I had recently moved to a new community, and rather than diving in to make new friends, I found myself isolating.
It has been a challenging and humbling journey to come to the understanding I now have that racism gets into all of us. I do not say this with the judgment I initially had when I used to wag my finger outward at “those racists.” I am not saying there are not white people with no racism in them. But they are rarer than we like to admit.
I understand more deeply how white people are often unsafe for people of color. How trust needs to be earned, and even then, our racism can leak out, maybe unintentionally, but harmful nonetheless.
I am at the point where I don’t want to invest in friendships only to find out racism is alive and well in the person. And they have no intention of changing. I want to skip the formalities of discussing the weather and our hobbies. I don’t want to learn over lunch with a new acquaintance that they don’t see why Black Lives Matter does not discount white lives.
Years ago, I committed that if I see something I believe is racist, I will say something. My whiteness had given me the privilege of being oblivious to how frequently I would need to decide whether to follow through on this commitment.
In my new town, I started taking classes at the local gym. At first, I kept myself at arm’s length, looking for clues on how I might know what kind of white person they were.
In a yoga class, a woman and I exchanged greetings. I was new to yoga, and her kind encouragement meant a lot. Over a few weeks, we began putting our yoga mats next to each other.
One week she shared she had been a teacher. She explained that during Covid, it was incredibly tough. And after students returned to in-person learning, it was even more difficult. She said even the six-foot-tall male teachers were afraid to walk the hallways. She was close enough to retirement that she chose early retirement.
She went on to say that her school population was becoming increasingly black. “You can’t even look at these black students without them calling racism,” she said.
And there it was; her racism had spilled out right as our instructor started the class by inviting us to take the Shavasana pose. Shavasana, where we lie on the floor, relaxing our bodies and focusing on our breath.
“Fuck,” I thought. “People who do yoga and work on breathing and balance can be racist.” This is why I don’t want to be friends with white people.
See something. Say something. But what to say? Do I show her a picture of my family? I’m sure she would not have said this to me if I was a black woman or if she knew my family is black. Nope, I won’t trot my husband and daughters out as a “Surprise! I got you” moment.
During class, I pondered what kind of teacher she had been for black students. Did she understand that their lived experience is different from their white peers? That danger lurks each time they step outside of their homes. And the unknown of when or if it will happen today takes a heavy toll. Did she understand that administrators, school boards, and teachers continue the legacy of causing harm to students who are there to learn?
As I attempted the Downward Facing Dog pose, I wondered if she knew about unconscious bias and the harm it causes. Or that teachers disproportionately discipline black students for the same behavior as their white peers.
Opening into a Warrior II pose, I wondered if she would agree that the overwhelming abundance of white teachers like her and me is a liability for students, not a benefit. And that schools have purposely failed to teach the truth. They continue to undervalue the contributions of people of color, overinflate white accomplishments, and lie about America’s violent past and present.
I worried about how she would react.
Breathe in and out. See something. Say something.
At the end of our class, I said, ” I have been thinking about what you said about black students in the school. I wonder if one reason you may feel they are more ready to call out teachers is that historically black students could not say anything. They had to accept any treatment they got in school, no matter how unjust or unkind it was.” I continued, “Cell phones for recording have created a level of protection and visibility they didn’t have before. So, while it may seem extreme, there are many years of mistreatment and forced silence to be made up for.”
She was quiet. Took a moment and said, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that.” Truthfully, I don’t know if it will significantly change her beliefs. But it strengthens my ability to have these conversations even when I make mistakes. Which I will.
This action was a tiny drop in an ocean of work needing to be done by white people toward other white people. Change can come if more of us speak up every time we see something, whether at the market, family dinners, work, school, or even yoga classes.
Breathe in. Breathe out. See something. Say something.