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‘White Women Yoga’: How one woman’s Meetup experiment exploded on the Internet

Pat Brown caused an outcry online after setting up a yoga group for white women on Meetup, a website that connects people through shared interests. (Rachel Chason/The Washington Post)

Pat Brown says she knew her “White Women Yoga” idea would not be well received.

“To allow space for White women to gather in the name of yoga, surrounded by the supportive community of White people, White yoga instructors, and all around safe White spaces,” she wrote on Meetup, a website designed to help people connect through shared interests.

Angry responses poured in. People called Brown ignorant and said she was using the site to promote white supremacy. “Shame on you for being so racist and hateful,” read one message. “It’s people like you who are destroying our country.”

But the 63-year-old Maryland woman said organizing a yoga group was never what she intended. Frustrated at the existence of Meetup groups specifically for black people, and offended by advocacy groups such as Black Lives Matter, she wanted to make a provocative statement about the “tribalism and separatism” she believes are taking over the country.

“I see the same type of thing happening on college campuses, where we see ‘safe spaces’ and college dorm floors that are all black,” Brown said of her feigned attempt to start a whites-only group. “Where does this stop?”

Scholars say such reactions are part of a growing white backlash to racially oriented groups, which critics decry as a new form of discrimination.

Brown’s online experiment, which she detailed on her blog, prompted a tidal wave of news coverage and an uproar on social media. The overwhelming response was that she — like so many white people — just doesn’t get it.

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Beverly Daniel Tatum, the author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” said white people are often unaware of the day-to-day discrimination people of color face in a climate that includes nooses hung up around college campuses; a white Maryland lawmaker allegedly using the n-word; and an Alabama newspaper editorial this month that called for the Ku Klux Klan to “ride again.”

Last year, police were summoned to respond to two African American customers sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks, a black student napping in a common room at Yale University and a group of black women playing golf on a course in York County, Pa. None had committed a crime.

“We live in a racist society,” Tatum said. “If you don’t understand that, then you don’t get why people of color want relief from it.”

A diverse community

Brown’s ex-husband is black. They raised two biracial children and an adopted black son in Prince George’s County, one of the wealthiest majority-black jurisdictions in the country.

She lives in Bowie, a D.C. suburb of 59,000 people that is 53 percent black and 36 percent white, and educated her children years ago in a home-schooling group whose members were white, black and Hispanic. She proudly describes herself as the only white member of a line-dancing group that performs routines to soul and R&B music.

Brown analyzes evidence in criminal cases for a living, appearing on cable talk shows and in documentaries to discuss her opinions. She declined to cite specific cases or clients but said she is paid by private defense attorneys and has done pro-bono work for police departments.

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She launched the fake club on Meetup while on a trip to India with friends who operate a charity there. She says she laughed when people online commented that she was racist.

“I posted a picture of me in a sari with six women of color standing around me,” she said. “They wrote underneath it, ‘You’re a racist.’ I’m like, ‘Look . . .’ ”

Brown said she did not discuss her yoga idea with her children before she proposed it. Her daughter declined requests for comment, and her sons could not be reached.

Sowing divisions

Brown described her proposal — which borrowed wording from the Yoga is 4 Black Girls Meetup group — as a way to expose groups she believes are sowing division in the country.

Chief among them, she says, is Black Lives Matter, started in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

The group’s protests have drawn attention to police brutality and the disproportionate killing of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement. That attention, in turn, spawned the creation of a separate movement, dubbed Blue Lives Matter, aimed at highlighting the dangers facing police.

About 4 in 10 white Americans oppose the Black Lives Matter movement, which Brown describes as “an aggressive movement that started up a lot of anger among people who felt like they were being attacked.” But 82 percent of black Americans approve of the group, according to a 2017 Pew Research poll.

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Ashley Jardina, an assistant professor at Duke University who studies white identity politics, said whites increasingly wonder why they cannot organize their own social groups — for example, creating “white student unions” alongside clubs for black or Hispanic students.

“White people do not need those spaces because they are the majority — they are the norm, and they have a disproportionate amount of the power,” Jardina said. “It’s the same reason we don’t have White History Month. White History Month is every month.”

Tierra Briscoe, a black yoga instructor from Temple Hills, Md., said white people need to understand that there are spaces where black people “don’t feel comfortable or safe. . . . Anytime we try to create a space that is inclusive for us, there is that person that tries to ruin it.”

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A place to meet

Brown sees it differently. She compared Meetup’s race-specific groups to the whites-only country clubs outlawed years ago.

Meetup spokeswoman Catherine Hill said the platform values “our ability to foster bonds around shared interests, passions, and identities.” The online platform, founded in 2002, has millions of monthly users who gather for activities such as birdwatching, clubbing and coding.

“We take the integrity and safety of our community very seriously, and have no place on Meetup for individuals or groups that incite, glorify, or promote hate or intolerance,” she said in a statement.

The platform shut down Brown’s White Women Yoga group.

On her blog, Brown wrote that she considers herself to be part of a racial minority, at least in majority-black Prince George’s. And she worried that her granddaughter, who is three-fourths white and one-fourth black, would not be accepted by black groups she might want to join one day.

Yogi and blogger Felicia Taliaferro said she read the blog posts and felt her fists clench in frustration.

“White people in country clubs have all the power. Black people are gathering because they’ve had a tough day being black in America,” said Taliaferro, whose blog, “A Seat at the Mat,” highlights stories about people of color in the yoga world. “To say that’s the same thing is completely off-kilter.”

She said Brown’s yoga proposal reflected a lack of understanding of the traumas black people experience.

“It’s like, ‘I’m a white woman and I’m usually included in everything,’ ” she said. “She’s having a big hissy fit. . . . It’s the fragility of the white ego.”

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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This story has been updated to include a 2017 Pew Research poll on views about Black Lives Matter.