A scholar of critical race theory and a yoga teacher explore the problematic ways Westerners describe their travels to India.
Last year, Yoga Journal ran a travel essay by a US-based yoga teacher who had visited India with his family. His account was not unlike many Western accounts of India and in the vein of what we call “poverty-porn.” In these stories, India is consistently described as a place where those from North America or Europe can “find themselves,” “surrender,” “find grace in poverty,” “learn tolerance,” “experience culture,” or “withstand an assault on the senses.”
In other words, for all too many white yoga practitioners, India is the other. It is the “dirty” escapist fantasy that leads to a “life-changing, transformational” experience for travelers.
Most tourists, even educated yoga practitioners, may not realize that this attitude perpetuates colonial and structural forms of racism. Structural racism, also known as white supremacy in the US context today, is not about individual acts. Instead, it is about the institutional, taken-for-granted privilege that makes it possible for a US citizen to easily acquire a tourist visa to India, when the inverse is next to impossible for the average Indian. In other words, structural racism determines who gets to go where and how. So, before you plan a trip, reflect on why you want to travel to India and consider the broader history and implications.
Many people see travel as the antidote to racism. Travel can allow us to see cultural differences—this is true—but when “difference” becomes a source of self-affirmation, travel is reduced to a form of virtue-signaling, or self-congratulation, which only leads to more re-centering of the white experience. Many travel to places black and brown folks come from to experience personal “transformation” in the face of devastating inequity and call this gratitude. We have all seen this type of social media post: the “simple happiness of the locals, despite the fact that most live in poverty, made me realize how fortunate I am, and how easy it is to be happy.” This is a normalized form of racism, like referring to African-American music as “ghetto” or the everyday racist question brown folks know all too well: “But where are you FROM?”
The challenging aspect of this, for most of the white people who teach and practice yoga (about 85 percent of yoga participants in the US are white, according to the National Institutes of Health), is that you must confront and deprogram the attitude that prioritizes intentions over impact. Ask yourself honestly, “Am I going to India to make myself feel better about my place in the world?” Or worse, “Am I posting about it on social media so I can pat myself on the back for it?”