To Fight White Supremacy We Must Resist Essentialism: The Author Responds

This piece is a response to Rumya Putcha’s criticism of the author’s original RD piece, “Fox News Controversy on Yoga and White Supremacy Reveals Problem of Yoga Discussion.”

In February of this year, I wrote on RD that Fox News journalist Caleb Parke egregiously misrepresented an article on yoga and cultural appropriation by Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff. I argued that Parke offered a “very simple and misleading” picture of Gandhi and Wolff’s arguments, and I stood firmly behind what I took to be the main thesis of Gandhi and Wolff’s article: white Americans practicing yoga should critically reflect on yoga’s South Asian roots, the history of colonialism, and the desire and power to appropriate from historically oppressed communities of color.

I also raised some basic questions: could the most dreadful of corporate media and right-wing spin machines’ representations of public intellectuals teach us anything about ourselves and how we offer our scholarship for public consumption? Could we use these representations as an opportunity to exercise the skill of reflexivity, our intellectual ability to step out of ourselves and our society and reflect critically on how we are thinking or how we are not thinking but inheriting and perpetuating the assumptions of our culture and society, including our intellectual traditions and institutions? In other words, by reflecting critically on representations of ourselves, could we refine the ways we do scholarship?

It was disconcerting to read Rumya Putcha’s interpretation of my piece, which suggested it was “classic victim-blaming” and betrayed “a lack of awareness around the nature of social justice discourse and postcolonial/critical race scholarship.”

Public scholarship, especially on religion, is dangerous. That is why the orthodox model for scholars of religion is to not try to connect with the public. The question of whether or not to make contact is generally met with a blatant prohibition or, at the very least, with ominous warnings.

Those of us who nonetheless choose to live dangerously—to do public scholarship—challenge this model because we are convinced that connecting with the public, though admittedly dangerous, is a potential source of power, a mode of dismantling dominant systems of oppression. It is a potent tool for the scholar willing to take the challenge and to expose herself to enormous forces.

The stakes are high. Subversive intellectuals are the prey of orthodoxy. I have experienced firsthand the abuse, name calling, and bullying that comes when an intellectual subverts social norms in public.

This is all to say that it takes courage to offer up radical and subversive arguments and, accordingly, offer our necks on the proverbial chopping block. Gandhi and Wolff did that when they addressed how and where discourses on yoga sit behind the establishment and maintenance of social norms and perpetuate white supremacy. I applaud them for doing so.

The question now is this: how can we wage this battle even more effectively? How can we best shield ourselves from the inevitable onslaughts of predatory journalists, readers, and politicians who prefer “fake news” over evidence-based, critical discussions on religion and society? How can we more fully reap the rewards of living dangerously?

It is not about policing our tone or maintaining respectability. On the contrary, I beg public intellectuals: do not sanitize your arguments. Do not aspire to be polite. But do proceed intentionally. Not because we want to avoid the indignation of orthodoxy. That is neither possible nor desirable. I do not aspire to be a gatekeeper here. On the contrary, I think it is simply worth asking the question: how can we open the gate and connect with the public in a way that best achieves our shared goal of dismantling capitalist and white supremacist orthodoxies?

It is worth asking how we might most effectively challenge the ideological trap of capitalist realism with a counter-discourse that avoids being domesticated or controlled. It is worth asking how we might most effectivity make contact with the public while dodging the establishment media’s strategies for the containment of dissent.

This is not about sanitization. It is about sacrificing authoritative claims to origins or authenticity on the altar of critical scholarship. If one is willing to risk losing one’s claims to yoga’s origins or authenticity, for example, one can make progress on the battlefront against colonialism, racism, and capitalist exploitation—not to mention anti-intellectualism—in the global yoga industry. When we refuse to paint simplistic pictures of yoga as Hindu, for example, we throw a wrench in Narendra Modi and Baba Ramdev’s ongoing efforts to weaponize yoga, for power and for profit, against religious and sexual minorities in India. We also sabotage the scare tactics of Hinduphobes who warn of the subtle ways yoga challenges the Christian commitments of naïve American yoga practitioners.

It is not the scholar’s place to establish or verify claims about origins or authenticity. Such efforts fail to account for the complexities of the cultural phenomena those scholars claim to represent. Arguments for an original, static, tradition (some wholesome, unadulterated yoga, for example) produce nostalgic representations that are out of touch with historical reality. They mirror the essentialist arguments of consumers themselves. In other words, they simplify complex cultural products in ways that make them easier to contain, own, discuss, or sell.

It is the scholar’s place, in my view, to acknowledge those claims among her subjects, to analyze them as culturally, historically, and politically situated claims, and to critique her subjects as engaged in collective strategies to preserve social systems. In the analysis of yoga and cultural appropriation, this means analyzing them as cogs in the economic and social machinations of white supremacy and consumer capitalism.

I wish I could avoid pulling out the old anti-essentialism argument, but unfortunately I cannot do that until the public and intellectuals alike stop offering up essentialist visions of cultural products like yoga. Resisting the siren call of orthodoxy to claim a site of origin or authenticity is dangerous—it destabilizes our own sense of authority—yet it holds the possibility of empowerment.