Jen Caron, a self-described "skinny white girl," enjoys yoga. Or she did, at least—until a harrowing experience which can be accurately described as, "There was a new person at yoga, and that person was black."
Now, don't go getting the wrong idea here. Jen Caron is not some crude racist. Quite the opposite! You might say that she is almost, ah... too empathetic. The experience of merely being in the same room with a single black person caused her to experience such an intense bout of pained soul-searching that she was moved to write a lengthy essay about it on XO Jane. Here, the incident that wrenched her very soul:
A few weeks ago, as I settled into an exceptionally crowded midday class, a young, fairly heavy black woman put her mat down directly behind mine. 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.
Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I've seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it's a sad thing, but as a student there's nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn't positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.
Imagine: there you are, in yoga class, when all of a sudden, directly behind you, you sense a fairly heavy black woman who you can feel directing resentment directly at your body. Reality—or nightmare?
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 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.
To bring you up to speed, if you're just joining us: Jen Caron went to yoga class. Behind her in yoga class was someone new to yoga. That person, who was black and female, was not skilled at yoga. Their presence made Jen Caron painfully self-aware. And then came the true enlightenment...
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?
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?
A DRAMATIZATION OF THIS MOMENT BROUGHT TO LIFE
JEN CARON: Hey there. Can you articulate your experience to me?
NEW YOGA STUDENT: Who are you?
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. Knowing fully well that one hour of perhaps self-importantly believing myself to be the deserving target of a racially charged anger is nothing, is largely my own psychological projection, is a drop in the bucket, is the tip of the iceberg in American race relations, I was shaken by it all the same.
To recap: there was a black person in Jen Caron's yoga class one time.
I'm sure her, ah, heart is in the right place.