Black woman in yoga class gives white woman race angst

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When Jen Polachek published her experience about doing yoga near a black woman, it is doubtful she knew what she was getting into.

Her essay, “It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It,” details her reactions to a “heavyset” black woman taking a yoga class during a January rush of newbies.

Polachek asserts this woman became increasingly angry at her as the class progressed — not just naturally frustrated with a new activity.

A white woman’s projected rage?

Polachek seemed perturbed by her conviction that the woman, whose yoga mat was behind her’s, was absolutely fixated.

“At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman,” Polachek writes. “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.”

Such was the impact of the black woman’s yoga struggle. Jen could barely do asanas.

“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,” she explains. “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.”

Imagining the horrors of blackness 

Her imagination then turned to how awful things must be for the big, African-American lady.

“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,” Polachek continues. Then a little later, “Would a simple ‘Are you okay?’ whisper have helped, or would it embarrass her? Should I tell her after class how awful I was at yoga for the first few months of my practicing and encourage her to stick with it, or would that come off as massively condescending?”

Polachek chose instead to cry at home about the whole thing instead of compassionately reaching out, lamenting that her beloved yoga culture is likely racist.

Internet reactions: Swift and fierce

The assumptions Polachek made about the woman, and the manner in which she focused on her self-absorbed emotions, incensed most who read the piece.

“As a black woman who’s been the ‘only black person’ in a lot of scenarios this was extremely uncomfortable to read,” responded one user, who added, “the last thing I want is someone having patronizing thoughts about me while giving me condescending looks, something that happens quite a lot in those scenarios. And the way she talks about this woman’s body (‘heavyset,’ really?) UGH!”

Reactions have been so intense beyond xoJane — where there are almost 2,900 scathing comments — the site allowed the author to change her name on the post to Jen Charon. An editor there states Polachek has received threats.

Black and white women parody essay

“Charon’s” thoughts have since been parodied in numerous posts that mimic the voice of the author, highlighting her assumed sense of superiority and projection of negative qualities onto a stranger.

(My favorite: “It Happened To Me: There Are No White People In My Twerk-Out Class And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It.”)

Others have expressed their outrage in direct attacks on Polachek.

Writing for xoJane, African-American writer Pia Glenn responded: “Black women are continually treated like animals in a zoo, our bodies on display for you to marvel at or pity, but ultimately walk away from, none the wiser and having affected no positive change for all of your tears and hand-wringing.”

In a comment on this response piece, Jen Polachek laid much of the blame for this controversy at the feet of Rebecca Carroll — an African-American “race writer” and xoJane editor who she alleges promised to craft Polachek’s message in a way that suited the intended audience.

“After repeated requests on her behalf for the story, I sent her what I believed was a fairly rough draft of the piece, reassured by her that it would be edited into something more coherent,” Polachek states regarding Carroll. “It was published almost completely untouched. I’m horrified that what I had intended to be an acknowledgment of my own privilege and complicity in a system that I perceive to be skewed has turned into this. My hope is that Rebecca will give a more detailed explanation of what she had anticipated that soliciting the piece would generate. I can make no excuses for what I’ve written and feel deeply apologetic and embarrassed for all the negativity that I’ve generated.”

An unintended consequence of sharing

Many online and on social media agree that, rather than opening a useful dialogue, Polachek merely reinforced the idea that many privileged, white women see black women as inferior and pitiable.

This was not the intention of assigning editor Rebecca Carroll, a black woman and employee of xoJane, who encouraged Polachek to write the piece. (Full-disclosure: Rebecca Carroll and I are professionally acquainted.)

Writing her explanation within a larger thought piece that included her experiences as “the only black girl in the room,” Carroll apologized for her misstep.

“After taking a step back, halfway through my fourth week as an editor at xoJane, I realized that in all likelihood if I were a reader who hadn’t had the initial conversation with Jen and knew the background and context of the story, I would have been equally as offended as the most critical commenters,” Carroll writes. “Because I SHOULD have asked Jen to do more work and questioning before writing about her experience. Instead, I read it too quickly before running it by only one other editor at xoJane, and published it without giving a thorough enough consideration to the response of the xoJane community, and readers at large.”

Many on the site did not accept this apology.

“You guys are digging a deeper hole. Your ‘explanation’ is even worse than the original article,” concluded one reader.

“The veil” and “double consciousness”

The fact is, many black people feel that we are being projected onto by whites and others — almost all the time. This reality was most famously described by the concepts of “the veil” and “double consciousness” in the writings of W.E.B. DuBois.

Respectively, these ideas describe how our skin seems to render us constantly separated from mainstream white society, especially in the minds of whites, and how we have to — as a result — be aware of how whites see us, while also perceiving ourselves as distinct from how whites see us. We have to do both in order to mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically survive.

If black women saw themselves as Polachek saw this woman, they would shrivel psychically. Yet, her admission of her pity, belief that her body was coveted, and strangely ineffectual guilt, demonstrate that “the veil” as DuBois described it decades ago still exists — as well as the need to remain aware of it, and distance oneself from its impact.

This in part takes the form of valuing our own body types — not the skinniness of Polachek’s body, which she assumes the black woman must have admired.

Writer Demetria Lucas expressed this aspect of a black woman’s double consciousness best in her response, “Dear Yoga Girl, You Know That Most Black Girls Don’t Envy Your Shape, Right?”

“In general, Black girls don’t get the size 0/size 2 with absolutely no curves thing that SOME white women cottage cheese, lettuce and yoga their way through life for,” she states, adding, “This may cause some alarm for white folk who think they are the center of the universe, but those particular white folk do need to know that Black folk have their own standard of ‘ideal’ beauty.”

One not defined by how whites such as Polachek see them.

Admitting that we “see race”

But, I am not mad at Jen Polachek. For all it’s flaws, her essay exposes as a lie the idea that we live in a colorblind society, and that people don’t “see” race.

If we could be honest with ourselves, many whites and others would admit to reacting somehow — probably with a non-neutral response — to encountering a single black person in a space where blacks are not expected.

Blacks know and expect this. Studies show that infants and small children notice race — and some children say negative things about people of color. Even black children make negative assumptions about black people.

According to a 2013 Reuters/Ipsos poll, “40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

This is the reality of race relations in America, and likely contributes to the stereotypes and misunderstandings that have festered between the races since slavery.

Inadvertent enlightenment?

This essayist was just naive enough to reveal her unconsciously negative assumptions about “heavyset” black women, and believed she was doing humanity a favor by doing so.

But, most people make assumptions about people based on race, even if admitting this is a taboo. Some obviously make less absurd and dangerous assumptions than others, but if making such assumptions is a crime, most of us are guilty.

Yet, this reality is something you need to admit to yourself and fight within if you really care about changing it, or it will impact how you treat others without your realizing it.

Inadvertently, Jen Polachek has illustrated just how necessary this form of introspection is, and might be a scapegoat for some choosing to ignore the widespread need for this personal, individual work.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb