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.
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 2012—a 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:
Photo 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 connotation—as 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.
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.