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In 2018, a 30-day Instagram challenge popped onto my radar. It wasn’t a fitness routine or a dance challenge like the ones that often pop up on social media. It was called Me and White Supremacy, facilitated by anti-racism educator Layla F. Saad. This was not a “just for fun” kind of challenge; it was designed to actively challenge the ingrained social conditioning of white supremacy.
I downloaded the accompanying workbook, got out my journal, and joined the conversation.
On the first day, Saad defined white privilege as a “legislative, systemic, and cultural norm” where “unearned advantages…are granted because of one’s whiteness.” The accompanying journal prompt was, “In what ways do you hold white privilege? Make a list of the different ways you hold white privilege in your personal life.”
I wrote: As a white woman, I am able to access unbiased and supportive healthcare providers for my birth experience. Then, I paused. What else? I thought. Then I wrote: I have always felt safe and protected around police officers and Band-Aids always match my skin tone.
As it turned out, there is a whole world of “what else”—large things and small ones. I realized I had been blind to them all.
This first question was an immediate indicator of what the rest of this experience would be—and it made me sweaty and nauseous. As the days went on, I was increasingly hesitant to get out my journal and answer the writing prompts. Each day, I felt myself shut down more and more. I kept at it, though. At the end of 30 days, I could say that I had completed all of the prompts, but I had a suspicious feeling I may not have dug deep enough.
Uncovering the “what else?”
Fast forward to last summer, in the height of the global Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd. I saw that Saad had published a book with the same title as her original Instagram challenge. I bought a copy and decided to start the 30-day deep-dive into white supremacy again.
The first time, I had filled out the answers, but my internalized white guilt and shame got in the way of me digging deeper. This time, I committed to putting down the painful answers that I had previously tiptoed around. I would be honest with myself. I knew that there was a lot of “what else?” for me to dig into.
This work of understanding white supremacy became the ultimate practice of svadhyaya, self-study. Svadhyaya is an observation of the self and all of our mental, emotional, physical, habitual, and social patterns from the seat of non-judgement. Its recognition of our whole Self, and its goal is to, over time, create more mindful habits and patterns. This was a yogic practice I had cultivated in my own life as a way to observe my Self without berating or ridiculing myself.
It can be a difficult practice, especially when we are used to dancing around the subject matter of our own lives, the root cause of our issues, and the pull of our ego that wants to avoid the truth of our actions, habits, beliefs, and perspectives. But over years of practice, I had gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable. I learned to acknowledge difficult things about myself, like my need to organize and plan so I could feel in control, or my habit of always having to have the last word in an argument.
Now, I realized, I would have to sit with a new discomfort when it came to my relationship to racism and white supremacy.
Grapping with the system
I worked through Saad’s book day by day, addressing questions like Why do you need to look at cultural appropriation? and Why do you need to look at your relationship with white leaders? and What is white silence? As I grappled with the answers, I realized they were doing more than filling the pages of my little notebook. They were restructuring my perspective of the world in challenging and life-changing ways.
The realizations came pouring out of me, reshaping my understanding of racism as something that doesn’t just exist outside of me, but is ingrained in me. School had taught me dishonest history lessons in the form of selective historical acknowledgment and the glorification of white men and their achievements.
I began to understand why my relationship to BIPOC had always been strained—not despite the fact that I had been raised “colorblind,” but because of it. Being trained to not acknowledge skin color meant I could not see my own skin color as an advantage in a racist culture. At the same time, I had unknowingly internalized the idea that to be anything other than white was to be “less than.” Things that I had never considered to be harmful to people of color—like posting a black square on social media, but not speaking out against racist comments during casual conversation—were now clearer to me.
I felt as though I had been brainwashed, like my entire foundational base of knowledge and intellect was a lie, and that I was a cog in the wheel of racist ideologies.
Stumbling along the way
It wasn’t me that was being held under the microscope, it was an entire system passed down from generation to generation. But I was part of that system. White supremacist conditioning is ingrained into all of us from the time we are born. It is prevalent in the media we consume, the books used in our educational institutions, and the defensive stance white people learn to take in the presence of BIPOC we are not acquainted with.
When you realize you are part of the system, you start trying to do everything you can all at once to make it go away. When I reached that moment of awareness, as a white person, I wanted to absolve myself of guilt and shame.
That impulse was my first stumble.
It tripped me up a whole bunch along the path of learning to combat racism. I centered my experience as a witness to racism, rather than listening to what my Black friends had to say about an entire lifetime of navigating a racist world. I was constantly speaking out against racist individuals who hold public office while applauding and praising BIPOC without actually listening to their stories, their teachings, their knowledge.
When I saw injustice, my knee-jerk reaction was to speak out against it immediately. I was loud and brash and rude to people who simply did not have the education or the tools to understand the far-reaching effects of white supremacist ideology within our society.
I wanted so badly to be the best anti-racist white woman I could be, but I found myself on a slippery-slope toward white-saviorism and virtue signaling—finding ways to make myself known to the world as “one of the good white people.”
Here I was trying to do the right things, only to discover that what I was doing was actually harmful in its own way.
See also: Why Yoga Has Always Been Political
Committing to lifelong work
Saad says in her book, “You cannot dismantle what you cannot see. You cannot change what you do not understand.”
I hadn’t actually spent much time undoing systems within myself. What’s more, I didn’t even understand the far-reaching effects of white supremacy in my own life, let alone the injustices done to hundreds of generations of Black people. I had committed to actively and continuously changing harmful patterns that I didn’t even know were harmful in the first place.
Svadhyaya teaches us that we must sit with discomfort in order to understand the “why?” of it all. There is no such thing as making white supremacy “go away.”
If I am to practice svadhyaya around white supremacy, I have to examine the whys, whats, and hows of systemic racism from a place of non-judgment and non-reactivity. That means shedding my own personal guilt, shame, and trauma around my social and cultural conditioning while I learn about why that conditioning exists in the first place. That won’t happen overnight, either.
As with any of the eight limbs of yoga, svadhyaya is intended to be a practice of lifelong learning—and I was beginning to see that lifelong learning would be necessary for the undoing of white supremacist conditioning. I am learning how to do both of these things as I go. I’m aware that I will make missteps along the way, but I am determined to learn from them.
I am just at the beginning of this work, which is why I have to keep unraveling it within myself. I am starting to be able to see systemic oppression and racism in my daily surroundings and name them for what they are. For everything that stands out, I must sit with it in order to understand it. Now, whenever it gets heavy, I recall Saad’s words of wisdom: “Create the change the world needs by creating change within yourself.”
How I relate to internalized white supremacy now is far different than from three years ago. I’m not perfect, and I still feel as though I haven’t even scratched the surface. But this is svadhyaya. This is the undoing. I probably won’t finish the work by the end of my life, but reaching the finish line isn’t the point. Listening, learning, and recognizing that we have to show up to it humbly, every day, is.