Vulnerability: Standing Upright in the Crooked Room, Kimberlli Joy

black women flagCover photo from Sister Citizen, Shame Stereotype and Black women in America, by Melissa V. Harris-Perry

I spent the last few years curious about what it means to be vulnerable. This is way before Brene Brown’s Ted Talk. I am grateful for her book Daring Greatly. I grew up learning that showing vulnerability was a sign of weakness. I later intellectually embraced the idea that vulnerability is indeed a sign of strength. It was Dr. Brown’s description of vulnerability that turned the lights on for me. “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.”

I love a badass – I am all in.

Daring Greatly reminds us that life is a series of opportunities to be vulnerable. Because of shame, we would rather mask the opportunity to be vulnerable by hiding behind anger, passive action, fear, and judgment. The takeaway for me is, it is how we handle these opportunities that make all the difference in our ability to stand in greatness. We can either suffer through circumstances under the mask or thrive in life by living authentically and uncovered in our truth.

Here is the thing, Brene Brown talks about her experience in vulnerability when she gave her first Ted Talk on Shame. She is so free, so supported and safe in life that she had to search for moments in her life where she felt that vulnerable. I then remembered that I was reading the works of a White woman of White privilege America who interviewed her community to complete this work. It is fortunate for all that despite her narrow point of view, her overarching message is relevant to all demographics. To quote Oprah “what I know for sure”, is as a Black woman, allowing myself to be emotionally open is not only a practiced skill set, it is an act of faith.

In Sisters of the Yam, bell hooks, explains how and why black girls are given their mask at an early age. “Don’t you cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about”, a closing tag line to a pep talk by either parent. bell hooks explain that Black women grew up in anti-vulnerability training. We are taught to be “tough”, stand tall despite the circumstances, “mean mug” if you must. Showing up tender, in need or too soft one could be considered a weakness and a disgrace (more of a concern than judgment) to the members of our community. To show you are suffering in any way is to reveal the crack in your armor -which leaves an opening for further shaming. Your first infraction is that you are Black, now you are Black, and you are weak.

The truth is African Americans live in cognitive dissonance. We are forced to alter our natural ways of being to ensure that we are tolerable, acceptable or manageable for the greater population. All while living in a country that propagates degrading and shaming messaging.  These biases are woven throughout every American system – all of them, including the “woke” ones. We are vulnerable while banking, while working, while healing (in the hospitals), walking into our homes, in the parks, drinking coffee at Starbucks, driving, raising children and the list goes on. To be black in America is to be vulnerable in America. Even more confusing, we are taught to be strong without being threatening within a world that chooses to see us as both disenfranchised and ominous.

Passing down the mask is the unceremonious ritual to protect girls from emotional trauma. “Keep your chin up,” “don’t let him see you sweat”, “big girls don’t cry”, “be the bigger person”, “be the example”, “stiff upper lip”, “I’ll give you something to cry about”, “your too big to be crying”, “turn the other cheek” (thank you very much, Dr. King). We learn from our mothers how to appear stoic and unflappable, to be present without connecting, to be trustworthy without trusting. Even with controlled emotions, we are still labeled as angry, difficult and self-righteous. Perhaps that is because when needed, despite the shame and oppression, we know what it takes to ensure that we are heard when it is time. And it is always time – the unlawful killing of our children, missing children, the abuse of our elders is when we get to step out from behind the mask to wake the world up with blood-curdling screams for equality – a raw conviction that invites the world to pay attention.

In this search for clarity, I stumbled upon a construct called a culture of dissemblance. After listening to Melissa V. Harris-Perry, a reporter for MSNBC and the author of, Sister Citizens: Stereotypes and Black Women in America, I realized that I am late to learn this phrase. In Sister Citizen… Perry explains the culture of dissemblance through an example that she coined the crooked room. The “crooked room” is symbolic of the space shared by the majority that culturally subscribes to the concepts and ideology that creates their prototypes of black women. These stereotypes are so deeply woven in the narrative and expected in the social construct that we (Black women) align ourselves with these concepts to feel upright in the crooked spaces.

In other words, to appease and provide comfort for our white social circles and colleagues, we morph into the stereotypes to feel balanced within these social circles – even when it means being internally out of balance. The mammy, angry black women, magical negro, the jezebel, the savior – carry the world on her shoulders (Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks) strong black woman, the broken, the needy, disenfranchised black women are all ways that we have been pigeon-holed within the crooked spaces. It is our mask and willingness to align with the slant that affirms and perpetuates these perspectives.

I started the quest to stand courageously in vulnerability because I became very much aware of the internal destruction that the masking strategy has had on my soul, my health and the health of my family and community. I realized, after some decades of socializing in these unbalanced spaces, that no matter what I do to feel upright in the “crooked room” while out of balance in my heart and soul, I am doing a disservice to myself and anyone of the community that occupies that space.

To let go of my mask means to surrender my fears of being shamed. I am committed to letting go of the need to be embraced, accepted or tolerated. What I learned by surrendering to vulnerability, moment to moment, is that I get to stand grounded and upright in a power that is essential to know that I belong in every space that I occupy, even when this crooked world believes something different.

Kimberlli Joy
March 21, 2020

July Happenings!

Happy Summer – 2019!

Karma Yoga Tribe is excited to announce our summer series events in Berkeley, San Pablo, and Richmond. We’d like to formally invite you, your family, and friends to our upcoming events.  Join us!
KarmaYogaTribe 9
Hike & Yoga Series:  On October 12, KYT is launching a new, mindful hike and yoga 6-week series for beginner Yogis at Claremont Canyon.  We will hike half-way up the trail until we reach the well-shaded, flat landing to lay down our mats and practice.  Families are welcome!

Saturdays at 11:30 AM; stay tuned for more details…

 Family Yoga Series: Starting July 24th, we will lead Gentle Flow and restorative stretches for families in a 10-week series at the San Pablo Community Center.  Each parent can bring one child (8 yo+) for free to classes.

Sundays at 11:30 am-12:30 pm; $5 sliding scale donation rate.

 Beginner Hatha Series: Starting July 25th, we will offer one-hour beginner Hatha yoga classes in a 6-week series at the Family Justice Center. We are honored to serve the Richmond Community, and invite clients, staff, and neighbors to join.

Mondays at 5:30-6:30 pm; $5 sliding scale donation rate.

We hope to see you soon!

Karma Yoga Tribe

This is real life

One of my favorite teachers once said, “There is a difference in knowing with your brain than knowing with your body.” I began to understand this concept the moment I taught my first beginner yoga class at Family Justice Center. As a teenager, I was ashamed of my up bringing, and the moment I had the chance to escape from my life with my parents, I did so as quickly as I could. I so desperately wanted to separate myself from the story of physical violence and drug abuse I witnessed in my family.  Walking away from my family’s story of violence and abuse also meant that I was separating myself from cultural traditions, and from what it meant to be a first generation American. I associated my cultural upbringing with only the negative things that I witnessed growing up as well as those reflected as stereotypes in society and media.  I worked hard to separate myself from my culture and any association with abuse, addiction, male chauvinism and misogyny.  Although I find remnants of that life when I visit my family now, I haven’t felt the need to run because I believe that suffering is no longer my story. That is, until I was in front of classroom filled of women that survived abuse, addiction and the hateful tyranny of misogynies that I felt it all come back to me again.

As I walked into the empty yoga room I could feel some uneasiness and heaviness in the pit of my stomach. Despite having taught yoga before the overwhelming heaviness felt different than that of nerves. After a few minutes, women began walking through the door; women of all shapes, sizes and skin colors.  As I begin our class I notice the feeling of uneasiness come over me again. A myriad of emotions fill my mind. I feel connected, yet detached. I feel anxious, nervous, annoyed and angry. I have no idea where any of these feelings are stemming from or why they were coming up during the most inopportune time.

I begin to stumble over my words and feel as though I have blanked on everything I was going to teach. Why do I feel this way?

It took me a few days to realize that I was feeling detached from these women because I don’t know their lives and because they are perhaps living as survivors of the violence and drug abuse that I made a point of running away and disconnecting myself from. I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t know their stories, and yet here I was judging my students for realities I didn’t know were true or not. I stood there and asked myself, “why are these women still living in poor conditions and in negative environments?”  I was associating my students with my family’s past history of abuse and addiction without actually knowing anything about them.

The heaviness I felt was a visceral feeling of knowing that the group of women I was teaching came with real life problems, perhaps some that I can relate to, and problems I knew nothing about. Despite my own background, my education, and my family history of addiction and abuse, I felt emotionally disengaged from the group, and yet it all felt so familiar. For a brief moment it felt like I was an outsider stepping into a reality that was not my own anymore. My whole body was feeling a visceral connection, but my mind could not understand the lives of the women in front of me anymore because I was choosing to not to, instead I chose to judge them for their life choices, or what I thought were their life choices.

After doing some reflecting on this experience I came to the realization that I am not there to rescue these women from their lives. Who am I to even think they need to be saved? For all I know, they might be living the life they want to live.

I realize that the practice of yoga sometimes catches us by surprise. Sometimes emotions come up that we don’t understand. Sometimes our own judgments rear their nasty heads when we least expect it. As teachers we are taught to create space for things to come up for students, but what happens when we don’t create that safe space for ourselves? What happens when we are not centered and grounded? As I prepare myself for the next class I am realize that it is not enough to just prepare my sequence. I need to prepare my mind and body for teaching. I must do more of my own healing and allow my story to be what it is without assuming or judging others’ stories.

I might not ever understand the struggles of the women I teach and that is okay. Perhaps my students will never understand me, and that is okay too. What I can offer is a safe space for them to explore yoga in their bodies without judgement. Even if I can’t relate 100%, I take solace in knowing that yoga will do the work. My own personal healing might not ever be done. I just have to continue showing up and allow myself to learn from my students, learn their stories, and meet them where they are.