Laura Humpf braced herself for fresh salvos of death threats, rage-soaked slurs and indictments of “reverse racism” from media provocateurs.
The Seattle yoga instructor had endured it before, four years ago, after putting out word about a class for people of color only, at her studio.
She was slammed by critics for being exclusionary and promoting likely illegal segregation, but was doing neither, says Humpf. This is racial caucusing, and she sees the time-honored technique of voluntarily congregating by race to oppose racism as a way to dismantle a white-supremacist pathology found in everyday society.
This spring, Humpf publicized an “Undoing Whiteness” yoga class at Rainier Beach Yoga, geared toward white people wishing to “unpack the harmful ways white supremacy is embedded” in their “body, mind and heart.” Along with providing a contemplative space, the class would dissect the “pathology of whiteness” — an obliviousness to the batch of privileges society grants white skin — and how it operates in daily life.
A certified yoga teacher since 2004, Humpf resolved to directly combat racism following high-profile cases of police officers killing or brutalizing black people. As a white woman, she says she recognized the distinct role the white community has in discussing how to destroy racism. For her, that meant consulting with mentors of color on the best course of action rather than going it alone. The result: the monthly, 90-minute workshops.
“I do stand behind white people needing to talk to other white people on how to undo whiteness. Can I keep refining it and doing it differently and better? Yeah, and I will forever and ever. But I believe in this space as one tool,” she says of her class of about a dozen that incorporates meditation, yoga postures, and readings from “Witnessing Whiteness,” a book meant to help white people deal with discomfort around race-based conversations.
Humpf, 39, sees her class as going beyond yoga’s elegant poses. It seeks, she says, to arrive at yoga’s literal meaning: union. White supremacy thwarts achieving that union within the individual and with others, says Humpf.
After posting the “Undoing Whiteness” class on neighborhood Facebook groups, some responded that Humpf had “lost her mind.” Others interpreted the class as “a bunch of white people” getting together to discuss their “white shame” without consulting people of color, and one equated it with embarking on a pub crawl to tackle alcoholism.
Local conservative radio host Dori Monson devoted a 10-minute segment to mocking the class.
The outrage hurricane was expected.
In 2015, Humpf offered her Rainier Beach yoga studio once a week to POC Yoga, a people-of-color-based yoga session that “respectfully asked white friends, allies and partners not to attend,” without expressly barring entry to anyone.
Started by five queer people of color, the class, which operated controversy-free the previous five years, was intended as a safe space for people of color to practice yoga.
Monson ran a segment in October 2015, ripping the class as racist.
Humpf says she and the POC yoga instructor received death threats. The harassment was serious enough that the instructor canceled all classes, and Humpf ceased operations for weeks. In response to complaints filed against Rainier Beach Yoga, the Washington state Attorney General’s Office found no lawbreaking.
Though advertised to people of color, the class did not deny entry based on race. There’s a distinction between asking and demanding.
“Business can’t exclude customers based on protected characteristics. Businesses can and do market their services to particular groups they are trying to attract as customers,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson, citing as examples women’s-only defense classes and swim classes designed for people with mobility impairments. He stressed that businesses can’t refuse patrons based on race or ethnicity.
Businesses targeting specific demographics are fairly common, such as Curves gym — aimed at women — or “senior-only” swim classes.
With the experience behind her, Humpf decided to give racial-education-based yoga classes another shot, at the suggestion of a mentor.
“I was seeing white people show up in yoga spaces in racist ways,” says Humpf.
For her, those experiences included witnessing white yoga instructors make racially charged jokes, claim “all lives mattered in yoga, so why see color,” and an Indian meditation master get controversially booted from the Northwest Yoga Conference.
“Woke” in mind and body
Humpf opened Rainier Beach Yoga in 2014. She says the practice coupled with reflecting on white supremacy’s role in society helped her understand how racism manifests itself internally, including defensiveness, perfectionism and the “white savior complex.” It’s these attitudes, among others, the class seeks to neutralize.
The evening workshops feature Humpf and co-facilitator RW Alves sounding off words such as “oppression” and “liberation” to about a dozen students. The paired participants then physically interpret them, posing to form human sculptures. The exercise is one of many intended to highlight how both body and mind can absorb “the conditioning of whiteness.”
Workshop activities also include each person listing how “white privilege” shows up in their lives, including rarely being fearful of police.
People attracted to the class are mostly racial-justice-minded white people looking to go beyond an “intellectualized” view of how racism harms everyone, according to student Anne Althauser.
“When this ‘Undoing Whiteness’ yoga class came up, I felt like it answered two cravings of mine — to work through racism and how I hold whiteness in my body, and to bring an anti-racist lens to an appropriated practice that so many of us white folks participate in. If I’m only “woke” in mind but not body, I will only continue playing out harmful, subliminal racist actions unintentionally,” says Althauser, a longtime yoga practitioner.
With the American yoga community overwhelmingly white — 80%, according to a Yoga Journal Magazine study — Humpf’s mentor, the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, encouraged her to target white practitioners for racial relearning.
“White-bodied people need to understand that just because you aren’t a former KKK member doesn’t mean you aren’t upholding white supremacy when you aren’t learning to do it,” says williams, a Zen priest and founder of Center for Transformative Change in Berkeley, California, who frequently writes on racial justice.
Separate spaces to examine how white supremacy impacts society, such as Humpf’s class, are necessary because everyone’s awareness level of the pathology is different, says williams, who is black.
“By necessity, most POCs have had to be bicultural and aware of white culture. White people haven’t had to know [about the cultures of people of color],” she says.
This approach, through dialogue and exercises, allows each group — without burdening people of color to serve as racial gurus — to intellectually and emotionally probe the experience of having or not having white-skin privilege and the social ramifications.
“I tell everyone who is skeptical of caucusing to try one out and experience it for yourself. I’ve never had one person complain,” williams adds.
Equity consultant Cecelia Hayes, who orchestrates racial-justice training and counts Seattle Public Schools and Unitarian Universalist Association as clients, also encounters people reflexively opposed to the practice, until they’re provided context.
“There are an awful lot of black activists tired of educating white people about racism. Every time a person of color is asked to do unpaid emotional labor there is a psychological and physical cost,” says Hayes about people of color “serving as walking Googles” for white people on racial issues.
That’s energy people of color can better expend toward coping with the everyday racism they experience, and then joining white people, who have properly educated themselves on racial issues, to demolish it.
The aim of racial caucuses is for white people, and people of color, to separately scrutinize how they uniquely perpetuate and are damaged by racism, in spaces forgiving to clumsy statements. Only after that examination can they authentically join together in eliminating it and arriving at some level of societal equity, the ultimate goal, according to Hayes.
Hayes says racial-affinity groups allow white people to work on their racial knowledge gaps without causing unintended harm to people of color in a mixed space where an innocuously intended, but ultimately insensitive, remark could promptly incinerate unifying efforts.
With white people less likely than nonwhites to view white skin as an advantage, according to the Pew Research Center, it’s tougher for a person of color to explain a concept like “white privilege” when someone lacks it, she adds.
The issues are acute in the yoga community, according to Crystal Jones, a certified yoga instructor who also provided racial- and gender-justice-centered consultations to companies such as Disney and REI but became disenchanted with the yoga industry’s dismissal of race whenever it surfaced as a topic.
“Some say … ‘Why see color? You should just see only the spirit.’ But we have to create spaces for critical thinking,” says Jones, who has facilitated workshops nationally focused on healing in the black, queer, nonbinary and trans communities.
As for Humpf, she’s moving ahead with her class despite the latest uproar.
“The truth is that we all are one. There’s a divinity that connects us as human beings. But the reality is that we’re in different bodies so we experience the world in very different ways,” she says, before adding:
Her class is open to anyone wanting to face reality.