Necropower and the Cult of White Woman Wellness

Image credit: @shallow_yoga

In December 2018, many months before Marianne Williamson entered our public and political consciousness, actress and lifestyle influencer Gwyneth Paltrow made headlines after she seemed to suggest that she was responsible for popularizing yoga as a wellness activity in the United States. “Forgive me if this comes out wrong,” Paltrow demurred, “but I went to do a yoga class in L.A. recently and the 22-year-old girl behind the counter was like, ‘Have you ever done yoga before?’ And literally I turned to my friend, and I was like, ‘You have this job because I’ve done yoga before.’”

Paltrow’s self-aggrandizing response isn’t completely wrong; for more than a decade, she has built a personal brand by urging other white women to eat, exercise, and live exactly as she does. She’s among a group of white well-to-do women (like Williamson) who have made self-help and “wellness,” arguably the newest euphemism for “skinny,” into a highly individualistic and often unethical billion dollar industry of aspiration. A minute or two spent browsing Goop.com offers a window into Paltrow’s vision of health: One can purchase a wide variety of luxury lifestyle products including a $15,000 gold dildo (now marked down to $11,500) and an $80 crystal-infused water bottle. One of the most popular items on the site is a dietary supplement dubbed “High School Genes”; priced at $90 for a 30-day supply, it’s billed as a “comprehensive nutritional regimen designed to provide intense support for normal glucose and energy metabolism, as well as cellular health.”   

Goop also offers advice columns on sexual health, in many cases suggesting diets or enhancements that are not only prohibitively expensive, but also run directly counter to medical advice (google “jade vaginal egg” for a prime example). Goop’s ridiculous and often irresponsible recommendations have earned Paltrow consistent criticism for years, but she has stood firm, insisting that her exorbitantly priced products are simply an opportunity for consumers to exercise “autonomy over their health.” Paltrow’s ongoing success typifies the North American belief in health as a personal, individualistic enterprise—a consumer experience that can be bought, sold, and of course promoted on Instagram. It’s a symptom of the same phenomenon that in recent decades has fueled everything from anti-vaccine propaganda to essential-oil proselytizers to, yes, yoga and mindfulness devotees. This attitude toward health is deeply narcissistic, of course, and it is also dangerous.

Necropower and Health

In my research on wellness trends, I have discovered that Paltrow and Williamson are far from the first celebrities to introduce the United States to the individualistic, cost-prohibitive, and beauty-centered idea of health that yoga industries typify. As soon as celebrity product endorsements and cheap print media existed, so did a steady stream of wealthy white women—celebrities—whose bodies and therefore whose health or fitness routines inspired the masses, or at least those who could afford it. One of the earliest celebrities to endorse yoga-for-health, for example, was Norma Jean Mortenson, better known as Marilyn Monroe, who is said to have credited yoga-inspired exercise routines for her much-admired physique.

Promotional photographs of Marilyn Monroe, 1948

The earliest examples of aspirationally fit women’s bodies emerged well before Monroe, though, in the early 20th century, where the influence of film culture and modern dance elevated dancing (read: sexual) female bodies from the entertainment realms of vaudeville and burlesque. No longer base and bawdy, dance in colonial-cosmopolitan spaces like New York, London, and Paris was now art performed by well-bred white women like Ruth St. Denis and Louise Brooks—and in many cases it was an art built upon racist and Orientalist themes, often involving dancers who appeared in black- or brownface.

Ruth St. Denis performing in brownface  in Yogi (1911) and Nautch (1908) debuted in Vienna. Courtesy New York Public Library

These dancers were also among the first to introduce consumer forms of exercise to the U.S., notably in Los Angeles. This is the circuit that brought us Jane Fonda in the 1970s-80s, Suzanne Somers in the 1990s, and today, Gwyneth Paltrow. Indeed, in the U.S. context, wealthy white woman wellness extends from Hollywood and is precisely how what was otherwise known as “New Age” became a commodified and now politicized identification known as “the yoga vote” in the United States. 

In other words, there is a long, complicated history behind the sexualized construction of white, normative femininity and “healthy” bodies, which stretches from early dancer-actress-icons like Joan Crawford through the housewives looking to “relax” in the postwar era, to the insta-yogis we see today.

Brillo advertisement, 1968

Taken as a whole, this history reveals how normalized the belief is that some people are healthy and therefore beautiful, and that their manner of living is the ideal to which all can and should aspire. Postcolonial scholars like Achille Mbembe, using Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower and biopolitics as a point of departure, have interrogated this notion, naming this phenomenon “necropolitics“— how certain bodies are understood as less deserving of health than others. Necropower, like biopower, is built upon colonial racism (and supported by its economic injustices). Necropower explains why we as a society readily accept and support the notion that some bodies deserve access to health and wellness while others (fat, disabled, minority/migrant etc.) do not. 

After Eat, Pray, Love

Recent wellness fads—the YOLO/Instagram versions in particular—aren’t necessarily the result of celebrity exercise regimens or the media-fed desire for a “hot” body. In many ways, the 2006 bestselling self-help novel/travel diary by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, popularized a way of living that has since come to shape notions of beauty, health, and practices of womanhood in the U.S. context. Joining a larger body of work set in the global South in the post-9/11 era, the memoir particularly valorized yoga, but also alternative forms of medicine and “self-care” as a means by which white women could “find themselves” as well as claim their sexuality outside of the confines of marriage. Feminist scholars like Shefali Chandra have noted the capitalist and Orientalist logics at the heart of such engagements; “Skillfully navigating between twentieth-century imperial history, the rise of the War on Terror, and a barely contained obsession with Hindu female sexuality, each of these texts is driven by the conviction that India, and Indian women, will heal the mind and body of the white woman. India enables the American woman to cure herself” (Chandra 2014, 488). EPL was the book that launched the yoga-as-exercise craze—aided and abetted by consumer athleisure brands like Lululemon—repackaging an old Orientalist tale of white folks traveling to formerly colonized places to rejuvenate, feel sexy, and learn tolerance, but always on their terms, of course.

Since the advent of Instagram celebrity/influencer culture, this is the “take-what-I-want-and-call-it-#blessed” logic of leisure-wellness that underscores the steady onslaught of  Instagram posts under the tags #selfcare, and which for all intents and purposes has demonstrated that black or brownface no longer requires face paint, just the vapid excuse of “good intentions” backed by all the monetary advantages of whiteness. In many ways, this is how health and wellness for white women operates as an extension of white supremacist and necropolitical thought, today often occluded by the reductive logics of “cultural appropriation.” These are the social logics which brought us preternaturally fit Madonna during her Ray of Light phase and today positions women like Williamson as heir apparent to the Eurocentric racial power dynamics that encourage white women to embrace self-indulgent consumer-driven ignorance and call it “enlightenment.”

To be sure, claims to “New Age culture” as something that can be bought or sold, taken on or off at will exposes the nefarious logics of American imperialism and its deathly, necropolitical impulses. And when aligned with so-called women’s issues, like access to healthcare, claims to feminism tend to excuse impact and instead center intentions. This mechanism, by which white women are taught to see themselves as perfect victims in turn feeds the self-centered rhetoric of “my best interest at any cost.” This is what many postcolonial feminists refer to as imperial feminism—a recognition that white women’s liberation has always come at the expense of black, indigenous, and women of color. Put another way, the mechanisms by which “white women wellness” operates in 2019 is just the latest iteration of imperialist thought by which white women capitalize on their racial privilege to get their own needs met and in the process uphold the very white supremacist patriarchy that plagues our society at large.

And if you have been following the conversation on wellness trends and its target demographics, the data is unequivocal: economically privileged women in the U.S., white women, turn to performative spiritual+wellness trends, like yoga, to participate in the production of an elitist womanhood through Orientalist escapism and virtue-signaling, most notably in contemporary settings like social media.

PSA, brown people are not props.

But there’s a darker, less apparent outcome for this trend: Keeping in mind underreporting rates among populations that lack access to adequate healthcare and especially mental healthcare, recent studies have suggested a link between affluence and anxiety disorders. In other words, yoga and its attendant, if racist aesthetic practices have arguably become a wellness activity wealthy white women turn to in order to cope with mental health challenges. This new finding is puzzling—indeed, it is hard to separate cause from result at the moment, that is, are more wealthy white women experiencing mental health issues because of the pressure to conform to unattainable body image standards? Or are we simply hearing more about mental health epidemics in this demographic because our society is more attuned to wealthy white woman wellness needs? The answer is likely “both.”

Instagram and its influencers clearly capitalize on the aspirational aspects of the fad by selling the idea that participation in yoga is not only going to improve mental health, but also, paradoxically, offer followers+consumers a sense of individuality. For example, a common phrase among white women who participate in commercial yoga industries is that it has helped them “find themselves” and “accept” their bodies. However, this is the same fitness culture that has borne witness to unprecedented rates of eating disorders, including a new diagnosis known as orthorexia nervosa—an obsession with eating healthy or “clean.” Despite the supposed logic of self-love and acceptance, yoga cultures appear to be engendering new and dangerous forms of conceit and controlling tendencies.

To this point, studies on yoga often note the incongruous logic that seems to underpin white women’s attachment to fitness trends like yoga—a logic that reveals that the “love and acceptance” attitudes are quite superficial and even destructive. Indeed, in yoga studios, one can observe white women’s claims are not about acceptance, but rather a desire for a “safe space”—a euphemism for homosociality—a recognition that women feel less safe when men are present and that white folks feels safer around other whites. Many white women describe feeling safer around other white women, but can’t quite reconcile how their sense of safety relies on exclusionary and often structural forms of inequity.

A case study from my research offers a useful example: In response to learning that her suburban, $100/month yoga studio had come under fire for harassing and then banning non-white members, one upper-middle class woman, a human-resources director named Alissa, defended the studio by asserting that she is “just a white woman trying to fight mental illness through yoga. [The studio] helped me a lot. It’s a good place, even if it has done things some people find bad [discriminatory].” Alissa knew that she was supporting a business which was openly and perhaps actionably biased, but she did not care as long as her personal wellness needs were being met. Attitudes like this among the majority white cis-female demographic who participate in health and wellness industries are not rare, despite their troubling insistence on ignoring their own complicity in systems of injustice and marginalization. Indeed, white women’s well-being, including social and economic mobility, can and will be achieved at all costs and in many cases will willingly cosign bigotry and differential treatment.

We know that discrimination produces cascading effects across communities, and Alissa’s example clearly demonstrates how structural or institutional racism works. Though she might be only one person, her willingness to excuse illegal forms of bias so easily offers unsettling insight into her work in human resources. HR departments oversee civil-rights and workplace- equity matters; how effectively can she address these matters in light of her comments? 

In this regard, the research on institutional racism tells a larger story about how white women’s social and economic mobility is predicated on the disenfranchisement and continued oppression of historically marginalized populations. This research demonstrates how the so-called “velvet ghetto” or majority-women industries, like human resources,  education, nursing, and more recently fitness industries like yoga, but also Cross-Fit, which are all also majority-white, actually underscore broader race+class economic trends in the U.S. Across these industries, there is a constant—women performing their bodily capital, in both raced and ableist forms (read: white-sexy-athletic), in order to preserve their own position and power in a white supremacist patriarchal order. In many ways, this is not a new story, even as the research on white women’s involvement in white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and today, its modern-day auxiliaries such as the Daughters of the Confederacy or the Junior League garner renewed attention.

WKKK rally, 1956

Differential access to healthcare, including wellness care in the United States, and the necropower it lays bare, thus exposes what Kimberle Crenshaw once aptly diagnosed as “the false tension between feminist and antiracist movements”—a mechanism scholars like Chenjerai Kumanyika characterize as a willful ignorance; a kind of blindspot not born of a lack of knowledge, but outright denial in the face of evidence and truth. Indeed, attitudes like “my health at any cost” must be understood within a longer history of white supremacy, economic injustice, and what today qualifies as a public health epidemic, which leaves communities of color, like Flint, Michigan, without clean drinking water and bears witness to higher rates childhood diabetes in minority+low-income areas—areas which lack access to both safe recreational spaces and parks and/or grocery stores. It is not a coincidence that yoga studios tend to exist in upper-middle class and majority white areas, next to some sort of “clean eating” juice/coffee bar. What today might appear to be an ambient form of exclusion otherwise marketed by Paltrow as a wellness must-have, is intimately tethered to a larger story of public health and racial injustice, up to and including the kinds of medical experiments conducted on people of color in the early twentieth century, as well as the ableist logics of abortion access that values cis-white women’s bodies above all. As historians like Harriet Washington and Thomas Leonard have both demonstrated in their work, health care, even in its progressive forms, remains inextricably intertwined with nineteenth century racial science, the rhetoric of eugenics, and social Darwinism, which in the U.S. context remains obsessed with maintaining white women’s “purity” at all costs.

So, at the very least, Alissa’s comments capture the limits of one person’s understanding of how systemic racism might affect access to health and wellness for historically marginalized populations. But at the very most, attitudes like “my health at any cost” are logical extensions of a white supremacist capitalist order which equates wealth with access and access with health. It is not only individual access to health and wellness that is essential, no matter how we often we are sold the neoliberal idea that “it’s your workout.” Individual health outcomes are inseparable from community health support, and so we must begin to see what is good for everyone and available to everyone as a must for a healthy society.

In the end, the cult of white women’s wellness must be understood as both a cause and a result of white supremacist necropower. Though its genesis makes sense in a place like the U.S. which has so often and willingly ignored women’s rights to bodily autonomy, such trends still place BIWOC, queer, trans and disabled folks at far greater risk. Recent research on differential treatment in emergency medicine between white and black populations corroborates what I have observed in my decades of ethnographic work in health and fitness spaces—access to healthcare remains shaped by forms of bias that privilege the health of those who look, walk, and talk like those offering care. We must stop capitulating to a deeply unjust and capitalist industry that privileges the health and right to bodily autonomy for some over others. A fair and sustainable society and therefore its approach to health and wellness cannot and must not be reduced to a you win, I lose, zero sum game.

*Thanks as always to Travis A. Jackson for his keen editorial eye. And a special thank you to Rasika Ajotikar, Shenila Khoja-Moolji, and Brooke Delony whose brilliance brought this topic into focus for me.

On Yoga, Minstrelsy, and Namaste

 The Simpsons Dr. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon
Photo source: Fox

On a rainy morning a few weeks ago, I waited for an Uber to take me to the airport. The driver pulled up, a black Nissan with a Hillary 2016 sticker on the bumper, and walked over to help me load my suitcase in the trunk. As soon as he saw me, he put his hands together at his chest, bowed, and said “namastaaaaay,” dragging the last syllable to mimic what I can only assume was supposed to be an Indian accent. He then broke into laughter at his cleverness as he took my bag from me. Irritated as I was by the whole exchange, I had a plane to catch, so I didn’t do or say anything. Instead, I just sat there for the entirety of the thirty-minute ride, quietly fuming, wondering to myself, when did namaste become a slur!?

Slur (noun) a: an insulting or disparaging remark, innuendo; aspersion
b: a shaming or degrading phrase; stain, stigma

The word namaste is suddenly everywhere in the United States. Indeed, namaste has managed the all-too-common feat of becoming a derogatory reference to South Asia and/or the Middle East, while remaining in the hands of white producers and consumers of yoga or  “alternative” wellness culture.

Namaste.com was recently launched as the domain for a luxury cannabis company, based out of Ontario, Canada

Considering the predilection of hegemonic whiteness to co-opt the languages and customs of previously colonized places or people, while erasing the people themselves, it’s not uncommon to see namaste, but now also om and shakra, all over casual-wear clothing in the United States, in the form of puns like this these:

Photo sources: Yelo Yoga,  braveangelshop.com,  etsy.com

I’d been tracking this trend for a few years when CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota, who began her career with Fox News, provided me with a case-in-point for how Sanskrit has become synonymous with racial stereotyping towards India and Indians in the United States. Last June, in an interview with the 2017 Spelling Bee winner, 11-year-old Ananya Vinay, Camerota joked, “we’re not sure if that word is actually in Sanskrit, which is probably what you’re used to using.” The fact that Camerota had previously spoken about her yoga and meditation regimen only reaffirmed my suspicions as to how she assumed that this Indian-American child, born and raised in Fresno, California knew Sanskrit.

The sarcasm and mocking tone in Camerota’s commentary is not unique, nor it is new. It is inextricably linked to the kinds of humor made famous by the Simpsons character Apu as well as the sorts of destructive stereotypes such caricatures recycle. What is often missing in the conversation about mockery, however, is the acknowledgment that the “it’s just a joke” defense is a form of emotional abuse known as gaslighting, which serves to minimize harm while deflecting, if not outright denying, accountability and responsibility.

The ubiquity of mocking Sanskrit puns and Indian accents, even in the face of growing awareness that this behavior is profoundly racist and harmful, signals just how normalized abusive behavior is in our society. In the case of yoga cultures, Lululemon, the eponymous “athleisure” brand in North America arguably championed this trend with Sanskrit in the early 2000s and now offers an impressive array of merchandise that relies on puns, like their Namastay Put Thong II or their Namastay Focused Pant.

I’ve been studying the bizarre pop culture life of Sanskrit in the United States and I have noticed that while we recognize a few very well-known words as slurs or hate speech, we don’t really have particularly adept understanding of how sound, including accents, musical themes, and associated body languages are normalized as racial performance and abuse. I suspect a lot of this has to do with the way there’s only one word, the infamous and singular n-word, that most everyone will agree without question qualifies as a slur. And yet, there are many words, accents, sounds, gestures and even non-verbal associated images that are used to dehumanize people of color. Indeed, the idea that brown bodies and therefore their languages and cultures are merely commodities or “souvenirs” to be bought and sold by white tourists is not an unfamiliar concept in the United States. 

Photo source: Flickr

As I’ve examined in previous posts, the work of linguistic anthropologists like Jane Hill, and her theory of mock Spanish and white public space offers some avenues for understanding how white homogeneity and hegemony breeds supremacist ideology, which extends past speech to behavior, sonic identifiers, and imagery. To meaningfully address the way language along with associated visuals and sounds impact minorities, we must expand our understanding of what qualifies as “hate speech” up to and including what we are willing to understand as a slur.

For those who have been following the controversy around renaming the Washington R*dskins, my suggestion probably makes a lot of sense. To be sure, within the longer history of systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States, extending from the context of imperialism, slavery, and colonialism, it is simply a truism to state that logos, images, and styles of dress, accompany associated words or sounds. A prime example in the case of Native American representation here is the Tomahawk “chop” theme, along with its associated “chopping” hand gesture, which fans reenact at Atlanta Braves baseball games. Sounds, images, and bodily gestures, especially those performed in/as a group, all accrue stereotyping force and work together to uphold racist thought and white supremacy in the United States.

Cover to an early edition of “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music (c. 1832)

The Legacy of Minstrelsy
Much of what we understand as popular culture in 2018 extends from the legacy of minstrelsy in the United States. Though the practice of minstrelsy emerges from nineteenth-century entertainment cultures, it endures through the tendency to caricature people of color through derogatory and reductive stereotypes. This tendency, which often shapes rhetoric around multiculturalism by managing and tokenizing cultural “difference” through stereotypes, in turn, reproduces the white racial frame in destructive and toxic ways. To this point, in his book, Karl Hagstrom Miller deconstructs how minstrelsy installed white supremacy as American culture. In his analysis, he elaborates that “whites claimed an almost ethnographic authority in their portrayals,” which, advanced the notion that “genuine [non-white] culture emerged from white bodies” and their representative practices. Put another way, non-white culture is only legible as culture when it is performed through white bodies. In her work, black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins refers to this mechanism as “a controlling image,” whose function is to normalize white supremacy and paternalism and to “make racism, sexism, and poverty appear to be natural, normal, and an inevitable part of everyday life.” Collins’ analysis allows us to think critically about the codependent construction of gender and race, and helps us see the aberrance and “grotesquerie” that signifies non-white bodies in popular culture, especially in cartoons and animation.

Air India’s logo, an obedient, portly, and turban-clad man named Maharaja.
Dr. Seuss’s 1937 “Chinaman,” who carries a bowl of rice and chopsticks.

In the case of U.S. yoga cultures, the co-option and commodification of words like namaste belong within a different, though related history of white supremacy and paternalism, stemming from British imperialism and colonialism in South Asia. The circulation of namaste, for example, emerges from the colonial encounter and the way certain words came to symbolize what the British considered worth noting as representative of Indian culture. In written records, namaste is used by the British to note a “Brahmin Hindu gesture.” In archival documents from the 1800s, British travelers and colonial authorities describe namaste as a “bowing posture,” accompanied with “hands pressed together.” Under the British Raj, namaste and its associated gesture emerge as a symbol of that which made Indians culturally different. More importantly, in colonial accounts, namaste appears as a symptom of the authentic, that is, impoverished Hindu, a religious distinction the Oxford English Dictionary uses to trace the etymology of the word. The OED notes the prominence of the word namaste in how the British understood and studied Hindu social behaviors (in contradistinction Muslim, for example).

Photo source: National Geographic
Photo source: Getty Images

But we live in the United States, where knowledge of the slavery, theft, and holocaust the British perpetrated in South Asia doesn’t usually merit much critical thought (though it should). Indeed, in the United States, the standard narrative about South Asia relies on Orientalist stereotypes of destitute children living in underdeveloped villages. For those old enough to remember, these were the stereotypes about Africa and Asia beamed into U.S. living rooms through Christian savior television ads in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, however, these same images of impoverished Indian children are interpolated with white folks (overwhelmingly, white women) engaging in yoga tourism. 

Photo source: Om Exchange yoga tourism

A direct quote from a yoga tourism site: “Volunteers with a passion for yoga and travel will find this fantastic program to be one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives. Set in wondrous India, the homeland of yoga and a spiritual and cultural nirvana, volunteers will see the amazing sights of India and learn more about yoga while helping others in one of the most poverty-stricken countries in the world.”

In other words, namaste, as it circulates today, within global news media, its stock images, and associated pop culture trends like yoga tourism, functions as a controlling image. And so, as my Uber driver clearly demonstrated to me, it is easily weaponized as a slur. In this light, the interdependence of white paternalism and popular culture in the U.S. explodes the notion that namaste, as it appears in our daily lives today, is somehow innocuous, much less inclusive.

Recommended resources: Seeing White podcast

A special thanks to Travis Jackson and Lata Murti.

Academic Ammayyi

 

My first dance lesson, October 1986, Pearland, Texas

 

Though my current work examines the post 9/11 moment for South-Asian Americans, my first book project starts from the beginning, so to speak, tracing the circuitous path that brought me to these topics and to an academic life. I recently wrote a piece for a Telugu magazine—an auto-biographical retrospective—which will serve as a template for the prologue to my book. Here’s the link and I hope you’ll check it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga and the Maintenance of White Womanhood

 

Photo source: Bravo.com

A year ago, well before he had all of us Googling “immigration asylum,” President Trump signed into effect Executive Order 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” This controversial order, which is still being challenged in the court system, went on to be known more colloquially as the “Muslim travel ban,” focusing as it did on restricting travel from majority-Muslim countries. In the weeks that followed the initial announcement of this travel ban, I watched with horror as family and friends, many of whom were South Asian-American U.S. passport holders, like myself, counseled each other on social media and on email list-serves on how to avoid being profiled as they (re)entered the U.S.

Fellow Brown travelers offered each other tips like these:

“Make sure to only wear Western clothes.”

“For women, be careful about getting henna on your hands if you’re flying back to the States after a wedding. It might draw extra scrutiny to you and more questions about where you’re traveling from.”

These well-meaning pieces of advice instilled in me a quiet, but gnawing fear of going anywhere where I might be posed that dreaded question, “but where are you FROM?” In the weeks that followed the announcement of the ban, I became hyper-aware of how I looked and sounded when I passed through customs and immigration, making sure not to speak to my family or friends in any language besides English while I was within earshot, especially when I was in an airport.

In light of this new heightened awareness, I, perhaps naively, opened up to a fellow member at my yoga studio, a White woman and a self-described “liberal,” after she had made a pun, “Namastay Together,” out of the word “Namaste.” In our conversation, I confided in her how unsettled it left me feeling to constantly see and hear namaste reduced to a clever way to signal so-called inclusive politics, especially at a time when people who looked like me felt less and less comfortable speaking in our mother tongues in public.

Image result for leg day to namaste

Photo Source: 24 Hour Fitness

As I described in my previous post, this interaction culminated in my expulsion from a commercial and corporate studio I had belonged to for three years. 

In the time since that egregious episode, I’ve tried to take mental stock of my experiences with self-described liberal White women more generally. I recalled a yoga studio I belonged to in the Midwest, owned and operated by a liberal White woman, which was decorated with pictures of malnourished Indian women begging in Mumbai. I can remember, with disgust, another, a fitness instructor in Texas who bragged to me, that though she had never been to India she often fantasized that she was “communing with Indian street children” while she practised yoga and meditation. I still wince at the memory of a former college roommate, who in a jilted drunken rage, screamed at our Pakistani cab driver when he refused her advances, “my husband could buy you and your whole country!” And most recently, I overheard a Canadian liberal, a supposed ally and fellow academic, mocking the idea racists exist or are even a problem in a conversation she never intended for me to hear. When she realized I had caught her voicing these disturbing sentiments, she rationalized her transgression; defending her betrayal as a “private conversation.”

And I have scrolled through millions upon millions of posts on Instagram with the tag #namaste, which overwhelmingly feature solitary, thin, able-bodied White women, demonstrating physical feats in otherwise empty, private spaces. More often than not, these posts are accompanied by self-aggrandizing, humble-bragging, spiritual-bypassing, “life advice.”

 

Photo source: Instagram.com

Taken as a whole, I’ve begun to wonder if this is why White women, especially those who consider themselves liberals, love yoga and the word “namaste” so much—it performs a sense of virtue-signaling which recenters Whiteness, all while providing a deflecting shield against scrutiny under the logic of “private spirituality.” It’s all the bragging rights of social justice without any of the humility or self-awareness.

These various experiences, particularly the encounters with my colleague and my former roommate, point to what Greg Howard has diagnosed as the redefining of racism, a mechanism by which White people can claim they are free of prejudice by performing progressive, multicultural politics in public, while continuing to harbor and even voice deeply disturbing prejudices and resentments in private. I would argue that this is the current state of affairs in most institutional settings in the United States. Whites, even and especially liberal White allies, who feel they need to present as anti-racist in public, even as they continue to condescend to Brown and Black folks (this is also known as dysfunctional rescuing), thus reaffirming their internalized belief of their own White superiority. In my experience, these individuals will do and say paternalistic, and yes, deeply racist things, all while insisting they are not racist. The social and psychological mechanism by which people deny reality and responsibility is known as gas-lighting—a form of manipulation and abuse. Based on Howard’s analysis, I would argue that gaslighting is now a crucial component of maintaining White supremacy, particularly for White liberals, because today, “racism [has] became a referendum on the rot of the individual soul. Calling people racist [is] no longer a matter of evaluating their opinions; it [is] an accusation of being irrevocably warped at the very core.”  

As I began to understand how yoga spirituality was reproducing forms of racism and breeding newer, more virulent strains of White supremacy, not to mention fragility, I reached out to the corporate office of the studio from which I had been dismissed. While the corporate representative, a kind young woman named Christine, apologized profusely to me for what had happened at my local studio and acknowledged that she was personally uncomfortable with the way the company was “selling India,” she admitted that White women (like her) were ideal consumers of yoga because such women desperately needed to believe that they are the “good kind” of White people; the colorblind, well-travelled kind.

To this point—in 2016, the Indian government, under the leadership of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, introduced a new “yoga visa” category specifically for sixty-day yoga teacher training programs that cater to Western (White) women. These are the White liberals (captured so brilliantly in Get Out) who proudly inform you that they voted for Obama (twice!) and exclaim without even a hint of self-awareness: “There’s no way I can be racist. I have visited the Taj Mahal and I do yoga.”  

Photo Source: This tourism website, which caters to “nomads”

A closer look at the numbers corroborates this point and reveals some startling statistics. According to recent industry data as well as research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, 36.7 million U.S. adults practice yoga. 73% are women and a whopping 90% identify as White. Mattel released a blonde “Yoga Teacher Barbie” in 2012a testament to the ways White women identify with and are identified by yoga in the United States. American Girl sells a yoga gear set, too. But, it’s not just that yoga is an incredibly homogenous and aspirational White female culture, it’s also an astoundingly upper-class culture. As of 2017, over 40% of yoga practitioners earned over $75,000 a year, and 25% over $100,000 annually. In other words, yoga studios are the new country clubs. Only, instead of “Whites only” signs at the door, you might see something like this:

Image result for yogaPhoto Source: Upaya Yoga Teacher Training

What “Cultural Appropriation” Misses
Too often the conversation about cultural flows across color lines devolves into a useless debate about appropriation versus appreciation, a reductive rhetoric that misses the point when people of color are not only replaced, but also rendered invisible. There is no dearth of guides and how-tos in cyberspace that define cultural appropriation with a negative connotationas the “selecting of certain aspects of a culture, ignoring their original significance, for the purpose of belittling it as a trend.” Appreciation, on the other hand, is positioned as the superior choice, since it involves “honoring and respecting another culture and its practices, as a way to gain knowledge and understanding.”

What these definitions miss entirely is that “culture” is not something material that exists separate from actual human beings. Quite the opposite, the social mechanism by which a culture becomes appropriated relies on a simple truth—that Whiteness, and White womanhood in particular, need constant care and feeding to survive. 

The rabid commercialization of words like “namaste” provides a perfect case-in-point for how this system operates. A quick Google search of “namaste,” for example, pulls up a host of bizarre, but rampant mistranslations as well as a range of gendered lifestyle products, from jewelry and t-shirts that read “Namastay in Bed” to a Canadian television show called “Namaste Yoga,” featuring mostly White and light-skinned women doing yoga in beautiful locations in the woods or on a beach at sunset. 

Image result for namaste yoga fit tv

Photo Source: Namaste Yoga

In other words, the current (mis)use of namaste is not only a shining example of how White women (and those who seek to be identified with this group) tend to adopt a racialized otherness to perform a hip, cosmopolitan identity, especially through fashion that is sold as informal or lounge-wear (i.e., clothes you wear in private), but is also a uniquely North American brand of consumer-driven racism, something Ta-Nehisi Coates has diagnosed as a symptom of White hegemony and homogeniety:

“When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything. … You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however—and people just got to accommodate themselves to you.”

Ultimately, the colonization of yoga by White women is a shining example of what Coates identifies as an abiding principle of U.S. forms of White supremacy. To a large extent, this dynamic remains shielded from otherwise obvious critiques by the specious logic that yoga is spiritual, private, and therefore, beyond reproach. To this defense, I would argue that privacy and the right to privacy are also racialized and White supremacist concepts in the United States. But more importantly, what emerges from this analysis is that White women often need yoga to cultivate what Womanists like Hazel Carby identified long ago as the racialized “cult of true womanhood”a sense of self that is built in contrast to non-White women through the qualities of piety, purity, and spirituality. Carby describes a relationship between White women and non-White women that endures through and by yoga, observing that, “ideologies of White womanhood [were] are the sites of racial and class struggle which enable[d] white women to negotiate their subordinate role in relation to patriarchy.”

In other words, the propensity of White women (and not just Iggy Azalea or Khloe Kardashian) to flock to a consumer behavior to perform their social and cultural capital is hardly a new phenomenon. Many Whites and/or liberals are only now, in 2018, starting to talk about either Whiteness or White womanhood in productive ways. Some White male yoga practitioners, like this one, or this one, who refuse to use “namaste,” seem to understand why the behavior I am identifying here is a problem, without the need to abandon yoga all together—an outlook I wholeheartedly support. The problem with Whiteness and/or White womanhood doesn’t need to be a problem with yoga. Put another way: Dear White women (and the White men who “defend” them), your womanhood needs to find and express itself in a less destructive way. Your sense of self has come at the cost of non-White women for far, far too long.

Resources:

https://confrontwhitewomanhood.com

 

 

 

On Yoga and White Public Spaces

“To name the problem is to become the problem” -Sara Ahmed

It was a Wednesday afternoon and I arrived for yoga class, like I had on any other Wednesday for the past three years. I slipped off my shoes, dropping my car keys onto the soles of my weathered flip-flops so I wouldn’t misplace them. I hugged an instructor I knew well, congratulating her on her son’s graduation from college, and exchanged a few affectionate cheek-kisses before I gathered up my mat and headed towards class. As I made my way down that narrow, cheerful, teal green hallway I knew and loved so well, the owner of the studio stepped in front of me, blocking my path.

A White woman, a fellow member of the studio, had told him that I had “attacked her.” Stunned by the accusation of violence, I explained that it was only a chat, nothing else. It ended with us hugging, after all. But to answer his question, yes, I had spoken with her. We saw each other almost every day and I thought it was safe to share how I grew up with the word Namaste. She had used the word in a pun—Namastay Together—and so I opened up about how it felt to see a meaningful, even reverent word in India reduced to a common, commercialized joke.

I recounted to him that, looking back on the conversation, I could tell she was uncomfortable with my point of view. She responded defensively to my admission about how her pun left me feeling, retorting that she “didn’t have to explain herself” to me. I agreed, she absolutely didn’t, but we did share space that called itself a “community” so I thought it was worth trying to get to know each other better. I shared with her an analogy that might resonate. I compared what I felt was a misuse of words like Namaste to the way many Mexican-Americans feel when Cinco de Mayo is turned into a pun, Cinco de Drinko, something those who study language and racism in the United States have described as “Mock Spanish.”

In response, she peppered me with a series of questions.

“What if her husband was Indian?”

“What if she had lived in India for 10 years”

It turned out her questions were only hypothetical—she was neither married to an Indian nor had she ever been to India. Sensing she was still feeling defensive, I tried to bring the conversation to an amicable close. I thanked her for talking with me and in response, she hugged me. Before we said goodbye I told her earnestly that I hoped it was the start of more conversations for years to come. She agreed. We parted on good terms.

I related all this to the owner that day, explaining to him that it was an awkward conversation, most conversations about cultural difference are, but no one had been attacked. But, it didn’t matter to him why I had spoken with her about the way Namaste was or wasn’t being used, such conversations were unwelcome at his studio, he said. He informed me that he wouldn’t tolerate me “causing problems” and suggested I find a different studio where my cultural background could be accommodated. Shocked and hurt at the way the conversation was escalating, I tried to explain myself, in the end pleading with him to understand that his studio functioned as a stage on which issues of race and  representation were playing out on a daily basis.

In response to my explanation he simply stated: “There’s no such thing as racism in your case. You’re not Black.”

This was a heartbreaking and conversation-ending moment. Not only did he not understand how his misrecognition of racism affected me, but in that moment, I did not know how to help him see otherwise. If he thought racism only affected Black people, how was I going to change his mind, especially when he was telling me I was no longer welcome there?

Though the entire experience feels like a blur today, almost a year later, I can clearly remember that as I was standing there, trapped in this dead-end conversation, the woman who had reported me walked past us. I will never forget the look in her eyes. I couldn’t place the emotion I saw on her face in that heightened moment, but I can identify it now—it was fear. As she passed us I reached my arms out to her, pleading with her to please step into the conversation and explain that I had never attacked her. I had only tried to tell her about my point of view, as someone who knew the language in a way she might not. But she averted her eyes, clutching her yoga mat to her chest, pressing herself against the wall to slink by us, pretending not to see or hear what she had done.

I don’t remember how I got there, I walked, I suppose, but at some point after the conversation ended, I retreated to the bathroom to collect myself. As I braced my arms against the sink, shaking from the encounter, two instructors, both White women, followed me in. But rather than comfort me, I was instead met with disapproval and disdain.

“Why had I tried to talk about race at a yoga studio?”

“How could I have betrayed them this way?”

“Did I know how hard I had just made their days?”

“Why hadn’t I had more Grace?”

This last accusation, in particular, has haunted me. It was a cruel way to shame me, by asking me why I hadn’t been more Graceful in the face of such unkindness.

For months that moment has left me wondering—what is Grace in the face of indignity and injustice?

Is it abdication?

Is it apathy?

Or it is action?

That day I learned an important lesson about Grace, something many other people of color know in this country: that the sorts of kindness and poise we are expected to muster when we are excluded and silenced is a direct result of the ways in which White behavior (cisgender, heterosexual, Judeo-Christian) is constantly protected and re-centered in our daily interactions. And before anyone suggests this is just because I live in Texas, let me reassure you, I have had similar, though not as dramatic, experiences in yoga studios in Boston as well as Chicago. In other words, White public and institutional spaces, especially upper-middle class ones like yoga studios, unequivocally participate in the coddling of Whiteness.

But in reflecting on her weaponizing of Grace, I have also realized that, in posing that question to me, this woman revealed a deep, abiding conviction that I was operating in her world, within her value system and her beliefs. It was a one-way street—a striking example of how colonial attitudes, rooted in the hegemony and vernacular of White Supremacy endure. In that moment she made my argument for me—that the yoga studio, even in the wake of blatant discrimination, unapologetically operated in alignment with exclusionary White Judeo-Christian identity politics (translation: not only American Christians). It is telling that she chose to invoke Grace in that moment to shame me, since in doing so she willingly exposed the glaring hypocrisy of her identity as a Christian, much less a self-professed “yogi.”

In the end, I’ve learned that American yoga studios are fraught spaces, which are rarely safe for people of color. For a host of reasons, which I will be exploring in my research, there are simply too many who occupy such spaces who lack the vocabulary or the humility to understand how their behavior and their language might be destructive. This is uncharted territory for a Brown woman, a so-called model minority like me. I am learning at the age of 36 what my Black sisters learn by the age of 10—that Whiteness is often abusive, especially when its entitlement is challenged. 

In the months since this episode, though, I’ve thought about what I could have said or done to help myself, if not that collection of White people, understand. To articulate what racism and anti-racism mean outside of the Black-and-White binary. I’ve come to understand that many Indian-Americans, myself included, struggle to speak about this distinction effectively, especially in public spaces that are positioned as celebratory multicultural havens, like yoga studios. There is often a timidity around speaking out, a cycle of gas-lighting, derailing, and oppression olympics, even amongst ourselves, that succeeds at silencing us. Sometimes there is guilt about class identifications and a lack of recognition that you can both oppress and be oppressed, but even otherwise, there is very little awareness about the difference between ethnicity and race.  In my case, I am Indian (ethnicity), but am usually just lumped in with other Brown (race) parts of the world, like the Middle East, which is why there’s not a second-thought given to selling merchandise like this in yoga spaces.

 

Photo Credit: Simara Askew
(n.b. G*psy is a racial slur for the Roma people of Central and Eastern Europe)

If I had a chance to go back in time, though, to pose some thoughtful hypotheticals of my own, here’s what I would say:

If you are the owner of an establishment or yoga studio selling such clothing, or a person using such words, and a Roma person says something to you about how the word “G*psy” makes them feel, what will you do? Will you feel defensive? If you do, I want to request that you think about why you feel entitled to words like G*psy, or in my case, Namaste. What do these words accomplish for you? What if was a different, better known racially charged word, say, against African-Americans, in the United States? Would you still feel defensive and entitled to use the word as you please? And if the answer is no, please ask yourself why. 

 

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog! This space is where I’ll be sharing ideas from my research on yoga and Orientalism as a parallel and companion to my book-in-progress on the subject.

I’ll also be sharing links to resources on anti-racism and social justice that draws attention to racial and feminist formations in South Asian-American communities.