“Blossom Your Buttocks”
Listen, Reflect and Transform From the Inside Out
“Blossom your buttocks, like an African dancer,” instructed the white yoga teacher trainer, as I stood in one of my first yoga teacher trainings. The yoga room full of mostly white students, rotated their inner thighs back, and stuck out their butts. I was in a classroom of 30 students, mostly white women and no other Black students. When I heard this instruction, I froze and stopped breathing. I was in shock. I could not speak.
Later that day I sent an email to the yoga teacher trainer, let’s call her “T” for simplicity, explaining that I found her words inappropriate, harmful and racially offensive. After receiving my email, T called me, we attempted a conversation, but T could not understand how her language was offensive and racist. I explained, for comparison, that one would not say, “Flatten your buttocks like a European dancer.” T still could not understand and refused to listen carefully as I explained why it was inappropriate. T informed me that this was an instruction learned from her senior teacher. (Many years later that senior teacher referred to, was embroiled in scandal and would eventually step down.) T could not understand and insisted that we discuss this with the entire class next time we met. This was happening, not because I wanted to discuss with the entire class, but because T wanted to. I was furious, incredibly hurt by the use of this racist stereotype and by T’s refusal to apologize and recognize that what was said was hurtful and wrong.
Why couldn’t T accept responsibility and apologize? How could T expect to have a conversation about how to go forward together? As a person of white privilege, T could never fully understand the ways in which oppressive acts or language impact black people. However, T could certainly listen with intention to understand and work to change this behavior or language. A simple, yet revolutionary act, to begin to create change, could start with a sincere apology. Next, T could spend time reflecting on the harmful impact of her words and actions. Then, move forward acknowledging her power, privilege and accountability.
Intent vs Impact
Creating a discussion about intent is inherently a privileged action. Jamie Utt writes, “It ensures that you and your identity (and intent) stay at the center of any conversation and action while the impact of your action or words on those around you is marginalized. So if someone ever tells you to ‘check your privilege,’ what they may very well mean is: “Stop centering your experience and identity in the conversation by making this about the intent of your actions instead of their impact.” Unfortunately, people are often unconscious of their impact on others. People do things without realizing that their actions and words matter. You can choose your impact on others. If the impact of your actions is furthering oppression, then you need to pause, listen, reflect, and work to change the behavior. Practice being intentional about your impact.
At the next training, T asked the class full of mostly white students, if anyone else was offended. Unsurprisingly, maybe two people raised their hands and the rest of the class looked confused. As if that wasn’t degrading enough, then T led a passive aggressive discussion and yoga practice about my perceived insecurity. My experience of T’s racist instruction was dismissed and viewed as my insecurity about my African blossomed buttocks. But the thing is, I wish my buttocks were blossomed, like any dancer really! I was not ashamed about being African American, or blossomed buttocks, the point is that she offended me by using a racist stereotype in a yoga classroom full of mostly white women, except me. This is the exact opposite of inclusivity.
The teacher, T, completely disrespected me and my African heritage, while the rest of the students acted like T was some kind of deity or enlightened being. You may be wondering why I didn’t run out of that room and toxic situation and demand my money back! Unfortunately, situations like these are so common, you become use to it and it becomes the norm. I chose to complete the program to receive my yoga certification and endure the toxic environment. I’ve been aware of racism since I was seven years old, when a kid in my neighborhood called me the N word. Somehow I still manage to feel shocked and speechless when I encounter racism and silent bystanders.
In Layla Saad’s workbook, You & White Supremacy there is a chapter on White Silence. “It is when people with white privilege stay complicitly silent when it comes to issues of race. White silence is how YOU stay silent around race.”
Here is an excerpt from Layla Saad’s workbook:
Why Do You Need To Look At White Silence?
Because silence is not neutral. Silence is looking the other way and protecting your privilege - thus continuing to uphold white supremacy. White silence is violence. White silence protects the system. White silence prevents you from speaking truth to power.
You must look at the ways in which you stay silent, so that you can begin to build the strength and courage to start using your voice. As Audre Lorde said, “your silence will not protect you.” When you stay silent, you stay complicit.
There was only one person in the room of yoga students who supported me. There was also a beautiful white woman who tried to connect with me by sharing that she has always been insecure about her thick things. The yoga teacher trainer, T, was able to rationalize her racist remarks since the yoga students didn’t have a reaction, then I was seen as overreacting or insecure.
White Fragility is a phrase coined by author Dr. Robin DiAngelo. She explains how certain patterns make it difficult for many white people to understand racism as a system and lead to the dynamics of white fragility. Even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive actions. In the book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, she examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively. She debunks the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people and explains the good/bad binary. According to Robin DiAngelo, “The good/bad binary is the fundamental misunderstanding driving white defensiveness about being connected to racism. We simply do not understand how socialization and implicit bias work.” We have to let go of the idea that bad people are racist and good people are not. Racism is systemic, if you are unaware or asleep to this truth, then you may be unknowingly perpetuating or complicit in white supremacy in various ways.
The story I shared is a perfect illustration of white silence and white fragility. Those that were silent were complicit in upholding racist behavior. White solidarity increased the racial divide rather than bridge our differences. The yoga teacher trainer, T, showed no concern for my feelings, no curiosity of my experience, nor did she really listen to why I took offense. T arrogantly remained confident that she was right and I was wrong. When conversations of racism come up, instead of jumping into defense mode, which makes you unable to really hear and understand the pain and challenges of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), pause and listen carefully. Listen to targets of oppression, reflect and work to change the harmful behavior.
Racism is deeply engrained in our society and impacts how we engage with each other daily. We must undo the view that only intentionally mean people can participate in racism. Educate yourself about oppression. Learn from and listen closely to people who are targets of oppression. Engage in tough conversations about race and injustice. We can no longer be afraid to discuss oppression and discrimination for fear of "getting it wrong." Ask questions so you gain understanding.
Examine and challenge your own bias, prejudices and conditioning. Work through feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness to understand what is beneath them and what needs to be healed.