In 2006, I opened a yoga center in Durham, North Carolina. One afternoon, I was sitting at the front desk when a middle-aged man walked in the door with a smile on his face. He approached me, put his hands on the desk, and leaned forward, and asked, “Do y’all have free trial classes?” I politely responded that we did not, but offered him a discounted intro package.
He persisted, saying that he was a successful businessman and that he could show me how to run my studio better. I could feel his hot breath on my face. I tried to quietly move my chair back to combat the onslaught of his dominating insistence. As I continued to politely decline, the class in the next room began to end. Through the glass door he could see students rolling up their mats. Before he stalked off, he made eye contact with me and muttered, “F–king chink, don’t know how to run a business.”
This is the first time I am recounting that story. I am not sure why I’ve never told anyone before. Perhaps I wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. Perhaps I was in disbelief that he was so comfortable brazenly threatening me with a racial slur. More likely, though, is that I was ashamed the situation was a reflection of my own weakness because I had just—let it happen.
I wish that yogis didn’t face these experiences, that we could come to our mats without intrinsic biases and racially charged experiences. But as a community that is becoming increasingly racially and culturally diverse, we inevitably experience circumstances that cause us to feel shame because of our racial backgrounds.
Acknowledging this hurt isn’t enough. We also have to examine ways in which our own biases hurt others and, especially, how they hurt ourselves.
Feeling my “otherness”
Growing up in the ’80s, mine was one of the few families of Asian descent in my hometown of Newport Beach, California. I was the only Asian American kid in my grade school. I was ashamed of my dark hair and darker-toned skin and wanted so badly to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed like the children surrounding me. I felt like an ugly witch from a Disney movie.