Is spiritual growth possible without confronting whiteness?

In ‘White Utopias,’ cultural appropriation at festivals like Burning Man goes under the microscope.

 

In a geodesic dome in Joshua Tree, California, hundreds of festival-goers assemble for a workshop on prānāyāma, an ancient Hindu breathing practice. Amid an acoustic blend of drumming, chanting and birdsong, a workshop leader, flanked by “guardians” dressed in white, instructs participants to drop into their heart centers and prepare to be “introduced to the place inside (themselves) that is pure love.” Many of the participants take these Hinduism-derived activities seriously. But most, if not all, identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) — a phrase-turned-demographic category that describes the growing number of Americans who are critical of organized religion but believe in something greater than themselves. And these festival-goers have something else in common: Nearly everyone at Bhakti Fest, a multi-day annual celebration of spiritual transformation through Indian cultural practices, is white.

To research her insightful new book White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals, Amanda Lucia, a California-based scholar of religion who specializes in global Hinduism, immersed herself in SBNR communities in California, Hawaii, Australia, Nevada and elsewhere, attending 23 different “transformational festivals” — large-scale gatherings of people attempting to create enlightened selves within imagined utopian worlds. The festivals emphasize certain qualities — kindness, inclusion, mindfulness and the rejection of conventional understandings of the self — though they vary in the details of their utopic visions (and in their acceptance of corporate sponsorships). But Lucia, who attends without hiding her role as a researcher, is struck by their overwhelming whiteness. What makes them, as Lucia writes, such “safe spaces of white ethnic homogeneity”? The festivals are intended to facilitate spiritual transformation. But do the participants ever confront their own investment in whiteness? If not, how profound could their transformations be?

Members of the Naobi Village perform an early morning ritual at the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. In ‘White Utopias,' Lucia argues that festivalgoers' adoption of nonwhite religious and cultural identities reveals a sense of entitlement.
Shannon Stapleton

Lucia’s sharp analysis and enthusiasm for historical and theoretical context dominates the book, but she also takes readers inside the festival scene, with its yogis, prayer beads, ceremonial pipes, chakra wands, crystals and the other spiritual bricolage common to many “alternative” or New Age spaces. We accompany her into catharsis workshops where strangers gather to scream, sob and collapse, and experience the awe-struck silence of the conflagration of Burning Man’s Temple.

Lucia grounds the book in the long tradition of “Americans turn(ing) to religious others when dissatisfied with the dominant culture.” From the Transcendentalist movement of the 1840s to the 1960s counterculture and New Age in the ’90s, the stresses of modern life have pushed Americans to experiment with amalgams of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism and Indigenous religions, attracted by what Lucia terms “religious exoticism.” But while many of the seekers believe they’re reckoning with their own whiteness, Lucia argues that their adoption of nonwhite religious and cultural identities reveals a sense of entitlement — a tendency to rely on “racialized others as unsullied, exotic, premodern subjects whose cultural products supply practical, therapeutic tools.” Religious exoticism not only assumes whiteness as a default, but exploits and erases the legitimate representatives of marginalized spiritual traditions.

But isn’t whiteness, as a learned investment in one group’s inherent superiority, an obstacle to spiritual transformation itself — particularly the respect for human dignity and compassion?

White Utopias shows how deeply whiteness undergirds these gatherings of spiritual seekers. But isn’t whiteness, as a learned investment in one group’s inherent superiority, an obstacle to spiritual transformation itself — particularly the respect for human dignity and compassion? Lucia approaches the question only in the second appendix, where she recounts her research methods. She writes that when she solicited feedback from the individuals she quoted (many of whom are considered expert yogis or spiritual gurus), many had “vitriolic reactions.” They objected to Lucia’s acknowledgment of their “white privilege, practices of white possessivism, and their existence within the structural context of white supremacy,” interpreting it as a personal assault or accusation of racism.

Lucia found these responses disappointing — she had “somewhat naively” assumed that many of her subjects had already done the “internal social justice work” of divesting from their whiteness. Clearly, people can believe they are achieving spiritual growth without interrogating the privileges of white supremacy, but real transformation is limited by the refusal to fully examine the implications of one’s place in the status quo. By relegating these unpleasant confrontations to the appendix, Lucia allows readers — presumably people who are, like her, involved in higher education, itself a predominantly white field — to extend to her subjects the same benefit of the doubt. Lucia’s book suffers for not recognizing that unlearning whiteness and white supremacy is not just justice work; it is also spiritual work.

Lucia remains optimistic that these retreats help their white participants develop the skills to confront white supremacy, giving them the ability to engage with spiritual, mental and physical discomfort and to make empathetic connections with strangers. But these festivals — with their reliance on non-Western spiritual traditions — allow white participants to think they’ve already addressed their own role in perpetuating systemic racism, and that they’ve succeeded in “unlearning whiteness” by the time they pack up their yoga mats. This kind of denial happens in all predominantly white spaces, far beyond spiritual desert getaways. Lucia models a way of seeing the embedded logic of whiteness in social spaces, an analysis her white readers would do well to apply to their own settings — whether they’re attempting to create a utopia or not.   

Jordana Rosenfeld is a writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FIELD MANAGER
    Organizational Overview: Columbia Riverkeeper (Riverkeeper) is a successful nonprofit organization that unites communities to fight for clean water and our climate. Riverkeeper advances high-profile campaigns...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation is searching for a driven and creative leader to build a movement, conserving and restoring America's rivers by helping customers find...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Deputy Director/COO who will have the overall responsibilities of general program management, staff management, financial & budget management,...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...