I have been critical of the widening charges of cultural appropriation and microaggressions on our campuses as statements and even programs are targeted with little resistance from faculty or administrators. We previously discussed how yoga classes were denounced in Ottawa as cultural appropriation. Now American University in Washington has become embroiled in the same charge after a single student objected to white individuals performing an Indian epic as part of university’s Bhakti yoga group. American University student Maya Krishnan seems to believe that the school should limit performances on the basis of race and national origin — and that objection appears to have succeeded with the dissolution of the group as well as the resignation of the group’s faculty adviser, student president and vice president.
Krishnan filed a complaint with the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion on white people daring to perform an Indian epic. She then wrote an op-ed in the student paper, The Eagle on the performance of “The Ramayana,” by American University’s Bhakti Yoga Club. She complained that “Having my culture represented by an almost entirely white troupe of dancers is incredibly frustrating.” While that frustration would seem discriminatory on the basis of race and national origin, Krishnan was somehow excused by declaring it’s all cultural appropriation. Indeed, Krishnan simply rejects the notion that such groups are celebrating her cultural: “Additionally, the director and other representatives of the theater company absolve themselves of cultural responsibility by saying that the point of the show is to increase exposure of Hinduism and its traditions.”
The Bhakti Yoga Club had invited Viva Kultura, a multinational performing arts group, to perform”The Ramayana.” However, Krishnan could not see beyond the race and national origin of the performers. Indeed, it did not matter to her if the epic was performed perfectly because the performers were the wrong race. Indeed even converting to the religion seemed to be an effort to rob Krishnan of her “intersectional experience’:
The sponsors of this show and the artists acted as if their actions were acceptable because they have converted to the Hare Krishna sect of Hinduism. The reality of this is that white European dancers will never know my intersectional 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 my experience and will never have to think about knowing it. To place their narrative over mine and other people who practice Hinduism is a disservice.
Instead of defending (and encouraging) the right of all students and faculty to immerse and participate in such performances, American University was largely silent as the race of its students and faculty was used in this fashion.
Ironically, we discussed not long ago how the show “Hamilton” has refused to audition white performers despite anti-discrimination laws. Of course the original figures were white but the performance has been confined to minority performers. That was generally accepted as artistic license. Moreover, there is a common practice now in rejecting race as limiting actors like confining Shakespeare plays to white performers.
This brings us back to American and the perception that students are limited by race or national origin by what they can experience and perform. The school should expressly support students and clubs that reject limitation based on such criteria.