Orientalism: New Age’s Barrier to Inclusivity

The Snake Charmer

“The Snake Charmer” by Jean-Léon_Gerome, Courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

 

In recent months I’ve become increasingly aware of how often people within New Age feel privileged to justify racism. There is a pervasive belief in New Age that marginalized peoples want to experience marginalization, because their soul consciously embodied into that experience in this lifetime.[i]  This line of reasoning compounded with a goal to “center in one’s truth” is an open invitation for upholding white privilege. Too many times I have witnessed white folks within New Age gaslight people of color for “talking from their ego” when it comes to calling out racist behavior.  Even I have been accused of egotism when addressing it.

There’s a complete failure in New Age to recognize centuries of institutionalized racism and our collective responsibility to dismantle it. And that type of reasoning is disturbing for a movement that prides itself on “paradigm shifting” philosophies. So I’d like to take some time to explore orientalism, a type of racism that is at the bedrock of New Age. It’s easy to think that if you intend positivity then you automatically enact positivity. But prejudice and stereotypes can become embodied and passed down from generation to generation, and being a beacon of love, light, and happiness isn’t enough to break the cycles of unconscious biases. That requires continual interrogation of perceived cultural truths, active self-reflection, and a commitment to consciously choose a different thought, emotion, and action.

What Is Orientalism?

Orientalism is a cultural theory developed by Palestinian-American Edward Said that examines the ways in which Europe (the Occident) for centuries depicted and defined North Africa and Asia (the Orient) using recycled and reductionist stereotypes. By imagining the Orient as a barbaric, distant (in time and place), and mystical “other”, the Occident defined itself as the rational and civilized “standard”. Fantasies about who the people of the Orient “were” were not informed by how the Orient defined itself. It was purely informed by how people of the Occident envisioned those of the Orient to be. These stereotypes were expressed through art, political campaigns, travel journals, and academic discourse. Additionally, by feminizing the Orient as something to be possessed, orientalism helped justify Europe’s conquest of North Africa and Asia through colonialism.[ii]

While a discourse about the Orient emerged in Europe and the United States during the nineteenth century, so did one of New Age’s founding movements – Theosophy, which aggrandized India as a place for spiritual enlightenment. What makes orientalism (and other forms of racism) challenging to detect is that it doesn’t just claim derogatory or vilifying depictions as offensive. It also includes romanticized depictions. Romanticizing North Africa (i.e. Egypt) and Asia (i.e. India) as exotic is offensive. Both vilifying and romanticizing representations distort the complexities of reality. And that is the crux of New Age culture.

 

Orientalism and New Age

Orientalism is prevalent throughout New Age. Far too often the religions of Asia and North Africa are reduced to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Ancient Egyptian mythology. Little consideration is given to other religions like Islam, Jainism, Bahá’í, Zoroastrianism, or Shintoism. There’s even further distortion by denying North Africans credibility for building the pyramids, or appropriating certain mantras removed from their original cultural contexts and meanings. Women (often white) cover their hair in scarves and don beads, calling themselves “g*psies” and completely  fail to realize the racist representation. G*psy is derogatory term for the Roma, an ethnic minority of Indo-Aryan origins in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East that has been persecuted for centuries. Roma died in the Holocaust.[iii]

Hashtaggypseysoul
#gypsysoul is a common phrase shared in New Age that romanticizes the Roma, a persecuted ethnic minority. G*psy is widely considered a racial slur. Image from Instagram.
roma activists
Roma activists in Bulgaria march for human rights. Image from Change.org.

I’ve had to confront my own relationship with orientalism, which isn’t always easy to navigate. The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham played a major role in my spiritual development as a teen with its depiction of India as a land of enlightened gurus, while the West is portrayed as unapologetically materialistic. I am a member of the Theosophical Society of America, a religious organization co-founded by a Helena Petrovna Blavatsky who claimed to have psychic correspondences with ascended masters living in the Himalayas. And even years after first becoming aware of orientalism, I still fall prey to it now and again. On deciding on where to go for my first trip to India, Varanasi was selected because Lonely Planet described it as, “the India of your imagination.”[iv] The India of my imagination?! I loved Varanasi. It overloads the five senses. It’s chaotic and beautiful, and I would like to return someday. But Varanasi is not the India of my imagination. Because the India of my imagination never existed. It was a cultural construct informed by Maugham and Blavatsky.

In my own efforts to dismantle orientalism I find it useful to pause and reflect on why I choose to participate in certain practices. I remain a member of the Theosophical Society because I like the study of comparative religion. I practice yoga because I like the way my body feels after stretching. But I deliberately do not say “Namaste”, because that word doesn’t carry any spiritual power for me. And I think for many New Agers, the only reason why “Namaste” is such a spiritual signifier is because orientalism says it is. The only time I’ve said “Namaste” on a regular basis was when I was in India where it’s spoken as a respectful greeting, like a formal “Hello”.[v]

I had even more reason not to say “Namaste” after coming across Dr. Rumya Putcha’s blog Namaste Nation: Orientalism and Yoga in the 21st Century, which addresses the regular racism she’s experienced as a South-Asian American in American yoga studios. In the blog Dr. Putcha recounts a particular incident that occurred after Trump’s “Muslim Travel Ban”, a time when many South-Asian American passport holders were afraid of racial profiling. For Dr. Putcha this included a fear of speaking any language other than English while in public. At a yoga studio Dr. Putcha attended for three years, a white woman made a pun using the word “Namaste”. Dr. Putcha opened up about the discomfort she felt about witnessing white, self-identified liberals have the power and privilege to speak her language, at a time when she and loved ones were afraid of speaking the their own language. What was the outcome? Dr. Putcha was kicked out of the yoga studio for, “causing problems”[vi] because racism didn’t apply to her. She, “wasn’t black.”[vii]

excuse racism
New Age sentiments about racism depicted on Community

 

Racial Colorblindness Is Racism

I don’t know the religious affiliation of the people involved with this incident, but it mirrors interactions I’ve witnessed and experienced within New Age. New Age has fully embraced the concept of racial colorblindness, despite  all of the sociological evidence that racial colorblindness is a form of racism.[viii] Colorblindness claims to stop racism by treating everyone the same without regards to race, culture, or ethnicity. But the predominant racial demographic of New Age in the United States is white, and practitioners are unlikely to experience disadvantages to race. White New Agers can effectively ignore racism, maintain the status quo by “centering” in their truth (read, centering the white perspective), and are free to remain comfortable and privileged, assuming everyone else has the same social power. But we aren’t all treated equally. Under racial colorblindness underrepresented minorities still experience racial discrimination. And by ignoring race in its entirety, proponents of colorblindness also ignore racial injustices.[ix]

 

A New Approach to Law of Attraction

I believe that a major reason why New Age welcomes racial colorblindness so openly is because of the belief in Law of Attraction, the theory that our thoughts create our reality. In New Age this can be taken to extremes to mean that everything you experience is a result of a thought you projected. Hence, the belief that if someone is marginalized it’s a result of them believing themselves to be marginalized, not the historical and cultural contexts in which they were born. And because New Age is so focused on creating a personal reality that solely benefits the individual (centering in your truth), it has lost its humanitarian perspective. It’s lost its sense of accountability to one another.

My teacher, Ylva Mara Radziszewski, happens to be of Roma descent, and teaches a simple meditation in the form of a question:  “Who are you in relation to [insert noun here]?” Who are you in relation to your parents? Who are you in relation to an Uber driver taking you to your destination? Who are you in relation to the server at your favorite restaurant? This question was a game changer for me. It acknowledges the individual’s sovereignty as well as another being’s sovereignty. Further recognizing the relationship between the two autonomous beings acknowledges the fact that our words, emotions, and actions do in fact have an impact on other beings. It means that if New Age is going to hold Law of Attraction and the power of the mind in such high esteem, it needs to also treat it so. It means that even if we don’t “see race” we still have unconscious biases that were taught to us. And if these thoughts are in fact creating the racial inequalities that impact other sovereign beings around us, then it’s time for New Age to really interrogate its embedded prejudices.

I implore others within New Age to reflect on who they are in relation to orientalism and other forms of racism (anti-blackness, continual colonization of indigenous religious practices, etc.). I ask practitioners within New Age to seek and listen to the perspectives of the people who are underrepresented, and take time to reflect on how we all might unconsciously contribute to the current climate of racial politics. Then take decisive action to stop and break the cycle, which might mean relinquishing the privilege to perform certain practices. It will likely be uncomfortable, and like me (in planning a trip to India) people might find that they slip sometimes. But we start again, and do the work anyway. Because until we take time to directly address harmful practices we will never advance past racial inequality.

 

 

Further resources:

Edward Said explains Orientalsim

Shades of Faith: Minority Voices in Paganism edited by Crystal Blanton

Namaste Nation: Orientalism and Yoga in the 21st Century, blog by Dr. Rumya Putcha

 

[i] Scott, Laura. “Why Do Some Souls Choose Such Difficult Paths?” Ancient Stardust. November 01, 2018. Accessed February 12, 2019. https://ancientstardust.com/why-do-some-souls-choose-such-difficult-paths.

[ii] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

[iii] “Sinti and Roma.” Definition of Ghettos. Accessed February 12, 2019. https://fcit.usf.edu/holocaust/people/victroma.htm.

[iv] Lonely Planet. “Varanasi Travel | Uttar Pradesh, India.” Lonely Planet. Accessed February 12, 2019. https://www.lonelyplanet.com/india/uttar-pradesh/varanasi.

[v] Lonely Planet. “Varanasi Travel | Uttar Pradesh, India.” Lonely Planet. Accessed February 12, 2019. https://www.lonelyplanet.com/india/uttar-pradesh/varanasi.

[vi] Putcha, Rumya. “On Yoga and White Public Spaces.” Namaste Natioin: Orientalism and Yoga in the 21st Century. March 28, 2018. Accessed February 12, 2019. http://rumyaputcha.com/.

[vii] ibid

[viii] “Colorblind Ideology Is a Form of Racism.” Psychology Today. Accessed February 12, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201112/colorblind-ideology-is-form-racism.

[ix] ibid

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