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.

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