We have previously seen protests on colleges to end yoga classes as “cultural appropriation.” Now Michigan State University professor Shreena Gandhi has written a long critique of white people who practice yoga as promulgating a “system of power, privilege, and oppression.” Gandhi insists that yoga is an extension of white supremacy and the “yoga industrial complex.” Ganhdi co-authored the piece with Lillie Wolff who describes herself as “an antiracist white Jewish organizer, facilitator, and healer.” Wolff has called for “decolonizing” yoga.
Gandhi has cited her “scholarly work on yoga” and argues that yoga classes “allows western practitioners to experience the idea of another culture while focusing on the self.” The article argues that yoga classes should be conditioned on white people acknowledging their cultural appropriation, being forced to learn its history, and lowering the costs for poor people and people of color. It appears that the prostrate position will precede the lotus position in your next yoga class.
Yoga . . . popularity was a direct consequence of a larger system of cultural appropriation that capitalism engenders and reifies. While the (mis)appropriation of yoga may not be a life-threatening racism, it is a part of systemic racism nonetheless, and it is important to ask, what are the impetuses for this cultural “grabbing”? In order to delve deeper into this question, it’s useful to look at the roots of U.S. white dominant culture, the foundation of which is rooted in enslavement of West Africans and settler colonialism. Decades of assimilation and the cultural stripping of Europeans as they arrived to the U.S. produced a white dominant culture. People of European descent replaced their ethnicities (i.e. German, Polish, English, Italian, etc.) with whiteness and the privileges that came along with that identity. This history is especially relevant right now as we are seeing white men taking to the streets in mobs shouting, “We will not be replaced.”
While my comments will likely be dismissed as an expression of privilege, I find this type of analysis to be highly superficial and conclusory. I remain surprised that such work is treated as a substantive academic contribution by some. It constitutes little more than a chain of stereotypes and political commentary dressed up as pseudo-cultural analysis. My concern is that criticism of such work is becoming more difficult for academics who fear to be labeled as insensitive or hostile or even racist.
The authors treat the assimilation of cultural influences as a type of misappropriation as opposed to the natural influence of different cultures on a pluralistic society. As an Italian, I see much of my culture replicated and then expressed differently by non-Italians. It does not bother me because it is part of a process of translation and growth. I will often tell my kids what an Italian dish should look like or how a holiday was practiced but this is not to resist “misappropriation” but to reinforce our own connections to our cultural risks. Indeed, I have found most people interested in the sources of practices, dishes and influences.
The thing I love about this country is its pluralism and assimilation. There is always a certain translation and evolution even within a culture. Practices evolve with communities and that evolution extends their reach and influence. It is not an act of colonialism but translation.
What do you think?