white supremacy, ayahuasca and education
I wrote this primarily as a way to reflect and find clarity. I wasn’t sure this needed to be shared publicly, but in consultation with close friends and colleagues, including those who are people of colour, I’ve decided to proceed in the hopes that it promotes reflection and conversation.
Before last October, I’d never heard the term “white fragility”.
If I heard people use phrases like “white privilege” and “white supremacy”, I assumed they didn’t apply to me because I’d never acknowledged my race as an asset, or participated in the type of actions associated with supremacy groups.
But then I shared the bandhas post.
And something that was intended to educate people about core stability turned into a social media firestorm about race. It completely blindsided me. It was something I not only didn’t expect but also didn’t understand.
My defenses went up BIG time. I didn’t know how to handle what was being said and what I was being accused of. I was confused and ashamed.
I read and re-read the comments and messages, tone policing the feedback in an attempt to invalidate the words being directed at me. I was desperate to make them wrong so I could be right. I wanted to push the blame and find fault elsewhere – anything to keep myself from feeling the weight of my unintended impact.
It’s taken months to understand why I responded the way I did but it’s finally crystal clear.
I, like many of us, am a product of a white supremacist education system that rests on a foundation of capitalist ideals and the myth of meritocracy.
In school, we’re rewarded for being right, and penalized for getting things wrong. Mistakes are not encouraged. We’re taught to defend our arguments more often than we’re taught to sit back and listen to those who don’t agree with us.
I’m not saying that to discredit my education. I’m grateful for the fact that my parents were able to send me to a private school, then a top-notch university, and prioritize education for its own sake rather than push me toward any particular career. While my education set me up to be a good learner, a writer, a (somewhat) critical thinker, and a productive citizen, it was nevertheless incomplete.
I attended the same school for 14 years – kindergarten through Grade 12. During those 14 years, I never had a Black teacher. I never saw a Black person in an administrative position. I didn’t have any Black friends.
I had some Asian friends, and South Asian friends. I was one of three or four Jewish kids in my grade. I thought that counted as diversity. I didn’t realize how many people were missing.
One of my teachers from that school recently left a comment on something I shared via Facebook – a post from Rachel Ricketts, a racial justice educator, who drew attention to the fact that we white women have always known we’re in a position of privilege. The teacher commented: “Disappointed with this post. I will no longer follow your page. Best of luck.” She then went on to say “I am disappointed that this is where we have come as a society that being a white woman is a fault.” She has since deleted her comment.
That’s a white teacher, at a predominantly white school, demonstrating ignorance around white privilege. She exemplifies a lack of anti-racist education not only in classrooms but in the post-secondary institutions that train people to become teachers.
My first-year university program marketed itself as “the history of Western thought”. Of the 50 or so required texts on the year-long reading list, there were no Black authors. Nearly the entire faculty was white or white-passing, with the same lack of diversity represented in the student body. [I’ve gone back to see how the reading list has changed and there are now three Black authors on the list.]
But I didn’t see a problem. I didn’t question the reading list. I didn’t wonder why there were no Black tutors or professors. By then I was so accustomed to a white-centric peer group I didn’t see anything wrong.
Then I started to practice yoga. Every teacher—from my first instructor in Halifax to those I took my teacher training with—was white. I traveled to India to attend retreats with white European yoga teachers. When I started teaching, the owners of the studios where I worked were always white, as were all (or close to all) faces on the class schedule.
And yet, I was oblivious. I was living in a world where this reality wasn’t questioned—a world where white people educate other white people without incorporating other perspectives. This closed circle of influence often defines right and wrong according to an incomplete yet dominant worldview.
This is white supremacy.
I used to think those words only applied to the KKK and hate-ridden angry mobs who are out for blood. But supremacist groups are an extreme example of something far more systemic.
White supremacy bleeds into the fabric of everyday life, creating a system where a white skin tone is trust-worthy and others are guilty until proven innocent. And it’s within that system that white privilege is perpetuated, where whiteness grants unquestioned access to spaces, opportunities and levels of influence that people of colour have to work so much harder to access. White voices are prioritized while non-white voices are questioned, devalued and silenced.
(This isn’t about denying the fact that white people also face pain and hardship, but as Janaya Future Khan explains: “Privilege isn’t about what you’ve gone through; it’s about what you haven’t had to go through.”)
Rather than acknowledge white privilege, we convince ourselves that it is solely our hard work that makes us deserving of our accolades. After being recognized as one of 19 Yoga Teachers to Watch in 2019, I felt threatened when the article received backlash for only featuring one person of colour in their list. “Why isn’t my work worth recognizing? This is an achievement! I earned it. Why are you trying to take this away from me and make it about race?”
I had those feelings. I SHARED those feelings, thinking they were valid.
When we use the “But what about me?” tactic, espousing our worth, our goodness, and our validity – this is white fragility. It makes the story all about us and what we stand to lose rather than recognize those on the other side of the conversation, those living in a state of perpetual disenfranchisement who are constantly fighting for a chance to grab the next rung on the ladder.
Rather than extend my hand to help them up, I got scared that there wouldn’t be enough room for all of us. So I joined the chorus of gaslighters that accused the critics of being too sensitive, for making a big deal out of something that was just one article on the Internet. I didn’t listen or pay attention. I didn’t do any work to understand their point of view.
When the bandha post exploded, I couldn’t avoid reality anymore. People I respected were telling me I’d made a mistake and that was something I couldn’t ignore.
Thankfully, they were willing to hold space for my naivete and hold up a mirror so that I could better understand the impact of my actions. It wasn’t easy to look in that mirror, one I had avoided my entire life.
This type of work is uncomfortable. It’s the exact opposite of what a white supremacist system tells us we’re entitled to – being right, and being comfortable. It’s no mystery why white people avoid sitting with this discomfort given that it’s so foreign from what we’ve been conditioned to expect from the world.
The only thing I can compare it to is the way I feel during an ayahuasca ceremony (random comparison, I know, but hear me out) when I am IN it, when I can’t move, and my insides don’t feel like they belong to me anymore. Ayahuasca holds up the ultimate mirror, the one that shows you all the things you’ve been avoiding. When you try to look away and keep pushing things down, the discomfort only intensifies. You want it to be over yet feel like it will never end.
But when you surrender and look – really look – at what’s being reflected back at you, that’s when the shift happens. You feel the pain not only in yourself, but in the world. The pain gives rise to the purge – whether that’s through tears or laughter, tremoring or vomiting or all of the above. And it’s through that pain that you access connection with others that is palpable, true and unconditional. But before you can arrive in that state of awareness and clarity, you’ve got to walk through the darkness.
For me, that looked like barfing my guts out during an ayahuasca ceremony in a room full of people I’d only just met, in broad daylight, while the rest of the room was totally silent. This was the epitome of vulnerability, the type of vulnerability I’ve always resisted. Months later, when my entire life’s work was questioned on a public platform and those who previously respected me as a teacher joined a chorus of voices calling me out for racism, cultural appropriation, and ignorance around white supremacy, the mirror was being held up again.
I wanted to fight back. I wanted to resist. My gremlins of defensiveness and needing to be liked were rising up strong. Feeling sick to my stomach, I knew vulnerability was the way out. So I apologized, and I got to work.
These episodes of discomfort are a gift. They reveal the truth. And no matter how hard they are to process, the pain of walking through these fires is nothing when compared to the pain those in marginalized communities experience every single day of their lives.
Canadian musician Shad shared some thoughts on his Instagram profile that perfectly describe this process:
Maybe wealth and privilege damage our souls – our humanity, our true well-being – by disconnecting them from the soul of the world. Which is to say, by disconnecting us from human suffering. When our wealth or privilege are substantial enough to insulate us from the realities of the world – the realities of systemic racism, for example – we are essentially living a lie. And a lie can never free our souls. We can only be free when we get in touch with the truth. Perhaps there is a deep sense of belonging – a true feeling of ally ship and connectedness – that only exists on the other side of spending our wealth and privilege for others. Maybe things like wealth and privilege aren’t safeguards against suffering as much as they are barriers to joining more fully into the life of the human family. To entering a “Kingdom” as God imagines it.
When we are blind to the barriers that hold us back from living more fully, it’s impossible to break free. We will remain in a state of perpetual resistance, threatened by anything that calls attention to our ignorance.
I don’t want to be another white educator, providing an echo chamber for white students where we pretend that our voices, opinions and experiences are enough.
They’re not enough.
Yoga Detour is actively committed to dismantling systems of oppression through our hiring practices, scholarship programs and community partnerships. We – myself, Jenn, and our teachers – are immersing ourselves in anti-racist education around white privilege and white supremacy so that, through doing the inner work, we can provide a safe and welcoming space where the distinct needs and voices of marginalized communities are honoured and respected.
Those who have helped/are helping in this process include:
Robin Lacambra and her course Sharing Privilege
Chrissy King and her online seminar Anti-Racism for Wellness Professionals: How to Show up Better
Rachel Ricketts and Spiritual Activism 101
Jesal Parikh, Co-Director of Yoga Teachers of Colour and Co-Founder of the Yoga is Dead podcast
Robin DiAngelo and her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
And a close friend I’ve known since childhood, whose life-long challenges I am only beginning to understand.
But we are really just getting started.
If you feel compelled to reply and tell me you disagree with what I’ve written here, I ask that you first take a moment to sit with what you’re feeling. And then, if you wish to continue this conversation together, my door is open.
In the meantime, I invite you to take advantage of the resources generously shared in this document.
There is much to learn. We are here for it. I hope you are too.
Published June 7, 2020