RD Response to Fox Crit of White Supremacy in Yoga Engages in Victim Blaming

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Religion Dispatches History/Theology

RD Response to Fox Crit of White Supremacy in Yoga Engages in Victim Blaming

Rumya S. Putcha

Where is the line between keeping scholars honest and undercutting them, especially when such scholarship is meant to shine a light on systemic inequality?

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This piece is a response to Andrea Jain’s “Fox News Controversy on Yoga Reveals Problem of Yoga Discussion.” Read Jain’s response here.

Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them. – Assata Shakur

Earlier this year, Fox News ran a piece titled, “Americans who practice yoga contribute to white supremacy, Michigan State University professor claims,” loosely citing a blog post by Michigan State University Visiting Assistant Professor, Shreena Gandhi, and anti-racism community organizer, Lillie Wolff. In response to the Fox News coverage, Andrea Jain, a religious studies professor and scholar with an extensive publication record on the commercial history of yoga in the West, published a response here on RD in which she endeavored to offer “suggestions that might help avoid the exploitations of arguments that often serve right-wing purposes.”

As a whole, this exchange indicates that, for those of us who study modern South Asia and its diasporas, we still have a long way to go when it comes to effectively discussing how, after September 11, 2001 and rising to a fever pitch under the anti-immigration Trump administration, Brown South Asian bodies experience racism in ways that stand apart from the well-documented forms of systemic injustice that fall under the category of “Anti-Black” in the United States. Jain’s corrective, arguably addressed to Gandhi and Wolff, reveals that when it comes to talking about the lasting and lived legacies of White supremacy in the United States context, there are still too many who will capitulate to respectability politics and engage in tone-policing.

It’s striking that Jain’s primary goal in responding to the controversy is to “avoid right-wing spin and scrutiny.” At a time when academics, especially those whose work critically engages with the enduring racism of colonialism and White supremacy are facing daily harassment, death threats, and abuse, Jain suggests that those who discuss systemic inequality, especially women of color and/or anti-racism activists like Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff, must tread ever more lightly and speak ever more carefully so as to avoid the ire of establishment media and right-wing spin machines. This is a dangerous and ill-conceived suggestion, and one that neither serves healthy public discourse nor racial progress, and instead breeds ever more fear and self-doubt among minoritized populations who seek to speak truth to power.

Though Jain states that she agrees with the purported goals of the original piece by Gandhi and Wolff, she takes issue with the means, describing their post as “intellectually problematic and ready-made for those eager … to denigrate any attempt to critique dominant white culture.” Jain’s response goes on to offer thoughtful and even corroborating information to the piece she is responding to, but by framing her support in this manner she functionally blames Gandhi and Wolff for the abuse these women experienced from conservative, anti-intellectual platforms.

Moreover, by leveraging her prominence in the field, her response ultimately serves the same purposes of the right-wing zealots who initially belittled Gandhi and Wolff in the comments section on Foxnews.com and elsewhere. To be sure, by referencing her own work Jain enacts a version of what Edward Said once famously critiqued as the “citationary” nature of Orientalism and its reliance on “antecedent authority” to maintain White supremacist hegemony. For the past thirty years, critical race scholars like Richard Delgado have described this sort of gate-keeping as “imperial scholarship”. Indeed, I wondered as I read her response why, given the type of critique offered in the Gandhi/Wolff blog post, did Jain author a piece that seems to fault them rather than those who misread them or those who have created the problems they diagnose? This tactic reads as classic victim-blaming and suggests a lack of awareness around the nature of social justice discourse and postcolonial/critical race scholarship.

It also raised a few questions for me: Did Jain (or Religion Dispatches) reach out to Gandhi/Wolff before publishing the piece? Where is the line between keeping scholars honest and undercutting them, especially when such scholarship is meant to shine a light on systemic inequality? To put it more succinctly, how precisely did Jain determine that the danger in the Gandhi/Wolff piece was grave enough to merit an intervention of the kind she produced?

To a social justice minded scholar, Jain’s piece reads like a willful misinterpretation of Gandhi and Wolff’s post in order to trot out a decades-old anti-essentialism argument that might not really be germane in this case. Again, is the supposed sin committed by Gandhi and Wolff egregious enough to justify such a response? And why did such a critique have to be published without the input or voices of Gandhi and Wolff, the individuals whose ideas lie at the center of the controversy? A far more supportive move might have been to communicate those concerns directly to Gandhi and Wolff—or to the Praxis Center itself.

Ultimately, Gandhi and Wolff’s piece did not deserve to be weaponized by Fox News, but Andrea Jain’s response on RD, framed by the politesse of “avoidance,” was just as inappropriate and unhelpful. It detracts from the original message and moreover, excuses the harassment and abuse these women experienced. It gaslights those who have been brave enough to raise their voices. In the end, such supposed circumspection and equivocation, academic or otherwise, parading under the rhetoric of “nuance” does not foster dialogue or social change, it only works to maintain the status quo of White supremacist hegemony and inequality.