Loretta Todd wrote: ‘Cultural appropriation occurs when someone else speaks for, tells, defines, describes, represents, uses or recruits the images, stories, experiences, dreams of others for their own. Appropriation also occurs when someone else becomes the expert on your experience and is deemed more knowledgeable about who you are than even yourself.’
As race discussions and debates continue after the tragic killing of George Floyd I have been forced to look inwards. Something I do regularly as a yoga practitioner and teacher, but usually in the present, not reflecting on the past, as I am doing now.
I’m a mixture of races; my maternal grandfather was Sri Lankan, my maternal grandmother Indian and my father’s side as white as white can be. I had an idyllic childhood in London, a primary school that nurtured and supported with friends that have remained friends for life.
My secondary school had a large proportion of Jewish children and that in itself, fostered inclusivity. There were a handful of children of colour with African, middle eastern or Indian heritage. Like my primary school, it was a supportive school community. Most of us were ‘different’ and because we were the majority, that was normal. I can remember going to many Bar mitzvahs and guests coming up to me and speaking to me in Hebrew assuming I was Israeli due to my skin colour. This always made me feel included and spoke to the side of me that often felt different and excluded in the outside world. I was happy to fit in and become part of a tribe.
My mother is dark, really dark, like her father was. She regaled a few tales of racism at work to me and my sister as we were growing up. She used to comment on how she had been treated or not treated and how she knew it to be due to racism. It was never blatant, just an undercurrent; what we would now describe as micro aggressions. However I didn’t want to hear it…….I didn’t want to listen…..I didn’t want to be different. Children don’t want to be the odd one out and I was doing my hardest to fit in. In situation’s outside of school, I conformed, it was easier to fit in and become ‘white’. This was easy as my parents had made the decision not to teach me and my sister Hindi or Tamil in case it confused us learning the English language. My mother used to correct us in our pronunciation often, especially if we had picked up even a twang of our father’s cockney accent. She used to say she had learnt the Queen’s English and so would we. There was a sense of pride in being part of British culture, a nod to colonialism. She had been raised in Kuala Lumpur. I can only remember my mother wearing a sari once in my whole lifetime, she too was trying to fit in. We grew up eating English food and went to an Anglican church on Sundays. We looked different and yet the aim seemed to be to blend in.
As I got older I enjoyed holidaying in Italy and being mistaken as Italian. Going to a Manu Chao concert and being spoken to in Spanish. I’ve always had the privilege of being able to fit in, my tanned skin has meant I could be Iranian or South American, Sicilian or Malaysian. Was I hiding from my truth? I was different but I didn’t want to be labelled as mixed race. I had been born in London and considered myself a Londoner. And yes, I’ve been regularly asked THAT question throughout my life; Where are you from? No, where are you really from? I have always answered London. There are those who pause, and actually think about what they are asking, and rephrase the question. What is your heritage? Where are your roots? However, I admit over the years it has been easier to have accepted the socialisation of white culture. I have an English sounding name so why wouldn’t I be seen as British?
Moving to Edinburgh eighteen years ago was a culture shock. I’d left the fashion industry in London behind to move up to be with my Scottish boyfriend. I was being stared at because of what I was wearing, white pixie boots from the Oxfam in Dalston, trends influenced by the catwalks, not because of my colour. I can still distinctly remember, around 6 months after moving here, staring gobsmacked at a black man crossing Princes Street. I realised in that short time of living in Edinburgh, I had not seen anyone of colour. I felt a pang of guilt for not noticing it sooner, a sense of loss; loss of not being different.
I’ve never knowingly experienced racism here in Edinburgh because of my colour. I have experienced it when people have heard my classic English accent. The assumption from others that I am English is not something I had ever encountered before moving to Scotland. I was ignorant about the historical divide between England and Scotland until I moved here.
Whilst I think unconsciously living in Edinburgh and being a person of colour has chipped away at me for the last eighteen years, I can honestly say I first acknowledged this, and was honest with myself about it, when my oldest son was born eleven and half years ago. I suddenly realised I would be bringing him up in a mainly white society and I remember almost a sense of panic. I can recall a conversation with my Scottish white husband about how I felt we had to move back to London, however financially it wasn’t feasible or practical at the time. To compensate there have been numerous trips to London with my three boys. An attempt for them to experience a multi-cultural city where people of colour are over half the population.
A few years ago, whilst travelling on the tube in London with my three boys, my oldest asked loudly ‘Mummy, why is everyone a different colour in London?’ Not one to shy away from these awkward questions in public I simply answered, ‘London is huge, it’s a capital city, it’s a melting pot of so many different races, religions and nationalities.’ His retort was: ‘but isn’t Edinburgh a capital city?’ and this is when I drew on the conversation I had had with a black friend in Edinburgh. We joke that it’s too cold up here for people of colour, who have sun in their genes, which is why there are so few of us. I had never felt like an outsider however I had always felt different living in Scotland and there was my 6-year-old pointing out the obvious on the tube. I had lived as a white-adjacent brown person. Fitting in and assimilated as white, with a classical white name. Just 1% of people living in Scotland identified their ethnicity as African, Caribbean or Black and 3% Asian, in the 2011 consensus. Over the last few years, through studying yoga philosophy and more recently highlighted by the #blacklivesmatter movement I have been more assertive about being in the brown minority here in Edinburgh. I know I am not alone, in having been dominated by white culture and accepting it willingly and happily as it was easier to be socialised into this way of life.
The phrase People of Colour are the global majority not the minority has been used a lot over the last few weeks. This is obviously not the case in Scotland and whilst I have been aware of this it wasn’t until last summer, I really understood how much it had affected me. I was visiting my family in London and was invited by a close friend the nutritional scientist, Toral Shah, to a Friday evening workshop with the yoga teacher Dianne Bondy. It was workshop around the lack of diversity in the health and wellness industry, the dominating culture of the weight loss industry and how all of this affects how we look at ourselves. Donna reminds us on her website: ‘Yoga has become a practice reserved exclusively for the privileged few: wealthy, thin, young, flexible, white and able-bodied. Yoga benefits all bodies, regardless of their shape, size, age, ethnicity or ability.’ I’ve attended many yoga workshops over the years with yoga teachers I have admired. However, after that Friday evening something changed. It lit a fire in me simply because this was what yoga should be; accessible to everyone and anyone. I turned to my friend and explained how it felt so inclusive and howIn felt a sense of true belonging. Her response as she laughed was ‘that’s because you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be surrounded by different shades of brown people like you!’.
I reflected on my yoga teacher training and feel so grateful for the two year, Yoga Scotland 500hr course. An authentic inclusive course which as far away from how bendy you are and the images you may have seen on Instagram as it can be. Yoga is a way of life, not just yoga class. As a yoga practitioner, I know yoga is much more about taking yoga off the mat than practising for an hour on a mat. However even here in Edinburgh I’ve attended classes that don’t reference the philosophy or include pranayama (conscious breathing) I’m passionate about teaching yoga in it’s true form. Once we begin to practice yoga outside of a class, it pervades into our day to day lives.
The word yoga is often translated literally from its root yuj as union, joining together. When teaching I often describe it as the mind, breath and body working together as one. However, in everyday life, my interpretation is connection. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a guide for yoga practitioners. The yamas (moral restraints) and the niyamas (inner attitudes) are often quoted as two of the more accessible limbs of the eight Patanjali tells us about. Cultivating kindness, honesty, not taking advantage of others, maintaining priorities, letting go of expectations or prejudices in relationships, self-care, contentment with what we have, discipline, self-enquiry, surrendering to the unknown and trusting in the process of life. Applying these to our everyday lives and interactions with others would enable us all to see each other as equal, as the same race, having the same Self.
I was recently invited into a beautiful group called Yogi’s of Colour. One very specific element of the discussion has been the lack of yoga teachers of colour teaching in studios. I put a call to action out on all my social media a few weeks ago, asking those who use images to advertise and promote yoga to think more inclusively. The lack of images of people of all colours, races and ethnicities has led to #whitewellness This includes gyms, the plethora of exercise classes out there as well as the health & beauty industry. If people of colour are not represented in imagery, it’s a clear message to them that they are not welcome. Health and wellness has been highlighted once again as a race issue, through COVID-19. There is clear evidence that black and minority ethnic groups are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than the rest of the population though that risk may not be the same for all ethnic groups.
As COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill and an understanding that we were all in this together, George Floyd has highlighted institutional, structural, interpersonal and internalised racism and how inequality still divides us. This is being felt globally however do we all understand that it is not up to people of colour to educate others? Some are at the summit of the mountain and others have a long way to climb. Books like Superior by Angela Saini , Me and the White Supremacy by Layla Saad and Robin DiAngelo and White Fragility by Robin Di’Angelo are wonderful resources to access to self-educate. There are so many engaged in the discussion now, I think this time it will not fade or fall by the wayside. It’s going to take a lot of work for us all to connect and understand we are one. One human race.
I’ve grown to love Edinburgh particularly in August during the festival and have always felt welcome here. However, over the last 5 years my desire to get back to London has grown stronger and stronger. My three boys couldn’t be more disapproving as they exclaim it’s too busy and polluted. I now know it’s not just about going ‘home’ it is very much a feeling of identity. Simply being in the majority, not the minority.
This quote from Angela Saini’s book Superior struck a chord with me:
‘That desire to belong is powerful, I know. I was raised between cultures, and there’s nothing quite so disruptive to your sense of belonging as not fully belonging anywhere, as being brown when everyone else is white in a place that notices these things.’
There is no excuse now to be out of your depth in this discussion. There will always be those who will shy away from it or don’t want to engage in it. It is going to be uncomfortable but isn’t everything we feel ignorant about uncomfortable? Yoga can help support us sitting with and acknowledging discomfort. It’s not about judgement, it’s about acceptance and moving forwards. We all need to listen but we also all need to do our own learning. This is something I am working on; looking at my unconscious bias and how racially conscious I have been throughout my life. Others cannot be expected to do it for us. In yoga, we call this Svadhyaya: self-enquiry, self-study, learning.
Let’s remember People of Colour are the global majority not the minority