“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.