Racism, Ahimsa, and Yoga in the Face of Inequality.

This past week has been one filled with heartbreak.

On Saturday, August 12th, white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, VA. White A car slammed into a group of counter-protestors, injuring 19 and killing one woman. Her name was Heather Heyer. She was a paralegal, who wanted to fight injustice and sought equality for all.

The riot, dubbed the “Unite the Right Rally,” was organized in protest of the dismantling of Confederate statues. But this event was about so much more than bronze and steel. It was about the continuation of racism in America.

Yes, continuation. Because racism never “went away.” Sure, we had a black president and a black family in the White House. Sure, our schools are desegregated. Sure, we have Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But none of that means racism disappeared; it only means that it got a little more obscured, a little bit harder to see if you weren’t in the thick of it.

And by “the thick of it,” I mean “being a person of color.”

You see, I didn’t hear about the events on Saturday immediately. I was on a plane, traveling to visit family out-of-state. And once I landed, I didn’t check the news. I got in my rental car, got lunch with my grandmother, and spent the day with family. We had a nice dinner in a nice restaurant, we swam in my aunt’s pool and played with their puppy. We went to bed, safe and sound.

And when I finally did check the news, I was appalled by what I saw: the death and injuries of innocent people, the attack on the liberties of America, the blatant promotion of Nazism in a country that supposedly had already won the battle against it decades before. But I was still able to turn my phone off, and spend the day with my family. I was still able to push it to the back of my mind for addressing “later.” I was on vacation, wasn’t I? Didn’t I deserve to get away from the news for a few days?

My mother’s family came here from Mexico. They were dirt poor, but didn’t know it (“I just thought we really liked rice and beans,” my mother always says). They faced racism daily, and my mother recalls being spit in the face simply for daring to be a brown girl in public. My grandmother was deported, and worked long and hard to provide my mother and her sisters with opportunities she never had once she made her way back.

My father’s side of the family doesn’t carry the same story. They were dairy farmer’s in Dakota, and butchers in San Francisco. My paternal grandparents certainly faced hardship, growing up in the Great Depression, and my father certainly worked hard for what he has. But there is no denying their stories differ, and their identities carry different implications for the ways they experienced the world.

I am a dichotomous human being.

On one hand, I tie my identity closely to my maternal roots, identifying as someone who is Chicana and who knows and respects Mexican immigrants. But on the other, there is no denying that I am privileged beyond what so many could imagine. I have never struggled for money, or worried where my next meal would come from. I am educated, and my parents are paying for that education. I have my own car, a single dorm room all to myself in college, the opportunity to travel and buy nice things every once and awhile.

I’m not “brown enough” to truly empathize with the struggles people of color face every single day, and yet for many, I am also not “white enough.” Pure enough.

But my privilege afforded me the ability to check out from the news when I wanted to. It allowed me to turn away when things got ugly, to wait and see if things calmed down a little. No part of me feared for my life, feared that should these rallies spread I would be targeted. Just like when I first became educated on the police murders of black males, I was horrified by what I saw, but had the privilege to turn away from it and focus on other things when I wanted to. I didn’t have to change the way I interacted with police- change the way I interacted with the public. I was not the affected demographic, allowing me the ability to decide when and how I engaged with the politics of it.

During these kinds of times, where racism is brought to the forefront of America’s politics, I oftentimes see people around me say things like, “I just want to stay out of politics right now.”

As someone who preaches self-care, I understand the need to disconnect every once and while, and I seek to respect and understand the decisions you’re making for yourself personally. But it’s important to acknowledge the privilege that allows you to do so if you are a white person in America.

I will repeat this until I die: Privilege is not an inherently bad thing. 

Privilege doesn’t mean you’re a spoiled brat who never worked for anything in their life. Privilege doesn’t mean you’re a bad person who is being omitted from conversations regarding the strife of POC  (people of color) because you’re being silenced. Privilege doesn’t mean you aren’t a human being worthy of respect and love.

But it is a part of you, and it’s incredibly important to recognize when and how it’s affecting the way you interact with the world. Because while I and many others were able to exercise our privilege and turn away from the Charlottesville news when we needed to, countless POC in America are unable to escape this reality. They don’t have the privilege of deciding when to stop thinking about racism, because they live in a racist world.

To hear white nationalist members of the “Unite the Right” rally claim that they are experiencing oppression pains me deeply, and reminds me of a quote that has always stirred something inside of me:

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I won’t speak for POC in America, because the reality is I am not one. But there is no longer any reason to deny the existence of racism in America, we can see it as bright as day. I wish for these people who live a life of privilege far beyond that of POC to experience of world of true oppression just for a moment, even hypothetically, so that they can appreciate the beauty of equality. If they could see what it’s like to have your job application through in the trash simply because your name “sounds black,” or to fear being shot by the police just for the color of their skin, maybe then they would realize that it isn’t so much that they’re being silenced, but that other voices are trying to be heard now, too.

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Tattooed on my body is Ahimsa, the principle of non-violence.

I got this tattoo as a symbol of my self-love journey. It’s meaningful to me for many reasons, but largely because of the book my first yoga teacher and lifelong mentor gifted me when I first began practicing yoga: The Yamas and Niyamas. The first chapter I ever read in that book was on Ahimsa, and it put into perspective for me how violent I was truly being against myself and others while in the thick of my eating disorder. This tattoo serves as a reminder- one that I will always need- to come from a place of love in all my actions towards both others and myself.

But on Saturday, as I reflected on the news of horror and hate coming out of Charlottesville, it took on a meaning beyond self-love for me. It served as a reminder that things cannot exist in such a state of turmoil and violence forever. Just as flowers can’t blossom in the midst of a winter storm, the lives of the oppressed will continue to be stifled by the heavy weight of violence in our country. There will still be children of color who can’t conceive of a world where they can be “whatever they want to be” when they grow up. There will still be children of color who are taught how to avoid getting shot by the police, as though they are a threat to society. There will still be children of color who are unable to receive the education and opportunity they deserve all because equality still feels like a disservice to those who have existed in great privilege their entire lives.

I paused before writing this, so publicly on my blog. It’s far out of the realm I usually exist in: yoga and recovery and self-love. But to me this isn’t a partisan article with a political agenda. This is black-and-white right and wrong: we shouldn’t be killing each other over equality. We shouldn’t be accepting this violence as normal. We shouldn’t continue to stifle the voices of the truly oppressed simply because we have the power and ability to do so.

And were I to remain silent on this issue, I’d be choosing the side of the oppressor.

I won’t pretend to have some wise advice that will solve all of our country’s problems. I’m just as scared and confused and heartbroken as the rest of you, and I’m no expert on social justice. But if nothing else, I and the rest of the country need to speak up and say that this is not okay. I am not okay with such violent racism happening in the country I live in, even if I’m not a direct victim of it. I am not okay with blatant Nazism in a country that fought a war against it before I was even born. I am not okay with people I know and love fearing for their lives in a country that is supposed to be the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Yoga changes lives. I believe that, because it changed mine. Saved it, even. But sometimes the change that happens on our mats isn’t enough. Sometimes we need to speak up, stand up, show up for what we believe in. Sometimes it’s as small as talking to someone about your perspective, sometimes it’s as big as organizing and attending activism work. Sometimes it just making the commitment to go about our days with open minds and hearts, listening to POC and staying up-to-date on the news.

Ignoring oppression is easy and comforting, and sometimes we need to be uncomfortable.

Our practice on our mats has prepared us for this, it’s taught us the transformative beauty that can come from allowing ourselves to experience discomfort. But now it’s about so much more than wheel pose and handstands. It’s not yoga as usual anymore. We have practiced, we have prepared, we have strengthened. Now we act and use our voices for what is right.

This is the yoga.

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Painting by @yogaheroes, shared with gratitude.

 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Stacey says:

    Thank you for this, Maris. I have worked tirelessly to educate students on our country’s troubled history…trying to help them reconcile and grapple with the reality that many of our historical leaders are a conundrum. That is, while they helped to create modern democracy and accomplished great things beyond measure, they also engaged in deplorable behavior and subscribed to less than enlightened thought. We have to get better at educating our youth, indeed all people, about the realities of our past. Our text books and curriculum given to us are woefully insufficient and largely whitewashed. I purposefully teach the Eugenics movement in America and gently lead students through that tough to handle material. I teach them how to talk about whiteness, about the social construct of race, and the stories we have historically told ourselves. I teach race and membership in society and what inclusive culture looks like. I teach students how to talk about race…to demystify the topic and get them talking, asking questions. I teach them to use their art for action, to raise awareness, to add their voice. If we don’t educate, we risk more of the same conflict and strife in this country and in our world. These ideas that divide us are not new…without an educated understanding of how these ideas were ingrained in society and how subsequently laws were made and biases formed, we are condemning ourselves to live in the dark. I encourage you to check out an organization I have worked with for many years, Facing History and Ourselves. They arm teachers and students with some pretty amazing knowledge and materials so they can do the heavy lifting required to navigate these tough realities. They complicate our thinking! It’s good stuff…Thanks again for lending your voice to this. It’s an important thing to do!

    Like

    1. marisdegener says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this and for the work you do. You’re an incredible light and I’m honored to share this space with you. 💛

      Like

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