On Decentering Whiteness

Karim Wafa Al-Hussaini

When I stopped teaching yoga in the fall of 2019, I didn’t yet understand why I felt so compelled to leave the industry. The fact that I had been doing the same job for 15 years felt like enough of a reason.

At the time, I was aware that I no longer felt like I fit into my identity as a yoga teacher. When teaching class, I heard myself talking about alignment and sensations and the ever-present breath while wanting to talk about mental health (in a real way), a loss of self, pain, grief, fear. I felt the pressure to emanate "love and light." I felt boxed in. People weren’t necessarily coming to a Vinyasa Level 2-3 class to interrogate their darkness, and as their teacher, they shouldn’t be expected to hold space for mine. 

It just wasn't the conversation I wanted to be having.

My son had just turned five years old and was starting Kindergarten. I was still a full time mom so time was limited, but I was able to spend more of it writing. I mostly wrote essays about mental health and motherhood; sometimes I felt bold enough to write about racism. I found it interesting that it felt so much easier to write about the very personal depths of my postpartum depression, anxiety, and panic disorder than it did to call out white supremacy.

More often than not, in trying to talk about how I have felt in white-dominant situations, I was apparently the racist one. Why did I have to make everything about race? Why was I always assuming the worst of white people? What could I possibly know about oppression as an Asian person who didn’t grow up poor? Hadn’t my family taken vacations? What did I have to complain about?

The labor of educating white people about white supremacy shouldn’t fall on people of the global majority, but it usually does. Because for us, there is a more obvious urgency that this and any system of oppression needs to be dismantled. But the more you come to understand these systems, the more you will see that nobody – regardless of race – is truly free within them.

Engaging in this conversation is not easy. We’re often tone-policed or end up wiping away white tears or even find ourselves apologizing for reversing the racism. My own indoctrinated allegiance to white supremacy has me constantly second-guessing myself in these moments. Maybe I am the problem for bringing up charged topics. What if I offend so-and-so and they don't like me anymore? Why can't I just focus on all that I have to be grateful for? Let's just talk about happy, chill, and fun things!

Is anyone else tired of the mental gymnastics we perform to try to make things okay that are not okay?

January 2020 came: I turned 40, and wrote the first 10 essays with which I planned to launch my blog on mental health and motherhood. In February 2020, I found out I was pregnant again. It felt like the most divine timing; I was being invited to share my pregnancy journey on this new blog, with all that I’d learned and processed since having my first child. 

Then came March 2020: Schools closed. Yoga studios closed. Life as we knew it was forever changed. We were all worried and afraid. All I could focus on was staying healthy and giving birth to a healthy baby. All my writing went on hold. 

I braced for another traumatic birth. It didn’t happen.

I braced for postpartum depression to strike again. It never came. 

And so, I dared to let myself enjoy motherhood. In doing so, I realized all that I had missed the first time around. The joy of my daughter’s baby years have confirmed that the pain and grief of my son’s were indeed not what all mothers experience. My regret often accompanied my happiness.

This impossible to rationalize dichotomy persists as I bear witness to the massacre of families in G@za. As a parent, I cannot help but see my own children in P@lestinian children. As a mother, I cannot help but imagine myself as the P@lestinian mother clutching her cloth-wrapped child. When I see my children smile, my mind flickers to children suffering all over the world – they, too, deserve to smile.

Maybe it was my postpartum suffering that enables me to hold all of this both/and.

When my daughter was about one year old, I returned to the page. I was still writing about motherhood and mental health but there was a louder calling rising from within: I needed to go deeper into the conversation of white supremacy. I felt such hesitation. I had internalized the invalidation that racism against Asians wasn’t that bad as well as the multi-pronged indoctrination — from western society and from my eastern bloodline — that I should stay silent.

I didn’t yet see how everything connects back to systemic oppression: not being white in the US, the model minority myth, anti-blackness in the API community, a flailing healthcare system, the toxic wellness world, immigrant trauma, war trauma, capitalism, colonialism. 

And yes, it all leads to the normalization of genocide.

I used to try to make sense of what I had done to deserve postpartum depression. My appropriated and colonized "spiritual practice" had promised me that I could manifest the life I wanted. Where had I gone wrong? I must have been a terrible person in a past life to have such bad karma.

Now I understand it all quite differently – how my mental illness saved me. Now I understand that the panic attacks that would arise in yoga class were not a personal failing but a hand from the divine, forcing me out of a toxic world that I kept insisting on trying to fit into. Now I understand that I had surrounded myself with well-meaning but deeply dangerous people who would stay silent if people that looked more like me than like them were being mass murdered. Who would dig their heels in when I “called them in,” who would school me on just how “woke” they are, who would center their white feelings and literally say the words “I am not a white supremacist” — all while rationalizing their white supremacist behavior. 

Unless each of us – white or not – are actively interrogating and challenging white supremacy, we are very likely upholding it. You do not have to be a member of a supremacist organization to be racist. Having a BIPOC friend does not absolve you. Certainly being a fan of “ethnic” food does not give you antiracist credit either.

Decentering whiteness by way of reading works of anti-oppression, following voices of the global majority, engaging in difficult conversations, asking questions rather than assuming you are already doing enough... this is how we start to do the work of dismantling systems of oppression. Because it is not enough to simply claim to not be racist. It is not enough to claim neutrality and to pray for peace. If you are only following Brene Brown and not people of the global majority, as a person of color, I do not feel that you actually see me. I do not feel safe with you. I do not believe you are an ally.

Unless we are all actively seeking and listening to leaders of color, our default will always be whiteness. And this is not even necessarily our fault. Most of us did not choose this; we were born into it. Our country was built on white supremacy and has always been intrinsically racist (see: the history of slavery, the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, and Chinese laborers). Overt racists are not the only upholders of white supremacy. It is also the liberal, kind, and well-meaning white and white-adjacent folks — who don’t think they have any work to do because they are so loving, so good, so not racist — that are the necessary scaffolds to the systems that would and will collapse into itself as more of us wake the f*ck up. 

And as you might be able to imagine, this feels like an impossible conversation to have in real life, one to one. I feel like I have to get the gloves on and psych myself up because I know that in addition to confronting someone who is likely to disagree with me and become defensive, I am also confronting white supremacy itself.

A good friend of mine calls it her “white robot brain.” Sometimes she is able to watch her automated reactions with some distance and recognize her white robot brain. She’s fascinated, disgusted, and frustrated, that even as she is aware of its existence, it still affects her. Other times, she doesn’t have the distance. If I say something she feels offended by, she will become hostile — she will attack my character: “Geeze, you’re so angry,” play the victim, or full on scream at me — all in a programmed attempt to shut me down from speaking truths that are extremely uncomfortable for her to accept.

Then we’ll sit back and see what happened:

"Oh, f*ck. Was that white robot brain?"

"Yeah, I think white robot brain struck again." 

I feel drained by these kinds of interactions. I am so tired of having the same conversations over and over again, and being met with the same, predictable, template defensive, rationalizing responses. I feel frustrated, enraged, afraid, hopeless. 

But I know I am immensely privileged. And I want to make this world a better place for us all. So I will continue doing the work to decenter whiteness.

I hope you will join me.

This work must go beyond self-centered self care. It is not enough to create an internal world of peace, it just isn’t. This keeps us in our own self-contained bubbles. It is what informs our inability to bear witness, to seek truth beyond what we are spoon-fed, to speak up loudly when children are being starved to death. 

Liberals, yogis, all of us with privilege: if you are still not speaking up against genocide, if you continue to think that you are doing enough, please do better. Go beyond the NYT and NPR and the Brene Browns. The voices, resources, and stories are all available. It just might take looking outside of your immediate and comfortable circles to find it.

This is for you and your own children too. Because nobody is free until everybody is free.

Some Resources (Note: If you're on board with decentering whiteness, these should first and foremost be through voices of the oppressed)

White Women by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Voices on the Side, my podcast (all episodes center "marginalized" identities)

Follow on IG: (not an exhaustive list, of course!)

@ykreborn @iamjoelleon @asma.therapist @tejalyoga @nikkiblak @dr.rosalesmeza @sashaheron @lamarodofficial @decolonizingtherapy @decolonizemyself @nadiadiaspora

And a couple of white women using their voices and privilege for the collective: @macgyveringmom22 @sarahofmagdalene

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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