Privilege Relativism: White Body Supremacy

I have been mentoring a BIPOC cohort for the past few months in a 300 hour YTT and have gotten to learn a lot about what assumptions I hold in doing so. It’s been a powerful experience so far and I expect to do a lot more learning and growing in my thoughts about facilitating BIPOC space specifically, as well as more evolved thinking about yoga, Sanatana Dharma, Hinduphobia, and HIndutva ideology. That’s all another topic; this is about my very early recognition of some of the slippery ways that white body supremacy affect BIPOC spaces. Our topic happened to be yoga, but frankly, the physicality of yoga asana had no bearing on these thoughts bubbling up for me. The following is some lightly edited follow up that I did with my cohort one week as I started to observe different tensions arising out of colorism and concern for how light-skinned privilege can play out.

There is a little bit of subtext here that I’ll put out as a question and wondering with no distinct answer, but one that all facilitators and spaceholders should think about. It’s a big step forward to normalize the creation of BIPOC spaces held separate from anti-racist White space, and we have to be careful about when to acknowledge that we need different or varied affinity groups and spaces. There is no 100% of the time solution, and subsetting ourselves too far can actually result in total isolation. This is perhaps another topic; how over-segmenting on identity categories creates isolationism rather than inclusion and community.

For now, I’ll share what I shared with my cohort and invite you to think about how you might make a t-chart like the one in the framing post in reference to your own body and white body norms. What does even your silhouette suggest before the details of your body can be made out?

  1. White bodies are established as the norm. Specifically white, XY male bodies. Even white XX female bodies were considered a deviation from the norm (this goes back to at least the Greeks).
    • This made it very easy to use Black bodies for all sorts of medical experiments that would have otherwise been considered sinful to conduct on white, Christian bodies. Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi is great for learning more about the development of all these ideologies, but it’s much more dense than his later, more popular book, How to Be an Antiracist. 
  2. Centering XY male bodies as the norm has conflated masculinity with the perceived gifts and virtues of all humanity (because male bodies are the norm, remember? Anything good that females, women, or other gendered people have are simply ‘borrowings’ from white maleness). Note, I’m using the chromosomal assumption to talk about sex because that’s the assumption — there there are two sexes. That’s not true; there’s 6 common ones that are commonly discussed in science now and I’ve heard that there are at least 20 biological sexes for humans.
  3. In taken to an extreme, this viewpoint has led to assimilation not only in behaviors (virtue in strength, dominating others/competition, showing few emotions, being assertive, etc.) but also bodies:
    • Fitness, leanness, muscularity etc. as obsessions for people of all genders. For people identifying as men, more may be better in order to be ‘more of a man’. This has also extended to things that I simply don’t understand, like that “real” men are heterosexual, or at least only have sex with women, however that’s determined, or are at least only in the dominant, penetrating, top position. You can then reverse this to describe what “real” women should be — which is equally asinine, oppressive, and harmful, and has also created loopholes where sexual violence or domination is to some extent considered an ‘expected’ order of relationship between men and women. Baffling and harmful all around, and disgustingly reductive. 
    • Hair has been a major point of oppression for Black women especially for centuries and is still ongoing as a legitimized form of white body supremacy called “professionalism”. 
    • Skin bleaching in just about every group, whether this is intentional procedure, going out of your way to never be in the sun (think Victorian women with parasols all the time), or subtle things like me being told to be careful about which lotion I bought while in Japan because some have bleaching agents in them as a beautification perk. You’ll notice here that colorism does have a couple of paths into it – two I at least know of are colorism as marker of present time social status, and another is of spiritual defect/demonization. 
      • In some instances, colorism is based on lived experience, e.g. a royal, spiritual, “white collar” job kind of lifestyle that may also extend to other signals like being more ample bodied or having other signals of access and not needing to engage in labor. 
      • In other instances (e.g. rationalizations supporting chattel slavery by a bunch of persecuted Christians), Blackness was deemed as a marker of punishment way back in Abraham’s time for a sin against a father/God. Frankly, the Curse of Ham also strikes me as decidedly homophobic, like a son looking at his (drunk) naked father is an automatic sign of being perverted and terrible. I digress.
  4. Medicine, design, education, really most areas of human endeavor that have been structured by white people are still recovering from this. A lot of the time, frankly, they’re not recovering because they’re still sure that they’re right about what ‘normal’ bodies are
    • Aesthetics often harken back to the golden ratio, which make a lot of design choices orient around one specific model (that also happens to work particularly well on a specific type of face only). As we see more diversity in designers, we see more diverse designs that acknowledge different models for what is aesthetically pleasing, including the idea that accentuating non-white features may in fact be a positive, rather than trying to aesthetically assimilate towards a white body type.
    • Trans individuals are often subject to medical determinations by cisgendered practitioners who work as gatekeepers, often with the presumption that only the most neurotypical individuals with the fewest mental health challenges are ‘fit’ to transition. We also see the push for ‘full transitions’, meaning the erasure of non-binary, gender fluid, and other gender nonconforming individuals as being valid or real at all. If you are seeking hormone replacement therapy (estrogen for bodies that naturally produce more testosterone than is appropriate, testosterone for bodies that naturally produce more estrogen than is appropriate), the assumption is that you’ll also get whatever surgeries are meant to correspond with the ‘correct’ expression of that gender. This often includes top or bottom surgeries, but may also extend to facial reconstruction, height adjustments, and all sorts of other cosmetic or reconstructive surgeries. Note that if you are cisgender, there is no gatekeeping medical body if you want to do any of these things; cisgender men may also take testosterone boosters if they naturally are producing less testosterone than appropriate, etc.