An xoJane “It Happened to Me” story that ran last week inspired nearly 3,500 angry and hilarious comments. It was so popularly and magnificently bad that you probably know exactly the IHTM essay that I'm talking about, but here's the title anyway: “There Are No Black People in My Yoga Class and I'm Suddenly Uncomfortable With It.”
First the writer sets the scene for us: Despite the annoyingly large post-New Year January crowds in her yoga class, she homes in on a strange, upsetting sight: A black woman who isn't thin.
Let's review some of the funniest parts because it's kind of the best-worst thing ever:
“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.”
Fear...panic...despair...those are some heavy emotions to snowball after a few sun salutations, but let's relish the joy of laughter and schadenfreude and continue:
“...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.
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.”
And this, which in my opinion, is the best-worst part:
“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?”
Then she goes home and cries...really.
Most of the commenters lambasting the writer and xoJane for publishing this hand-wringing drivel were appalled by the assumptions the writer Jen Caron (a pseudonym) made about this black woman with whom she did not exchange one word. That the black woman was surely jealous of her “skinny white girl” body and shamed into crouching despair by the shining example of yoga perfection bending like a willow tree in a tastefully tacky sports bra in front of her. That she couldn't do yoga because she was “fairly heavy.” That the writer's presumed superiority made her feel sorry for the out-of-place and inferior black woman. And that her incredible guilt about her perceived racial and body-type superiority excuses it.
It's all appalling, I agree, and embarrassing. But perhaps more depressing is the fact that a presumably grown woman could be this self-obsessed. That someone, I'm assuming, who is out of college, could have such a skewed, junior-high “Everyone's looking at me!” fixation.
One of the most liberating realizations that I have had in my life – and admittedly, this wasn't until my late 20s -- was this:
No one gives a shit what you look like or what you're doing because people are too busy thinking about themselves.
Unless you fall on your face in the street or have toilet paper hanging out of the back of your pants or are wearing two different shoes, it's likely no one will notice or look twice at you. Which frees up a lot of brain space to think about things that matter, which is nice.
I hope Jen “Caron” comes to the same realization soon, before someone beats the shit out of her.
And that could very well happen, judging from her response to a follow-up IHTM xojane published the next day, “I Read An Article About a White Woman's Yoga Class/Black Woman Crisis and I Cannot,” that indicates that Caron has learned nothing from this experience:
“…despite my anxieties about how problematic of a standpoint it is and how people might react...[editor Rebecca Carroll] reassured me that the fact that I was having these thoughts at all, problematic as they may be, was a good thing and something worth sharing. I trusted her to be sensitive to the xoJane readership and the ways in which the piece might be perceived. I thought, as she said, that it might be productive. Obviously that was inexcusably ignorant of me.
“After repeated requests on her behalf for the story, I sent her what I believed was a fairly rough draft of the piece, reassured by her that it would be edited into something more coherent. It was published almost completely untouched. I’m horrified that what I had intended to be an acknowledgment of my own privilege and complicity in a system that I perceive to be skewed has turned into this. My hope is that Rebecca will give a more detailed explanation of what she had anticipated that soliciting the piece would generate. I can make no excuses for what I’ve written and feel deeply apologetic and embarrassed for all the negativity that I’ve generated.
In other words, it's my editor's fault! She was supposed to polish the turd she nagged me repeatedly to turn in! Seriously...whoa. I hope Jen just wanted to share her black lady yoga experience and doesn't want to be a professional writer someday - because you just do not do this.
To publicly question her editor's understanding of the xojane audience and accuse her of being misleading about the editing process puts you on the fast track to never being published again.
But before I express too much sympathy for Rebecca Carroll, let's look at her response to the criticism of the yoga essay, which is also troubling and not just because she claims not to give a shit about page views, a fact that many readers called her out on.:
“I truly did not anticipate the response we have received from xoJane readers and commenters, or from media colleagues who I admire and respect. There have been some really excellent responses, though,including Pia Glenn's on the site today. And in reading her piece as well as the comments and Twitter threads about the original post, I am compelled to think more deeply about my own intentions in publishing it, and its effect.
After taking a step back, halfway through my fourth week as an editor at xoJane, I realized that in all likelihood if I were a reader who hadn't had the initial conversation with Jen and knew the background and context of the story, I would have been equally as offended as the most critical commenters. Because I SHOULD have asked Jen to do more work and questioning before writing about her experience. Instead, I read it too quickly before running it by only one other editor at xoJane, and published it without giving a thorough enough consideration to the response of the xoJane community, and readers at large.”
The backstory she's referring to is that Carroll ran into Caron in their Brooklyn neighborhood, and Caron mentioned how she recently ruminated about her white privilege after seeing an uncomfortable-looking black woman in a yoga class. This reminded Carroll, who is black, of some skinny white girls she used to know who offended her by calling her “curvy” in their privilegy white oblivion.
Frankly, it's hard see how this shallow backstory would have given readers“context” that would've made the essay more palatable. I suspect something else is at play here. Carroll also writes in her response:
“The fact that Jen was willingly offering up this explicit admittance of her white privilege struck me as valuable in some way. At the very least, a good jump-off point...
“Those of us who write about race in the media, and who are race conscious, are often expressing our frustration over unaccounted for white privilege, or the rampant cultural appropriation that goes on constantly. Mostly we hear privilege couched in this way: 'I know that black people are disadvantaged, but that doesn't mean that I as a white person am at an advantage because of it.'"
What this suggests to me is that Carroll might've thought that lots of white women are just as naïve as Caron and are thinking these same dumb thoughts, so she wanted to publish one of them who had the balls to say it out loud. That Carroll didn't grasp that this essay would offend nearly everyone who read it – no matter what their race or size – is offensive to me.
The title for the piece – “There Are No Black People in my Yoga Class and I'm Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It” – also set Caron up to be ridiculed. Like, you only just noticed that most people at your yoga class are white? Really? Xojane could've called it “A Black Woman Struggling in my Yoga Class Made Me Reflect on Racial Inequality,” but that wouldn't have gotten nearly as many clicks. And I'm sure they knew it.
At any rate, we can all look forward to Caron's follow-up IHTM: “I Wrote a $50 Essay for xoJane and Got Death Threats When It Was Published.”