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Don’t Let Cultural Gatekeeping Destroy South Asian Solidarity

Opinion | October 15, 2019

A previous version of this article made two errors. Three extraneous words were misattributed to the original Tufts Daily article: “an outside perspective is not as useful as a native one when seeking a deep dive into these cultures.” Additionally, the previous version stated that the original Daily article did not mention the South Asian diaspora, which is incorrect. These errors have been corrected.

On September 16, 2019, the Tufts Daily published an editorial titled “Sensitivity is necessary when mandating instruction in diaspora cultures.” The editorial was written by a member of the South Asian diasporic community at Tufts and argued that Tufts University should consider hiring South Asian professors to teach South Asian culture classes. They maintained that when teaching the culture and religions of a region, such as North Indian Kathak and Introduction to Hinduism, it is best to have professors of that culture who grew up in it and have practiced the religion and culture. The editorial stated, “an outside perspective is not as useful as a native one when seeking a deep dive.”

The author told me that when the article was being written, “reservations regarding the editorial were never voiced.” Regardless of edits that needed to be made, the author said, the feedback was always that it was “amazing work.” The editor of the Opinions section gave the author two options for the title of the article: “Respect is due for the South Asian community at Tufts” and “Cultural Whitewashing at Tufts Must End.” Later, without the author’s consent, the article was published under the final title, “Sensitivity is necessary when mandating instruction in diaspora cultures.”

Once the article was published, there was immediate pushback. On September 23, 2019, Aniket De’s op-ed titled “Culture is more than descent” was published by the Daily, the original editorial was retracted, and an apology was issued. The author of the original article said, “as a member of the editorial board, I felt incredibly uncomfortable simply being told that the article is being retracted. The intent seems to be to silence South Asian voices on campus and only publish opinions that support White people, despite how hurtful it could be to South Asians on campus.”

De’s response article silenced the voices of South Asians—particularly those from the South Asian diaspora—and to devalue their experiences and connections to their culture. One of De’s points is that descent, race, and bloodline do not equate to competency in a subject, and that to suggest this would be dangerous. I share this sentiment—it would be a disservice to assign or deny the role of professor to someone simply because of an identity they held while ignoring the work they have or have not put into a field. Additionally, restricting a certain subject to a specific race legitimizes the ideology that race is biologically inherent.

However, De does not develop this argument and tell readers why it is dangerous to inextricably tie together descent and competency. Instead, he resorts to invalidating South Asian diasporic experiences as a means of asserting that White professors can indeed have cultural competency. De wrote, “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 US…diasporic experiences in the US have really nothing to do with actual lived realities of South Asia.” 

The experiences that De had with diasporic South Asians, such as these students belittling his Indian accent, are rooted in and upheld by White supremacy. White supremacy is the system by which White people extract labor, land, and material wealth at the expense of people of color. This is not to dismiss his experiences, but instead to understand why those instances occurred. White supremacy divides communities of color along the fault lines of religion, race, class, and in this case, nationality. The very definition of nationality in South Asia is intrinsically tied with White colonialism. The ways in which we as a South Asian subcontinent were divided was intended to create chaos, in order for the British to continue to impose their colonialist oppression. 

White institutions are invested in turning communities of color against one another and then blaming the hostility that follows on the inherent differences within the community. My experiences have been different than those of Aniket in many ways; I was born and raised in the United States and have experienced race and ethnicity differently. And yet, there are histories that we share—histories of White supremacy that led us both to address this topic. These histories should result in solidarity in the fight against oppression, rather than in divisiveness. 

Although De is critical of members of the diaspora, he does very little to provide a historically informed definition of the term. Diasporas emerge from displacements and migrations driven by histories of violence. These displacements cannot simply be defined by “transnational” crossings—especially when the borders of the nations crossed were violently drawn by British colonizers in the first place. 

Thus, De’s understandings of “diaspora” and “South Asian culture,” are rooted in academic history that upholds colonialist ideals. Rather, the understanding of these terms should be grounded in explaining the ways in which South Asian Studies courses and the students who take them are situated in foundationally White, US elite private academic institutions.

Without erasing De’s own understanding of his experience, one might even argue that his own migration to the United States is diasporic. De facing condescension from US-born South Asian students for his accent, as a lower middle class international student at a White, elite private institution, is a deeply diasporic experience for immigrants and migrants. This experience resonates across socioeconomic status and national identity. Thus, to say that those born and raised in South Asia have more of a claim or connection to “South Asian culture” than those not raised in South Asia is flawed and ahistorical. “South Asian culture” has multiple, changing meanings that emerge from histories of colonialism and resistance, in both the South Asian subcontinent and the United States.

De reinforces the role of cultural gatekeeper, even as he condemns it. “Descent in America does not guarantee shared experiences with South Asia,” he claims—but it is undeniable the histories that shape our migrations and our lived experiences in the US. The irony is that the Daily Editorial Board condemned the original piece as seeking to advance cultural gatekeeping that is not aligned with the editorial ethos of the Tufts Daily,” insinuating that the author was preventing White people from inhabiting South Asian academic spaces. The way that I understand gatekeeping, however, is a process by which members of a community exclude or police other members of the community based on differences in experience or identity. 

The fact that the Daily retracted the original editorial and published De’s op-ed speaks to a larger issue of voices of color on campus being silenced and voices that benefit White people being elevated. The Daily’s actions are representative of White institutions that use heterogeneity within groups to divide them. We cannot stand by institutions as they silence voices of color and uphold White supremacy by only supporting opinions that support the majority on campus.