The Invisible Knapsack
A couple of days ago a woman named Jen Carson wrote an article for xoJane entitled “There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I'm Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It”. Judging by the shitstorm it created, the author sinned against humanity when she wrote:
“despite the purported blindness to socioeconomic status, despite the sizeable population of regular Asian students, black students were few and far between. And in the large and constantly rotating roster of instructors, I could only ever remember two being black. I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the instructor could or should have done to help her. Would a simple “Are you okay?” whisper have helped, or would it embarrass her? Should I tell her after class how awful I was at yoga for the first few months of my practicing and encourage her to stick with it, or would that come off as massively condescending? 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? “
Now, what I got from it is that Jen Carson had been reading about the invisible knapsack of white privilege, and became deeply, viscerally aware of her own privilege even in the most liberal environment when she saw the lone woman of color in her yoga class. She tried to have an inkling of what it must be like to be a heavyset black woman in a room full of skinny white women who are the living embodiment of what the patriarchal norm tells the black woman every day that she should aspire to be or copy as much as possible. She realized it would suck goats. So she cried.
I got where she was coming from. I was once the lone white person in a crowded gas station in Dallas, TX. I had gone to visit a friend’s grandmother and she, being black, lived in a black neighborhood. I needed gas. I stopped for gas. I am not racist enough to think I needed to drive to a “safer” gas station. I thought, as a non-racist anthropologist, I had a damn good perspective on what it must be like to not get to enjoy the invisible knapsack.
Not so much.
When I stood there, glowing neon with my pasty white skin and red hair, I felt … conspicuous and uncomfortable because of that conspicuousness. I felt like an outsider intruding in a private club. Then it dawned on me, “Jesus wept, this must be how Ruth feels all the fokking time in class.” You see, my friend Ruth was the sole black person in the entire anthropology department, and one of a handful of black women on the whole campus. We were grad students in one of the whitest universities on earth. It was a place where rich Texas Republicans sent their kids to meet and marry so that they would breed more rich Texas Republicans. Every time we were in class, she was the only black person in it. I had never thought about it because, hey graduate students all together, but when I asked her she said she felt that way in class, walking across the commons, eating at the cafeteria, and even parking her car in the parking garage.
I realized that it must suck goats to have to feel that way so much of the time. So I cried.
However, I seemed to be the only person to “get” what Carson was saying. After the article was published, Ms. Carson was eaten alive on the internet because clearly she was a racist because she was upset that this one time there was a black woman in her yoga class and it totes made her uncomfortable.
I wondered, “What did I miss? Shit, am I a racist asshat because I missed it? I know accidental passive racism happens every day because it’s indoctrinated in us via cultural messaging, but is mine flourishing somewhere in my hindbrain? Am I, Betty Fokker, much more of a twatwaffle than I thought I was? ”
Nope. It was the rest of the internet that misread it. The editor, who is a black woman and therefore not a douche who is unaware of white privilege, had assigned the piece to Ms. Carson, “who I know from my Brooklyn neighborhood. She shared with me in casual conversation her experience of being in her yoga class and suddenly realizing the impact of her white privilege in reaction to a black woman in the class who appeared to be uncomfortable, and I asked her to write about it.”
It is probably a shitty thing that white people who become aware of the knapsack are bad about pointing out to their friends of color. You know, to separate US from the unknowingly more racist THEM. I’ve done it, just because I think talking about it to a black friend gives a deeper connection and makes that friend aware that she can call me out if she sees me unthinkingly using my knapsack. I am probably full of shit and white liberal guilt, but so far my black friends have been very nice to me about it.
Which reminds me. The black people in the gas station were clearly going out of their way to be nice to me and not to “scare” me. As soon as they saw my white ass they code-switched their speech from vernacular to Midwestern Whitese. They smiled at me a lot. The black guys stood a little farther away from me and their body language practically shouted, “No worries little white woman! We will not rape and murder you so don’t be afraid!”
Americans are so pre-programmed that black people are “scary” that a group of black strangers went out of their way to not scare me. It broke my heart that anyone felt like that should be their burden. I wanted to scram at the top of my lungs, “I know enough black people to understand black people are not axiomatically dangerous! Please don’t modify your behavior because none of you owe me DIDDLY SQUAT!” Of course, I didn’t. I just smiled and made standing-in-line-chit-chat to indicate I wasn’t on the verge of panic from all the blackness in the room.
Considering how many black people are shot for having skittles, or for having car accidents, or for looking at their own damn property by white people who “saw them as a threat”, if I were black I would do the harmless ritual in front of white people, too.
That makes me hella sad.