An Open Letter to Lufthansa, part 2

Sir,
Firstly, as indicated in my initial contact and in follow-up correspondence, my name is Dr. Rumya Putcha, not Mrs. Putcha. I request that you address me on all formal matters, such as these, as Dr. Putcha.

Secondly, I am compelled to respond to your email, dated July 11, as it would appear that you and Lufthansa consider this matter and my complaint to be resolved. I must stress that this is absolutely not the case. My initial complaint remains unsatisfactorily addressed.

Allow me to clarify the main points of my complaint:
1. Lufthansa employee K. Worrins threatened me and acted in a physically aggressive manner towards me.
2. Lufthansa employee K. Worrins took my property from me without my consent and removed files from my device without my consent AFTER I had already complied with his demand to delete what he believed were videos that violated data protection/privacy. (please note, for accuracy, that I had requested and been granted permission from the passengers to record the incident).
3. I observed Lufthansa employee K. Worrins acting in a similarly aggressive and unprofessional manner towards other passengers of color.
4. As a result of Lufthansa employee K. Worrins’ behavior towards me, I have suffered significant emotional distress. I feel unsafe flying with you and I do not trust in Lufthansa’s ability to ensure my safety on board any of your flights.

Not only am I deeply disappointed in the quality and content of your response to my concern, but it has certainly not restored any confidence in Lufthansa. Thus, I demand this situation be escalated to your supervisor for immediate attention.

My expectations regarding a satisfactory resolution to this matter are:
1. Acknowledgement by Lufthansa that their employee, K. Worrins’ aggressive and menacing behavior towards me is unacceptable and that it does not meet with the conduct Lufthansa would expect of its employees towards passengers.
2. An apology from Lufthansa regarding the above-mentioned behavior of employee K. Worrins and for K. Worrins taking my personal property without my explicit consent.
3. For my return flight to be rebooked with an airline of my choosing that is NOT operated by Lufthansa.

I have cc-ed representatives of your PR team to alert them to the fact that I will be sharing your abysmal reply (with your name blurred out), which takes zero responsibility or accountability for what I experienced, widely across all social media platforms. I also include your PR team as a courtesy because I have been contacted by CNN International to comment on what I witnessed and experienced. I have, for now, decided not to go on camera in the hopes that this sub-par response to my complaint is not a reflection of Lufthansa’s customer care as a whole. I have also cc-ed a colleague who is advising me with this matter since I am traveling as an employee of Texas A&M University. I appreciate your prompt attention to this matter and expect to hear from you and your supervisors soon.

Sincerely,
Dr. Rumya Putcha

An Open Letter to Lufthansa Airlines

My name is Dr. Rumya Putcha. I was recently a passenger on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore on July 3, 2018.

When I boarded and took my seat, there was an Indian couple seated across the aisle. The gentleman, whose left foot was in a cast, was seated in the aisle seat. I noted that the head flight attendant, M. Arnberg, was speaking with these two passengers with great concentration. She was kneeling in the aisle and reading over medical documents the passengers handed her, while carefully examining the cast on the man’s left leg.

As we all settled into our seats, a Lufthansa employee (his badge read “Flight Manager”) K. Worrins, approached the passengers, and without so much as an acknowledgement or apology, he loudly informed them they must leave the flight. The passengers understandably protested—this was the same man who had cleared them to board at the gate. The pilot joined the conversation and behaved with an equal lack of compassion or care, further escalating the situation and threatening police action.

The situation continued to be fueled by these two men and their egos. Both behaved with zero regard for the passengers’ situation and an utter lack of compassion. This passenger was injured and disabled! I began recording the episode on my phone because I wanted to be able to document how deeply disturbing the behavior and words of your staff were. K. Worrins realized I was recording, approached me, and threatened to have me arrested or removed from the flight. In fear and in ignorance of my rights (I am not familiar with the rules around recording on flights and he chillingly cited “German law”) I obliged. He stood over me, insisted that I delete the video while he watched, and when I did, he walked away. At this point, another passenger commented on how inappropriately the staff was behaving, so Worrins then returned to threaten me, belittle me, and insist I delete the videos from the trash bin (a step I was unfamiliar with). He took my phone from me and deleted more items. I was left shaking and terrified for the next 9 hours from this entire ordeal.

Now, I would never have felt the need to record if the pilot and Worrins had not behaved in such a dramatic manner. Neither man seemed to want to deescalate the situation, which would have been easily accomplished by reassuring the passengers that Lufthansa would be paying for them to stay in a hotel and they would be rebooked once medical clearance was provided. I want to reiterate—I only recorded for the purposes of sharing this video with those who can and should take action against these two individuals, Worrins and the pilot.

The behavior I witnessed and recorded was unprofessional and shockingly disrespectful. At the very least, I deserve an apology. Worrins went out of his way to frighten and intimidate me. He behaved in a manner that was physically menacing and one of your flight attendants (she was Indian) scoffed afterwards that it could be worse, at least no one was “beaten up.” I refuse to applaud your staff for not engaging in physical violence.

Worrins behaved in a similar manner towards the passengers he removed from the flight. He was condescending and treated these two people like they were dirt on his shoe. I can appreciate the situation at hand, we were running late, but as M. Arnberg confided in me, Worrins knew he was at fault. He never should have let this man board if the cast was such a concern. It was his error that caused this entire fiasco and he behaved as though it was their fault or mine for trying to help them. Arnberg saw very clearly that Worrins unleashed his frustration on me. She later admitted she was worried about me when she saw him treating me this way.

More than anything else, I was deeply disturbed by the lack of respect and regard shown for these two passengers. The man had a broken leg, his wife was a doctor. No one seemed to be listening to them at all. She repeatedly tried to offer a solution that would allow them to remain on board—she would simply remove the cast—but no one listened to her.

As an academic who studies these issues, this entire episode was a painful reminder of how White supremacy endures. Your staff, especially Worrins and the pilot, behaved in a patronizing and deeply inhumane manner towards these two Indian customers. Indeed, the other passengers and I wondered to each other after the drama subsided if your staff would have ever spoken to a White/European couple this way. I find citing “privacy laws” (for this was the excuse for Worrins behavior) a fascinating and rhetorical sleight of hand; one I will be studying and writing about in my next post.

I would appreciate an apology and I do hope you, Lufthansa, have already apologized to that poor couple. My heart broke for the woman as she sobbed while being escorted off the plane. I, for one, do not feel safe flying with you anymore.

I am working with a forensic data recovery specialist now and will send along the videos as soon as we can recover them.

7/6/2018 Update
This evening I was contacted by the couple I described above. It turns out the flight had been overbooked and the interrogation about the cast began only AFTER the flight attendants realized two sets of people had been assigned the same seat numbers.

But here’s the real kicker (pun intended):

The couple flew the next day, on the same flight, with the same cast. No one blinked an eye. There were no histrionics about the leg swelling or the cast being the “wrong kind.”

Simply put, the entire ordeal, up to and including the feigned concern about the cast by M. Arnberg was all a giant ruse to gaslight this couple and then me.
I have heard many stories of airlines behaving unconscionably and with impunity, but the lengths they went to in order to silence me when I saw what was happening is not something I will forgive or forget any time soon.

I’m grateful for the power of social media in bringing survivors of racism and abuse together in solidarity. I felt so alone and ashamed the past few days as I relived the trauma of that vengeful, bully of a man standing over me, threatening to arrest me for doing what I knew I would want someone to do for me if I was in their shoes. Like so many victims, I blamed myself for not fighting back harder, for “letting” him win. But after speaking with this couple and their daughter-in-law, I don’t feel alone or ashamed any more.

I hope all of you reading this will join me in boycotting Lufthansa.

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.