Coffee Rhetoric: Psst, Jen Polachek Sees 'Heavyset' Black Women in Her Yoga Class

January 31, 2014

Psst, Jen Polachek Sees 'Heavyset' Black Women in Her Yoga Class

“A few weeks ago, 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.  … Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute).  …  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…”

Image found on: blackyogis.tumblr.com 
While the above passage may read like a contrived scenario devised by Andy Cohen and Bravo producers, it’s an excerpt from one of the most self-aggrandizing, presumptuous, anti-Black woman, quasi-think pieces drenched in white women’s tears, I've read this year; and it comes courtesy of XOJane

Written by a woman, who promptly changed her byline following the collective outcry of ‘Girl, bye!’ in the comments section, Jen Caron Polachek recounted the shock and dismay she felt at having her fair, thin, white womanhood subjected to the presence of a ‘heavyset Black woman’ in the predominantly white, donation based yoga studio she attends— populated by artists and hipsters. And while I suspect Jen may have over-exaggerated the unidentified woman’s body type, since many people tend to think all Black women are fat and lumbering, when juxtaposed against the European female aesthetic, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a myriad of reasons why her essay was problematic, and it serves as a glaring example of why discussions like the #solidarityisforwhitewomen Twitter hashtag initiated by Mikki Kendall, take place across social media platforms.
#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, because only within the comfortable confines of white privilege and pedestaled white beauty standards, can a woman compose and get published, a 900+ word screed discussing the ways she mentally dissected a Black woman’s body – while said Black woman was in a yoga class minding her own damn business, looking after her health and wellness – and assume the Black woman is seething with rage over not being white and thin.
Never mind the fact that Jen Caron Polachek had no idea whether or not that was the Black woman’s first attempt at yoga, or whether her perceived discomfort could have stemmed from being the sole Black person in a predominantly white space – because, to be frank, white people have a way of ‘othering’ and being exclusionary in spaces in which they are accustomed to being in like company. It can be discomfiting... being the ‘only one' and not knowing how our presence will be received. It also probably never occurred to Jen Caron, that the woman may (or may not have) been growing annoyed at being under the scrutiny of her searing and judgmental white gaze.
One of the primary things Jen did in her sniveling essay was compare her white womanhood to a Black female body, and project her own issues onto a Black woman who said or did nothing to her, and who she knew absolutely nothing about, but listed off egregious assumptions anyway. She seemed to suggest that, not only did the Black woman’s presence at her yoga class offend her white hipster sensibilities, but that the woman in question should have felt inadequate in her full, Black female body; and that she should have felt shame for trying to contort it in yoga positions she apparently believes aren't  meant for any of us.

It’s attitudes like Jen’s that prevent us from having nice things and cause Black women to look at solidarity and extended attempts at ally-ship with leeriness and trepidation because, more often than not, it comes back to bite us... and it comes at the expense of our own visibility and humanity. Even if the woman in Jen Caron's class was uncomfortable, Jen made it about herself and centered herself in the midst of the woman's distress. And to the few (now deleted?) apologists in XOJane’s comments section who jumped to Jen’s defense, and suggested she was trying to start an honest dialogue about race: um, begging for cookies and listing the ways in which she thought her comfort superseded the Black woman’s, is not a defensible way to encourage a discussion about racial inequality. Try again. If Jen was really being genuine and ‘bout it, she would have left her real name and bio picture listed with the article, instead of removing them. Only an oppressively entitled person, who’s come to realize their racially insensitive behavior is problematic, backtracks.
Even worse, in the comments section of Pia Glenn’s awesome critique of her article, Jen continued to play the aggrieved and refused to accept accountability for what she wrote… throwing XO Jane’s managing editor under the bus… because, apparently, she thought the editor would clean it up and it sound better.
“… I sent [Rebecca Carroll] 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.  … My hope is that Rebecca will give a more detailed explanation of what she had anticipated that soliciting the piece would generate.”
While some posit that Jen is entitled to her opinion; opinions don’t ever trump the experiences of Black women, who have to navigate these sorts of passive-aggressive slights against our bodies. Contrary to popular belief, everything Black women do doesn't revolve around or require the approval of white women speaking all over our personal experiences. We’re just trying to live. Can ya’ll let us live, be great, and do yoga without sullying the experience for us?