A Waterloo-based yoga instructor is facing online harassment after teaching a yoga class for Black students, faculty and staff at the University of Guelph on Tuesday.
The small, one-time session was part of a three-part series by U of G's Cultural Diversity Programs and the Guelph Black Student Association to provide "a safe space for Black students, faculty and teachers. A space where they can feel seen, feel heard, feel affirmed, feel loved, and a place where they can just be themselves," said Selam Debs, who taught the class.
Debs owns Juici Yoga and is an anti-racism, anti-oppression educator.
After the session, she said they were “super happy and grounded and relaxed and excited. The experience even brought me to tears." But this morning, she woke up to "hundreds of messages of harm and violence.”
The harassment was triggered by journalist Jonathan Kay, who tweeted about the yoga class to his 68.5K followers early Wednesday. That led to numerous critical comments against Debs and the event.
I taught a sacred yoga session for Black students at @uofg last night & woke up to harmful Jonathan Kay sending his right-wing trolls after the Black students & the Black instructor.— Selam Debs (@selamdebs) November 2, 2022
It’s essential you address this @uofg
Black students deserve to feel safe.
Twitter users flocked to the comments, claiming that by offering a Black-only yoga class, she was practicing segregation; many calling her racist.
Students, staff and faculty involved in the session are feeling "disheartened," according to a spokesperson for Student Experience at the U of G, who was involved with the event.
"It was such a beautiful session. It was so healing, it was so restorative. To leave that space filled up and then to wake up the next day to all these harmful messages and all of this anti-Blackness is extremely hurtful."
However, she said it's not surprising.
She said the series was created in response to "a number of anti-Black, racist incidents that have happened on campus, particularly since this year has started. There is that feeling of a lack of safety and a lack of support from the institution in general, and that's why we're continuing to see these things happen."
One Black-identifying student she knows wants to run for the Central Student Association on campus, but was afraid to put posters up with her face on them, for fear of what people might do to them.
"That breaks my heart. At the same time, I can't blame her, because she's absolutely right. If people are emboldened and empowered to do these harmful acts, and if there continues to be no consequences, it's not going to stop any time soon," she said, adding that incidents like these create "an environment where we feel unsafe to be here."
Following Kay's comments, the Diversity and Human Rights Office posted a statement on the U of G's web site Wednesday afternoon, stating that “The University does not condone hateful or discriminatory comments or behaviour directed at any member of our community. We remain committed to providing opportunities and safe spaces for people to share, heal, learn and grow, all fundamental to improving life.”
Safe spaces, they said, “are created to give people from equity-deserving groups support, a sense of well-being and a chance to heal.”
“Black spaces are incredibly important because of the impacts of daily microaggressions, macroaggressions, anti-Black racism, and navigating system racism. These spaces are critical,” Debs said, adding that they’re not much different from other cultural spaces that exist.
“Many cultural groups come together and have sacred spaces, and the fact that a Black-exclusive yoga space would be attacked and targeted in this way is a form of anti-Black racism, is a form of white supremacy, and continually reinforces the ways in which Black students, faculty (and) community members experience racism in Canada,” she said.
In response, Kay told GuelphToday that the violence Debs spoke of is "imaginary," and that "segregating people by race is always wrong."
"It's a lesson we learned during the civil rights era, but a bunch of progressive anti-racism consultants seem to have discarded it in the current era," he said. "And I'm not going to accede to the gaslighting project of trying to convince the world that running a segregated yoga class is 'sacred.'"
While Debs said she is frustrated and saddened by the hate she's received, this type of harassment isn't new to her, or Black community members, as she said this is something they “constantly experience,” and that “coming together as Black people to practice yoga ends up being a radical act, and it shouldn't be."
She hopes the university provides proper supports for the Black students, faculty and staff during this time.
“I really hope they take this seriously because it reinforces the need for Black exclusive spaces. Even gathering in a sacred way puts us in harm’s way,” she said.
The Student Experience spokesperson agreed, saying that while the statement is great, "we need more action. Often these incidents end with a statement and we don't hear much else beyond that."