Editorial: Sensitivity is necessary when mandating instruction in diaspora cultures

Editor’s note: Since its publication, the Tufts Daily has retracted this editorial due to its conflation of identities and cultural gatekeeping. The Daily deeply regrets this error. A full apology can be found here

Tufts University prides itself on diversity, and when it comes to classes in non-Western cultures, the university does remarkably well about hiring instructors with roots to the heritage they teach. It is regrettable that this excellence does not extend to classes on South Asian culture, half of which are led by instructors of Western descent. Two of four cultural instructors in the distribution this semester are white.

This fall, Tufts students walked into the Jackson Hall Dance Lab for their first class on Kathak, a traditional North Indian dance. They were greeted by a Caucasian dance instructor wearing a salwar kameez a South Asian outfit comprised of baggy pants and a long top. She handed out mithai, a sweet dessert, arranged neatly in a colorfully foiled box. Students of the South Asian diaspora in the class had enrolled in hopes of rekindling a connection with their Indian roots through dance, yet there they stood: listening to a white woman informing them that her mastery of Kathak entitles her to enlighten her students about South Asian culture and society.

They are not alone. “Intro to Hinduism” (REL-0044) is taught by a white professor, too. Though well-versed in the field of religion with decades of expertise in India and Hinduism, he does not come from Indian roots. Those who have grown up in a Hindu household will recognize that Indian culture and Hinduism are deeply entangled with one another and find that an outside perspective is not as useful as a native one when seeking a deep dive.

One can study Kathak or the intricacies of Hinduism as a religion, but rarely can expertise replace experience. Tufts acknowledges this and has taken this into consideration for other diasporas represented on our campus by hiring instructors whose lived experience is embedded in the culture that they teach to their students. The South Asian community continues to stand alone.

The majority of other non-Western culture classes are taught by professors and instructors who are of that culture. “Africa in the Middle East” (AFR-0047/ARB-0091), a course that takes students “through the history (19th century onwards) into contemporary political and cultural life to think about the complex presence of Africa in the Middle East,” is taught by an instructor of Middle Eastern descent. Within the Tufts dance program the course “African Music & Dance Ensemble” (MUS-0078) is taught by a “prominent master drummer from the Ashanti Region of Ghana.”

Culture is more than fact; it is the emotion, habit and ritual formed from accumulated and shared experience. It flows from community. Why does the Tufts administration acknowledge this for Russian, African and Middle Eastern culture, but not South Asian culture?

The university must be cognizant of the complexities of culture when hiring instructors for culture classes, especially since it is a requirement for undergraduates to enroll in non-Western cultural instruction. When the university abrogates this responsibility, it is imperative that instructors do their utmost to make students of diaspora cultures feel welcome and empowered.


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