Sunday, June 9, 2019

Michelle C. Johnson's Speech at the St. Louis Conference on Countering the Dominant Culture

Michelle C. Johnson, who is a yoga teacher and social justice activist, delivered a closing speech for the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, May 31-June 2, 2019. Here is some of what she said:

The invitation for all of you—if you're not from here, when you go back home—is to just research and ask about the land where you live and the tribes that were there inhabiting the spaces before colonization happened, which is like a global experience. The reason why I think it's so important to address the land and where we're from and where we're standing is because we need to understand our identities and our proximity to power. We need to recognize the cultures that have been silenced and made invisible, and we need to understand that culture teaches us to forget.

We've forgotten who was here before us. I think that means we're forgetting the truth of who we are, and when we forget the truth I think we risk death—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. When I think about accessibility it's not about death, it's about life, it's about space to breathe, it's about space to be, it's about being included. Part of what dominant culture has done to some of us, if not all of us, is that it has disconnected us from ourselves, from each other, from the land, from the space, and caused us to be disassociated from the truth.

I gave a Ted X talk last February at Lake Forest University and they gave me a week to prepare for the talk, which is unusual. They asked me at the last minute and they looked me up. And I said yes to them. My talk was about "skill in action." It was about yoga and social justice, and the intersection, and how they are really the same thing in my mind. I went in for the rehearsal the day before the Ted X talk, and I stood on stage and I said white supremacy, racism, and I talked about yoga and I left. Everything seemed fine.

Then the next morning—the day of the Ted X talk—I got a phone call. It was from one of the Ted X facilitators and she said, “Can you not say the word "white supremacy?" I actually knew in her voice that it wasn't her, like someone else had asked her to deliver that message to me. But still, she had a choice–she's a white woman who had a choice about asking me about not using the term “white supremacy.” I became very upset. She wanted me to use "discrimination," not "white supremacy," but they're not the same to me.

I told her I was going to use "white supremacy." She had seen me say it in rehearsal, it was what I was going to say, they had looked me up. If they knew about my book it's sort of their fault if they didn't know I was going to talk about white supremacy. Come on people, I talk about it all the time.... I went into teacher training that day and burst into tears and I said, “This is what white supremacy does. It tells me, a black woman who's living in a racist culture, she can't actually talk about racism and call it white supremacy because that's the system that created racism…. So I went to give the talk and I used "white supremacy." I said it about 15 more times than I would have…. I wasn't using it as a weapon; I was just speaking truth.

I think that so much of what I've observed and experienced at the conference this weekend is a bunch of truth tellers based on our marginalized identities and how we move in culture and how culture positions us. As I mentioned earlier, when we don't acknowledge where we're from, or where we are, or our identities, we risk spiritual death, physical death, emotional death, psychic death. That's part of what happens when we buy into this toxicity in the culture.

Part of the toxic culture tells us not to see what culture is made of. I don't mean culture connected to family, or traditions, or rituals–I mean dominant culture and the group that decides who's normal and who's not. So part of our work—and I've seen it this weekend—is to recognize what culture is made of, and how it's positioning us, and how it's moving us, and how it's constraining us and others, as we try to create these accessible spaces. Part of what has created the exclusion in yoga is this dominant culture, is the norm about who a yogi is, what they look like, and even what yoga is, and who has a right to be well and practice yoga.

A few things that I've learned this weekend is that we are co-creating a space that is based on different ways of being that is counter to dominant culture, that we're sharing space, that we've shared meals, that story has been shared, that we're focusing on sacred texts, that we're focusing on people who are not actually seen as "normal" yogis. This is like a counter culture within a larger dominant culture that puts pressure on the industry of yoga to make yogis be thin, white, female-identified folks.

I've had this experience of co-creation of a space that is very different than what is going on outside of this room right now. I've heard conversations about power and justice and creating space for all. I want us to hold on to some of the things that we've learned here and the different ways of being.

Michelle C. Johnson is an author, yoga teacher, social justice activist, licensed clinical social worker, and Dismantling Racism trainer. She approaches her life and work from a place of empowerment, embodiment, and integration. With a deep understanding of trauma and the impact that it has on the mind, body, spirit and heart, much of her work focuses on helping people better understand how power and privilege operate in their life. She explores how privilege, power, and oppression affects the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and energy body. Michelle is the creator of Skill in Action, a 200-hour teacher training program focused on the intersection of yoga and social justice.

This post was transcribed by Patrice Priya Wagner and was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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