Virtue Signaling, Neo Colonialism, and What Yoga Can Teach Us About the Phrase ‘I Don’t See Color’
You might have heard this phrase, or even said it yourself at some point.
When people say, “I don’t see color,” or, “we are all one,” they often mean to show that they aren't racist. They do this to signal: "I'm a good person," or, "I'm not racist."
Their intention may be good but the impact is often quite the opposite of what they intended. Doing something to look good morally for one’s own public image or reputation is called virtue signaling.
People who say this might smugly pat themselves on the back about their large mindedness. Or think they are the “least racist person in the room.”
However, when they say, “I don't see color,” what they are really saying is: "I don't see your history. I don't see all of you. I refuse to look at your struggles, unique beauty, and value. I ignore your reality," and, ultimately, "I don't see you."
Next time you hear someone say, “I don’t see color,” consider this: the person is probably using the phrase with good intentions and perhaps also trying to convey that they are not racist. But their intent does not match their impact. The behavior and the phrase is problematic and even, neocolonial.
For years, many BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) have tried to explain to well-intentioned white people the underlying complications of the phrase “I don’t see color.”
In 2019, Forbes published an article titled “Why The 'I Don't See Color' Mantra Is Hurting Your Diversity And Inclusion Efforts.” The article is informative, and lays out the many complications of the phrase, “I don’t see color.” If you haven’t read it, you should. However, the article’s repeated use of the word mantra sticks out, and is something to briefly dive into.
Mantra is a Vedic Sanskrit word that refers to a sacred utterance or the speaking of a protected sound. Did the author really mean to compare the phrase “I don’t see color” to the true meaning of mantra? Probably not.
Sanskrit words like mantra have slipped into daily use due to the exotification and commodification of Indic Wisdom traditions and the cultural appropriation of yoga.
Namaste, a reverent word, has been completely twisted and sold back to yoga communities as “Namaste in bed” or worse, “Namaslay.” The word Asana has been likened to an inappropriate reference to anatomical slang - ass - in shirts that read, “Sweating my asana off.”
The true meaning of these words have been misinterpreted like the true practice of yoga. Using them in such ways says: “I don’t see your history. I don’t see your color. I don’t see you.”
This is why these are not cute. Not puns. Culture is not a joke to laugh at. Especially when its Western imperialism that is benefiting. This is part of neo-colonialism.
Maybe you are different. You understand the history of these words. You don’t buy these shirts. You say Namaste with true reverence in your heart.
However, the phrase “I don’t see color” still permeates yoga studios across America in other ways. And if you aren’t addressing the social inequities that exist because of color and culture, studying, speaking, or teaching Sanskrit in your practice or teaching in yoga, know that this is part of our practice. Beginning with ahimsa as taking a stand against harm in all its forms.
I believe as practitioners of yoga we need to make a commitment to learn and deepen in our practice from knowledgeable teachers whenever we can.
How many times have you been in a yoga class and heard that we are all one? One with the divine. One with each other. Yoga, after all, represents unity. But the Western practice of yoga has interpreted this to mean that we are all one, and therefore, we are all the same. Western yoga often misinterprets what yoga itself even is when it says, “I don’t see color.”
We see this in the appropriation of Sanskrit words. We see this in rigorous classes, unaccessible to those struggling with health issues. We see this in expensive classes, inaccessible to the poor. We see this in the images of white, upper middle-class women often associated with yoga.
When practicing yoga, we need to be wary of how we incorporate the idea of oneness. As Bono says, "We are one, but we are not the same."
If we believe we are all the same, we are not acknowledging our uniqueness, including our unique histories and ancestral cultures. We begin to appropriate instead of appreciate. We can’t focus on inclusion without acknowledging the different barriers others may be facing.
We can start by evaluating the language we use. Are we saying “I don’t see color” in our yoga practice? Are we using Sanskrit words correctly and with respect? Are we having these discussions in the first place?
Yoga teaches us that we may come to the mat for different reasons, but we need to learn how to practice together while respecting and honoring each other’s differences.
As Jarune Uwujaren says, “we have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.”
With an effort to understand and respect the history of what has come before the words or phrases we are using today, we can then decolonize ourselves, the yoga-industrial complex, and stage our own ahimsa (or nonviolent revolution of the mind, body and spirit).
For more information and wake up calls like this to incorporate into your own yoga practice, follow Susanna on Instagram for daily tips @susannabarkataki and get her NEW book or a free chapter from her book at www.embraceyogasrootsbook.com