Social and racial injustice are woven deep into the fabric our society. This story of my community is one more thread woven into that fabric. But the point is not for me to to tell my story or point fingers; it is for the story to make a difference in how you think and what you do. I know I have no idea what it is like to be black, but I also know that racism is a product of ignorance taught under the disguise of denial. Yoga teaches awareness and shines light on our shadowy places. Like all thoughts, racism can be conscious or unconscious.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than it’s opposite.” Nelson Mandela
When I became a business owner in Burlington in 2012, I made the sensible decision to keep politics out of my yoga studio. This included choosing not to display yard signs for any candidate and staying away from political discussions. There have been instances when I tolerated comments that made me feel disappointed and dirtied, in the interest of my business. On occasion, I have had to speak privately with students who felt comfortable using our community for divisional political rhetoric, even though it was in keeping with my personal beliefs. Developing a yoga community and supporting our growth demands inclusivity. Our differences are doorways into understanding and accepting each other as seeds from the same package. We have the opportunity to learn so much about ourselves from the lens of someone with a different view. What annoys you is where your work is. What you fear is opportunity. Acceptance of differences brings unity.
Racism is not political. It is not conservative or liberal. Racial injustice is both systemic and individual. It is not only the fault of our leaders and representatives. It is in our hearts. Even when it is not in our hearts, our silence gives it consent.
I marched for #blacklivesmatter last week with the LGBTQ community. It was easy. It was a cop-out. I hid among thousands of masked faces in Milwaukee. My community is Burlington, where the underground railroad freed fugitive slaves before the Civil War. My ancestry is this town – the pioneer log cabin in Wehmhoff Square used to be my Mom’s playhouse. The Meinhardt Bank (now Chase Bank), which was started by my family, was the only bank in town to make it through the Great Depression. The Historical Society building and the Lincoln Statue were donated by my Great Grandmother Antoinette Meinhardt and Great Uncle Francis Meinhardt. Burlington has been my home for 22 years: the place where I chose to raise 3 children who have made it clear that they are disgusted and want change. At their age, I passively listened and hoped during the Rodney King trial. This is their Rodney King moment, but this time, peaceful protests, grassroots organizations, and businesses are bringing change. This time, as a business owner in this community, I have a voice. This is bigger than my business, and this is my business—the heart centered purpose of recognizing the divine in everyone.
The feedback I see on social media seems to believe the peaceful protest in Burlington is indicative of a lack of racism and supportive police force. I have heard a few people placate themselves by insinuating that Burlington is “better than most places” for black people to live. We practice what I call “sheltered racism” here. If you don’t see it, it is only because you live in a white bubble of protection. If you can’t admit racism exists in our town, or don’t care, there is no place for you in my yoga community. This is not politics. It is humanity. And if you see my choice to write this as something that causes division, so be it. Perhaps seeing the vulnerability of my business from COVID-19 emboldened me, but human rights are more important than any financial business goal. I am blessed to work in the yoga industry with many compassionate hearts. In doing so, I admit that it is easiest at this time to surround myself with like minded people and pray for peace. But we are all accountable. Complacency breeds racism. It exists because we let it.
Racism exists in Burlington and always has. The fact that you have not experienced it does not mean no one has. Every summer when I was growing up, my Dad would have his office party on Browns Lake. For a whole day, our yard was a beautiful palate of skin colors. I remember what seemed like innocent comments from locals asking why we had so many brown skinned people at our house, or if black people can swim. As a kid, I didn’t understand those questions. I didn’t need to. I am white. Now, when my black family members visit, we joke that the African American population in Burlington increased by 500%. The laughing stops when parents picking up their kids from a play date with my kids ask why there are black people on my lawn, or when neighbors publicly use racial slurs to describe my family members. Skip to 2008. I helped to open and volunteered at the Burlington Obama office. In addition to countless times being called a “N” lover and other sick comments to my face and on the phone, I had my tires slashed and was nicknamed “The Little Obama Girl” by a Burlington city official. More recently, as a yoga therapist, I have worked privately with several grade school students in the BASD who have anxiety and sleep issues because of the racism they deal with regularly in school. I was thankful to have attended the Diversity Night at the high school last winter; and while BASD gets credit for acknowledging the problem and giving the students a voice to talk about racism, I left wishing more people heard these brave young community members.
Police violence also exists in Burlington. It was encouraging to see our police chief take a knee at the protest, and I acknowledge that it is likely a case of “a few bad apples.” But as Chris Rock said comparing pilots to police officers, “some jobs can’t have bad apples,” even in a place that might in your opinion be “better than most places.” In my racially diverse family, “better in Burlington” means that when my son goes out with his black cousin, they take extra precautions just as they would in Chicago. My son knows too well what it looks like when Burlington police officers use excessive force on a handcuffed friend. We grieved for his friend who was hospitalized but felt some sick sense of relief that his black cousin was not there. If you think this fear is not justifiable, ask a black man. And if you want to believe it is unusual behavior and our police do not profile, sadly, working across from the station has shown me otherwise.
If reading this upsets you, it should. The next thing to do is ask yourself: what can we do. First, listen. Listen to the minority members of our community. Ask them what it is like to live in Burlington and what you can do to make it better. We cannot change L.A. or Atlanta by reading stories on the internet; diversity starts in our community. Attending protests during the COVID pandemic may not be your thing, but get out of your comfort zone. Be proud of the heightened activism of people of every race and age. Don’t lump the peaceful protestors in with the rioters or looters. I am a big believer in meditation, but it’s time to stand up and do something. Don’t be afraid. Don’t make it a fight. It is an opportunity to unite. Have a respectful dialogue on racism in your home and with neighbors. Be stronger than hate. Call out racism and stop stereotypes. Donate silently to causes that promote social and racial equality. Educate yourself. There are wonderful books, movies, and podcasts on racism. Accept that racial injustice is not someone else’s problem. Our country was founded on racism. If you are reading this and don’t live here, make it your mission to bring unity to your community. Racism is just as much a part of our global history as it is in our hearts; one we change with the power of the vote and legislature, and for the other, we have inner wisdom practices and the power of love.
BFY makes a pledge to stand against racial injustice. Please join me.
“The beauty of being human is that we are incredibly, intimately near each other, we know about each other, but yet, we do not know or never can know what it’s like inside another person.”
– John O’Donohue