Teresa Wang, a Seattle area yoga teacher and mother, has been through what could only be described as a harrowing and hellish last few weeks.
“It was like, ‘We’re going to come down here and kill you,’ and, ‘I want to make sure you’re all there before you meet your maker,’” Wang recalls. She starts sobbing and shaking. “I didn’t know where to go and was texting the word ‘EMERGENCY’ over and over again. … It was just the baby and I, and I had no clue what to do.”
For the past 5 years Teresa has been involved in a beloved community collective called POC Yoga. The collective offered monthly to weekly yoga classes for people of color. It was also a safe space for lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, and trans friendly, and open to people of all ages, body sizes, abilities, genders, and experience. But not anymore. Due to an unauthorized September post advertising their class on the online social network Nextdoor that was then critiqued by conservative talk show host Dori Monson, POC Yoga and Teresa were suddenly met with angry white protest that escalated into national ire and multiple death threats.
During his October 7 show on KIRO-FM, Dori myopically focused on a part of POC Yoga’s class description which put forth “white friends, allies, and partners are respectfully asked not to attend.” Despite on-air claims that he had “zero problems” with POC Yoga, was “perfectly fine” with the practice, and believed POC Yoga “should be free”—he also openly accused POC Yoga of being “racist,” “exclusionary,” and more than once (instead of calling the collective by its self-chosen name) referred to it as “no whites yoga class.” Dori gave no historical context, did not acknowledge whites disproportionate privilege in a white-dominated culture, and made no mention of the ongoing microaggressive to extreme racism people of color have faced in America for centuries.
Directly following Dori’s heated criticism, Teresa said hate calls and death threats started pouring in every five minutes. There were all together over 200 phone calls, and hundreds and hundreds of emails filled with hostility and hate. What had just been anger generated out of a Nextdoor post spiraled into a violent, racist fervor that swept the country and made its way onto inflammatory websites like Infowars and Drudge Report. She rushed out that day to get a security system for her home though she stayed with a friend that night for safety. From that point through the weekend POC Yoga and Rainier Beach Yoga (the studio where class was held) filed several police reports. On Monday they filed an FBI report.
“Those death threats alone illustrate exactly why people of color need safe spaces,” said Joe R. Feagin, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M. Feagin is author of over 200 research articles and over 60 books on race, class, and gender. He has been studying patterns of white discrimination against people of color in the United States for 50 years and has reviewed hundreds of empirical studies. Feagin says the empirical data is clear. “Racism is still extraordinarily widespread in this country and does great harm to people of color,” he explained. “Therefore it is not only logical but necessary that people of color create safe spaces away from whites in which to deal with the stresses of racism and build up strategies to resist.”
In regards to Dori’s show and cries of reverse racism, Feagin said whites are taught from cradle to grave to center their own self-affirming views and emotions of “white virtue” (i.e. white people are the most virtuous in every way). From that point of view, what he calls the white racial frame, it is then white people who “get to decide who’s a racist”—not people of color. “And the corollary then of course is that whites don’t want to listen to people of color,” Feagin continued. “They don’t want to know where people of color are coming from.”
Feagin added that such white worldviews end up trumping truth: “It’s especially true in this self-affirmation where you’re trying to protect your image of yourself and what you see as your image in society by rejecting incoming facts.”
Indeed, during his show, Dori pointedly named Teresa Wang as POC Yoga co-founder and played an edited phone interview Wang had given to KIRO reporter Jillian Raftery. In the interview Teresa stumbled a bit over her words, sounding somewhat confused and unsure, which Dori leveraged to bolster his accusation of reverse racism. Dori also alleged it had been very difficult for their reporter, Jillian Raftery, to even obtain the interview in the first place: “They wouldn’t talk to her and they escorted her out.” The implication that Teresa had been difficult or hostile to his team’s interview request seemed to only further prove his point about POC Yoga being exclusionary.
But Teresa tells a different story.
“The only reason I took that interview with Dori is because they basically threatened me,” she alleges. “He was gonna do a live thing on me … [with or] without a statement from me. And I felt so pressured.” Teresa claims the first day of POC Yoga class at Rainier Beach Yoga, their new locale, Jillian Raftery showed up in a KIRO van with mic-in-hand. “She asked for an interview,” relayed Teresa, “and I just said, ‘You know what now isn’t a good time. We’re about to have class in 15 minutes. Please email me and I’ll respond back to you.” According to Teresa, Raftery then got angry, raised her voice and kept demanding Teresa’s phone number. Eventually Raftery left and Teresa did call back to give an interview. But even then, she alleges Jillian set her up by saying misleadingly: “I agree with POC Yoga’s values. This is just my job. You know, feel free to say whatever you want. Just get it all out there.”
Jenn is another original co-founder of POC Yoga. She relocated to California years ago where she is now a social worker working with youth who have experienced trauma. She pointed out these kinds of experiences are exactly why their community collective founded POC Yoga 5 years ago to create a healing space for marginalized peoples: “This is about people of color and what we’re dealing with all the time. There’s always a way in which we’re having to be careful or take care of ourselves.” Jenn said for folks of color, queer people of color, etc, trauma all too often lives in the body. “Whether that’s historical trauma, generational trauma, or things that we’ve actually experienced, yoga’s a regulating experience,” she said. “It helps us to regulate our emotions and move our bodies in a way that can re-center us.”
But that respite and healing is no longer available to Teresa or others who would have experienced it through POC Yoga. Teresa said that since her interview for Dori’s show, her work has been affected; she’s suffered loss of wages. Before this incident she had practiced yoga herself twice a week. But she hasn’t gone to a yoga class since. Instead she is alternately consumed with anger and horrifically traumatized. She said, sobbing: “I’m going to some kind of therapy on a daily basis … I just feel like my mental health is so not well right now. I am not well.” She then stopped and could not speak for a while.
When she could speak again Teresa said it does help her feel better remembering the very first POC Yoga class (which she taught) in May 2010 at Garfield Community Center. Fifty people turned out on a sunny day. “It was so beautiful … to just see that many people of color who wanted to do this,” she recalled with a smile on her face. She said she thought to herself: “‘Oh my gosh there’s finally this healing space for all of us.” She talked about touching peace, finding calm, being grounded, learning strength. But then her smile fades. Because now what was lovingly known for a half decade as POC Yoga has abruptly and tragically come to an end. When asked what she wanted the public to know, her answer was firm: “You need to say, from Teresa’s mouth, POC Yoga has shut down.”