Insufferable white lady has nervous breakdown over a black woman in her yoga class

Insufferable white lady has nervous breakdown over a black woman in her yoga class

Jan 29, 2014

Have you ever thought about what you would do if, for some disturbing reason, a black woman showed up in your yoga class and probably spent the whole time envying your beautiful skinny white girl body and “tastefully tacky” sportsbra? Probably not. You know who has, though? Jen Caron.

Meet Jen Caron–or rather, Jen Polachek, which is her real name–author of the latest bizarre, naval gazing XOJane “It Happened To Me” screed, “There Are No Black People in My Yoga Classes and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It

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Jen Polachek was born Tokyo and has since been bouncing between the east and west coasts of America. She spends most of her time thinking about food, bodies, and how to pay her rent. She lives in Brooklyn.

NATURALLY. Also here is her other bio from her Tumblr about rehabbing a houseboat named after a dead pet chicken with her similarly repellent friends.

Jen Polachek was born in Tokyo and has since been bouncing between the east and west coasts of America. She wrote her thesis about horror films and abject theory. She cooks, eats, writes, photographs, and blogs about food, and when not thinking about food she makes music and movies, studies yoga, and dabbles in web design. Currently she is on a month long cross country road trip, after which she will pursue a butchery apprenticeship in New York.

So, Jen, who repeatedly describes herself as a “skinny white girl” is super fond of yoga, and she does yoga all of the time, at a totally inclusive studio populated by “students, artists and broke hipsters.” Which I am not sure are actually three distinct groups of people, but whatever. Then one day, out of the blue, a “heavyset black woman” shows up to the yoga studio, and her world is shattered.

Who among us cannot relate. I mean, a black person. In yoga class. How do you even begin to process such a thing?

A few weeks ago, as I settled into an exceptionally crowded midday class, a young, fairly heavy black woman put her mat down directly behind mine. It appeared she had never set foot in a yoga studio—she was glancing around anxiously, adjusting her clothes, looking wide-eyed and nervous. Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class.
TO RECAP: There was a person in Jen Polachek’s class who was new to yoga, and decided to maybe just sit and watch and see what it was all about instead of running off in tears. That person happened to be a heavyset black woman. That person has also been me, for the record. I am also the person who gets uncontrollable church giggles in yoga and has to leave. No big.
Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a student there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. 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.

TO RECAP: Jen Polachek is a mind reader, and, in being cruelly forced to look at a black woman, was able to discern that this woman was definitely angry at her gloriously thin body. Staring at it, thinking to herself “If only I were a skinny white girl who rehabs houseboats and makes gluten-free snacks!”

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. 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.

TO RECAP: Oh my god, how could this black woman just waltz into my yoga class and screw up my lotus positions with all these fever dreams I am having about how much she must hate me. Probably all the black women are just sitting around judging and resenting me all day long. Why is life so cruel?

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. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the instructor could or should have done to help her. 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? If I asked her to articulate her experience to me so I could just listen, would she be at all interested in telling me about it? Perhaps more importantly, what could the system do to make itself more accessible to a broader range of bodies? Is having more racially diverse instructors enough, or would it require a serious restructuring of studio’s ethos?

Can you just fucking imagine? “Hey, total stranger! Articulate your experience for me!” Does she think that black women exist for the purpose of enlightening her? Has she watched too much Oprah?

Now, I will tell you. I am a ridiculously friendly person and if I saw someone having a hard time at something that I had gotten good at, I would probably go up and say “You know, I totally sucked at this at first, but don’t give up because it gets easier every time. Just ignore everyone else and go at your own pace.” That’s my personality, and I would not consider it a big deal to do that at all. It’s a strange thing to make a big deal out of. Then again, I am not a delicate skinny white girl who makes gluten-free treats and bounces from coast to coast in a freaking house boat and has to worry about people resenting how great she is at yoga. I am a medium-sized loud Italian woman who does… things that are not that.

But hey, at least I talk to people instead of having pipe dreams about interactions we might have in my head and then freaking out about them and how they’re going to affect my ability to enjoy yoga. To be honest, I probably would not immediately gravitate towards Jen Polachek, because she does not look like she’d have much of a sense of humor. I would not, however, concoct an elaborate fan fiction about Jen Polachek boring me to death with tales of urban beekeeping or being frothily jealous of my ability to interact with people normally. I have other stuff going on.

I got home from that class and promptly broke down crying. Yoga, a beloved safe space that has helped me through many dark moments in over six years of practice, suddenly felt deeply suspect. Knowing fully well that one hour of perhaps self-importantly believing myself to be the deserving target of a racially charged anger is nothing, is largely my own psychological projection, is a drop in the bucket, is the tip of the iceberg in American race relations, I was shaken by it all the same.

SHE STARTED CRYING. She started crying over an imaginary encounter with a black woman she did not even speak to. She just sat there and fever dreamed that this woman, who very likely did not give a shit about her, was secretly resenting how awesome she was at yoga.

God, Black people. Why are you doing this to this poor girl? Go and join her yoga class so she can feel more like she is having a more multicultural experience! Stop being so selfish!

Racism isn’t always about wearing bedsheets and screaming slurs. In fact, it usually isn’t. Half the time, when people say and do ignorant things, they think they are specifically not being racist. Going around thinking that all these black women are resenting you because you are a skinny white girl and then feeling bad about it is racist. It’s also incredibly weird.

Now, I think a little white guilt is healthy–we should feel shitty about unearned privileges, and if you don’t, or don’t want to recognize or give up said privileges, then you’re an asshole. Jen Polachek, however, made it all about her personal pain. How she, as a “skinny white girl” was so traumatized by what she imagined a black woman was thinking about her.

While I think it’s worthwhile to confront our own prejudices and deal with them, rather than simply pretend we don’t have them because we don’t want to feel like an asshole, this is not what Jen Polachek was doing. However, let’s all hope that the horrified reaction from the entire internet will give her the reality check she so desperately needs, and she can learn to stop being an asshole.

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