In Defense of Jen Caron and Honesty

Jen Caron is a good soul — at her worst, perhaps, an hysterical ninny, but still a very decent person at (skinny, white) bottom. This, I insist, is a fair takeaway from the piece she wrote for xoJane’s “It Happened to Me” section titled “There Are No Black People in My Yoga Class And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable with It.” It’s an inelegant title, and sad to say the piece delivers exactly what it promises.

At her yoga studio, Caron finds herself working out “directly in front” of a “fairly heavy” black woman, apparently a novice, who begins the session looking “wide-eyed and nervous,” and ends up “crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable.” As the woman hunkers down in this ungainly posture, Caron feels her “resentment and contempt…directed at me and my body.” It triggers a moral crisis that builds as Caron breezes through her downward dogs. Rushing home, she ” promptly broke down crying,” and decides:

The question is, of course, so much bigger than yoga—it’s a question of enormous systemic failure. But just the same, I want to know—how can we practice yoga in good conscience, when mere mindfulness is not enough? How do we create a space that is accessible not just to everybody, but to every body? And while I recognize that there is an element of spectatorship to my experience in this instance, it is precisely this feeling of not being able to engage, not knowing how to engage, that mitigates the hope for change.

God knows there’s plenty wrong with this piece. The language is florid, packed with cliches and jargon that Caron seems to mistake for real English. One phrase — “I saw the fear in [the black woman's] eyes snowball” — is so awful on so many levels that it’s hard to imagine any editor, or even any beta-reader, letting it slip through unless she had a vested interest in seeing Caron embarrass herself. And, of course, in reading this person’s mind (and expecting us to credit her reading), Caron’s being presumptuous. Ogcheeky, an xoJane reader who deserves to be named, comments: “I eagerly await the follow-up piece: ‘IHTM: I was Just Trying to Do My Fucking Yoga and This Weird-Ass White Girl Kept Staring at Me with Tears in Her Eyes’.” Thwack.

Still, it’s clear Caron yearns to be on the side of the angels. For all her talk of systemic failure, her most earnest hope is that people like her could make a difference, if only they could figure out what in hell to do. There is no irony in her. Some will disagree, but to my ear, when she speaks of her “skinny white girl body,” she sounds like she’s regretting this accomplishment in all sincerity, not bragging on it in a backhanded way. Caron also seems to be running low on vanity; indeed, it’s fair to say that nobody could have written that piece who put much stock in the quality of her self-presentation. Come the revolution, Caron might be a little fragile to man a barricade, but she seems like she could be trusted to pass out coffee and donuts to the wounded.

On Flavorwire, Michelle Dean proposes that everyone “quit writing and publishing pieces like this under the guise of ‘being honest’.” If by “pieces like this,” she means first-person stories written by rookie writers, then I have to protest. Yes, as we’ve seen, some of them are shabbily written, and yes, there’s something manipulative about them. They seem to dare the reader: “Dislike me, and you’ll dislike the author, giving yourself away as an uncharitable prick.” And, judging by the comments I’ve seen in Salon’s Life Stories section, they’re irresistible to Statler and Waldorf types who are only too happy to take the dare.

But let’s agree, at least, that pieces like Caron’s are the bastard, midget children of the personal, or autobiographical essay, which can a respectable form. In the words of Philip Lopate, who wrote (or at least compiled) the book on the subject, essayists go beyond confessing, becoming “adept at interrogating their own ignorance.” The best ones use these moments of self-contradiction, ambivalence, and failure to illuminate a greater truth. For testimony on the distorting effects of authority and privilege on a ruling class, you can’t do better than George Orwell, who shoots an elephant so as not to be laughed at by the Burmese he’s ostensibly in charge of.

Caron’s no George Orwell, but she does at least try, bless her heart, to grasp the implications of her own memsahibhood, and to interrogate her ignorance. She admits not knowing whether it would be more tactful to avert her eyes from the foundered black woman, to offer a word of encouragement, or to ask her “to articulate her experience.” She keeps to herself but never says why — whether she’s shy in general, or around all black people, or perhaps fearful, at some level, of catching a beat down. (Is anyone in my Catholic base not thinking of Flannery O’Connor?) Had she explained her (in)action, she might have succeeded in sketching out a compelling scene, one I suspect many of us could have related to. Instead, she switches gears, asking rhetorical questions about “the system.” Her problem isn’t self-absorption, it’s not knowing how to turn self-absorption into self-knowledge.

Caron’s piece might not even qualify as a nice try, but it was a sincere try. Even if she couldn’t analyze her emotions so as to make them intelligible, they were genuine, and she rendered them faithfully. Her moral epiphany might read like a big, fat “Duh,” but it wasn’t contrived. If she decides to keep writing, she shouldn’t be less honest, but one hopes she’s learned there’s no art or profit in being merely honest.

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  • Martha O’Keeffe

    God bless you, Max, you’re a lot more charitable than I am. Reading that article has me wanting to make a response to Ms. Caron that starts with a word that rhymes with “Witch” and gets less encouraging thereafter.

    I appreciate the dawning realisation that hey, she has white privilege and has never really thought about it before. But she spends so much time imagining what the young black woman was or was not thinking or feeling, and then tripping over herself to reassure us all that her yoga studio isn’t one of those ‘elitist’ ones, that she seems not to realise that she is doing in actuality what she is trying to write about not doing: making the experience of a POC all about her.

    What I take away from that piece is: (a) her yoga studio is a business (forget all the ‘we’re egalitarian’ poppycock, they’re in it to make money, as evidenced from her admission that they happily sign up all the New Year first-timers, pack them into the studio in what sounds like an unsorted class, and let them drop out without doing much to retain them (b) where the hell was the instructor? if the group (it certainly doesn’t sound like a class) was made up of the experienced and the beginners, why wasn’t the instructor sorting out who did and who didn’t know what to do? (c) maybe your heavy young black female only developed “resent and contempt” (and you know, perhaps she was more concerned with her own sensations than spending time thinking about the skinny white chick in front of her) when you spent the entirety of the session gawping at her without so much as a “Hello”?

    Sorry, Max, but my over-riding sensation after that piece is “Oh, how bad I feel! My feelings are hurt! I’m so sensitive! I want to share the epiphany I received about how POC are treated – now back to me and my feelings and my impressions of what this young woman was feeling, but don’t expect me to actually have spoken to the woman – now let me describe how I sobbed my little heart out!”

  • Tom

    Author’s biography, presented without comment: “Jen Caron spends most of her time thinking about food, bodies, and how to pay her rent. She lives in Brooklyn.”

  • MekNes

    Most caring human beings who actual see people would of said hello and offered help.

  • alwr

    You aren’t allowed to talk in yoga. Only the instructor is allowed to talk. And if it is my idiot sister-in-law, she will NEVER SHUT UP FOR A SINGLE MOMENT. Also, if you talk you might miss some of the pseudo-Hindu/pseudo-Buddhist New Age-y babble about which gods you are worshipping with each contortion and how it will enable you to achieve your life vision or some such stupid thing.
    Better choice: stay the hell away from yoga. Pilates or a barre class offers all the stretching and flexibility and none of the nonsense.

  • Melody

    To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, “We wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of us if we realized how seldom they do.”

    Jen Caron is projecting a lot onto this woman at her yoga class, and seems to think the woman’s discomfort is a race thing. There may be some of that involved, but it seems more likely to be a fat-shame thing. Because of how we as a culture treat overweight people “for their own good”. You may have seen this story:

  • Stephanie Turner

    It apparently never occurred to Jen Caron that any person new to yoga might be a bit nervous. Instead, Caron decided the woman must be feeling bad because she’s big and black. And that the woman felt resentment and contempt because she is not white and thin like Caron! Are you flipping kidding me? My guess is that if there was contempt, it was because some bitch with an air of superiority kept STARING AT HER with condescending pity written all over her face.

  • Joseph Powell

    I get that. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Her article was the most awkward thing I’ve read this year. And it’s early, I realize. I doubt it will be trumped.

  • Manny

    I find Liberal anxiety – especially that of a limousine Liberal – to be hilarious. Maybe she’s a good soul, but I would say she’s most definitely “an hysterical ninny.”

  • amy vegan