it does matter.
Ignoring differences might give you a feeling of comfort or security, but it creates disconnection between people and makes intimacy impossible. It also sets you up to be highjacked by unconscious attitudes.
Our attitudes around difference may not always be conscious, but through the practice of compassionate Self–Study we can become conscious of them.
If we choose to live a conscious life, we can benefit from checking our attitudes. With awareness we can rid ourselves of unconscious prejudices and shape our consciousness to be open to, embrace, and celebrate a culture that is becoming more varied and expansive every moment. If you’re curious and want to learn more about your deep seated attitudes regarding a variety of differences including race, gender, ethnicity, weight, skin tone, religion, sexuality and more, go to www.implicit.harvard.edu and take the test that reveals your unconscious attitudes about difference. It’s a real eye opener and remember: 20/20 insight is a precursor to change.