Off the Mat and Into the World: The veiled imperialism of Western yoga’s new-age missionaries

This is a paper I wrote recently for one of my classes at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC (un-ceded Musqueam territory). It is an academic paper, though my writing style was heavily influenced by the way I blog. Please note that I wouldn’t usually express my ideas with this kind of language or in this format. I feel like academic writing is often very rigid and inaccesible, for many reasons. That said, I think the paper has some useful insights into thinking though imperialism and feel-good spiritual activism.

Off the Mat and Into the World:
The veiled imperialism of western yoga’s new-age missionaries

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Introduction: good intentions and the end of innocence

The fusion of yoga and activism is a quickly growing trend. As more and more people use yoga as a tool for healing and personal growth they come to a place of deep appreciation and gratitude for the benefits and freedom the practice grants them. From this place a desire to “be of service” arises. This desire to serve, combined with a whole lot of privilege, mobility, and a growing retreat culture has lead to the growth of a new kind of missionary work: “yogi’s” travelling across the world to help those who are “less fortunate”. At first glance this trend might appear not only innocent, but perhaps even positive. What could be wrong with people wanting to put the values and lessons they’ve learned on the mat into action to help others? But perhaps this trend is not as innocent as it appears. In fact it is my feeling that this growing trend in yoga-based missionary work is a veiled extension of colonialism and imperialism, however well intentioned it may appear.

Before I move onto the main body of my analysis I think I should position myself. I’m a western yoga teacher. I’m also an activist and community organizer. Service is most certainly an important part of my practice. I see my politics as an aspect of my spiritual practice and I certainly believe that what I’ve learned on my mat can be put to good use out in the world. At the same time I’m also highly aware of my position of privilege. I’m a white, middle class settler and a Canadian citizen. I’m fit, cis-gendered and ablebodied. I’m often read as straight, though I learning to (more accurately) identify myself as a femme-queer. That said I certainly benefit from hetero privilege. In many ways, my positionality is not drastically different from Seane Corn’s – who is the focus of my paper. Because of this I feel there is much for me to learn and reflect on in deconstructing her subject position. I should also say that in many ways I admire her work and I definitely appreciate the integrity of her intentions, but I also feel good intentions aren’t enough. If we want to create substantial change in the world; if we want to work toward justice, liberation and freedom for all people, I feel we desperately need to interrogate our own privilege and the ways we are implicated in the oppression and marginalization of those we hope to “help”. Further we should be asking if what these people need is our help, or our solidarity.  We need to learn to implicate our own experience, our own positions and our privilege. Jane Flax puts this sentiment really well when she explains:

“We need to learn ways of making claims about and acting upon injustice without transcendental guarantees or illusions of innocence. One of the dangerous consequences of transcendental notions of justice or knowledge is that they release us as discrete persons from full responsibility for our acts. We remain children, waiting if our own powers fail, for the higher authorities to save us from the consequences of our actions.” (emphasis added) (459-460)

I feel one of the most powerful aspects of yoga as a practice is coming into ourselves. We spend time in our bodies, connecting to our breath, learning to take responsibility for ourselves and accept reality without judgment or resistance. We can apply this same kind of self-understanding to our politics. We can use this way of knowing ourselves to be self-reflexive. Indeed we have to, if we hope to truly be of service.

Who is Seane Corn and why does her work matter?

Seane Corn teaching at a yoga conference in the Carribean.

Seane Corn teaching at a yoga conference in the Carribean.

Seane Corn is an internationally famous yoga teacher. She is what’s known as a “yogilebrity”. Almost every western yoga teacher knows who she is and her work has contributed substantially to bringing awareness within the yoga community to global injustice. Seane is regularly invited to speak at large events like the Yoga Journal Conference and Wanderlust – which cost hundreds of dollars to attend. At these speaking events Seane speaks about her service work and she often weaves this into the narrative of her life story. In a video posted in 2012, where she is interview by Deepak Chopra, Corne explains the spiritual significance of her service work. She says:

“The answer comes to me usually, through a child or a prostitute, or even a pimp, who says or does something, that reminds me that I don’t even need to worry about what this bigger picture is, all I have to do is show up from love and commit to that love.” (emphasis added)

Now, it should be said that I can relate to Seane’s intention here. Sometimes it’s important to drop your political analysis so that you can genuinely, in a non-intellectual way, connect with the person in front of you. It’s important, I would agree, to be heart centered when you are building relationships. All that said, it appears to me that it is a running theme of Seane’s work and descriptions of her life that she chooses to gloss over her privilege. The thing about privilege is that it’s easy to deem it insignificant when you are the person who has it (which we all do to some degree). Nancy Chater explains:

“Since part of white skin privilige is the “freedom” not to be aware of it, conceding to feeling powerless in the face of actual confrontations with racism serves only to reproduce racism.” (102)

While I can understand what Seane is trying to say, I find it worrying that she can so easily dismisses, “the bigger picture”. I wonder if this bigger picture would seem more important to her, less easily dismissed, if she were in a less privileged position, a position where she wasn’t cast as the saviour.

Off the Mat, Into the World

Seane Corn in Haiti

Seane Corn in Haiti

Seane is the founder of an organization called Off the Mat Into the World. Off the Mat is one of the largest yoga-based non-profits in the world. They organize people who practice yoga to vote, offer leadership trainings and lead yearly Seva Challenges, in which participants have fundraised millions of dollars to support development work around the world. Participants in the challenge who fundraise at least $20,000 are invited to join Off the Mat’s founders on journeys across the world to “work directly with the organization their funds have helped to support”.  Off the Mat’s website describes the Seva Challenge like this:

“The Seva Challenge is a transformational journey that builds community, provokes awareness and action around global issues, and raises significant funds to support communities in crisis. Since 2007, the Seva Challenge has raised over $3 million dollars for projects in Cambodia, Uganda, South Africa, Haiti and India.” (emphasis added)

For me, it’s hard not to notice the parallels between Seva Challenge and civilizing Christian missions: well meaning, spiritual people – largely privileged white women – travelling across the globe to “help” those that are “less fortunate” and “in need of development”. As the above quote illustrates, much of the value of these journeys is vested in the spiritual growth of the people doing the challenge, rather than “uplifting” and “helping” people from the global south.

Some might ask, well what is the problem with fundraising money for a good cause and then visiting the place you are helping? That seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? Perhaps not. In a paper discussing international feminist praxis Haggis and Schech problematize the helping relationship which so many western feminists, and I feel spiritual activists as well, ascribe to:

“Here the benevolent trope, with its taken for granted hierarchical relationship between the western feminist and the oppressed other, develops into something more like a marriage partnership, whereby the western feminist becomes the provider. This mimicry of the stereotypical western patriarchal marriage is couched in the terms of partnership.” (emphasis added) (392-393)

When you combine a lack of self-understanding regarding your own privilege with a desire to help, there is the tendency for your service work to simply reinforce the hierarchy you are hoping to address. When people with a lot of privilege utilize that privilege to give money to causes around the world, they not only run the risk of imposing their will on the culture and people they are trying to help, they manage to shape an improved sense of self worth while doing it. So it could be said that the service work really becomes more about reinforcing the image of the helper, than actually helping those “in need”.

One might ask, isn’t it possible to give money to a cause without imposing your will on them? Yes, that is possible, but it’s extremely challenging to do when such a grave power imbalance exists between the two parties involved AND one of the parties believes they have answers to offer the “people in need”. Several years ago Seane and members of the Seva challenge travelled to Uganada to assist with the building of a birthing center. Seane described her trip in a blog on Ophrah.com like this:

“On Saturday night, I finally arrived in Uganda. It is as beautiful and complex as I remembered. There are flocks of bats and turkey vultures flying in circles just outside my window, scary and prehistoric looking, but my eyes can’t stay with them for long. What keeps drawing my attention down is the earth below. I’m always struck by the rich, red soil of Africa. It looks so fertile and dense, the perfect breeding ground for the “Motherland,” and I’m anxious to go outside and feel her once again under my feet. I’m so happy to be back here and feel strangely at home. Perhaps it’s the kindness and generosity of her people, or the fact that my father grew up in Northern Africa, or maybe it’s the powerful feeling of spirit and tribe that penetrates this culture. Whatever it is, I’m delighted to be welcomed back.”

There are quite a few problems with this description and I feel it is quite revealing, not only of Seane’s position of power, but also of the imperial nature of her trip. First of all, Seanes description of the land and the people as “prehistoric” and “tribal” are extremely reminiscent of the noble savage trope, employed by many colonizers as they discovered the “new world”. All to often well meaning western people essentialize the very complex lived experiences of people from the “third world” and then position themselves as the saviours of these simple, backwards people. The third world people are linked to the land, their bodies, tribal lifestyles and a simple, majestic way of life, as well as tied to nature – many of these links are demonstrated in the quote above and through Seane’s piece.

Much work has been done by anti-racist feminists to deconstruct the un-even relationship that exists between first and third world feminists and insight from this work, I feel, can also be applied to Seva Challenge. Chandra Mohanty explains:

“This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read:sexually constrained) and being “third world” (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition bound, domestic, family oriented, victimized, etc). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self representation of western women as educated, modern as having control over their bodies and sexualities and the freedom to make their own decisions”. (243)

Seane constructs a perfect example of this essentialized third world woman in another blog post she wrote for Oprah.com about witnessing a birth in a Ugandan birthing center. She writes:

“Like most of the impoverished rural women, she will likely grow up without a proper education, will lack food and water and will most likely be married off young in exchange for cows…and that’s if she’s lucky. The odds were better that she’d be raped, become one of many wives, and most likely contract AIDS, assuming she wasn’t already born with it. It was hard to feel excited for this child knowing that her life would prove to be hard.”

Throughout the piece Seane’s description of the birthing process and her prediction of the baby’s life clearly positions her as the saviour. In the rest of the post she describes herself as deeply moved by this experience and gives money to the woman who gave birth  (which she can easily procure due to her position of privilege, not to mention the fact that she is able to travel to Africa for this experience in the first place). She then tells the new mother what to do with the money – as if the woman couldn’t possibly make an informed decision about how to spend it herself. In this way Seane constructs herself as benevolent and erases the mothers’ agency. She also writes that the new baby is beautiful, “like a wild animal”.

This post not only displays an extremely troubling lack of self-reflexivity, it also casts the birth and the birthing center in a completely inaccurate and minimizing light. The post generated quite a bit of activity online, including responses from a Ugandan midwife:

“This is one of the most offensive things I have ever read. Your inherent belief that your ‘way’ is better/truer, your blatant disregard (even contempt) for the knowledge of the local midwives who staff the clinic and lack the ‘spirit of birth’, your assumption that the lack of care is a result of anything other than colonization is striking and scary. You speak so poorly of the staff midwife (who didn’t offer the care and love that you did). But did you ever consider who would have stepped in if there had been an emergency? Did you ever consider that her attitude might have shifted with you, the white women, in the room? You even assume that three women who have never attended a birth or spent more than a few weeks in a country know more about birth than the midwife and the woman giving birth herself. This comes from a long line of colonized thinking and quite frankly, it’s not helpful.” (emphasis added)

This quote clearly demonstrates the Seane was not only unwelcome in the space, but that her portrayal of the experience is not only imaginary, but deeply harmful. Her narrative then, can be seen as a mechanism within an imperial narrative which consistently and harmfully positions her and women like her as innocent, benevolent and helpful while at the same time represents women and people of the global south as backwards, tribal and in need of western intervention. These kinds of representations are not only offensive and untrue – they are violent.

This kind of simplistic renderings of women from the third world is regularly used to justify imperial conquest. For example, look at the Afghanistan war where imperial nations like America and Canada frequently employee descriptions and images of oppressed, veiled Afghani women to justify the war effort. We’re told “we must bring democracy to the middle east, we must liberate these women” – all the while women’s pay equity and re-productive rights in the imperial nations are constantly under attack. The hypocrisy of these positions is too painfully obvious and detrimentally harmful to be ignored.

Moving Beyond Good Intentions

solidarity

Now, I don’t believe that Seane Corn is intentionally trying to offer herself or her work as a tool in imperial conquest, in fact I have faith that she hopes her work would produce exactly the opposite effect. That said, good intentions don’t excuse the impacts of your actions. I wonder, if perhaps her position as a saviour, an activist and a spiritual leader has left her feeling comfortable enough not to question her own complicity. Sedef Arat-Koc wrote a piece in 2002 regarding western feminist positions on the Afghan war which I think lends itself well to understanding what I’m discussing here:

“In addition to the seductiveness of power that seems to ensure, there is something else which is intoxicating about an obsessive gaze on the “other”. Such a gaze not only affirms “our” superiority over the “other”, but also conveniently shifts the attention away from our own problems, conditions and status. Such a shift of attention not only helps “us” forget or remain unaware of the increasingly grim possibilities of achieving equality and better conditions for women in a period of economic and state restructuring. It also keeps us blind to the state of “our” civilization at a time when western countries are facing a set of changes since September 11th, of a nature not short of a coup. What we are facing since September 11th constitutes no less than a serious awakening, if not a major collapse of many institutions and practices which we supposed to be central to the self definitions of western countries as “free”, “democratic” and “tolerant”.” (61)

Bearing this in mind it becomes clear that a shift away from charity work to solidarity work is much needed. If we believe that we are all one, that we are energetically and spiritually connected and obligated to one another, then we must work to unpack all the dynamics and power and privilege that work to stratify and disconnect us from one another. We CAN work to end oppression, in fact a spiritual practice without this intention, I feel, is hollow and entirely too self oriented. In fact, this is a problem Seane speaks of regularly when she encourages her students and the yoga community to move beyond their personal practice and heed the call to serve. I just think she can and must take this concept one step further to include understanding her own privilege and encouraging her students to do the same.

I believe that the call to service must include un-packing our privilege. Doing so will allows us to enter into much-needed solidarity work. Service shouldn’t be a stepping-stone to higher self esteem achieved by standing on the backs of others – in fact I would go so far as to say that that isn’t service at all. Yoga is, at it’s heart, a liberatory practice. We can and should combine it with critical self-analysis. Doing so will leave us unable cling to comforting notions of innocence and allow us to do work that not only unpacks, but completely rejects the notion that we can or should impose our will, our answers, on others. Any other kind of approach lacks empathy, is steeped in illusion and will simply work to re-produce the separation we are all working so tirelessly to overcome.

Works Cited 

Arat-Koc, Sedef. “Hot Potato: Imperial Wars or Benevolent Interventions? Reflections on “Global Feminism” Post September 11th.” Atlantis 26.2 (2002): 53-65.

Chater, Nancy. “Biting the Hand that Feeds Me: Notes on Privilege From a White Anti-Racist Feminist.” Canadian Women’s Studies 14.2 (1994): 100-104.

Corne, Seane, “The Journey Begins.” Seane Corne Arrives in Africa. Oprah. 16 Feb 2010. 20 March 2013. http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Seane-Corn-Arrives-in-Uganda

Corne, Seane. “A Soul Enters the World.” A Birthing Center in Uganda. Oprah. 5 March 2010. 21 March 2013. http://www.oprah.com/spirit/A-Birthing-Center-in-Uganda

Flax, Jane. “The End of Innocence.” Feminists Theorize the Political, Ed. Judith Butler. Routledge, 1992. 445-463.

Haggis, Jane and Susanne Schech. “Meaning Well and Global Good Manners:Reflections on White Western Feminist Cross-cultural Praxis.” Australian Feminist Studies. 15.33. (2000): 387-399.

Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes.” The Post Colonial Studies Reader, Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Routledge, 1995. 242-245.

“Seane Corn “Showing up and committing to love | WHO ARE YOU Part 2”. YouTube. The Chopra Well, 24 September 2012. Web. March 16 2013.

16 thoughts on “Off the Mat and Into the World: The veiled imperialism of Western yoga’s new-age missionaries

  1. wow, great critiques and analysis. Very timely for me, in a grad class and am having a hard time with the lack of space/ awareness/ skill necesary in the academic culture for a dialogue about hierarchies and how we can be oppressors evn with the best of intetions.

    peace, and please keep on writing/thinking/sharing your perspective!

  2. I read this paper with growing excitement. I’m Maxim’s Aunt and follow his social activism activities with great interest so I saw this link on his facebook page. I found so many of Seane Corn’s observations and statements stunningly naive, patronizing and downright offensive…
    Your evaluation of her ‘activities’ was insightful and so well written. It’s my hope that you will send this to Seane Corn, as she obviously has such a potential, with her ‘following’ to actual serve others in a spirit of universal community rather then in an egocentric manner. Hopefully she will also have the potential to she her behaviors as you have presented them and learn from this insight. Keep up the writing …. this is a solid A+

  3. While I appreciate some of the intellectual fortitude displayed in this analysis, I find the comparison of the work of OTM to Christian missionaries stunningly naive. It is a complete false equivalency, in terms of your attempted connection. Missionaries are there to proselytize first and foremost; there were reports after the earthquake in Haiti that some pop-up medical shelters run by religious organizations were refusing service to those who would not submit to Christ before entering. THAT is dangerous and imperialist.

    I do not disagree with you that some of Seane’s blog comments are troubling and, being open to pubic scrutiny, deserve analysis. Yet I just don’t equate a non-denominational organization that receives private funding from charitable means with a ‘privileged’ sect. As a yoga instructor for a decade, I’ve seen plenty in this varied community worthy of scrutiny, and very little of the work that OTM is actively accomplishing. So that leaves me to ask: What OTM events/workshops have you attended that would qualify your statements about the purported privileges you are lambasting above? For certainly you’re not basing an entire argument against an organization’s intentions on a blog post?

  4. Pingback: Why it’s important that teacher trainings include classes on the ethics of counselling, transference and basic sociology | Attceq- Quebec Mind/Body Association

  5. Ms Corn seems to me to be a textbook example of altruism=self-interest. I’m going to quote Ken Wilber: “Real compassion kicks butt and takes names and is not pleasant on certain days. If you are not ready for this FIRE, then find a new-age, sweetness-and-light, perpetually smiling teacher and learn to relabel your ego with spiritual-sounding terms. But stay from those who practice REAL COMPASSION, because they will fry your ass, my friend.”

    Ms Corn should either get her hands dirty or invest in some asbestos underwear.

  6. I agree with Derek Beres. Surely your vanguard political action here is more than a textual analysis of blog posts?

    The tone of this piece is deeply anxious and moralistic. This is the tone of most of the discipline of anthropology since 1980. Don’t worry so much. You are not at fault for the political incorrectness of the world. You don’t have to fix it. It is only the imperialist mindset that makes you think you can.

    We are all just doing the best that we can to help each other. We have different cognitive structures – all evidencing certain race/class/gender/bodysize/etc limitations – for doing that. That doesn’t make the efforts to connect and serve others null and void. Just naive. Just unconscious in certain respects.

    On the flip side, I’d submit that “deeply harmful” is a term for those NOT on that agenda off attempting to connect and attepting to help. For, you know, people running prisons and drone warfare programs and genocides.

    Speaking of naive, and selectively unconscious, how long will you use your newfound powers of neo-Marxism to try to make other people look morally wrong, politically incorrect and even all-out harmful? Seane Corn, she didn’t get to go to college like you. She waited freakin’ tables. This elite discourse of “empowerment” (especially “empowering the oppressed”) is a mark of ultra privilege. Thinking these thoughts, like writing this blog, is an activity only for those in the critical classes.

    Use that power with a little self-reflexitivy, eh?

    • @ (0v0) and Derek- Thank you for responding with the degree of thoughtfulness you have.

      I struggled with this paper on many levels, but often get intimidated by inaccessible academic privilege. I didn’t have that fancy education either.

      Why make this about Seane? There is plenty to talk about regarding how the west has co-opted yoga. I am even willing to have the transparent conversation about organizations like OTM wrestling with privilege. Walking a spiritual path deeply committed to social justice requires that each of us engage and re-engage in a delicate balance between our intentions and our impact.

      Seane Corn isn’t OTM. OTM is both an organization and a community. Seane is one human being, albeit one with privilege she has chosen to leverage to the best of her abilities for a better world. Perfect-no, but she herself would laugh off any attempt to put her in a guru status.

      Full disclosure: I am part of OTM and have been for quite some time. I owe a great deal to Seane, Hala, Suzanne and all of the OTM crew. See, I am not who the yoga world usually embraces. I don’t easily feel at home in yoga studios. I’m a queer,blue collar trans man living with AIDS and all the trauma that comes with it. I feel self-conscious walking into yoga studios in work boots and oiled stained hands. I can’t touch my toes even after years of practice.

      If it wasn’t for an article I read about Seane linking yoga as a spiritual practice deeply linked to service, I never would have endured the alienation I feel every time I walk into a studio. The OTM community gave me hope that I could use an embodied spiritual practice to somehow befriend my own body and create the world I wish had been available for me as a kid.

      I have personally had conversations with Seane and other OTM staff about privilege and ways they can continue to grow. I know others have as well.

      I would much rather work with imperfect human beings who put themselves out there in love. Folks I know are willing to misstep, listen and learn.

      I suggest you actually sit and talk with Seane someday.

  7. Your article leaves me feeling less concerned about white privileged yogis and yoginis in Africa and more concerned about jealousy, finger pointing and the ever present ‘evil white feminist’ doing their own perception of good in the world, which sounds strangely like the GOP party line about feminists to me.

    Yogi/nis are not proselytizing missionaries bringing Christ to the noble savage, telling said people they are going to hell if they are not believers. Yogi/nis erring on the side of wanting to do good, help others with essentially no payback other than their own travel stories and an inner feeling of ‘good’ in the face of poverty that most American’s will never see, is not the worst thing in the world. In fact, I suspect some new level of awareness happens for individuals in this program, and in my mind that is the precursor to sustained action. I would suspect that those inclined to do this work are already looking at, interested in the politics/privilege/imperialism of these situations – hello! how could they not be? And if by chance this is their first foray into those topics/experiences, well thank goodness! Cause time is wasting!

    Perhaps if the tone of your article/essay were less accusatory and more hand out to remind, advise and suggest, I’d feel better about it. I’m sure the white privilege points are real. But so is Sean’s commentary about the baby girl. Truth is women, children on this planet are mostly fodder. I’m not sure you can blame a person for being born into the life they were, neither Sean nor the baby have that choice, so to dis Sean and her co-creators of OTM might feel empowering to you, its actually neither helpful nor productive, IMO.

    Lastly, here are some questions that came to me as I read your piece:

    Would it be different if the OTM founders were: African-American? Hispanic? Asian? Male? Openly queer or trans? Something other than white women from the USA?

    Would you prefer that OTM not exist?

    How can you disrespect the innocence of the volunteers who come to OTM? We are all in our own learning curves. Disrespecting that does not encourage the ongoing learning and understanding that you express wanting in the said individuals. What is your plan to remove the ‘innocence’ that people who come to this program, naturally and accidentally bring with them? We are all innocent of experience and understanding until we are in IT.

    I hear you want something better than OTM, something smarter, more aware, more sensitive, more dialogue between helper and helpee, less imperial, less white, possibly less feminist. I don;t know how to get from the proverbial here to there but it seems to me that for whatever shortfalls OTM has, it begins the process of helping some to move in those directions. Again, I say, be aware of the tone you send your message with…

    Best and Blessings,
    Urania

  8. Would like to know if the author has done any trainings with OTM or any service trips with the organization? My personal experience (with both) is that race/gender/class/privilege are discussed quite a bit.

  9. I have been a yoga teacher for 13 years and a social justice activist for 15 years. The two practices for me are deeply intertwined, and my work is to bring more of a justice analysis to healing modalities (especially yoga and western herbalism), and more of a priority of healing to social justice work. I have worked in food justice, healing justice, transformative justice, solidarity work, anti-racism, transgender justice, and queer justice movements. I am a white working-class transman, partnered with a dis/abled woman and live in Brooklyn where I co-run Third Root Community Health Center, a worker-owned healing cooperative. This is all to give context.

    I met Seane Corn two years ago at a conference at Kripalu. Up until this point, I had been deeply skeptical of Off the Mat, and distrustful of anything big-name in yoga. I have seen a lot of dynamics of oppression show up in the yoga classroom, as everywhere else in our world, but it’s disturbing when an environment is intended to be healing, and when I expect mindfulness, to have more harm inflicted. During the Q and A at the event, I was asking her the hardest, most direct questions that I could think of pertaining to my experience of racism, transphobia, classism, and other forms of trauma inflicted in the classroom. I asked her how OTM trains their ‘leaders’ to be conscientious of dynamics of power in the classroom. I asked her how do they determine which country the Seva challenge goes to, and who they give their money to.

    I have faced incredible transphobia in the yoga classroom, and when I met Seane, and toId her about this, she apologized, and said that I should be able to attend trainings and classes to heal, not to educate or be on guard. I was shocked that a big-name yogi said this, and it was the most genuine understanding of what I go through in every class I take. Coming to know Seane, as well as Hala Khouri, Kerri Kelly, and Suzanne Sterling, I have found them all to be excellent allies in many ways. And, I have struggled with them all around their justice practices.

    I found Seane to be very open, very real with her mistakes, passionate about social justice, and open about her identity-so much so, that much to the surprise of everyone who knows me, I have attended both of OTMs retreats, and have actually been embraced by the organization. I have also been incredibly frustrated in the classroom with them, along with other queers and people of color. I found Seane’s story of how she came to yoga, and how she came to be a queer ally, as especially touching-are you familiar with it? It’s clear that you don’t know these stories, and they are relevant. She has much more than good intentions. She has vision and skills for collaboration. This doesn’t mean at all that I agree with everything that OTM does-and the Seva Challenge is the thing I disagree with the most. But I do think they are willing to work, to change, and are at a profound growth point in the organization. I am working with them around offering different trainings around issues of power and privilege, as well as strategies of how to bring more diversity to the table.

    One thing that I have learned from Seane in a personal way, is the ways that I create separation and isolation-as a queer, as a radical. Every time I use the word ‘my community’, she looks at me sideways, and has challenged me to grow to the point where ‘my community’ is as broad as the world itself. Queers have been hurt. Trans people have been pathologized, murdered, assaulted. There are reasons to protect myself. And, as long as I do so through anger and separation, the wound will not be healed. The Buddha says that love alone will end hatred. So, Seane has challenged me, how do I love the very people who have hurt me the most-which, in my case, is straight white upper class women like herself. She has asked me, what are the areas that I still hold shame about who I am, and how can I work on that, to dissolve it, so that I am not threatened by anyone seeing me fully? She sees me, honors who I am and the journey that I have had, and is bold enough, and is a great enough ally, to not be afraid to challenge me to grow my wings bigger.

    There is no similar work being done in as big of a way in western yoga-OTM attracts thousands each year. That is profound, and an perfect opportunity to change the dialogue in yoga in the US. One thing Seane regularly says is that yoga teachers have a platform to speak from every day-so how do we use that opportunity for the real liberation of all? I have attended the trainings of various organizations who offer yoga to homeless people, in shelters, to incarcerated people, and OTM is actually the best that I have found. They engage the issues and embrace diversity better than other organizations, and are continually open to feedback. They work with other organizations in the ‘yoga service’ world, whereas others have some territorialism. They actually helped to found the Yoga Service Council and its conference, bringing all of us doing transformative justice work together. I’m curious if you know this history, or if you looked into it.

    OTM is imperfect, as we all are. And they are trying, and they are growing, and they are open. They are yogic-and have not yet reached enlightenment. So then, how do we turn and walk with them, engage them and utilize the power and tools that they do have?

  10. Unfortunately, what’s offered here occurs to me to be a kind of Fox News (the Rupert Murdoch owned U.S. news outlet known for one-sided analysis) uninformed perspective.

    As a black woman who participated in the Uganda work referenced in the article, It’s really clear to me that there’s been very little time invested in researching Seane Corn or the work of OTM. For example, cultural diversity, sensitivity and privilege work are a part of what’s done in Seva Challenge. I know that because I helped to create it.

    Another example is the misconstrued comment about bats and turkey vultures. Seane was speaking about the birds, not people in her writing. When I saw them I had the exact same reaction – bats and turkey vultures are are scary and pre-historic.

    There seems to me to be a hidden meta self-righteousness in this piece. And…even if that last statement is an incorrect assessment, what I know because I was there is that the underlying conclusions drawn are flat wrong.

    Nikki Myers

  11. I am sure your motivation in writing this blog entry is also well intentioned but your analysis is misguided, uninformed, one-sided and not constructive.

    I am part of the OTM community and traveled to South Africa after raising $20,000 for the Seva Challenge in 2009. I did this fund-raising over the course of a year working my tail off to raise every dollar mostly by teaching donation yoga classes and by spreading awareness of a global issue. After hearing the stories of the other participants, many of them did this in the same fashion. The experience of meeting the organizations in Cape Town that we considered our partners was not an act of imperialism or superiority but an act of connection. As I live in a soccer-crazed town and the World Cup was in South Africa that year, my community was also able to learn more about South Africa beyond the glamourized portrayal on t.v. during the World Cup.

    You position yourself as if you are excused from being a privileged because you put it out there right away. If you had ever attended an OTM event this is something that is acknowledged right away and is addressed continually by Seane as well as the other leaders and members. During our trip to South Africa, we spent many hours after long days discussing privilege and how it might have unexpectedly shown up for us. We did a lot of group work that showed us this was the case even if we originally did not realize it. As a matter of fact, I learned a lot on that trip about privilege, assumption, and subtle and not so subtle racism from the group work we did as well as from our discussions with South Africans (who were open and eager to discuss this topic). I developed a close friendship with a woman who is a teacher in one of the organizations who came to visit me in the US, and we discussed this in depth during her visit. Comparing this experience to Imperialism or “new-age missionaries” is really off target.

    You have worked hard to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s as far as being politically correct in your presentation, but your judgmental and self-righteous tone is the essence of privilege. What is most disheartening is that OTM and its members are completely open to having this dialogue, but you offer your opinion as an exaggerated, dogmatic monologue using your forum to make yourself feel better about what you do—exactly what you accused so many others of doing.

    Your presentation is flawed on many levels. OTM is bigger than just one person and has many dedicated people that work tirelessly to improve the organization as well as its programs. Your condescending description of “feel-good” activism is naïve. I am sure you do the work you do in part because it makes you feel like a better citizen and person. You refer to solidarity as an alternative, but what is that and can you stand by your words that it is not flawed in its approach?

    Instead of creating a meaningful conversation that could improve OTM as well as the work you do in your community, your approach creates the exact opposite—judgment, separation and blame. Your skills, insight and knowledge could have been used so much more constructively.

  12. Hi! Founder of YoGirls Program here– I’m loving your paper! I’d rather go into my personal agreements and disagreements to it over the phone, but do understand as someone who has actually taught literature IN rough neighborhoods for years and THEN started a yoga program for at-risk kids, I feel it is VERY important to have first-hand experience with varied populations BEFORE serving them, so that we do not– in effect– “land on them” in some hope of lifting them “away from” what WE perceive as bad/socially unacceptable. I hear your words and use similar ones to keep myself in check every day!!

    On another note.. wrote this paper myself and you might be interested in reading it…

    Corinne Wainer
    Karen Thornber
    CL230
    November 2010

    Alternative Texts, Alternative Minds

    What happens when texts used in school, even those that resist literary traditions, actually reinforce historically destructive views? Sixteenth century literary canons negatively portrayed non-European races, using words like “savage” to justify the New World. J.M. Coetzee’s Foe and Aime Cesaire’s “A Tempest” are two stories that use language to dispel stereotypes and re-establish cultural identity in post-colonial times. They seem to be effective implementations to a modern and diverse English classroom. However, an incredibly real element of learning today- stereotype threat- distorts student perspectives of literature and their own potential achievement. Do the aforementioned works allow for teaching youth about history and themselves without subjecting them to racial frameworks? To start, studying where Foe and “A Tempest” both succeed and fall short of combating the master-slave relationship will reveal why some minority students feel pressure while reading similar works.
    For the purposes of this study, the “master-slave relationship” is a dynamic where superiority overrides inferiority. The “master” doggedly attempts to control another for reasons of selfish, monetary, or public gains. A “slave” will not always be of African descent, yet experiences the same oppressive treatment quantified as abuse by victims and readers alike. In post-colonial texts, this perverted bond manifests at the microcosmic level as well as within the world at large. For instance, Foe conveys the personal connection between Susan Barton and Friday. In “A Tempest,” Prospero and Caliban also go through a series of events that intimately demonstrate unfair treatment and unequal power distribution. Though these dualities look closely at the master-slave relationship, they make the audience hugely aware of the macrocosm; mass groups of people are mentally, physically, and socially suppressed to benefit a dominating force.
    Also pertinent to this piece are the definitions of “White” and “Black” literature. White literature generates from Europe either by members or supporters of the nation. Themes such as empire, war, exploration, romance, racism, and classism define these texts. The language and imagery adheres to a discourse that may not relate to all people, thus emphasizing traditional Europe’s contrast to modern or minority backgrounds. Historically Black literature faces these same limitations, but reverses the role where White majorities and non-Africans cannot easily internalize the works. Black literature may be more widely implemented into African-American classrooms, as is the case in many schools. Both White and Black literature deal with the positives and negatives of their immediate cultures, but when used in isolation can further segregate social behaviors and ideologies.
    In various ways, Foe does resist the master-slave relationship that prevails amongst relevant literary predecessors. The following examines Foe’s non-traditional author as a starting point for a thorough analysis of the text:
    “Coetzee’s novels…that question the very process of canonicity itself,
    could slowly transform the ideology and the institutions from which
    the canon derives its power, so that new and presently unimaginable
    ways of finding a voice…instead of canons premised upon a
    notion of transcendental and inscrutable value, we can hope for
    cultural practices and formations that encourage awareness of the
    historical production of value, of the part played by the
    ideological systems in political domination and exclusion, of
    the necessarily provisional and historically contestable nature
    of any arrangement which allows some to speak and renders
    others- and a part of themselves- silent” (Attridge, 90)
    The essential message here is how Coetzee makes an indisputable effort to “slowly transform the ideology and the institutions from which the canon derives its power.” “Power” in this excerpt is defined the “domination and exclusion” of speech. Thus, in changing how language conveys his characters, Coetzee challenges relationships that rely on dominance.
    Foe presents Friday as the inferior subject. When Susan Barton introduces her initial connection to Robinson Cruso and the island, she reveals Friday in the following way: “With these words I presented myself to Robinson Cruso, in the days when he still ruled over the island, and became his second subject, the first being his manservant Friday” (Coetzee, 11). Though he is in a position of servitude, Friday already somewhat defeats the power system by being referred to as a “manservant” to a later described, “Lenient master,” (Coetzee, 23). These descriptions suggest Friday is viewed differently than a full-blown slave. The language suggests he could be a man with a service job. Additionally, there lacks an enormous amount of physical or verbal violence towards Friday. Friday is the slave figure in Foe, but descriptions of him do not compare to more scathing minority representations such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
    The slave-like treatment of Friday are also non-traditional because eventually his master is a woman who, instead of barking orders, tries to force speech upon him. When he dresses up and dances, Susan Barton thinks they communicate, but later realizes the contrary:
    “So now I knew that I had stood there playing to Friday’s
    dancing, thinking he and I made a consort, he had been
    insensible of me…bitterly I began to recognize that it might
    not be mere dullness that kept him to shut up in himself,
    nor the accident of the loss of his tongue, nor even an
    incapacity to distinguish speech from babbling, but a
    disdain for intercourse with me” (Coetzee, 98).

    Words like “insensible,” “bitterly,” and “disdain,” show how Susan Barton is upset with Friday’s failure to communicate. She even recognizes the potential motive behind Friday’s attitude. Susan Barton dismisses Friday’s “dullness,” “loss of his tongue,” and speech “incapacity” as reasons for not engaging with her, concluding how the only factor determining Friday’s unwillingness to interact is personal “disdain.” This example debunks the socially traditional slave-master relationship in three ways: Friday’s master is a woman, Susan Barton’s main agenda is not manual labor but to speech, and rebellion takes on the form of non-violent silence.
    The outcome of Friday’s experience with language is the most significant way Coetzee succeeds in transforming the slave-master relationship. The following excerpt speaks to Friday’s ultimate response: “The narrator of the closing section..has made the last of many attempts to get Friday to speak…the soundless stream issuing from his body is a culmination of the book’s concern with the powerful silence which is the price of our cultural achievements” (Attridge, 67). In this example, the “narrator” is the very Susan Barton who makes countless efforts to engage Friday in conversation throughout the story. Friday does not formulate English words- he refuses to participate in the discourse that referenced “cultural achievements.” Some attribute Friday’s silence to a missing tongue, but one may consider his intentionality as well. In other words, while many masters used and abused speech as a means to conquer people and lands, Friday adopts odd gestures instead of speaking. Thus, Susan Barton and others cannot ultimately own him: “Friday is in fact subverting the master discourse with his multiply interpretable graphics” (Attridge, 87).
    Like Foe, “A Tempest” succeeds in undermining the relationship between master and slave-like characters. One author discusses Aime Cesaire’s subversion of power in “Discourse on Colonialism”:
    “Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism might be best described
    as a declaration of war…In the finest Hegelian fashion, Cesaire demonstrates
    how colonialism works to “decivilize” the colonizer: torture, violence, race
    hatred, and immorality constitute a dead weight on the so-called
    civilized, pulling the master class deeper and deeper into the abyss of
    barbarism” (Kelley, 1).

    In this passage, “war” refers to the attack against colonial representation in literature. He flips the idea of being uncivilized onto the colonizers, citing their torturous, violent, hateful, and immorality as barbarian behavior. By shifting the meaning of “barbarism” from slave to master, Cesaire shows his linguistic method of counteracting post-colonial dominance.
    In “A Tempest,” the slave-character is Caliban. Prospero calls Caliban many horrible names, and often threatens to beat him. Caliban first begins to resist this by incorporating his own language into dialogue with Prospero:
    CALIBAN: I said, Uhuru!
    PROSPERO: Yet another return to your savage tongue (Cesaire, 19).

    The term “uhuru” is from Caliban’s language. By inserting a Swahilian word into English, Caliban makes a step towards challenging Prospero. Furthermore, uhuru means freedom, which is the exact thing Caliban begins to obtain by refusing English speech. In return, Prospero notes how Caliban implements, “another return to [his] native tongue.” Despite Caliban’s challenge, Prospero still refers to him as a “savage”; however, Caliban sets the stage here for greater changes to come.
    Progressively throughout the text, Caliban uses words to reconfigure his relationship to Prospero. In the following example, he does not use any Swahili terms, but Caliban does replace his own name with a symbolic “X”:
    CALIBAN: Just this: I’ve decided I’ll be Caliban no longer.
    PROSPERO: What kind of blige is this? I don’t understand.
    CALIBAN: As you like; I’m telling you that, as of now, I’ll no longer be answering to the name of Caliban.
    PROSPERO: And whence sprang this pearl?
    CALIBAN: Well, because Caliban isn’t my name. It’s simple!
    PROSPERO: It’s mine, I suppose!
    CALIBAN: It’s the nickname your hatred attached to me, whose every utterance is an insult…Call me X. That’s best. Like a man without a name. Or, more precisely, a man whose name was stolen…you stole everything from me, even my identity! (Cesaire, 21-22).

    Evident in Prospero’s response of, “I don’t understand,” the meaning of “blige” can be joke, lie, or trick. Thus, Prospero’s response to Caliban’s name change is confusion and shock. By making his name unfamiliar to Prospero, Caliban challenges the system again. Caliban furthers his freedom by later putting Propsero down, saying how the situation is easy to understand: “It’s simple!” Prospero makes one final attempt at deciphering and squelching Caliban’s intention when he says, “It’s mine, I suppose.” But, Caliban states his name is not Propsero’s at all because it belongs solely to “hatred.” A final analysis of this excerpt shows a huge difference between the Caliban one observes defiantly shouting “Uhuru!” and he who consciously decides to be called “X”. After all the digs Prospero takes at Caliban- the years of abuse and disservice- Caliban powerfully claims, “You stole everything from me, even my identity!”
    A final example shows the effect of Caliban’s verbal and social disruption to Prospero’s authority. At the end of the play, Prospero retorts with these words:

    PROSPERO: Well, I hate you as well! For you are the one who made me doubt myself for the first time (Cesaire, 59).

    First, Prospero is no longer directing the conversation between he and Caliban. Instead, the preemptive “well” shows his immediate discomfort with the subsequent idea. That idea reveals itself as one that Caliban has already presented in earlier statements: hatred, so Propsero is neither controlling the conversation or generating any new ideas within it. Propsero is entirely vulnerable and overturned in the end when he refers to doubting himself. Admittedly, Caliban has forced Prospero to feel doubt and Prospero is feeling doubt for the first time in his life. While Friday subtracts words and replaces them with gestures and sounds, Caliban also reverses traditional usage of terms and dialogue to challenge the slave-master relationship.
    While Foe and “A Tempest” successfully challenge the slave-master relationship through language, it is the existence of that language itself that proves problematic. No matter how the words and events change over the course of these two works, the text deals with a dominant, “master” power: “A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students)” (Freire, 52). This passage from Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” introduces the idea of the slave-master relationship being “narrative” by nature, where the minorities are “objects.” One observes how Friday and Caliban need to challenge their masters, suggesting that they are, in fact, the very “objects” referenced by Freire’s work. It is important to note modern exceptions to Freire’s argument, where many non-traditional teachers and alternative schools make an effort to implement student-directed learning, but the majority of education still operates under a system of warped power.
    Freire furthers his argument by explaining the following: “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (Freire, 53). As objects in a power-dominant relationship, Friday and Caliban supposedly receive “gifts” from their masters. Friday has the job of working on the island, helping and accompanying Susan Barton after they depart from the island, and generally being observed as strange, different, and lesser than. Being saved from his own society by Robinson Cruso and being given a role in society by Susan Barton are the gifts Friday receives, making him part of the “banking system” in Freire’s analogy. Prospero insists time and time again how he saved Caliban, and for this Caliban is forever indebted to him. Though both Friday and Caliban attempt to reclaim power over figures who “consider themselves knowledgeable,” they fall under the category of “oppressed” in Freire’s increasingly complex argument. They may not be to the Freirean extreme of “know[ing] nothing,” but the orders of their masters are much of what Prospero and Caliban understand.
    More specifically, Freire also discusses language as the key method by which masters employ to control their slaves. In referencing a teacher, he explains how, “His task is to ‘full’ the students with the contents of his narration– contents which are detached from reality…Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity” (Freire, 52). Interestingly enough, Freire argues how words are not part of “reality,” at all, but simply a way to force one person’s meaning onto another. Since everyone experiences a different reality, language often has a “hollowing” effect as students and slaves alike struggle to understand terms that do not relate or give meaning to their lives. Thus, using language to try and disrupt the slave-master relationship in an innovative and non-traditional way only highlights how words further “alienate” Friday and Caliban. The attempt to relinquish power demands a master’s language, which only pushes Friday and Caliban further outside their own culture.
    One of Freire’s conclusions about both the slave-master relationship and student-teacher relationship is how abuse means subtracting a person’s creativity and identity. Freire claims how, “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects” (Freire, 66). Freire’s statements are bold, and pose the risk of one assuming “violence” to be physical when, in fact, physical abuse is barely prevalent in Foe and “A Tempest.” While the word violent might not be the most accurate connection amongst texts in this study, mental and social abuse apply. For example, Friday and Caliban only practice “decision-making” because of their masters. In plain terms, the decision to challenge their masters exists because Susan Barton and Prospero are dominant. Friday and Caliban do not make major decisions about their families, free time, hobbies, places of residence, or even emotions because most moves they make is merely a response to abusive treatment. Their major choice, therefore, is to go against that violence. As “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” suggests, there is no real freedom in merely responding to oppression. Closely examining the texts from this new perspective will show how they emphasize oppression just as much as they work to refute it.
    No matter what accomplishments are made within Foe, its very inclusion into the literary canon makes it an oppressive text: “All canons rest on exclusions; the voice they give to some can be heard only by virtue of the silence they impose on others” (Attridge, 82). So, without even having begun to assess the contents within Foe, one understands how “exclusivity” helps define canonized literature. The excluded here are those who go without speaking or thinking (unless in an effort to be heard over the dominant power). Minority characters within the canon exist in the shadow of their masters, and are otherwise denied normal thought, civilized life, and independent functioning. A closer look at passages in Foe will emphasize how these oppressive qualities manifest inside the text.
    When Cruso speaks, Friday does what he is told. Friday’s actions are dictated by Cruso’s language in saying, “Then Cruso spoke. ‘Firewood, Friday,’ he said; and Friday went off and fetched wood from his woodpile” (Coetzee, 21) and Susan Barton’s idea with, “I…am turning Friday into a laundryman…I set him before the sink dressed in his sailor clothes…‘Now do, Friday!’ I say…Watch and Do: those are my two principal words for Friday” (Coetzee, 56). In both passages, Friday is being ordered around. Whether to “fetch,” “watch,” or “do,” Friday’s masters direct him to act on their own desires. He has minimal freedom to experience what he wants, which is why onlookers become alarmed when Friday wanders off to dance in the sand or around the house. These quotes illuminate Friday’s oppression in two particular points of the story, which indicate an overarching slave-master message.
    In fact, Foe upholds the slave-master relationship so vigorously that even Coetzee’s characters recognize it. Susan Barton verbalizes the following: “What a terrible story…where is the justice in it? First a slave and now a castaway too. Robbed of his childhood and consigned to a life of silence. Was Providence sleeping?” (Coetzee, 23) and “I tell myself I talk to Friday to educate him…But is that the truth? There are times when benevolence deserts me and I use words only as the shortest way to subject him to my will” (Coetzee, 61). In the first line, Susan Barton acknowledges Friday’s unjust history. She refers to his past and current situation as “terrible,” and then questions whether God or godly powers were “sleeping” as Friday toiled and suffered. After describing her compassionate understanding of Friday’s misfortune, Susan Barton concludes how her “benevolence” is irrelevant in controlling him. Proclaimed from Susan Barton herself, “words” are how she molds Friday to her liking. Coetzee’s choice to narrate oppression within his novel does the opposite of quieting power and abuse.
    In attempting to uproot the slave-master relationship, “A Tempest” simultaneously supports an uneven power dynamic. The following remarks between Stephano and Trinculo show their view of Caliban as inferior:

    STEPHANO: I’ll try to civilise him. Oh…not too much. Just enough so we can take advantage of him.
    TRINCULO: Civilise him! Good gracious! Does he even know how to talk? (Cesaire, 41).

    By suggesting Caliban needs to be civilized, Stephano emphasizes him as savage and beastly. Furthermore, Stephano is the teacher here, believing himself to be more cultured and able than Caliban. The idea of teaching Caliban decreases in degree of sincerity when Stephano says, “We can take advantage of him.” They initially want to civilize Caliban, but instead decide to use him for abusive and unfair purposes. Stephano and Trinculo can take advantage of Caliban because they exercise power over him. When Trinculo asks, “Does he even know how to talk?”, one observes how both men derive their authority from language. They later find out that Caliban can talk, but the power deficit is already established.
    Even the final scenes of Caliban’s relationship with Prospero show how the dominating force prevails:
    PROSPERO:…Ah, well, my old Caliban, we’re the only two left on this island, just you and me. You and me! You-me! Me-you!
    CALIBAN: LIBERTY, OH-AY! LIBERTY! (Cesaire, 61).

    Prospero disallows for Caliban to maintain any sense of individuality, as he forever bonds himself to Caliban with the phrase, “Me-you!” The final phrase Prospero decides on begins with “me,” thereby reinforcing how Caliban comes second. Caliban references freedom in this same example, but does so in the very language that controls him: “Even those who speak against oppression from the position of the oppressed have to conform to the dominant language in order to be heard in the places where power is concentrated” (Attridge, 86). The question then becomes, while “A Tempest” fails to completely break down the master-slave relationship through language, is Prospero’s superior status to Caliban intensified in the reader’s mind?
    To analyze and understand how minority students respond to analogous texts, one consults stereotype threat. In Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance on African Americans, Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson define stereotype threat as follows:
    “Stereotype Threat is being at risk of conforming, as self-characteristic,
    a negative stereotype about one’s group. Studies 1 and 2 varied the
    stereotype vulnerability of Black participants taking a difficult verbal
    test by varying whether or not their performance was ostensibly
    diagnostic of ability, and thus, whether or not they were at rise of
    fulfilling the racial stereotype about their intellectual ability.
    Reflecting the pressure of this vulnerability, Blacks underperformed
    in relation to Whites in the ability-diagnostic condition…even the mere
    salience of the stereotype could impair Blacks’ performance” (Steele and Aronson, 1).

    Stereotype threat is not a paradigm one forces onto another, but a “self-characteristic” that can be exacerbated by multiple influences. Students in this passage already believe that race determines “diagnostic ability.” Steele and Aronson distinguish between the skills of African American students and their emotional responses to stereotyping, citing the latter as the problem. These researchers may support how reading about the slave-master relationship is one of many ways to trigger salience amongst students.
    After acknowledging stereotype threat, one should consider how it extensively reaches into minority settings. The following summary of research was given by Professor Tina Grotzer of Harvard University:
    “There has been a lot of research into the mechanisms behind stereotype
    threat. Some ideas are low self-efficacy, attention distraction, and anxiety
    (Ben-Zeev, Fein, and Inzlicht, 2005), worry and performance-avoidance
    goals are also shown to meditate the threat (Bodish and Devine, 2009)…
    also negative thinking, which interferes with cognitive performance
    (Cadinu, Maass, Rosabianca, and Keisner, 2005)” (Grotzer, 2010).

    Stereotype threat causes decreased independence, heightened distraction, and performance anxiety. An overall effect is “negative thinking,” which can further fuel all the aforementioned characteristics. While students become focused on performing poorly, their cognitive abilities cater to that fallacy. Thus, some African American youth will continually earn poor grades, furthering the cycle via confirmation bias. It becomes difficult to separate these students from low achievement, making necessary the rethinking of texts that make minority youth particularly aware of their own disadvantaged history.
    The problem is, Foe and “A Tempest” succeed even more at disrupting the slave-master relationship than do most high school texts. A brief search of common English works that deal with minority issues yields these titles: To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Fin, and The Bluest Eye. Through language, these books speficy the slave-master relationship as Whites having power over Blacks. In To Kill a Mockingbird, lines like, “typical of a nigger to cut and run” and “typical of a nigger’s mentality to have no plan” (Lee, 25) are frequent. They may be the racist views of Maycomb, but they are strong and troublesome statements. The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin follows suit with lines like, “I see it warn’t no use wasting words – you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit” (Twain, 104). The Bluest Eye also uses the word “nigger,” but in this passage shows how stereotypically Black inadequacies can infiltrate the text even without the use of certain terms: “The Breedloves did not live in a storefront because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to the cutbacks at the plant. They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly” (Morrison, 38). At this point, three books used amongst mainstream English classes portray Blacks as “niggers,” “unlearned,” “poor,” and “ugly.”
    One may suggest that decreasing traditionally Black works from African American-dominant classrooms is one way to divert potential stereotype threat, but what material replaces such works? The other extreme of literature, White texts, can be just as destructive. Using White literature in minority classrooms is difficult because teachers request students to assimilate into an unfamiliar discourse. In The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse, Lisa D. Delpit asks, “Does it not smack of racism and classism to demand that these students put aside the language of their homes and communities and adopt a discourse that is not only alien, but has often been instrumental in furthering their oppression?” (Delpit, 285). Delpit offers a very solid and sound perspective, explaining how “White” language and ideas are unfairly classified as the discourse for every student. As Delpit proposes, English teachers may be “acting as agents of oppression” (Delpit, 285) by using White literature as the correct or dominant curriculum. The result of substituting Black literature with White literature is that, “Instead of being locked into ‘your place’ by your genes, you are now locked hopelessly into a lower-class status by your Discourse” (Delpit, 286). There are exceptions to Delpit’s initial claims, which she self-addresses later in her argument.
    At this juncture in the analysis, it seems as though English teachers are immobilized by both the literature of their students and traditional literary discourses. How can they more effectively educate African American youth? Educators must not stray too far from the canon in creating approval-worthy curriculums, but they must do something different to positively impact student performance. As the canon includes, “[returning] again and again to the solitary individual in a hostile human and physical environment to raise crucial questions about the foundations of civilization and humanity” (Attridge, 70), there has to be a way to teach significant concepts without prompting stereotype threat. Even texts that attempt to reverse power inequalities still discuss the very existence of slaves and masters. Could talking about the slave-master relationship, from any angle, be the problem that makes students conscious of stereotypes against them? What will happen after removing the slave-master dialogue altogether?
    Foe and “A Tempest” exercise the possibility of re-working a reality, event, or relationship through language, with Foe particularly supporting silence. Where Susan Barton says, “I told myself I did him wrong to think of him as a cannibal or worse…But Cruso had planted the seed in my mind, and now I could not look on Friday’s lips without calling to mind what meat must once have passed them” (Coetzee, 106), how does one remove the “seed” so that she no longer judges Friday in the same discriminatory light? Writer Jelani Greenidge suggests a solution when she declares, “Choosing to talk about these things without using the terms “racist” and “racism” can shine an even more effective light on the relative merit (or lack thereof) of these particular ideas and actions” (Greenidge, 1). Greenidge advises changing the language one chooses to discuss a topic, which might mean permanently rejecting certain terms and ideas.
    In order to obtain empirical evidence for these claims, one must conduct a small study. In this study, students divide into three groups. One group receives a passage that exhibits the slave-master relationship through a traditional African American work. The second group reads an excerpt about the slave-master relationship through the eyes of a European or White author. The third group works with a chunk of text that talks about struggles and hardship, but does not mention Blacks, Whites, or the relevant slave-master dynamic. Students are then given a set of skill-based questions. Three such skills assessed on state exams are Main Idea, Cause and Effect, and Plot, which comprise the following questions: “What is the Main Idea of the passage?”, “What caused the conflict in the passage?”, and, “What is the climax of the passage?” When analyzing the same group of multiple-choice questions, one can measure how each passage effects the number of correct responses. The hypothesis is African American students in this study will answer more questions correctly when responding to the third passage. The study’s depth and necessitated time extends beyond the scope of this paper, but statistical evidence will be hugely important in suggesting meaningful and knowledge-based action for improving English education for minority youth.
    World literature is one type of text might allow for exploring canonized themes without using traditionally African American or White definitions. Have not “solitary individuals” existed in India? Are there not “hostile human and physical environments” in Asia? Can a student not learn countless lessons about “the foundations of civilization and humanity” generating from Latin America? These themes are not particular to any one race, and cannot be ignored for the sake of favoring one discourse over another. In assessing the validity and usefulness of World Literature in a minority classroom, the most revealing answers come from the students themselves- the ones who are currently being subjected to literature that may be hindering their ability to see themselves and the world with a fresh perspective.
    After presenting this idea to students at Miami Carol City Senior High, their responses were as follows:
    “I see a pattern as far as how Blacks are looked down on.
    Whites [WERE] superior. Yes, I believe in some cases, there
    are stereotypes. Stereotypes make me feel minimized, unworthy
    of certain things and in some ways upset. Yes, I would definitely
    read books on other cultures. It would help African American
    students better understand that they have SO many chances
    in life now compared to their ancestors. It’ll also allow them to
    view things differently. I think reading about the slave-master
    relationship makes less educated African Americans angry.
    It makes “us” feel that as the younger generation of the slaves,
    we have to fight back (although harsh racism is over, and now
    it only exists in minute areas). When it comes to testing, it
    makes you feel like you have a ridiculous amount to prove for
    your part in society- to the point that you just can’t think
    straight.” (Danielle Murray, Senior).

    “I read books about Whites and Africans Americans
    whenever I hear about or I’m taught about them in school.
    Sometimes i notice a pattern in the relationship between the characters and sometimes I don’t (I think it’s based on the
    book). I feel there’s a stereotype in every book. These stereotypes make me feel like the author is basically saying that those
    stereotypes define African Americans and that’s how we all are.
    I would love to read books from other cultures. It might be helpful
    for African American students to read books about times and places that do not relate to racism toward them because it would broaden their point of view on the world and its vast cultures and they
    would not always think the world is against them and that they’re
    the only people who’ve ever struggled. I think reading about racism between Whites and Blacks either helps people get over it, or makes everyone super-conscious of it, so much that they might even get nervous and do badly on tests. This is based on their upbringing and self-esteem. I believe its based on their upbringing and self-esteem because like a popular saying goes, ”It takes a whole village to raise a child” if that whole village that’s raising the child all believe one way about racism, either Blacks or superior or
    Whites are superior then most likely that child is going to think the same. Also the way you think affects your self-esteem. If you’re a Black child reading a book about slavery, or even worse the William Lynch letter, even though the events you read about happened a long time ago, you’re still going to subconsciously THINK less about yourself” (Imani Taylor, Sophomore).

    “I like reading articles and books about other cultures, it helps me
    gain depth on life outside of my own. So they can take notice that
    there is life outside of their home, their city, state, ect. People are
    on the other side of those walls they have confined themselves to.
    In order to grow you need to experience things and learn to be open-minded . . . which is what many of these kids now a days
    (especially at Carol City) are not. If their mind continues to stay
    trapped they turn more ignorant by the day. Most children who don’t understand something shy away from it or begin to resent it. We
    were born in a time where there are no more restrictions on the
    separation of blacks and whites. Sometimes when we experience it first hand we become baffled because were not use to it — even so its
    human nature to fear something “different” or feel more powerful.
    Reading out racism is personal and every student will comprehend it differently. I doubt that they will become nervous and do badly on a test, sometimes the truth hurts but its motivating to know. Plus, its a
    captivating topic: violence, human hatred, cynicism — worth paying attention to” (Shakina Jean-Claude, Junior).

    The students offer very important observations and insights to further the study of literature in minority classrooms. Danielle, Shakina, and Imani all note stereotypes within texts that make them feel “less than.” They understand this feeling can be increased or decreased by upbringing and education. The three young women express different views on testing, making a point to say that success is a mental state and any obstacles can be overcome by consciously attempting to do so. Each of them fully support finding alternative texts to support their learning, as they understand the risks of repeating oppressive themes to the point of exhaustion. Danielle, Shakina, and Imani’s responses are all evidence supporting the need to extrapolate upon this analysis.
    While incorporating only World Literature into an English curriculum for African American students is not the sole way to combat stereotype threat, it is not realistic to hold authors one-hundred percent responsible for making these literary changes. Teachers also play an enormous role in how students ingest and interpret literature. The guidance of a teacher can steer a student in an entirely different direction altogether: “While I do agree that discourses may embody conflicting values, I also believe there are many individuals, who have faced and overcome the problems that such a conflict might cause…Both attribute their ability to transcend their circumstances into which they were born directly to their teachers” (Delpit, 287-289). Offering multiple views on the stories, especially concepts that do not always relate back to an unjust power dynamic, is one way teachers create change. Asking students about their experiences with the literature is also a method to actively engage young people in consciously considering what they read.
    Students must be proactive in changing the way they think about and respond to literature: “Effective social and political change, then, is not merely the granting or the seizing of a voice (and the power that goes with it) by one or other predetermined group; it also entails work on the part of members of both oppressed and oppressing groups to create breaks in the totalizing discourses that produce and reify that grouping itself” (Attridge, 86). This excerpt from Attridge’s article calls upon “both oppressed and oppressing groups” to work towards uprooting systems, literary and otherwise, that produce negative and limiting thoughts. Professor Tina Grotzer cites a way for students to begin taking ownership of stereotype threat when she says, “In one model, physiologists stress, self-monitoring of performance, and efforts to suppress negative thoughts and emotions all combine to distract and consume negative resources (Schmader, Johns, and Forbes, 2008)” (Grotzer, 2010). Thus, self-assessment and expression, such as journaling, can be one way for African American students to monitor their response to literature, so they become aware of how to separate a text from their personal, cognitive reactions.
    This study proposes free thought and equal opportunity amongst students vulnerable to stereotype threat. Testing students on works like Foe and “A Tempest” may not be without conceptual biases. As, “Language shapes how we think and therefore how we act” (Introduction to A Tempest, 6), careful attention must be directed towards the dialogue between masters and slaves. Many students desire to move beyond historically destructive modes of thinking and self-perception. This is a multi-responsibility task, which Freire demands is the only way to promote extensive change: “But one does not liberate people by alienating them. Authentic liberation– the process of humanization– is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” (Freire, 60). In order to plausibly disengage stereotype threat from learning, men and women must “reflect” upon the world that creates these boundaries- with literature as a powerful and appropriate starting point.

    Bibliography

    Attridge, Derek. J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    Cesaire, Aime. A Tempest: Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Adaptation for Black Theatre. Theatre Communications Group, 2002.

    Delpit, Lisa D. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New Press, 1996.

    Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. Continuum, 2000.

    Kelley, Robin D.G. A Poetics of Anticolonialism. Monthly Review: November, 1999.

    Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Grand Central Publishing, 1988.

    Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Plume, 2000.

    Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Penguin Classics, 1986.

    Steele, Claude and Aronson, Joshua. Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance on African Americans. New York: Freeman & Co, 1995.

  13. Pingback: beyond duality: talking about race, power & oppression in yoga service

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