“Oh, my, God, Becky, look at her butt!
It is so big!
She looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
But, ya know, who understands those rap guys?
They only talk to her, because she looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay?
I mean, her butt, is just so big!
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like out there!
I mean gross, look!
She’s just so, black!”
In the opening of Sir Mixalot’s 1992 hit, “Baby Got Back,” we hear a woman talking to her friend. The voice we hear is, ostensibly, that of a white woman or at least a woman we are meant to hear as white. Though she remains unnamed, we understand quickly that she is talking to her friend about a black woman’s sexual appeal in demeaning and condescending language. She seems personally offended at the idea that a curvy woman would attract men, and she implies that only certain kinds of men—“those rap guys”—generally find such women attractive. After complaining about how “big her butt” is for almost 15 seconds, she finally exclaims, “she’s just so……black!”
The person to whom all these observations are directed is a woman named Becky. “Becky” has become a shorthand for the white woman no one trusts, the one who is not only ignorant, but whose ignorance is coddled and shielded in white America. Becky refers to the kind of woman(hood) white supremacist patriarchy was built to protect.
We know all this about her for one reason—throughout her friend’s racist tirade, Becky remains silent. Even without the benefit of the music video, we are to understand that Becky is listening in quiet agreement. Hers is the name we remember BECAUSE of her silence, not in spite of it.
Many of my readers based in North America have heard about this kind of white womanhood, a genotype many scholars and writers have helpfully catalogued and documented. While Becky might be a white woman whose entitled behavior you encounter socially, at the grocery store or at the gym, in professional settings, she appears as a phenotype I have come to know as Secretary Sarah. Secretary Sarah is the boss’s assistant, an otherwise nondescript woman who defines herself by her daughterhood, wifehood, or motherhood, if not all three, and never can seem to pronounce your name correctly. This is the white woman silently seated, quite literally at times, at the right hand of white male authority, while insisting she has no power. Her lack of self-awareness and anything resembling a moral compass means she will defend her boss even and especially while he casually inflicts violence on black/brown, queer, and disabled folks right in front of her. When brought to account, she will cry “I’m a victim, too” and/or will equate her silence with her Christian values while exhibiting an utter lack of conviction. To be sure, she will openly betray you and comply with behavior that brutalizes you, under the logic that she was only doing her job (see also, Aunt Lydia). And then, once it’s all over, she will expect you to comfort her. Indeed, both Becky and Sarah, and more recently Karen, are contemporary examples of what Hannah Arendt once characterized as the “banality of evil.” Despite their propensity to histrionics and white tears, these women will remain silent when bearing witness to inhumanity and injustice, and when brought to account, will be the first to claim victimhood—that they are oppressed, too.
There are two examples I’d like to examine in this piece, focusing on how Beckydom operates in intimate spaces among women and produces varying regimes of silence. I refer to the womanhood that requires and even valorizes acts of silencing as Yoga Becky, which captures the faux-wokeness and neoliberal rhetoric of “self-care” that encourages the bypassing of difficult relational experiences.
Yoga Becky 1, we will call her Erika, was an instructor at a studio I frequented and often led her classes through a choreographed sequence to Nicki Minaj’s queer-feminist reboot of “Baby Got Back”—”Anaconda.” She relished in teaching this flow, especially to a large group of suburban, Trump-supporting Beckies who were mostly unfamiliar with Nicki Minaj. She got to play the role of the transgressive, hip, edgy white woman who not only listened to “urban” music, but also knew how to move her body to it. I operated as the unofficial DJ in most classes and the version of the song she would ask me to play was the “clean” version. This version not only cuts to silence where the curse words occur, but also ends right before Nicki goes on a long break in which she speaks about sex and pleasure unabashedly.
One day, in a rare occurrence at this otherwise predominantly white studio there was a black woman, a friend, present in the room when Erika asked me to play “Anaconda.” As she led the class through the flow, and as she usually did anytime she asked me to play a track that could be broadly categorized as “rap/hip-hop,” she encouraged the other Beckies to and this is a direct quote, “get ghetto with it.” At that moment, as often occurs in public spaces when white folks say ignorant, violent sh*t, but we can’t or won’t risk speaking up, my friend and I locked eyes and shared a silent moment of mutual understanding. Unfortunately, Erika noticed.
After class Erika was angry and confronted us about that moment, asking “why did you two look at each other like that?”
Neither one of us trusted her or her emotional hygiene enough to tell her the truth. So we did what whiteness demands of such moments—we comforted her and silenced ourselves, reassuring her that it was nothing, until we almost believed that it was nothing ourselves. Almost.
The Politics of Silence
In conversations with black and brown women over the years, I have learned that many find it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships with white women past a certain point in adulthood because of the dynamic I described above; because, in majority white spaces, silence is the civility that racism demands. Computing the cost of telling the truth against the likelihood of defensiveness, denial, victim-complexes, stone-walling, and tears (if not outright physical violence), is a calculus we have to master because the alternative is simply unsustainable. Or as a friend recently put it, in moments where white women are brought to account, there is no such thing as white guilt, there is only white absolution, and to stand in the way of such moves to innocence is rarely worth the trouble.
If you want to be friends with white women who have not come to terms with their whiteness and the kinds of emotional and relational dysfunction it engenders, then this means being friends with women who cannot or will not understand that their experiences of womanhood might differ from their melanated sisters’ experiences. These interactions usually amount to a barrage of false equivalencies, a poor understanding of what Kimberlé Crenshaw meant by “intersectionality,” and yet another round of what scholars like Elizabeth Martinez have described as “oppression olympics.” And so, as I have learned, when it comes to working with, living with, and surviving whiteness, you will have to stay silent about a whole lot of things a whole lot of the time. This dynamic is and can of course be true of interactions with white men or those who were socialized as male, I do not deny this, but in my experience, between women in what are often positioned as deeply vulnerable spaces operated for and by women, the politics of silence masquerading as civility takes on a different meaning.
Silence as “Self-Care“
Wellness spaces in the U.S., like all public spaces, are undeniably gendered and raced, and this is often by design. What is today known as “yoga” must be seen as an extension of another orientalist phenomenon in the U.S.—modern dance. As I explored in my last post, yoga and modern dance emerge from a shared cultural milieu in the early twentieth century and track closely with white feminist movements. In this context, the politics of silence, or why my friend and I felt we could not risk telling Erika that she was fetishizing black music/bodies, is but one example of how fitness spaces, which highlight aestheticized bodily practices, both circumscribe and reinscribe racial hierarchies in the U.S. context.
In my research I have come to believe that white yoga industries and related cultures have led many to a misunderstanding of what the phrase “self-care” means. In the hands of whiteness, “self-care” has been elevated to an ideology of virtue, which positions the self in opposition to both the other and the collective. This attitude only allows white folks to further absolve themselves of any responsibility for justice. Furthermore, it would appear that white women who identify with the rhetoric of self-care seem to think that emotional bypassing is somehow equivalent to non-violence (and it doesn’t hurt/help that there’s a Sanskrit word they can throw around). It only follows, then, that silence as a form of non-violence works to reproduce and center white feelings, and in turn encourages many to experience anything resembling accountability as the opposite of what self-care is meant to accomplish.
Rather than learning how to identify the way power shapes our everyday lives—which was, after all the context in which Audre Lorde spoke of caring for the self as “an act of political warfare”—self-care cultures appear to be peddling avoidant narcissism as a path to enlightenment. In turn, any experience which challenges a sense of self-righteousness is experienced as an attack, or a threat, and an opportunity to claim victimhood. Such logic is made visible through phrases like “positive vibes only” or “mindfulness,” or “control what you can,” essentially prohibiting meaningful or difficult conversations about anything, really, because of a mistaken belief that “negative feelings” are simply a matter of individual challenges, rather than power imbalances, dysfunction, or abuse. Moreover, in yoga spaces, which are more and more intertwined with broader white liberal political affinities, conversations about white saviorism and white absolution, which are but two sides of the same coin, go unexamined and unchallenged.
Yoga Becky 2, we will call her Brittany, offers a useful example to understand how this different, but related pattern of silence and violence is repackaged as “self-care.” Brittany is a prime example of a new strain of white, but “ethnic” womanhood in the U.S., which seeks to establish a connection with its European roots. Some of my readers may be familiar with this latest attempt to rehabilitate white womanhood by claiming that their ancestors were pagans and witches. In conversations, Brittany has consistently expressed a desire to reclaim her ethnicity (e.g., Italian, Irish, German) in order to reconnect with her roots. This logic reveals a few things. Most obviously, it lays bare how whiteness can and often does retreat to ethnicity in order to bypass accountability and self-awareness in the U.S. context. This is also known as #notallwhite, which allows most, if not all white liberals in the contemporary moment to smugly believe they’d behave differently than what I describe here. (Hint, if you think I’m not talking about you, consider that feeling as evidence that I am actually very much talking about you).
When I pressed Brittany to explain why she felt this attitude was anything but a repackaging of white supremacy, she responded that she felt that “oppressors, like colonizers, experience oppression, too.” She went on to explain her reasoning to me, which was that colonialism hurt colonizers because “they lost their connection to their roots and their cultural practices, too.” When I challenged the deployment of the “too-ness” in this case, pointing out how inaccurate and frankly dangerous it was to compare settlers who migrated to the US and now benefit from whiteness to those who have experienced the violence of colonialism, Brittany reacted defensively. She deflected my questions, clarifying to me that her intentions were good and reassuring me that she was “working hard on dismantling white supremacy and racism.” However, because I had brought this topic into the intimate space of our friendship (as opposed to the public/professional space she occupies as a K-12 educator), she expressed that she could no longer have a relationship with me. In other words, when her Beckyhood was challenged on a relational level, she shut down the conversation and the relationship.
For those who have been following my writing since I started examining how yoga industries bring constructions of white womanhood into view, the version of violent silencing that Brittany demonstrated is almost identical to the episode which culminated in my expulsion from a commercial yoga studio. To recall Sara Ahmed’s work (again), by naming the problem, I became the problem. While in the interaction with Erika, my (and my friend’s) silence was required in order for us to safely exist in a white public space, in the case with Brittany, silence operated as a chance for a white woman to weaponize her whiteness (see also Central Park Karen). The irony here is that for quite some time now, anti-racism and so-called diversity/inclusion efforts have tried to draw attention to how whiteness is a system, but in cases like Brittany’s, this message seems to have been received as “I can do anti-racism while harming and then avoiding POC.” In institutional spaces, this attitude usually amounts to the black/brown woman feeling like she is a “bad fit” and leaving the organization after being hired for “diversity and inclusion.” In relationships, it means mistreatment, alienation, and social ostracism.
In other words, silence and exclusion is produced and reproduced by those in proximity to power, and, by what scholars like Matthew Hughey have theorized as “white victimization discourse.” Put another way, identifying as a victim is integral to how white folks operate in social and institutional contexts (see e.g., the case of Becky with the Bad Grades).
If you’re reading this, and you’ve been in a relationship where you have tried to hold someone accountable for their actions and their response is to deflect or say “well, I have problems, too” rather than acknowledge your point of view, then you know what I am talking about. This too-ness, which researchers in psychology also know in its extreme forms by the acronym D.A.R.V.O. (Deny Attack Reverse Victim and Offender), that self-care spaces, like yoga, seem to produce and perpetuate makes sense if one has been paying attention to how yoga and its broader market appeal is predicated on the idea that unlike, say, Cross-fit, yoga is for everyone. In such spaces, the goal or success of yoga, as one instructor, Carla, constantly reminded me, is “to yoke the body to the mind.” While this definition is not inaccurate, to Carla and many others like her who were trained in the U.S., yoga and self-care are fundamentally individual experiences, which transcend bodily identities. By this logic, the notion of care that such spaces promote exists in a postracial, postgender, post-everything apolitical utopia.
The rhetoric of “self-care” and its narcissistic tendencies must also be understood as a symptom of that which has plagued so-called women’s issues as a whole. For example, BIWoC who have followed the #MeToo movement and the way it has since become co-opted by white liberal feminism know this pattern all too well. Despite its claims to solidarity and community, prevailing attitudes teach white women that it is acceptable to center and value their pain above all others. What is less visible, however, is how that “too” ends up producing comparative rhetoric and false equivalencies in the process.
In many ways, U.S. yoga cultures and the white women who run and patronize them offer a large and uncomfortable window through which we can view the machinations of citizenship, and the devaluing of community care and relational ethics in the contemporary moment. For women like Yoga Becky, that citizenship is structured within and around the confines and challenges of white supremacist patriarchy, which has, for generations operated in binaries of us/them, and cultivated other ways to engage in deeply toxic behavior and call it “feminism.” Perhaps this is why such women now operate as culture vultures (see the recent furor over Alison Roman). If white womanhood is predicated on claims to innocence, then by definition it can only exist in opposition to other kinds of womanhood. I am hardly the first to come to this conclusion, but what remains to be seen is when and if white women, and those who seek to identify with them, can move past virtue-signalling and disengage with identificatory processes with power in order to do the uncomfortable hard work that accountability requires.
A special thanks to Kirsten Pai Buick, Travis A. Jackson, Bernadette Gailliard-Mayabi, Lalita du Perron, Jenn LaRue, Julia Logan, and Emily A. Johnson.