[guest post by JVW]
Those of you who take the Churchillian admonition seriously will find yourselves shaking your heads sadly at this story:
Patrick Harrington spent nearly two decades building up his series of yoga studios in the Denver area which operate under the name Kindness Yoga. When the COVID-19 shutdown went into effect, Kindness Yoga received $300,000 in emergency aid from the government, which it used to pay its employees for eight weeks. With Colorado businesses beginning to reemerge, Mr. Harrington had hoped the worst was behind them and that business could gradually return to normal with a July 1 reopening date planned.
But not in these banal and cruel days. Instead of reopening, Kindness Yoga has announced its permanent closure, a victim of the hyper-sensitivity around race and gender issues. A detailed article, which appeared in a journalist-owned publication called the Colorado Sun, is a fascinating read — detailed, perplexing, depressing, infuriating — so if you have ten or fifteen minutes I recommend reading it all, but here is a taste:
Harrington, a straight, white guy who expanded Kindness to nine studios and 160 employees across metro Denver, announced last week that he was closing them all after a handful of yoga teachers, including a Black woman and a transgender man, called out Kindness on social media for “performative activism” and “tokenization of Black and brown bodies.” The teachers’ public comments, following a Black Lives Matter post on Kindness’ Instagram page that they termed too little, too late, evoked a backlash that was fierce and immediate.
Within 48 hours, as the nightly protests over police violence unfolded around the Capitol in Denver, just three blocks from Kindness’ Capitol Hill studio, the yoga company received nearly 400 emails from students who were upset, including many wanting to cancel their memberships. A week later, the emails had reached 800 and counting. Harrington has yet to read all of them, but with each one he opened, the direction his already precarious business was heading grew ever more clear.
The owner of Kindness Yoga, and one of the most well-known yogis in Denver, is struggling to piece together the words to explain what happened — in the span of a week — to his once-stellar reputation and his 19-year-old business. He is stunned, though remorseful. He is eager to speak up, yet on edge for fear of saying anything that could make all of this any worse.
”My goal is to represent our attempts at being a diverse, inclusive place where people felt like they belonged,” he begins, slowly. “I may not say things perfectly … I’m practicing learning how to speak in a way that is more inclusive and caring of diversity.”
Already operating in the red, Kindness was struggling to make it through the three-month pandemic shutdown. The membership cancellations were more than the business could withstand. Harrington and his wife, Cameron, are now putting their Denver home on the market to dig out of the financial hole.
Lest you think that Mr. Harrington is just another troglodyte right-winger like — well — like I am, know that from the very beginning Kindness Yoga has hosted “people of color” exclusive yoga sessions in which “white allies” were asked not to attend. From the very beginning the studios used gender-neutral bathrooms, long before they were a progressive fad, and they held LGBTQ yoga workshops to earn their rainbow merit badge. Though the business did run on a membership model, they also accepted drop-ins who were asked to pay a session fee of whatever they could afford, with some struggling yoga adherents paying as little as one dollar to participate.
But nothing is ever really entirely ducky in the world of grievances, is it? Even as Mr. Harrington and crew thought they were building a progressive yoga studio, beneath the placid surface there were rumblings of discontent:
But outside the public space of yoga class, some teachers who identify as gay or trans or as BIPOC (Black or Indigenous people of color) were asking for change and said they got no meaningful response from management.
The grievances aired on social media in the last several days described — with few specifics — a culture where the voices of minorities and LGBTQ teachers were not heard. In interviews with The Colorado Sun, yoga teachers Jordan Smiley, who is Indigenous and transgender, and Davidia Turner, who is Black, said the white management team at Kindness was not willing to put in the work to make change.
For example, Turner said, the board of directors declined to hire an outside diversity expert as she suggested, instead “cherry-picking” certain diverse members of the staff that they felt comfortable talking to about race and inclusivity. After hearing that Kindness’ website was too white-centric, management then invited people of color and other minorities to an hours-long yoga photoshoot. They were accused of “tokenism.”
And of course social media plays a starring role too. Kindness Yoga, like I suppose most companies whose customers are active consumers of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik-Tok, and the like, employs an outside firm to help with social media, and it would appear that the firm oftentimes schedules social media posts for weeks in advance. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the subsequent mass protests the company’s Instagram page featured a banal post asking the company’s followers to divulge their favorite game. Unsurprisingly, this frivolity didn’t go over well with the activist crowd.
As you read the article, it becomes clear that it was Ms. Turner and Mr. Smiley (ironic name alert) who were beating the drums the loudest to punish Kindness Yoga for its transgressions (pun unintended). Both instructors are of an age where they almost assuredly grew up surrounded by participation trophies, and neither one strikes me as a good candidate for empathetic understanding of life experiences outside of their own. Indeed, both of them now plan to open their own yoga businesses, so we can only wish them well as they navigate the world of studio leases, licensing, incorporation, insurance, and taxes. Naturally Ms. Turner wants to have a yoga studio geared towards people of color and Mr. Smiley wants his clientele to heavily include the LGBTQ community, so three cheers for woke segregation. And in the perfect capstone to the entitlement mentality, let’s not let this paragraph escape notice:
Neither Smiley nor Turner talked directly to Harrington about their complaints before the Instagram posts. Turner said she followed the “chain of command” and talked to other managers instead. Smiley said talking to Harrington “would be a danger to my mental health.”
It would be a lot easier to be fully sympathetic of the situation in which that Mr. Harrington finds himself, were it not for the fact that he seems to be far too obtuse to internalize any real lessons from the loss of his business. Though the article quotes other minority and LGBTQ employees of Kindness Yoga lamenting the closure and questioning the motives of the two disgruntled instructors, Mr. Harrington appears to be intent on marinating in white guilt:
Harrington, who filled up the room when he taught a yoga class, says now that he didn’t understand the depth of Kindness’ role on racial issues.
“I didn’t realize the responsibility that our organization had to be a voice for matters of race,” Harrington said. “And it happened so fast that when we tried to speak … it showed up as performative, or too little, too late.”
No, Mr. Harrington, your responsibility was to provide a competent and productive yoga experience for your customers, not to be crusaders on matters of social justice. Maybe if more companies understood this simple fact they wouldn’t be torn asunder by the predictable drama from the snowflake crowd. I suspect that deep down Mr. Harrington actually gets it, but he’s far too committed to the plot to go off-script:
“Did our community in Denver gain something by Kindness Yoga closing its doors?” Harrington said. “I struggle to understand the benefit of this outcome for white people, people of color, LGBTQ+ people. I don’t see the benefit of taking us down this way.”
After a beat, he added: “My privilege could have me blind to that. I’m trying to learn.”
Sometimes the crocodile eats the appeaser first.