People practicing yoga in 2012 in Portland, Oregon
People practicing yoga in 2012 in Portland, Oregon Credit: Chris Guillebeau/FLICKR

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Simone Jacobson isn’t angry. She doesn’t want to call out and publicly denounce Pat Brown, the criminal profiler from Prince George’s County who over the weekend created an uproar when she admitted to starting three whites-only Meetup groups, including a yoga event exclusively for white women.

Instead, Jacobson, a Burmese-American writer, yoga teacher, and the lead instructor for Yoga District’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Community training program, believes this can be a teachable moment. She wants to call Brown in—not out.

“Calling in is more of a practice of really trying to help someone to understand, and to me, this [is a] Buddhist philosophy and yoga philosophy,” Jacobson says. “When I see the actions she’s taken, the action that I hear is that she’s saying, ‘I’m hurting and I want to be heard.’ For me, I think it would be interesting and fruitful to have yoga instructors of color and other people of color use non-violent communication and just sit down and talk to her.”

Brown wrote in a lengthy blog post on Saturday explaining that she started the three groups, White Women Yoga, White Women Walkers, and Caucasian Camera Buffs, as an “experiment” and “investigation.” She insists that she never planned to actually host the events. Brown adds that her issue is with Meetup promoting groups that she feels are “institutionalizing separatism,” and that people should feel free to hang out with whomever they want. Meetup, an online events service founded in 2002, eventually took down the groups.

“Meetup takes the integrity and safety of our community very seriously,” a company spokesperson writes in an email to City Paper. “We expect that every Meetup group follow our Community Guidelines. This group [sic] was removed when we determined it did not adhere to these policies.”

The spokesperson did not specify which guidelines these groups violated, although Brown says it’s because the groups weren’t legitimate and the company had received hate mail.

Over the last few months, Brown says, she’s seen “an increasing amount” of Meetup groups that she can’t join because she’s white. She noticed that some of the events describe themselves as single-race only. Brown calls the concept “very unsettling,” and decided to conduct her “experiment” using the same language she says she found on a “black only” yoga group.

She expected the backlash (even setting up a voicemail alerting media when she would be available) and in a recent blog post, called “safe spaces,” the “new apartheid.” Brown adds that the people-of-color only Meetup groups are discriminatory and therefore racist.

But what she doesn’t quite understand, Jacobson says, is that there are reasons why these spaces exist for people of color.

“I think she truly doesn’t understand the fact that racism is a systemic form of oppression,” says Jacobson. “Structural racism—and that’s the only definition of racism—I think that’s something a lot of Americans don’t understand. Yes, you may have been discriminated against or experienced bias, but black yogis literally cannot oppress you.”

Ben Takai, an instructor at Yoga District, agrees. He points out that in the United States, white women make up the majority of those practicing yoga, which originated in ancient India.

“There needs to be welcoming places for people who have been pushed aside their whole lives,” says Takai, who is Japanese-American. “A cisgender white woman, they are basically included in all aspects of their lives. A black woman is not. A Hispanic woman is not. A gay man is not. It’s like saying why isn’t there a children’s day? Every day is children’s day. My reaction to [Brown] is, you have access to everything you want, so there are spaces that people create because they are not welcome in other spaces. I think a white woman is generally welcome to most places.”

Brown isn’t buying the argument. She says her ex-husband is black and she has two biracial children and one black son. She would never join a whites-only group, but adds that she hopes her children wouldn’t join a group that she wouldn’t be able to join either.

(Brown says she chose the yoga group at random and doesn’t practice the discipline. “I find it too slow and boring for myself,” she says.)

To Brown, who is 63, reverse racism is “a very real thing,” and she believes that her proposal is no different than when golf clubs excluded black members.

“You get to the point where, you go to a Meetup, and you can’t join this group and that group, and you have to send a picture and it’s declined because you’re not the right color,” she says. “Yes, it does feel a lot like what happened in those days. And I’m not just speaking for myself as a white person, I’m speaking for any person that is what I’ve termed itPONEC, people of not enough color.”

Felicia Taliaferro, a yoga instructor at YogaWorks who also teaches at Balance Gym,is at a loss for words. She doesn’t know quite how to respond to the assertion that a black women-only yoga group is the same as a whites-only golf club, and pauses for several seconds before answering the question.

“OK, it’s not the same,” says Taliaferro, who is black. “Because the motivation for those in the country clubs to not include black people—they wanted to not be around people they felt were inferior … We also want our safe spaces but we have no power. Back in the day, you try to go to a country club, you could die. A lot of things were up against you, as opposed to just a group that doesn’t let me in.”

“People of color in this country heal themselves from trauma,” she continues. “These safe spaces are true safe spaces, and when whiteness is interjected, things change, trauma is lived.”

And reverse racism? “There’s no such thing,” Taliaferro says. “For a person to be racist, they have to hold power.”

Ultimately, Jacobson says, Brown would stop her mission to take down the Meetup “safe space” groups “if she were made to understand why people of color need these spaces.”

“I find a lot of white students, students who are becoming teachers, they never thought about things around their identity in the same way the rest of us have because they don’t have to,” Jacobson says. “I would explain to her the difference between systemic racism and bias. I think that’s where a lot of people get lost.”

Photo by Chris Guillebeau on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.