This week, I was inspired to write about identity, privilege, allyship and inclusion. These are very weighty topics with no short answer and no quick fix, which is probably part of the reason why it came out three days later than planned ...
Here's what inspired me to want to start this conversation: twice last week I was asked something to the effect of "I consider myself body positive and I want to support a body positive practice; however, I feel unsure of how to communicate that message to people because I have thin privilege and don't want to offend those who feel marginalized by their size." This got me thinking about thin privilege and identity and issues of inclusion, entangling myself further and further into this web. Then, at this past weekend's Yoga Teacher Training module about creating community, we more thoroughly explored these ideas of privilege and inclusivity from just about every angle we could imagine. This only sent me further down the rabbit hole. Now, it's Thursday night and I am still all wrapped up in these concepts. I've spent every night since Monday adding and editing in an effort to sort out my thoughts, but they just keep spinning. I have resisted putting this to paper and publishing it all week long because I know that this is incomplete. I don't have the answer and I wish that I did. I could type for a year and I still wouldn't be there; however, you're reading this now because the crux of the issue doesn't lie in the solution, but in the discussion. Consequently, I chose to publish this to start a dialogue. I KNOW that the solutions we seek in response to life's biggest problems never dwell in the realms of ignorance or complacency, so I'm looking to shine a light on some of our shadows.
Let's start breaking this down: what the heck is privilege? At its simplest definition, privilege is a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. Types of identity that can afford you privilege might include: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, country of origin, language, and/or ability. If you want to understand more about privilege and see how privileged you are, spend a few minutes watching this video and taking this eye-opening quiz. Recognizing your privilege does not mean that you are immune to hardships, but it does mean that you recognize that you have, in some ways, an unearned advantage in society by nature of your identity - a sort of head start over other people who don't share that identity.
I think that people ask me so often about privilege because it's really really complex and we don't want to trigger people or hurt people's feelings when we're trying to understand an experience that's not our own. This is the shortcoming of "safe spaces". Well-meaning people call for safe spaces so that people can engage with one another with sensitivity, honesty, and respect. This is incredibly important, but where is there room to ask questions and gain a new understanding from less privileged perspectives without, possibly, offending or risking being unkind to another person? These complex issues cut deep to the core of our paradigms and morals and so often move from polite to provocative, which can create feelings of unease. As a result, when faced with challenge in a safe space people may discount, deflect, or retreat in an effort to preserve the aforementioned safety of the space. But, isn't comfort the problem? If we all remained comfortable, how would we really create change? Disruption is a requirement for change and why would we break apart what we don't consider to be broken in the first place?
The first step in undermining systems of oppression is to refuse to live with unchecked privilege. Simply by reflecting and challenging our privileges, and working to change the system of discrimination through direct discussion, we can help shift the status quo. Being open to acknowledging, critiquing, and accepting my own privilege hasn’t been comfortable. It didn't happen all at once and it's not a process that you complete. Thinking about privilege is an ongoing exercise. It’s something that has become part of my daily consciousness and one of the lenses with which I see the world. I am constantly learning to challenge my position in the world and understand the power imbalances that I am a part of. As an example, to write this blog post, I recognize the many ways that I am privileged (white, highly educated, employed, heterosexual ...) and the ways that I am oppressed (a fat woman, from divorced parents, with an invisible disability, who took out a student loan for University, who has lived below the poverty line ...). My privilege is the platform with which I stand to write this blog. In doing so, I uplift the voice of the oppressed as a privileged person, while, at the same time, it is my oppression that contributes to my sense of empathy.
When someone is brave enough to share their experiences of oppression with you, there is really only one appropriate reaction: LISTEN! Instead of responding defensively or with anger, the best thing you can do from your place of privilege, is open your ears and your heart. Your activism and alliance is incomplete if it leaves even one single person out. You don't get to tell someone they aren't oppressed. Their feeling of subjugation is enough to warrant the oppression. You can't understand privilege for some identities and discount the experiences of other oppressed people. And you can't just claim yourself to be an ally. To be an ally is a lifelong, active process. Participating bravely in these discussions means you know you are never going to be perfect and the only tool we really have, as individuals, is our ability and willingness to listen when someone is generous enough to educate you about their lived experience, Listen with trust, accountability, and consistency.
Yoga teaches us to hold space for discomfort. To create change, it's important that we don't just think about privilege or read about it. We need to intentionally set-aside time to uncover our privilege through the voices of those who feel marginalized and then work to align our values with our actions. In the example that led me down this winding road, - the one of a yoga teacher striving to create an environment of body positivity - you could educate yourself on ways that you can make your marketing, language, choice of asana, and communities with which you practice accessible to and a celebration of all body types. You don't have to identify as someone living in a marginalized body in order to be an ally to those who do; however, as a thin person, your solidarity is incomplete without the recognition of your privilege. By recognizing this inherent head start in the world, you can hold space for people to share with you how their historical experiences in a yoga studio (and the world) made them feel as though this wasn't a space for them. Without this perspective, your class may take for granted that all bodies walk into the room with a certain amount of flexibility, stamina, strength, and a particular relationship to their body that aligns with your perspectives and experiences of the world. As a result, people in bodies that aren't like yours, who don't share your experiences, get left behind. While it is vital that we seek out and acknowledge the lived experiences of those who feel marginalized, we then need to take this new knowledge and actually DO better. Align your actions with your values.
Challenge yourself everyday to get uncomfortable. Read, watch, and interact with people and experiences that threaten to shake up what you think is true about the world. Only by seeing and hearing as many things as possible can you really have any understanding at all about what's going on in the world. Just like our yoga practice, aim for imperfection because with each new level of understanding comes a new and challenging perspective. It's never comfortable and this is the intention.
This is the practice.