Is a Yoga Class for People of Color Racist? No It’s Not.

lotus-flower-wallpaper-hd-e42eA reader sent along a story today about a yoga studio in Seattle that had a once-a-month class for people of color. White people were respectfully asked not to attend. This raised the eyebrows of a conservative radio host. He thinks it’s as racist as a whites-only class.

He’s wrong.

The complaint has forced the studio to back down and the owner posted an apology:

My intention in offering my space to POC Yoga was to offer a widely inclusive healing space where all people could receive the benefits of yoga. I never intended to exclude anyone based on race or ethnicity. I have several classes on my schedule that are open to everyone, and my intention in bringing this class to Rainier Beach Yoga was to encourage more inclusivity within our diverse community in Seattle.

That being said I now realize there was discriminatory language used in the advertising for this class. For that mistake I am deeply sorry. My intention was always to be inclusive.

For the time being classes at Rainier Beach Yoga are on hold until further notice.


This kind of thing, where people in dominant majorities go after people in systemically disadvantaged groups for trying to create comfortable spaces, really gets under my skin. It’s like when students take a feminist philosophy class and ask why there aren’t more men on the syllabus?

Suddenly they’re so concerned about equity.  I tell those students: if you want men on the syllabus, take any of the other hundred courses offered in philosophy or most of the rest of the university for that matter.  And if you want a yoga class where you’re surrounded by white people, attend pretty much any other yoga class than the one class a month that’s attempting to create a safe and welcoming space for people of color.

Because you know what? Yoga in North America is dominated by privileged white people with money. And maybe that environment isn’t so welcoming for people who don’t fit the normative profile. So me, I want to applaud the sentiment of the studio owner who was trying to do something positive and create a more inclusive environment.

There’s a great paper by feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar, where she talks about the need for closed communities as a transitional phase, when the groups might still be considered vulnerable and at risk. Sometimes, because members of dominant groups tend to be so…well…so dominant, it’s necessary to keep them out of it for awhile and let some empowerment take place without them stealing the thunder all the time.

You get this sometimes with Take Back the Night. If you’ve attended TBTN you’ll know that men are respectfully asked to stand aside. How in the heck can you successfully take back the freaking night if you’re being accompanied by a man, walking alongside you? That’s not taking back anything. That’s doing what we always have needed to do to feel safe after dark. So it’s not a way to make us feel strong and, yes, I will use the word: empowered. So no, you can’t join in the march and it’s not sexist.

That’s how I feel about these classes at the Rainier Beach yoga studio. They’re not racist. I do not consider racism to be an equal opportunity thing at all. Why? Because one of the things that racism does is it systemically subordinates people on the basis of their race/skin color. That’s why it’s a bad thing. And white people are not systemically subordinated when a yoga studio holds one class a month from which they’re asked to stand aside.

I’ve defended women-only races and spaces quite a bit. See here and here and here. In my defence of women-only races, I said, among other things, that:

The reasoning for women-only and girls-only spaces flows from the assumption that they have been structurally and systemically disdvantaged by a society that implicitly privileges men. [this is not to say that male privilege is the only sort of privilege operating in our world — we might also note the existence of white privilege, class privilege, non-disabled privilege — for now I’d like to focus on gender].  Creating opportunities for women as a systemically disadvantaged group is not the same as doing the same for men, who already enjoy social privilege and entitlement in all sorts of public arenas, including sports.

I could say the same thing about the special yoga classes that used to meet once a month at Rainier Studio: Creating opportunities for people of color as a systemically disadvantaged group is not the same as doing that for white people, who already enjoy social privilege and entitlement in all sorts of arenas, including yoga studios.

It’s sad that the studio had to back down when it’s obvious to anyone who understands the structural forces of power and privilege that create oppression that Laura was doing her damnedest to create an inclusive environment. She should be thanked for her efforts in the direction of creating social equality, not forced to shut down and apologize.

If nothing else, this incident shows you who still wields the power.

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