Dhaaruni: The way I describe mainstream yoga is “passive aggressively inclusive”: it’s ostensibly all about inclusion and peace and love, but in reality, if I wasn’t already good at yoga, there’s no way in hell I’d ever start doing it. The pressure of yoga is to be thin, young, white, and beautiful and I’ve been doing martial arts for a decade and half, yoga for years as well, and even I’m never entirely comfortable in these environments.
Janelle Monae’s video for “Yoga” dissipates some of that discrimination because she brings yoga back to the basics: enjoying how much the body can accomplish and stretching purely for health and well being. Yoga isn’t about being thinner; it’s about gaining peace of mind and improving health and just wellness which can sometimes result in weight loss or toning or whatever, but it overall makes you feel better about yourself.
Crystal: Letting yoga be about wellness rather than the body as a prop decentralizes yoga from the Western narrative that has developed. Instead of fetishizing yoga bodies (which are, as you pointed out, usually thin and white) or using South Asian women and their bodies as props, Monae chooses instead to center her song and video on black girls. I love the line “sweating in the club; call me Dirty Diana”. It allows Monae to quickly ground her song in black culture.
The video for “Yoga” feels like a celebration of the Carefree Black Girl aesthetic and looks like a bunch of black women working on their fitness together and having fun. Monae’s celebration of herself and the black female body is feminist self-care to the nth degree, allowing for her to put herself first. She is the damn queen of this movement, literally putting herself in a crown.
Dhaaruni: My question is, what does it mean when women of color take on the stereotypes originally reserved solely for skinny white girls? The Carefree Black Girl is SO important, because for so long, the nuances of personality have been relegated solely to white people because either black women are deemed lazy and worthless or derided with the “Angry Black Woman” trope which is just as offensive.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the demonization of the NOT CHILL woman because I am not chill. I am the exact opposite of chill, I literally get acrylic nails because otherwise I bite them to the skin and I’m not into having bleeding nail beds, and that’s why I love yoga so much. My body reacts terribly with anxiety meds and yoga acts like a sort of natural medicine. It keeps me from believing the world is going to collapse on me and I feel so much better doing it. I recommend it to everybody but the inherent air of judgment yoga’s become associated with prevents people from embracing it.
Crystal: There’s definitely a tension there about how yoga is viewed as a relaxing activity, but it can be practiced as a stress reliever for those who are anything but stereotypical carefree people. I, too, am probably wound a little too tightly, will never fit into a motif of Carefree Anything, and I completely and totally appreciate these new examples of women in pop culture — whether they’re on TV on in songs about yoga — who get shit done but allow themselves to let go. To be a woman who is getting her shit done, to be a woman of color (WOC) who is getting her shit done and to still be tender and soft and in need of release and relaxation is still a revolutionary concept in 2015.
Dhaaruni: Like, I sometimes make jokes about how I’m a prototypical skinny bitch doing yoga but honestly it’s a very intentional subversion since a) I’m not white and b) I’m never reclaiming the word bitch as an ideological absolute since that’s not for WOC who’ve already been relegated to secondary status in terms of beauty and respectability just by our existence.
But much of why I can encroach on those spaces as a WOC is because I have the class privilege and the thin privilege to do so. Even so, it’s still a subversion since I’m not white, and it’s far more about me demanding that treatment than me being entitled to it because I respond to my external situation and genuinely believe I deserve the respect and consideration allotted to a white man, something which so many WOC are discouraged from believing. Monae’s video is part of this movement by WOC to reclaim identity as human, and it’s also a lot about yoga belonging to the individual more than the group in power subversively using it to maintain their power.
Crystal: And so, it should be obvious, but it still bears repeating since some can’t figure this out: while what Janelle Monae is doing in “Yoga” is not above critical examination, it is definitely dramatically different from what white pop stars do when they appropriate the cultures of others. The reason for this is two-fold:
- Historically, black people have not profited off the appropriation of Indian culture. In fact, there is a history of anti black racism and colorism in Asian communities. This alone doesn’t exonerate her from still doing some sketchy stuff (Christina Lee wrote a whole piece about hip-hop’s exotification and fetishization of Asians for The Pitchfork Review last year), but we also have to consider…
- The video does not seek to advance harmful stereotypes or a mainstream narrative about people of color. It’d be different if this was all about how freaky and weird yoga chicks are, but it’s not.
Crystal: I mean, just compare what Monae does to what badly behaved white children Diplo, DJ Snake, and MØ do in the video for “Lean On.” Indian bodies are interchangeable props, and their presence is atmospheric, only there to create an aura of mystery and otherness. Meanwhile, MØ prances around like the quirky white girl. Dear lord, that is messy.
Dhaaruni: Yeah, something that really makes me angry is when people tell me I’m “acting white” because I date white guys, or I’m majorly into style and I drink my coffee with a lot of milk and sugar, which I’m sure you can relate to. I flat out don’t believe that anything I could do ever falls under the category of “acting white” mainly because I am not white; I’m Indian born and raised, even when I’m feeling Valley Girl “like as if” a la Cher Horowitz or giving off hardcore Blair Waldorf “I Deserve The Best” vibe with the hyper-expressive facial expressions associated with them.
The thing is, Monae or I are never going to be “quirky white girls” no matter how much we may act in a way that’s been codified as white, and our image is much more about expanding what people see as associated with our cultures while still embracing our individual backgrounds as different from those around us.
Crystal: None of this means that black women are incapable of appropriating Asian culture; a good example of Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love” video, which reinforces stereotypes about Asian women being submissive and devoted to their men. And of course, this still has the problem of divorcing yoga from its spiritual and cultural background, which it does have. But this is so different in execution from Minaj’s video, so relentless in how it seeks to create and craft new narratives rather than reinforce existing structures of power. Monae wants to give women a means to take care of themselves and have fun doing it. Janelle Monae wants you to believe you can be a queen, too.
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Crystal is a writer living in Chicago but a Texan girl through and through. She writes about music and culture, and you can find her work on The Singles Jukebox, the Village Voice, Pitchfork, and Racialicious. She also co-hosts #SWOONSTEP, a podcast where women discuss their passion for music and their crushes on musicians. She also blogs and tweets.