a letter to the american university president's council on diversity and inclusion

by maya krishnan

On Monday, October 8, I went to see a show presented by a group called Viva Kaltura which had been touring in Europe and presented their first show in the United States today on AU’s campus in the Kay Spiritual Life Center. The show was a dance show, brought here by AU Vegetarians and Bhakti Yoga Club. The theme of the show was Hinduism and Indian culture and was almost entirely represented by white European dancers. The show depicted epic stories from the Ramayana such the story of Sita and Rama, along with having classical Indian songs and lyrics that are sacred to Hinduism and the Hindu tradition.

Having my culture represented by an almost entirely white troupe of dancers was incredibly frustrating. Additionally, the director and representatives of the theatre company absolved themselves of cultural responsibility by saying that the point of the show is to increase exposure of Hinduism and its traditions. Hinduism is not widely practiced by white people. Hinduism is not widely practiced by Europeans. Hinduism is practiced mostly by South Asian people, who are historically not white and have faced discrimination for that. The show’s intention was to represent the entirety of Hinduism, and having white people centered in the performance was not the way to go about it.  Not only was it inaccurate, but when I raised this issue of cultural appropriation to the director and other members of the troupe, they didn’t see why we were offended and upset about this portrayal. The sponsors of this show and the artists act as if their actions were acceptable because they have converted to a sect of Hinduism. The reality of this is that white European dancers will never know my experience as a Hindu woman, being a brown bodied person and the other aspects of systematic racism that I, as well as other South Asian people, have experienced. These people will never know it, never have to think about knowing it and to place their narrative over mine and the majority of people who practice Hinduism is a disservice.

India Day, brought to the quad, also by the AU Vegetarians and Bhakti Yoga Club, showed a mere fraction of what India is and represents. India is the second most populous country in the world, containing people who practice several different religions, certainly not just Hinduism, and certainly not just the Hindu sect represented by the troupe. An “India” fair that is exclusive to Hindu written works, vegetarianism and reincarnation is a disgrace to what AU stands for when we talk about being informative, inclusive and intersectional. India is a fast-paced, globally competitive country which consists of innumerable intersections of identity, perspective, and experience. Additionally, India has a longstanding history with colonialism, and the simplification of “India day” into, quite frankly, propaganda for vegetarianism is an injustice to the fight against the lasting effects of colonialism and enables the silencing of marginalized people’s voices.

This is not the first time that the South Asian Student Association has seen American University let other people use campus space to disrespect and commodify our culture. Earlier in the semester, I vocalized how the vendors on the quad selling cultural artifacts and items is an issue of cultural appropriation. The vendors on the quad sell items with Hindu gods and cultural symbols on tapestries and t-shirts with no knowledge of the significance of the symbols. This allows for no information exchange about these items and creates a discourse that the selling of South Asian cultural items without any South Asians involved is permissible. It speaks to the trend of commodification and objectification of non-Western cultures. American University’s administration oversees who is on our space. What they are doing, what is being said, and who on campus is being represented and affected should all be taken into consideration.

As the President of the South Asian Student Association, a person who was raised in a Hindu and Indian household by parents who instilled in me the importance of representing who we are with concentrated accuracy, and being the best version of myself at all times, I did not find myself represented at all in any of the events that transpired and am appalled that an institution that strives towards inclusivity and diversity allowed these events to occur without any oversight or accountability with regards to the message being sent. AU does not have a large South Asian population, and there is minimal representation of South Asian culture in academia and coursework, even within SIS. With such little representation, whatever exposure there is needs to be accurate, above all else. From white vendors selling religious and culturally appropriative items on the quad, to Monday’s shameful misrepresentation of India, I’m tired of keeping quiet. This is my identity; these experiences make up who I am. We will no longer be ignored on campus.

Nandini (aka Maya) is a junior from Davis, California studying SIS and minoring in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. On campus, she serves as the President of the South Asian Student Association, Event Manager for the Kennedy Political Union, and Music Director for Pitches be Trippin' A Cappella. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and baking, watching Nathan For You (among other TV shows), and sleeping above all else.