Aiming for Better: Unpacking White Privilege & Anti-Racism
One of the values that’s emerged as incredibly important to me in recent years is inclusivity. It means that whether it’s a party, a meeting or a class I’m putting on – I’m scanning to make sure everyone has what they need to feel that they belong.
I didn’t realize how much I cared about this until I started teaching yoga over three years ago. I started out on the normal teaching trajectory – experimenting with clichéd themes and trying to emulate other teachers.
I remember early on having planned a class with a theme about making light of the things we perceive as problems in our lives. When a student checked-in and I asked if she had any health conditions I should know about, she told me she was battling cancer and had just been through a round of chemotherapy. In the moment after she spoke, it dawned on me that I had a responsibility beyond planning a sequence or saying something deep – it was to create a safe haven for everyone in the classroom.
That conversation changed the way I taught going forward. I no longer presumed we were all going through the same thing and attempted to rid my classes of any traces of spiritual bypassing. Instead, the ethos I attempted to build was about being ok with being human. I hoped to create a place for students to accept whatever they come in with, to sit in discomfort, to honor whatever they needed that day – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. An hour of savasana? Totally allowed. Making poses more challenging for yourself? Great – just don’t hurt yourself. I no longer wanted to be a teacher, but a facilitator.
I would keep reminding myself: This isn’t about me – it’s about giving these people an hour to feel that they are whole and they belong. It felt sacred to be in the position to hold space as students came week after week, navigating all of life’s complexities silently breathing in this room together. After class, someone might walk over to me to quietly share the struggles they’re working through – from divorce to death, mental health issues to brain injuries. It was my honor to develop that rapport and have them feel safe to share with me.
Learning how to hold space in that little microcosm has proven to be one of the most useful skills I could possibly have to apply to this moment in time. More than anything, holding space is about listening – really listening. And listening to learn – rather than to fix or to relate. If you’re doing it right, there will be no one-upping because it isn’t about you.
Holding space is about asking simple, powerful questions. It is seeing fully the human across from you – not as a political party, race, religion or job title – but as the ever-changing blend of flesh, bones, thoughts, feelings, conditioning, pain and wisdom that makes us human and capable of growth. Holding space allows people to process doubt, guilt and shame and put a voice to those thoughts that feel like they’re too scary to share. Holding space allows us to see our shared humanity and show up for each other.
I’ve had more practice than ever trying to get this right throughout the Covid-19 crisis, as a way to remain connected and supportive of the people I love and care about. I feel we’ve all learned from showing up for each other in this deeper way and I cherish how rapidly that growth has happened.
As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown worldwide, I’ve done a lot of reading, listening and reflection. As I attempted to stop talking and really listen to learn from the myriad of incredible sources I’ve been exposed to, I was floored to see how wrong all of my instincts are. I was shocked and embarrassed at my own ignorance.
Dr. Ibram X Kendi said a person is “either being racist or anti-racist. There’s no ‘not racist’ category.” And when I heard that, something clicked.
I’ve spent the last 34 years using the “but I’m a good person” defense or silently avoiding confrontation. Now I can see that I’ve been using good intentions as a crutch to uphold systemic racism and white privilege. It’s been made clear that passivity is a rampant form of racism which even nice, liberal people have been using as a way of bypass responsibility.
Kara Loewentheil had a powerful podcast which illustrates how entrenched racism is in virtually all social systems. It suggests that, if we’ve grown up in Western culture, we’ve been conditioned in a white supremacist society – period. Even if we had some anti-racist inputs, the majority of messaging we received would still contribute to one of a hierarchical nature.
I was surprised to learn that this doesn’t just apply to white people, Dr Kendi and other brave black writers have used their own most shameful memories of racism against their own to illustrate how entrenched it is in all of us. How unconscious and all-encompassing it is – like the white supremacist messaging in seemingly harmless phrases like, “you’re the whitest black person I know”.
What is clearer than ever is that racism is not a simple story and doesn’t have a simple solution. Dr. Kendi explains that you could say to someone of any race these two phrases in relation to how they’ve contributed to racism: “Here’s the way you were a victimizer. Here’s the way you were victimized.”
And so, before I can do any good for this cause, I first have to come clean and admit to myself (and you) that I am racist. And secondly, I have to recognize that I have guilt and shame for contributing to the marginalization of a group of people.
Now, if I’m being honest, my ego really wants to stay at this step and wallow in the drama of it, but this is a trap. Getting stuck here will not help the Black Lives Matter movement at all, but rather distract from it (because it isn’t about white people’s comfort and it certainly isn’t about appeasing my guilt – it’s about black lives and equality).
Austin Channing Brown made this beautifully simple when she said: “The question is – have you built the capacity to care more about others than you care about your own ego?” And my answer has to be a resounding yes, otherwise what is my life even about?!
And now I am holding space for bigger, harder, more complex topics than I ever have. I’m holding space with myself and trying to check my ego any time I get uncomfortable (because I now understand that my comfort is a privilege).
Channing Brown says that “the work of antiracism is becoming a better human for other humans.” So, in that vein, I’m focusing my energy on making my own unconscious racism conscious so I can reprogram my brain with better information. I’m asking overdue questions and listening, really listening, to all the truths that are being shared by beautiful, brave people who have had generations of pain to carry.
In her powerful Juneteenth post, Brittany Packnett Cunningham (@mspackyetti) said, “Every Black person you meet is a MIRACLE. We are descended of lineages meant to be destroyed by slavery or colonization. Our lives are hard-fought and hard-earned. We are priceless. We are valuable because of our humanity – and declared valuable because our ancestors declared our worth when they fought for us to live.”
Racism is not a “black issue” – it’s a human issue.
So I leave you to sit with this challenge from Austin Channing Brown: “You may be a good person, but you can be a better one.”