Yoga So White

I am dithering about whether I should go to the annual yoga conference and show. It was brilliant fun the last time, except for the tiny little problem about race. My heart told me to shut up and simply focus on the fact that it was a weekend of free all-day yoga from some of the best studios and teachers in Toronto.

Yoga, and its associated wellness products, is a multi-billion industry. The booths at the show overflowed with people selling candles, spiritual crystals, clothes and yoga accessories. The earnestness of the vendors was endearing and a tad overpowering at the same time. They really believed that their wares enhanced your spiritual life.

Then there were those selling natural or organic supplements and protein powders. I was skeptical about their sales pitch. I mean where in nature does textured vegetable protein come from? To my mind the products were all dreamed up in a chemical lab, with colours that do not exist in nature. I failed to see how they were supposed to be just as good for you as food.

Eat enough dates and spinach and it will cleanse your system without any help from chemicals. When did bowel movements become a topic for meditation?

I walked up and down the aisles doing my usual – trying to find a Black or at least a brown face. They were as rare as answered prayers. I was disappointed. For some strange reason I had expected more brown faces, given that yoga is an ancient practice from India. There are hundreds of thousands of South Asians in Toronto, and so I thought I would bump into lots at the show.

The practice hall was nearly full. I found my preferred spot in the back rows. Most of the yogis were slim white women. There were ten Black and brown faces among the two hundred or so people strutting our warrior poses. There were no people of colour instructors.

Tired from four hours of yoga practice, I went in search of food. Visions of chai tea and samosas danced in my head. There they remained as I faced stall after stall of soups, sandwiches and salads. I left the venue to search for nourishment outside.

The practice space was full after lunch. Not wanting to squish in, I drifted over to the meditation hall, the quietest space in the crowded exhibition.

I was a bit nervous entering as stillness and I are not the best of buddies. But the deep drone of the Tibetan salt bowls drew me in. Once again I told my head to shut up. As instructed I did the breathing and visioning exercises to the music of the drone. It was oddly blissful.

After a pause, another group of musicians took over. This time we were encouraged to repeat the Sanskrit prayers called out by the lead singer. The language has been dead for a few thousand years and yet here were a group of people chanting prayers in it. A group of white people. I, another Black woman and an Indian family were the minorities. The racial disconnect was jarring. I mean I was expecting Indians to be singing in Sanskrit and playing the tablas and sitar, not some white guys from off Yonge Street.

A highlight of the kirtan meditation concert was Kundalini yoga sect. The dressed from toe to head in white, including white turbans on both the men and women. I stared hard at the group as it was the first time I had seen a group of white people in turbans. They chanted and encouraged the audience to join in their Bollywood moves. I am getting my recollections muddled up?  Whichever group did the dances, they were all white.

The grand finale was the concert by the Hari Krishnas. They bubbled with positivity as we followed their songs and dance. It felt more like a rave, not that I have ever been to one, rather than a meditative practice. Still it was fun. The leader was a muscular and handsome Indian man. He knew the value of his sex appeal, as the woman did their best to accidently get as close to him as possible. About a dozen people were in the Hari Krishans and ninety per cent were white.

So where does this leave me for this year’s yoga show? I find it hard to switch off my head when faced with the jarring racial disconnect between the white people proselytising the value of yoga as an ancient Indian meditative practice, while doing their best to ensure that not a single Indian is in the room to teach or follow the practice. When did yoga become a white activity?

I am thinking of joining the Twitter hashtag conversation called #YogaSoWhite. It is time to decolonize yoga and to reclaim it as a practice open to all. Black History Walks Toronto

Image credit: Jessamyn Stanley from Seattle Globalist


Next Year in the PhD and in the Woods

The thing is, in the end, 2017 turned out to be a good year for me. Even though it did not feel like that during some of the months when the PhD, activities or the people around me felt as inviting as a soggy blanket.

The big surprise of 2017 was my Black History Walks. I had assumed that only a few people would be interested, and only in the summer months. I was wrong on both counts. It’s January in Toronto, it’s as cold and white as the last Ice Age and yet people have signed up for the walks. I am now scheduling them for every month, confident that people will sign up.

My motivation for doing the PhD was tested many times in 2017. Some days I felt like the smart kid in the class. Most days it was more like the dunce. For instance, I got my head around epistemology, but ontology and axiology are still drifting in the mushy grey matter that passes for my brain. Maybe in 2018 the terms will finally make sense.

How do you relax? That was an unexpected challenge in 2017. Too many days thinking, writing and worrying about my studies was not good. Sometimes I got so caught up in the issues and theories that my head felt like an over-ripe watermelon, sitting in the sun and about to explode. This year I will going back to the gym. Exercise calms my head, gets me out of the house, and turning fat into muscles is a pleasant side effect.

I will continue with my birding too in the New Year. The kid begged me not to talk about it over the Christmas holidays. She said it was embarrassing being seen with mom, binoculars and a field guide to birds. A Black nerd among the nerds was too much for my urbane teenager. My ten-year old niece disagreed. We spent two happy afternoons bird-watching in the park. It was she who spotted the cuckoos and parakeets. My five-year old nephew found the great blue heron perched on a branch overhanging the pond. Then he shot off on his scooter, scattering the gulls and pigeons.

As a Black woman who loves the outdoors, it is hard to find others in my community who share the same passion.

I was reminded of this all of last summer when I worked in Rouge National Urban Park. Many weekends were spent leading walks and informing people about the huge wilderness area in the city’s backyard. The park is free and accessible by public transit. I was astonished that about a third of the regular users in the park were newcomers from China (maybe a topic for future research). Black, Latino and South Asians were rare even though their large communities live nearby. The summer job took me straight back to my PhD research question – why are Black people afraid of the woods?

I won’t be the only Black hiker in the woods in 2018. In the last month of the old year I led a hike through the Don Valley ravine. There we were, three Black women in full outdoor gear, trekking among the oak and maple trees in the forest. We followed the river as it meandered and tumbled on its way to Lake Ontario. The two women liked being outdoors, but were tired of being the only Black person in a group. We found each other in a graduate class on Black feminism! We are now the Black girls in the woods.

To my surprise I managed to self-publish a new book in 2017. It was one goal that I had expected to miss. It takes time to write, and with my daydreaming, leading hikes and Black History walks, there was no space for the book. And I can’t write when I am tired. The solution was to make the book part of my school work. That is, as Fridays were my writing days, I spend half of it working on the book. I wrote in bed, standing at the kitchen counter or relaxed in my armchair. I could not quit unit I had written a thousand words.  The strategy worked and so I will be using it again for this year.

My four passions are outdoors, writing, travelling and Black history. Last year I managed to do a little bit of all of them. Thank you 2017, you may rest in peace.

I started the New Year drinking champagne and eating chocolates with my family as we sat around the dining table. We had jerk chicken and rice and peas for dinner. A few hours later my plane landed in Toronto. I gasped as the freezing air tortured by lungs. And still I smiled at the snow-covered streets. My snowshoes and cross-country skis were in the hallway closet, and it seems like they were going to get a lot of use soon. A proper Canadian winter is a perfect start to the New Year. Welcome 2018.

A Life of Books

In my mother’s house there was a large wooden sideboard against the south wall of the dining area. It was about eight feet high and just as long. This kind of furniture was popular in the 1870s.  A hundred years later it was a poor woman’s antique. Few praised its scratched beauty or its massive bulk.

The top half of the cabinet had large glass windows. It held all the best china and vases that we rarely used. Nestled along these were the knick-knacks that caught my mother’s eye – glass dolphins from the funfair, souvenir teaspoons from long ago trips, and eggshells painted with scenes from a Chinese countryside.

The bottom half of the cabinet was the most interesting to my eyes. Behind the slightly crooked wooden doors were the books. Most of them were once mine.

The full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica were still there. Neatly stacked upright along the shelf, the thick black covers with the gold lettering glimmered in the light. My mother had bought them from a door-to-door salesman. They were expensive back in the 1970s. They were paid for on weekly installments over many months. The Encyclopedia was the equivalent of the Internet back in the day. We were one of the few families on the housing estate to have a set. They were admired by many, but read only by me.

I recollect curling up on my bed and reading the Encyclopedia just for fun. They rewarded and did not mock my curiosity. They were a haven for a child when others grew tired of her hungry questions.

Each year, for our summer holidays, we spent weeks with our parents’ friends. I usually took along two volumes of the Encyclopedia. They carried me through the times of exile.

The Encyclopedia was my refuge. Open a page and I could be reading about the names of the constellations. Flip another and it was explaining the chemistry of water. No question or fact seemed too trivial or arcane for the book. The Encyclopedia cemented my love of history, science and geography. It was far easier to deal with abstract facts than the messiness of family life.

Another section of the shelf held my novels. They were the classics of British children’s literature – many tomes by Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge. There were hardback copies of Gulliver’s Travel, Ivanhoe, Kidnapped and many more.

As I grew, so my taste in books changed. I did not realize I was such a fan of the Mills and Boons romance series. There were about 30 of these paperbacks on the shelf. Shortly after that I got into Agatha Christie and her crime novels. I seemed to have read all her books as there were so many in the bottom of the sideboard.

I was an avid reader as a youth. The books in the cabinet were only the ones that I bought or were given to me. I read many more from the library.

In the cabinet there was not a single Black book among my collection. There was nothing that spoke of my history or experience as a Jamaican child growing up in small-town England. I was not surprised. That was how I grew up – a Black girl in the margins of a white world.

Black History Walks Toronto


Where You Sit and What it Says About You

Where do you sit in the classroom? In school I always sat in the first row, right in front of the teacher. The first time I entered a PhD classroom I chose my seat well – the one in the side row at the back, where I was least likely to catch the professor’s eyes.

I preferred it when someone was on either side of me. It was a chance to get to know new faces, and more importantly, they were a good buffer between me and the professor. If I sank low enough in the chair my sidekicks hid me from her view.

I tried to get the same seat each week. It was a familiar and safe spot.

In another class I switched seats each week, partly to see if it made a difference and partly just to meet new people. Well, some students were rather annoyed by this. It seemed as if particular chairs were reserved in their name, in ink that only they could see, and that I had pinched it. It got me thinking why they were so upset and why I was more comfortable sitting in the same spot in class each week.

The answer lies in status quo bias. According to psychologists it is the human tendency to prefer things, ideas, people or positions that are familiar versus trying something new. Change carries risks and takes mental energy. Adhering to the status quo is so much easier. In my grandmother’s words it is better to stick to the devil you know than the one you don’t know.

The status quo bias seems to be our default position in a whole range of situations. It certainly is so when it comes to choosing an Internet provider. The current one is expensive. A month ago the condo sent out a flyer encouraging all to sign up with a cheaper company. The front desk staff said half of the residents had done so, and were pleased with the result. I had thrown away the flyer. With so many things on my plate and the stress of the PhD, I did not have the energy to make the switch even though it was considerably cheaper. This morning I promised the front desk guy I will switch before the month is out. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Black people don’t do outdoors. This seems to be another status quo bias. For a whole ton of reasons we see the outdoors as a white space where we are out of place. I canvassed my Black meet up group to see who would like to try camping for next year. Most of them giggled, shook their head and said why on earth would they want to do that? A few were interested. It is camping for one night only. On a site with flush toilets and showers. It is moot how many will actually come.

Status quo bias is inherently conservative, but it can be challenged, and hence changed. If there was more advertising showing Black people in the outdoors it would change the perception that we don’t belong.

The keeners in my PhD class were spread all around the room. I expected them to bunch up at the front. Where one sits does not does not seems to stereotype the chatterers, at least for graduate students. Back in high school the front rows were reserved for the nerds, keeners and talkers. The middle rows were for the masses. The slackers, the clowns and the daydreamers preferred the back rows.

Sitting up front has no effects on grades according to research. It is just as well. I like my seat on the far side in the back of the classroom. And yes I do get annoyed if someone snags it before I get to class.


Older Academics: Get on Twitter to Boost your Career

It seemed like a great idea. Tweet all the academics featured in the journal, with a link to their article. It was a neat way of promoting the journal and the writers in one easy step. As the editorial assistant on the journal – student job to fund the PhD – I was adding value and not just sitting there staring at a screen all day.

It didn’t work.

My great idea sank after the third tweet. I found out that many of the academics were not Twitter. At first I thought it was just the ones featured in a Canadian journal of cultural studies. Maybe it was our usual reticence about promoting oneself. It turned out that age was the issue.

Academics under 40 used Twitter. Academics over 40 years of age did not.

The younger crowd grew up with social media. They made and consumed millions of posts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or other platforms. Social media was as familiar to them as the pimples on their faces.

The older crowd of academics are familiar with the wrinkles on their faces, but do not know how or appreciate the value of sharing them on social media. They are missing a great opportunity for promoting themselves and their work.

Especially for middling academics – the majority of us – who now realise that their cutting edge research has generated little change but has caused plenty of paper cuts.

Using social media is one way of creating a tiny, perfect universe of followers who are interested in the academic’s ideas. It’s better than the global shrug of indifference.

So here are the benefits of using Twitter:

1. Promote Yourself. And the vitally important work you are doing – even if that importance is just in your own mind. A tweet can connect you to others interested in the same area.

2. Find Friends and Allies. Twitter is an efficient way of finding others who are interested in your area of work. It increases the possibility of collaboration on research projects or conference presentations. Your Twitter followers can give you feedback on work in progress.

3. Spy on the Competition. Conversations on Twitter are fast and fleeting. It is a great way of checking out what your competitors are doing, thinking or writing about. Savour that feeling of realizing that you have more followers than your rivals.

4. Cross Boundaries. Academics are forced to focus on a narrow area if they want to be successful. With Twitter those boundaries can be crossed by using and following hashtags that appeal to a wide range of users. For example, #RaceAndSpace tweets are from academics in social justice, geography, outdoors recreation and conservation.

5. Follow the News in your Field. I use Twitter to find out about the latest jobs, conferences, calls for papers and funding opportunities. These are announced long before they reach print publication or get buried on specialist websites.

6. Boost Book Sales. Use Twitter to promote your old and new books. A weekly tweet with a link to the books will do wonders of the sales. Or at least raise awareness that your books are out there, waiting to be read.

7. Gossips and Scandals. Who got fired and why? Who is being sued? How did the university handle/cover that up? Twitter is fantastic for showing the hidden side of academia and what people really think about the hot potato issues of the day. You can join in the conversations or just listen to them. Either way it is riveting.

Twitter is the electronic equivalent of the chats around the office water cooler. We know that the best conversations often happen there.

So older academics, get over your fear or condescension about social media. Get on Twitter. It takes about a minute to set up an account. Do so and start tweeting. Let the world know about you and the vitally important work you are doing.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love


Meet the New Minorities in PhD Programmes – It’s Men

Thank goodness I am doing a PhD at mid-life. I don’t have to worry about trying to find a husband among the fellow graduates. As it is, I am having a hard time trying to find the men in the seminars. They are outnumbered, almost five to one, by women.

This was surprising to me as I had expected the reverse. I guess a lot has changed since the days of my first degree, where women were the minority in most subjects. From the latest Statistics Canada report the majority of graduates are now female, from the first all the way up to the third degrees. We have left the men behind. They are struggling, trying to dust themselves off as they face the new competition – the one dressed in heels and pink lipstick.

Female graduates dominate the traditional feminine fields of health and education – so that explains why there are so men in my education department. The number of female science graduates is increasing faster than the men are able to hold the line. Engineering is the last area where men are a clear majority, outnumbering women three to one. But even here women are making slow but steady gains.

Back in the day, way back when I was doing my first degree, my friend and I stood out in the faculties. There were about 120 male undergraduates in her department. She was one of only three women studying physics. And she was the only Black person there as well. I had better odds, as there was another Black woman finishing a chemistry degree. And there was a Jamaican guy doing his PhD in the department. They did their best to mentor me.

Why are women doing so much better in universities today?  A century ago, we were not allowed to even enter the buildings. Our brains were supposed to be so feeble that an abstract idea could permanently ruin them. Women were first allowed to enter university in Canada in 1877. In Britain it was 1878 and in the USA it was 1831.

So what has changed? Over the century, have women gotten smarter and men dumber? That can’t be right as evolution does not move that fast – usually.

It seems to be a combination of reasons. Women are better at learning: we know how to sit still, listen to the teacher and we do the homework. All of this leads to higher grades and therefore a better chance of getting into university.

The job market has shifted from brawn to brains, increasing careers options for the educated, and decreasing it for those who are not. This means women have an incentive to stay in school and profit from the knowledge-driven economy.

The third reason is sex. Women can have the fun without the risk of getting knocked up thanks to the contraceptive pill. As they can control their fertility and have fewer children, it leaves more time to get an education and pursue a career.

We will need an equity programme for the next generation of PhD students; to ensure that the men, the new weaker sex, will have a chance to sit at the academic table.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London


Joining the One Per Cent Club. Is It Worth It?

‘Be humble. Be open to new ways of learning. Be ready to unlearn some things.’ A professor repeated this mantra many times during the first few weeks of seminars. He reminded us that we were now the elites in the education system.

Behind his words I heard a challenge: would we behave like all other elites, and think that we got here just by sheer hard work, and are therefore entitled to all the benefits of being on top of the pyramid? Or would we remember how things are now stacked in our favour?

I have never belonged to an elite club. But I do belong to a point one per cent club – the illusive group of Black people who enjoy outdoor activities. Go ahead and roll your eyes, chuckle in disbelief. I am used to that reaction.

Thanks to starting the PhD, I have now joined an elite one per cent club. This is proportion of people who hold the advance degree in most countries. Some 25 per cent of Canadians are university graduates according to Statistics Canada 2013 National Graduate Survey. This is such a middle-class norm that it long ago ceased to have any meaning for me. Middle-class kids go to university, it is simple as that. Of course, it is a whole different game for working-class children, but that is another story. I had no idea that with a PhD I am now among the privileged of the privileged.

In Canada there are about 210,000 PhDs and about 4,000 joining the exclusive club each year.  According to Statistics Canada, we need to produce double the number of PhDs to keep up with the USA and the rest of the developed countries.

The modern PhD started in Germany in the 1850s. The programme was so successful that it spread first to the rest of Europe, Canada and the USA, and then around the world. Is the PhD worth it?

Before applying for the PhD I interviewed six professors – I wanted to make sure that my idea was not full of lead. Most of them told me that my chance of getting an academic job at the end of it were about as good as turning ice into diamonds. Both are sparkly and shiny, but only one is a girl’s best friend.

It takes about ten years of study to get a PhD. From the Statistics Canada report a lot of PhD graduates will ride off into the sunset – of temporary, low-paying, part-time jobs, as academics for hire.  Few of us will make it to be professors with benefits, high salaries, and each year a fresh crop of underlings to sing our praises (at least in front our faces).

The figures are sobering. A person with a bachelor’s degree earn a median income of $53,000. For a master’s it is $70,000. And for a doctorate, wait for it, it is a whopping $75,000. Four extra years in school for a fistful of extra dollars. A PhD is pretty much a waste of time financially, especially for those not working in academia.

So why am I doing it? Well, I don’t have the skills of a nurse, teacher or construction worker. They all earn more than a PhD after considerably less years in school.

I am not doing the PhD for bragging rights either. Okay, a little bit for that. I am doing it because I like to learn. It is a chance for me to research something that interests me. And I hope at the end of it that I will shift from the one per cent to the thirty per cent club – that is the number of PhD graduates who actually become academics.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love