Sep 24, 2020

White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals

Jordana Rosenfeld 
High Country News 
September 23, 2020

Amanda J. Lucia
320 pages, softcover: $29.95
University of California Press, 2020.

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?

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 or submit a letter to the editor.

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