On “Yoga Girl,” Race, Writing, White People, And Knowing When Not To Share
***Yesterday, I had separate conversations with Panama and Maya Francis about everyone’s favorite Skinny White Yoga Girl and the reactions her piece generated. (If you’re not aware of this story, here’s a quick synopsis. Skinny White woman writes very, very awkwardly about feeling very, very awkward about seeing a heavyset Black woman at her yoga class, internet reacts.)
The conversation with Panama and I took place on Gchat. Maya and I also talked on Gchat, but she decided to send me something longer later in the evening. Both the conversation between Panama and I and Maya’s piece are below.***
Damon Young: You saw that yoga piece everyone is talking about, right?
Panama Jackson: Of course, lol. Poor white girl. Opened a shitstorm and was probably as sincere as sincere could be. THAT is an example of white privilege. Macklemore is not.
Damon Young: The most favor-ed comment on XO Jane literally had me laughing out aloud for 10 minutes. I think I even woke up my girl.
Panama Jackson: Yeah I saw that shit…I laughed hard as f*ck too. Thing is…its a weird but honest ass look into how white people feel. To that end, its actually educational. Like this white broad REALLY felt that way. Its white guilt at its best
Damon Young: We want white people to be honest. but we really dont. We just want them to listen and not speak
Panama Jackson: EXACTLY. Shut up and let us think you suck. We don’t care how you feel. But its like…look…I’m f*cking sharing here. THIS IS really how I think.
Panama Jackson: Do you remember some years ago I wanted to put together a collection of essays about race from white and black people anonymously?
Panama Jackson: This is EXACTLY what i’d expect to get from some overly empathetic white folks. Naive but necessary to keep the convo going. And folks are going ham. I appreciate this shit. I mean she needs a good talking to. But that kind of honesty from white people? Priceless
Damon Young: I wonder if people are more upset by the thought or the expression of the thought
Panama Jackson: That’s a good question
Damon Young: I think it’s the thought. Like, it’s great that you were honest and bared your soul and shit. but what the f*ck is wrong with you?
Panama Jackson: Yeah. At the same time…her biggest problem was using race as identifiers. If she hadn’t used race, it would just be body size insensitive, and it doesnt get traction. You throw skinny white girl and heavyset black woman in there? HIROSHIMA.
Damon Young: Thing is, every 25 to 35 year old black chick I know does yoga at least occasionally. Like, literally every single one.
***I received an email from Maya a few hours later***
When I decided I wanted to be a writer, I was 10 years old and had just suffered the loss of my great-grandmother. It was a deeply personal, life-altering thing, one that had me contemplating my own mortality, long before a person should have to think about such things.
As I sifted through her personal affects, I craved something tangible that would remind me of the music in her voice, the firm delicacy of her touch, the way she always knew exactly what to say when it needed to be heard. I wanted to read something that would instantly put her in the room with me.
I took the week off from school in mourning, and when I returned found myself even more invested in my favorite books as a means to escape the sadness that plagued me. At some point in the following months, we learned about the advent of the printing press and the role of the written word for the modern world.
“Words are given greater importance when they are written down,” my teacher said. It was at that moment, that I realized that my byline would become my closest shot at living forever. It was then that I started collecting my favorite quotes from people who’d long since been dead (a practice that I continue even now), and think about the legacies left behind. I thought about what my name, on paper, would mean when I was gone.
Things have changed since then, particularly in terms of what it means to be a writer. Like any writer, I am still a bit self-serving, but more than anything I strive to be an active student of the people, circumstances, and subjects I choose to write about. I write because I never want to stop learning; I write because I cannot see myself doing much else without going completely insane. I write because I’m naturally very nosey, and this is a great way to put it to good use. I write because I think its important to think critically.
Digital media has changed the way we think about writing, and the way scribes go about the practice. What was once an isolated, pensive undertaking is now filled with the loud noise of other people’s thought pieces (which we feel compelled to respond to), deadlines (that come faster than the traditional news cycle), and the crowded lanes of traffic that make up online content. It’s fucking loud in the echo chamber, and there are times that I have to walk away from my computer for a few weeks to figure out what the hell I really think. With a 24-hour news cycle and tweets coming in at 2am, it’s easy to get confused sometimes.
The really intimidating thing about writing in the online space is how quickly (and intensely) readers respond to your world. Most writers, I’d think, don’t read the comments section. I respond to everyone who e-mails me directly, but I never read the comments; it’s like giving birth to your favorite child and the world immediately telling you what an ugly piece of shit they are, and how worthless you are for having her.
In the best case, the forever-ever nature of the internet (thanks, Google Cache!) and the ridicule that comes with it can force a writer to be deeply intentional about the things they put out into the internet. In the worse case, a person will throw shit at a wall and see what sticks.
When a piece falls flat – or worse, when it’s received as roundly offensive to a group of people – there’s an urging to find some greater value as to why it fell flat. We want the failure to mean something. Usually, someone will say that it “helped to start a conversation.” I’ll say now, while everyone is entitled to their opinions, some conversations just aren’t worth entertaining because of the basic expectation that grown people don’t say everything they’re thinking aloud.
It’s easy to fire up our laptops. It’s easy to have an opinion and make it matter because it’s in black and white. Digital media has, in many ways, made us forget (at one time or another) about the labor in our labor of love. The responsibility we have. We owe it to our audiences to not only be exciting, but to be interesting, poignant, reflective, honest, and insightful. It’s not enough to want to live forever; we have a responsibility to push existing conversations forward. To make good art.
If we can’t do that, then we should chop it up Love Jones style with our homies over wine and cheese and whatever other bougie shit we like to do when we’re feeling self-important. Let those conversations help us check our own privileges, assumptions, and naval-gazing. If our names are to mean anything at all, we’ve gotta make sense of the world around us, not further agitate the things we already don’t understand.