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Recognizing one’s privilege, like yoga, takes practice.
Also, like yoga, recognizing our privilege is challenging and at times uncomfortable and frustrating. Ultimately, both are rewarding and for the betterment of the world around us and ourselves.
Each time we step onto our mats and into the world, we are confronted with choices. Choices such as: Will I be present and aware? Will I notice and respect the differences between my body and the bodies of others? Will I push myself out of my comfort zone and challenge my mind and body to a new experience? How we respond to these choices determines our practice and our response to privilege.
Last week, like many weeks before, I taught a yoga class as part of the Young Yogi Program for Peace and Positivity in Orlando, Florida. I rotate among other yoga teachers who offer an hour-long session on Wednesday evenings for Orlando’s Youth Advocate Program (YAP).
The teenagers who come to YAP are children of low-income families and almost exclusively non-white. Like most nonprofit, volunteer-based organizations, there is a level of amicable disorganization happening at all times. At five o’clock, when class is supposed to start, Heidi, the woman in charge, gives me a knowing glance and asks if I’m able to stay past six and wait another 15 minutes for class to begin.
Two girls nearby are engaged in a lively conversation, and I inadvertently begin to eavesdrop. An upcoming dance competition is the topic, and the one’s plans for twerking is being debated. To prove her point, she jumps up and shows off her moves. Laughter emanates from the other teens, and I notice the dancer checks to see if I too am paying attention.
I smile, giving her the approval she seeks, and then look away. On the other side of a room, a tall boy sits alone picking imaginary dirt off his white sneakers. More kids trickle in. None look familiar. I have no understanding of who comes when or why, and there is never much chance for Heidi and I to talk about what’s going on. I feel disconnected from the program and the teens, and, at the same time, there isn’t much space for growth given my limited involvement. I am happy to volunteer because I believe in the benefits of yoga and because volunteering makes me feel good.
“Ready to start?” Heidi asks. I nod and stand.
The room is now full. There are the original two girls and the young man in the white sneakers, another boy, three more girls, and two advocates, also male and female. I’ve seen and chatted with the male advocate multiple times before. He is a stocky and muscular man with a gold chain and cross hanging from his neck. He exudes warmth, and I find that I often look to him for support when it seems none of the kids want to be doing yoga. He is always encouraging and very committed to his own practice.
As the music comes alive, I look around the room and the kid with the sneakers is standing at the top of his mat with his shoes still on. I gently suggest for everyone to take off their shoes and socks. He doesn’t move. A few people look down at their feet covered in socks and seem to consider the idea. The dancer’s friend insists her feet are nasty and doesn’t want anyone to see them. The dancer agrees about her friend’s feet and then admires her own red plush socks and how they allow her to slide on the mat.
I know the socks are a losing battle. But still, I try; “There is nothing nasty about your feet. Your feet are beautiful and strong and carry you through this world.” The female advocate shakes her head and insists she needs a pedicure. I try again. “Yoga is about balance, and we need our toes to balance.” I inadvertently lift my toes off my mat, spread them wide, and place them back down. “Also, if you remember, there are poses where we can take our peace fingers and grab onto our toes to deepen the stretch.” At this, the dancer elbows her friend and says, “No one wants to touch your feet!” The two erupt in laughter, and I give up on the socks.
Toward the end of our practice, I move the class into Tree pose and try one more time. “I promise you, it’ll be easier to balance if you’re not wearing socks.” No takers. I look to my friend in the Hawaiian shirt, whose socks are still on and whose foot is pressed firmly against his knee. I let go of the socks and cue the importance of eliminating pressure from our joints.
After class, as I am packing up to go, Heidi thanks me and offers me a sandwich. I know dinner is waiting for me at home. The tray in front of me contains ham and American cheese on white bread. My friend with the gold chain stands near Heidi holding two large containers of off-brand soda and some plastic cups. I smile appreciatively and decline. Teens from the other program begin to fill the room and everyone lines up as plates are passed among them. Heidi is already busy handing out sandwiches as I call out goodbye.
Later, on the couch, with a belly full of organic meat and fresh vegetables, I think about those sandwiches, about the students, about their socks. Why won’t they take off their socks? They’re not the first group I’ve taught who refuses to take off their socks, but why? Google offers no help. I turn to my wife and ask what she thinks.
“Germs, maybe? A fear of dirty floors and disease and a lack of health insurance or access to medical facilities. Plus a mistrust in the medical industry.” Her masters in public health is showing.
While I do think she’s onto something, I still want more. And so I do what we’re not supposed to admit we do, I do what I know better than to do, I do what I hope will answer my question; I text my friend Alisha, because Alisha is black. Alisha and her boyfriend Jasen confirm what Abby said.
Sitting in my home, a place that is safe and clean, with a belly full of nutritious food, I feel guilty for not knowing why the YAP teens and adults insist on wearing socks. I am embarrassed because I have never feared germs or lack of access to adequate health care. I feel ashamed of my privilege.
Writing these words makes me feel uncomfortable. How do I tell this story without sounding like a pretentious asshole? Will the tongue-and-cheekiness of referencing my black friend come off as funny or do I sound like someone needing to defend their lack of racism by having a black friend?
I know that, intentionally or not, I am racist because I am privileged, because I am white. I also know the important differences between racism and discrimination, I know my whiteness and the power that comes with it is integral to my perception of the world and my privilege within the world. Writing is hard not only because it makes me feel uncomfortable but also because I can’t find the words to describe my experience. I want to stop writing, but Audre Lorde tells me that my silence will not protect me and asks us all to find “the words you do not yet have.”
The poet Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “No mud, no lotus.” He claims suffering is a necessary step toward happiness. He reminds me why I need to write.
I need to acknowledge my privilege and feel the discomfort it causes me.
We all need to feel this discomfort, we all need to practice recognizing our privilege—or none of us will be happy.