In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Amanda J. Lucia, author of White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals (University of California Press, 2020).
1) What sparked the idea for writing this book?
This book really began without any intention to write about whiteness. In 2011, I was a new faculty member at University of California-Riverside and I randomly picked up a flier for Bhakti Fest from my daughter’s preschool. I decided to attend, thinking that it would be a great way to connect with the Indian Hindu community in southern California, since the festival was a celebration of bhakti, a term used to refer to a form of Hindu devotion (which is also present in other South Asian religious traditions). I didn’t really know much about the yoga and kīrtan (devotional music) scene in Southern California and I was eager to learn and connect. When I got there, I was shocked to see that there were very few South Asians who attended, but yet this was a very deep field of interest, inquiry, and sociality, enacted primarily among whites. For example, when I asked one participant when he got involved with bhakti, he told me that his grandmother was on the board of the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF, founded by Paramahansa Yogananda) in the 1940s. And to my surprise, it was like that all over this scene. I met people who had been raised as children in ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness), ex-Osho (Bhagwan Rajneesh) devotees, ex-Siddha Yogis (Swami Muktananda), and many yogis, kīrtan musicians, and bhaktas who had been practicing for decades.
So, the demographic facts of the population really challenged the current scholarly discourse in several key ways. First, the fact that they were so exclusively white had never been properly addressed in the literature analyzing the spirituality of the 1960s counterculture or contemporary spiritual seekers or New Age, “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) communities. Secondly, the depth and seriousness of these white bhaktas had also been discounted and undermined by a variety of scholarly critics who dismissed their engagements as merely neo-colonialism, cultural appropriation, or superficial commodification.
My work wanted to challenge both of these assertions. Fundamentally, I questioned why these populations tend to be so predominantly white even though they garner so much inspiration from non-white religious forms. And then, second, I investigated the contours of the very substantive spiritual work in which they are engaging – and acknowledged that.
Lastly, as I got deeper in these fields and I began thinking more intently about the modes of religious exoticism enacted therein, I fully experienced how this critique also reflects back on the academy. In fact, in some ways, this book is unpacking the foundations of why I (as a white woman) ever thought India and Hinduism were “cool,” “spiritual,” or “fascinating” in the first place – back when I was a teenager perusing the aisles of a “New Age” bookshop.
2) How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?
I was surprised to learn from my informants just how adamant many of them were in their rejection of religion – and how distinctly they saw the categories of religion and spirituality. I was also surprised by the extent to which their rejection of religion was a rejection of institutional religion, and most commonly signified a rejection of Christianity and Catholicism. I heard a lot of stories of people who felt that they had been stifled and abused in their religious upbringings and now were demanding more autonomy and control over their spiritual lives. But that didn’t mean that they had turned away from nearly anything that we might consider religious. They were praying, conducting rituals, building altars, worshipping deities, cultivating peak experiences, practicing yoga and meditation, and so on. And many of them had turned toward Indic and Indigenous religions – and here I use these terms broadly to refer to Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra, Sikhism, and then a variety of Indigenous traditions (including Maori, Australian Aboriginal, and North and South American Native traditions). I was also very interested to follow the ways in which these populations, many of whom had been thoroughly disillusioned by religion were re-enchanting their lives through ascetic and mystical practices, and in a multitude of expressive ways in their material culture.
3) Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?
This book walks a middle path between empathy and critique, so the main goal of the book really depends on the reader. For those who have never thought about the overwhelming whiteness of yoga, SBNR religiosity, or transformational festival cultures, I’d like them to think about it — not only why it exists, but then also why they never thought about it or had the impulse to question it. Then, on the other side, for critics who write-off these cultures as superficial nonsense or intentionally racist, I’d like them to look a bit closer and to empathize with the ways in which these populations are deeply spiritually engaged and are, in their own ways, rejecting Christian, Anglo-European (white) supremacy, even if they are doing so from within the comfortable confines of white homogeneity.
Second, I’d like to see the SBNR cultures discussed in the book (yoga and transformational festivals) think about the ways in which their practices exacerbate the struggles of people of color to represent their religions, cultures, and traditions in the public sphere. What exactly is happening when a white female yogi can get more media representation than her brown Indian counterpart? In what ways is the culture opportunistic in its representational practices? And according to what ethic is it operating? And most fundamentally, how can it operate in more collaborative ways with the communities whose practices it so deeply admires?
Third, I’d like people to see the opportunity that such events provide for building social cohesion and bonding through communal gatherings – in the shared build, in the cuddle puddle. We are all living such isolated lives – especially now with COVID-19. Festivals and the close-knit communities therein have a unique opportunity to teach us about how to work together, how to build social relationships, and how to unite behind a common vision, ideal, and goal. In contrast, I’d also warn a bit about the potential for increased isolationism and neoliberal entrapments inherent in the individualistic striving for self-perfection.
4) Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?
In writing this book, I definitely took direction and inspiration from scholars in Indigenous studies. Scholars like Philip Deloria, Philip Jenkins, and Aileen Moreton-Robinson were very influential in my thinking about the historical propensity of whites to be attracted to Native religions in correlation to their dissatisfaction with white society, and to commonplace practices of white possessivism. Throughout the book, I build on Véronique Altglas and Tzvetan Todorov’s discussions of exoticism, and particularly religious exoticism, as an overarching category that includes, but is not limited to consumptive and representational practices of a particular geography or religious tradition (as in Edward Said’s Orientalism). I also found Tulasi Srinivas’s recent work on wonder (The Cow in the Elevator, 2018) to be very useful, and I saw wonder abounded in my research fields. I also saw the ways in which it crafted a productive resistance to trends of neoliberal capitalism, but then also contributed to its amplification. Lastly, this book builds on the foundations of Arun Saldanha’s work on the predominantly white spiritual-psytrance-party scene in Goa, India that he analyzes so adroitly in Psychedelic White (2007).
5) What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?
How about lifting an industrial-sized refrigerator onto a semi-truck in 110-degree heat at Burning Man? Or hauling all of my camping gear (including a rolling cooler) through more than a mile of thick sand at Lightning in a Bottle? Or Dakota Lemon’s advanced yoga class at Wanderlust Oahu? There are so many examples to choose from! But with all lightheartedness aside, I am definitely glad that I did this project in my 30s and 40s while I was still able-bodied and energetic (though I hope to remain so for a while yet). This ethnographic project entailed a lot of physicality – whether in the form of travel, camping, yoga, or manual labor, or all of the above. It was also a very expensive book. Even keeping up with the transformational festival and yoga festival circuits to the extent that I did demanded considerable funding and even still, loaded my credit cards with miscellaneous expenses. That autoethnographic experience reinforced to me the ways in which these scenes privilege healthy and wealthy bodies, which also interfaces with their propensity toward whiteness.
6) What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?
I write about this in the Methodology section of the book, so I would encourage those who are interested to read there for more details. But in accordance with the standard protocols of ethnographic ethics, after I wrote the first draft of the book, I sent all of the informants who were quoted therein copies of their quotes in context, the book title, synopsis and table of contents. And for the majority – like 95 percent – of the responses were very positive. Some made comments, others offered suggestions. Some were very excited to see their words in the final edition, while others were more indifferent. Some reached out to me to discuss further, but after an initial exchange they never followed up. Overall, I listened to their comments, and incorporated many of their ideas and suggestions. But there were a few high-profile influencer-type white yoga teachers who were absolutely furious to be included in a book centered on whiteness. They felt that any inclusion of their words (even anonymized with pseudonyms) in a study that addressed whiteness would be a threat to their brands. Instead of viewing the study as a conversation about the implications of race, they saw the discussion of whiteness as a moral indictment of their own racism. In response, they said that they were being misrepresented (even when I sent them the audio files of interviews to which they had consented in the field) and they cited their POC teachers, their time spent in India (or among Native peoples), and their credentials as evidence as to why they should not be included in such a study. These reactions were shocking to me, though more experienced scholars around me suggested that I was naïve to have not anticipated them. These reactions also made me think more deeply about why whiteness has such a negative valence in these communities. And I noted that those who had the most intense negative reactions were those who had invested a significant part of their personae in wholly identifying with non-white cultures. For them, the acknowledgement of their whiteness, challenged and even negated their adopted, chosen identities. This is an interesting phenomenon that has also been in the popular media recently with white women co-opting non-white identities – as in the cases of Rachel Dolezal, Jessica Krug, and Kelly Kean Sharp – and it deserves more concentrated thought. In time, I began to understand the reasoning behind their reactions, but it also revealed the ways in which whites have been insulated from discussions about race and just how much work needs to be done to develop a more robust racial consciousness within white communities.
7) With this book done, what’s up next for you?
Well, it is sort of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Working on whiteness and its intersections with yoga and spirituality has sent me into really fraught, combative, and sometimes treacherous territories. It has also tested my strengths in creating balanced and polyvocal accounts that are simultaneously critical and empathic. With my next project, I feel that any skills that I developed in that vein will be put to the test. I have just embarked on a six-year grant (the Religion & Sexual Abuse Project, funded in part by the Henry Luce Foundation) that brings together a diverse scholarly team to address religion and sexual abuse in a variety of religious fields. As a group, we hope to foster productive conversations through large-scale conferences, tradition-specific workshops, and our website (www.religionandsexualabuseproject.org, which will launch in November 2020). With this multifaceted project we aim to contribute to building an even more robust scholarly field, including producing pedagogical materials for classroom use and sharing resources through partnerships with community-based organizations. My part of that project will be to produce a book and related articles investigating how it has become a reality that allegations of sexual impropriety have been issued against the majority of global gurus in modernity. I will be looking at the inter-relationality of discourses and practices surrounding abuse, including racialized discourses and the impact of fame and celebrity.
Amanda J. Lucia is associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of California-Riverside. Her research engages the global exportation, appropriation, and circulation of Hinduism. She is currently crafting a body of research on sexual abuse in guru-led religious communities.