I’m white and it’s rare that I perceive someone to be reacting to me differently in a negative way because of my race (I wrote about one unusual comment more than a year ago here). It’s very likely that people DO react to me differently because of my race – but since I’m white, it’s in a positive direction that I perhaps take for granted.
When it may seem that I’m being treated in a negative way due to my race, it’s obviously painful. I can’t change my race. I care about making our society kinder and more inclusive and I like to think of myself as on the same “side” as people of color – it hurts to feel I’m being grouped with the white people I’d consider racist. So what to make of it? I won’t pretend my answer is right for everyone, and of course my perspective has evolved, even somewhat since I wrote the post linked above last year.
I could be mistaken that someone is making a judgement based on appearance. In her workshop on facilitation, Dr. Melody Moore touched on the concept of projection – assuming a person feels x because *I* feel x.. Personally, I DO feel guilt or at the very least unease regarding this country’s poor treatment of people of color. It’s possible that because *I* feel personal guilt, I assume that in a given setting a person of color considers me personally guilty – even if they don’t.
What if I’m right?
If I’m not mistaken – I can try to learn from this. Being judged negatively based on my race once in a while gives me a very small window into what it may feel like to experience that on a regular basis, as many of my friends and students of color do. This doesn’t lessen the discomfort for me, but it does give it more meaning. And it may make me more of an ally.
Putting it into context
My broader experience in settings where some aspect of “me” might elicit judgement also factors in to my current take on this topic.
I spent about three years altogether living in Bosnia, a country where, during the 4 year siege, civilians who were at least nominally Muslim (or of other or mixed background who did not identify with the “sides” that had more weapons and wanted a divided society) were targeted for a long time without any serious efforts on the part of the international community to stop it. Eventually the international community did step in (and go on to divide the country along supposed national lines, not an economically, politically or ethically sustainable way to live). I expected some resentment or anger directed at me, as someone from the US…if I’d lived through that, I’d be angry! Many, many experiences over time taught me that mostly people didn’t direct frustration at me personally. It took time to have enough experiences to develop that perspective. I might have assumed on day one that any negativity I sensed WAS about me as someone from the US.
In Chicago, I teach lots and lots of yoga classes, all over the city. I used to teach at a gym with locations on the south side, where the vast majority of my students were people of color. These weren’t special yoga service classes – they were yoga classes much like all of my other yoga classes (which primarily consisted of white students). The dynamic in yoga service classes *is* sometimes quite different from the dynamic in public classes. Yoga service classes span a very broad range of settings, so it’s hard to generalize, but some of them bring yoga to people in what might be the most challenging and most unpleasant periods of their life – being homeless, living in a temporary shelter, being incarcerated. People are different, and our behavior has diverse influences, but it’s possible that, if there is some negativity towards the teacher, it might be rooted more in circumstance than in a yoga teacher’s race or appearance.
These broader experiences I’ve had were, to some extent, opportunities of my own making, but I wouldn’t pretend that it is feasible for every yoga teacher to have them. Partly, I was willing to travel to teach yoga to a location that is further from where I live (/to a country that doesn’t have beaches or a “high” standard of living). Partly it just reflects that fact that a gym opened a location in a setting where most members were people of color. The US is quite a lot more segregated than many would like to admit; it’s likely not all that uncommon for people of color to find themselves in circumstances where they are “the only one” … for a variety of reasons, I believe it’s relatively rarer for white people to find themselves in circumstances where they are “the only one”.