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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 29, 2024

Op-Ed: Culture is more than descent

“Culture is more than fact,” pontificates the Sept. 16 Tufts Daily editorial lampooning white instructors teaching South Asian culture classes, “it is the emotion, habit and ritual formed from accumulated and shared experience. It flows from community.” It is therefore downright insensitive of the university, it concludes, to hire white professors, outside the “community” — defined through bloodlines of “roots” or “descent” — to teach South Asian culture to diasporic students. As an alumnus (LA’16) from India who studied the cultural history of South Asia at Tufts, I have only one question: whose community?

While the logic is largely wordplay (I am not entirely sure what “culture flows from community” means), it does make one point: that primarily, if not exclusively, people with “roots” (again, bloodline) in a community should teach classes on its culture. On its way, it slides down an assumption gently, almost imperceptibly: that classes on South Asia are classes on the South Asian diaspora. They are not. They are classes on South Asia.

It is remarkable how easily the article merges experiences of South Asians with experiences of the South Asian diaspora. In reality, they could not be more different, even on the Tufts campus. When I arrived from India at Tufts, in fall 2012, the coldest reception I (and many fellow South Asians, especially the poorer ones on financial aid) received was from the South Asian diaspora: my Indian accent laughed at, my sartorial sense criticized, my views on religion dismissed. I too was quite amazed by what I saw — the culture and the habits of the diaspora was unlike anything in India; most of them were also, simply, richer than anyone I ever saw in India (given the population below the poverty line in India, this is not difficult to prove statistically). I say this not to blame the diasporic community on campus, but to highlight the ocean of cultural and economic disconnect between South Asia and its diaspora. If one takes seriously our author’s contention that culture flows from community — then “South Asian culture” (whatever on earth that means), must flow from communities in South Asia and not the diaspora.

Of course, I do not mean to delegitimize diasporic culture, which is rich in its own right. All I mean is that it cannot be equated with cultures from South Asia. If the author demanded that a diasporic Hindu teach “Intro to Hinduism in America,” there would be less at stake. But the article charges the white instructor of “Intro to Hinduism” for not having “Indian roots.” I am, in fact, taking the argument one step further: having Indian roots is not enough. If “accumulated and shared experiences” define community for our author, then one must share experiences with communities in South Asia, and not in the South Asian diaspora in the U.S. Trust me when I, a Tufts financial aid recipient from a lower-middle-class family in India, say that diasporic experiences in the U.S. have really nothing to do with actual lived realities of South Asia.

Once we realize that it is having shared experiences with communities in South Asia (and not “Indian roots”) that matters, the problem gets interesting. Who is a better part of a South Asian community (and not the diasporic community): the white woman who has spent 10 years studying Hinduism among low-castes in Kolkata, or the brown man who has left his Hindu household in Kalamazoo only to visit his extended family in India a few times? Judging by the parameters of “accumulated and shared experience” set by the author, undoubtedly the former, simply because there is little of India to accumulate in Kalamazoo. Of course, had the brown man spent an equal time in India, both would be equal. But until he does, simply belonging to the diaspora in the U.S. means nothing so far as shared experiences with Indians is concerned. Descent in America does not guarantee shared experiences with South Asia.

Now comes the question of race: How can a white woman really be part of a South Asian community, even if she spends 10 years in Kolkata? Isn’t the brown man from Kalamazoo, if he goes to Kolkata, all said and done, a Hindu? This problem comes because, of course, the author defines community through blood: descent, root, race. If blood was the only form of community-making, then this argument could be considered closed. But there are plenty of ways to make a community, especially in South Asia. Language, for one. Caste, for another. If a white person learns Indian languages and eats on the same floor with a low-caste community, they instantly grow closer to a lower-caste community, irrespective of race, than an upper-caste, rich diasporic Hindu (many of whom are upper-caste and rich by Indian standards) ever will by virtue of descent alone. I am not glorifying savior complexes and colonizing attitudes, all too common among many white scholars, or downplaying the power dynamics of race. All I am saying is that bloodlines and race cannot be the sole criteria to judge belonging to a community, especially in South Asia. Don’t look at South Asia with American lenses of race: If white people are considered aliens in India by virtue of their race, so will be many diasporic Hindus due to their class and caste privileges. The criteria of communitarian belonging is complex and not directly linked to bloodlines.

What are those criteria, then, and how are we to know it? How can undergraduates know if their professors were accepted by communities in India? The easiest easy way out is to read their works and ask them. Irrespective of your instructor’s race, brown or white, ask them about their experiences in South Asia (and not in the diaspora community). You’ll know if they exoticize or patronize South Asia, or if they engage, critically and factually, with communities of scholars, thinkers and other people in South Asia. If the author thinks that “shared and accumulated experience” as the basis of community, then so be it — judge their experience, ask how long they have lived in South Asia and what experiences they have accumulated; descent is less an accumulation of experience than of genes, which, unless one wants to stretch this argument to eugenics, is not of much consequence.

I fully support the presence of more faculty of color in academia — I myself am an aspiring candidate of that social group. But making appalling arguments based on descent and blood severely damages the case, and opens itself to the kind of fallacies I have pointed out above. For some reason, the article chose to omit the fact that Tufts has been one of the leading centers of South Asian studies in New England — run by important scholars from South Asia (do they not count because they are not part of the Hindu diaspora?). The article’s close interlinking of “Hindu” (not Muslim) and “Indian” also does not speak well of the politics of the editorial page of the Tufts Daily. It should be our goal to make sure that people of color get their due recognition, and making baseless charges on lines of race and blood does not help towards that goal. If culture is more than fact, it is more than descent as well.