“It is not differences that immobilize us, but silence…And there are so many silences to be broken.” ~ Audre Lorde
Recently a friend, who is a committed advocate for diversity and inclusion in the yoga community, confided in me that a white yoga teacher made a remark that wounded her deeply. The comment, “I teach students who are blacker than you.” brought up painful memories of racial wounding from my friend’s past. She is a brown-skinned woman of Afri-Caribbean ancestry. She comes with her own history, her own identity, and her own unique set of experiences that inform her point of view. She is a proud woman of color whose parents taught her the knowledge of her own cultural identity based on so much more than the color of her skin.
“Colorism” is a term coined by the acclaimed author Alice Walker. It signifies discrimination based on skin color in which people are treated differently or assigned status based on the social meanings attached to the color of their skin. Colorism has a long and storied history. In India, discrimination based on skin color was most visible during British colonization. Individuals with a lighter skin tone had more privileges. They were considered to have a more affluent status, and were treated preferentially in education and employment. Individuals who were darker skinned were socially and economically disadvantaged. The irony is that in India one of the most revered goddesses in the Hindu pantheon of deities is Kali: The Dark Mother – The Primordial Mother. Her black complexion symbolizes her all embracing and transcendent nature. All colors are absorbed in her blackness.
In the United States, European colonialism created a system that led to a structure of domination that privileged whiteness over blackness. Differences in skin color were used as a tool of enslavement and oppression of Africans, developing a social hierarchy that placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. Colorism continues to be a very painful reality for people of color.
What does this have to do with yoga and taking it off your mat? Everything!!! Yoga stresses that we live in a world of reciprocity in our relationships. In order to do so we must be able to interact with others who approach life from a value and belief system different than our own. As yogins and yoginis, our work is to stress the universal connection between each and every one of us, while acknowledging, celebrating, and honoring our cultural realities, and by engaging in dialogue that fosters mutual understanding and encourages compassion.
Have you noticed there is a culture of silence regarding issues of race and difference among many members of the dominant culture in the United States? This silence includes the issue of colorism. This makes it difficult to engage in conversations that could enhance our connection with one another. Without such conversations we are left with a huge void in knowledge and information about cultures different from our own, leaving us vulnerable to making cultural missteps that might offend and that keep us separate.
Studies have found that 84 percent of the people practicing yoga in the United States are white, and more than 44 percent earn more than $75,000 annually. Most U.S. yoga teachers come from this demographic. It is easy to see how their values, beliefs and historical perspectives, whether consciously or unconsciously, can be culturally imposed on people who have different values, beliefs, and experiences based on religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, body size, sexual preference and socio-economic status. If we in the Western hemisphere care to be more inclusive, it is incumbent upon each yoga teacher to develop the ability to recognize that your culture is not the only one. It is the willingness to be curious, empathic and open to someone’s culture other than your own that enhances connection.
The most serious barrier to culturally appropriate behavior is not a lack of knowledge of the details of any given cultural orientation, but the failure to develop self-awareness and respectful attitudes towards other points of view and diverse ways of living.
Let’s become culturally humble, admitting what we don’t know about another’s culture, especially when we make a mistake, by entering into a serious practice of self-study, life-long learning, and critical self-reflection. Then let’s talk to each other about each other and strengthen our connections with each other. Without developing cultural humility, we risk humiliating others and ultimately humiliating ourselves, and that is not yoga.