Countering Ethnocentricism while teaching about India/South Asia

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Over the last seven years, I have designed and taught many undergraduate courses that either directly focus on India/South Asia as a region, or draw heavily from ethnographic case studies from the region. I have also directed a three-month long study-abroad program called the ‘Environment and Development in the Indian Himalayas’ in the North Indian state of Uttarakhand. I have to confess, that I haven’t had a chance to teach an introductory South Asia course. My most introductory course was called ‘Culture, Environment, and Sustainability in India.’ Even in that course, my main focus was on environmental issues in India. Since most of my classes focus on either environment or development, often both, students who take my classes are already inclined to these themes and are not there to just learn about India/South Asia.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced as an anthropologist teaching about South Asia, but specifically about India, is: how do I teach the unique caste/class/gender/ethnic dynamics of the region that shape the grassroots impacts of every single development and environmental policy, while also avoiding contributing to ethnocentric tendencies of American college students. And when I say American students, I do include students who have South Asian heritage. Interestingly, I hold that it is precisely because I rely heavily on ethnographic case studies with thick descriptions of specific places, I have found that such case studies paradoxically furthers a sense of innate difference between the lived experiences of students in the US and what they are reading about in my class. So let me first describe a few examples of how I face such ethnocentric tendencies, and then let me describe what strategies I have personally found to be useful to counter them.

First of all, I want to say that most students are not inherently ethnocentric. In fact, most students who choose to take area studies course, do so because they are curious to learn about other regions of the world. Even in the context when I was teaching in the anthropology department of a small liberal arts college in the East Coast, and most of my students were taking my South Asia class as they required at least one area studies class to fulfill the requirements, I found that students were intellectually ready to understand social life in South Asia, without relapsing into easy stereotypes. But then again, these were students majoring in anthropology, after all.

Varieties of ethnocentricisms and their sources

Overall, I have mostly four kinds of students who take my area studies courses.

A) I have what I call ‘heritage’ students, i.e. students whose ethnicity is connected to South Asia – either through one or both parents. These students might already be familiar with some aspects of South Asian culture. Some of these students might have even visited the region, at least once. To be noted here, though, many of these students’ familiarity with the South Asian region/culture is limited to the region their families come from. Thus, a student with ethnic ties to Punjab in India, might easily equate Indian culture with Punjabi culture. Secondly, South Asianess, or rather one’s Desi identity in the USA might be particularly felt in terms of difference. Thus, one’s experience as a Desi in the USA might be marked by specific cultural festivals like bhangra competitions or dandiya nights, or by enjoying Bollywood news. Such experiences of being South Asian often highlight difference, rather than structural similarity between the two regions that form part of their lives. India/South Asia, in such context, becomes a land of traditions. Let me give a concrete example, while teaching my class on the ‘Politics of Development and Sustainability in India,’ we were discussing the impact of forced displacement of many indigenous communities due to state-sponsored development projects. One of my ‘heritage’ students commented how hard it would have been to these communities to move away from their native homelands. After all, he reasoned, we [Americans] just go anywhere for work, we don’t have any deep connection to any place. But these people have their religious and cultural lives deeply connected to their native lands. On another occasion, again commenting on the need to acknowledge indigenous environmental knowledge in planning agricultural policies, the same student commented that the people in India have such amazing traditions, everything goes back to hundreds of years without any change, something that his mother has told him about. Now statements like this surely support the main gist of our arguments – that development policies can only be fruitful it they take into account place-based ethno-ecological knowledge. The main problem is that such statements paint a picture of India/Indians as forever entrenched in a kaleidoscope of colorful and unchanging traditions that shape every aspect of their lives. Moreover, such deep traditional connections with one’s ancestral home and culture is fundamentally of a different quality than can be imagined by anyone in the ‘West.’ A positive stereotype is still a stereotype.

B) The second major category of students I have are the ones who might not have much exposure to either South Asia studies or the topics under discussion. Many of these students are attracted to any course on South Asia – but specifically India – because they are curious about this part of the world. In some cases students’ curiosity is piqued by their exposure to Bollywood films, or their personal travels to India. To this category, interestingly, also belong some of my much older students who might have significant curiosity about that part of the world, or even significant travel experience. Many of these older students (and I mean people in their 50s and 60s) audit my classes, and are generally quieter – i.e. for our purposes, even if they have ethnocentric views, we don’t get to hear much from them in class. So all in all, this second category of students is such a broad category, that is hard to generalize anything at all about them. But definitely, over the years I have experienced a certain expectation amongst this category of student an expectation that my classes will talk about spiritual dimensions of South Asian [mostly Indian] cultures, and a certain sense of disappointment when they find my courses are mostly centered around material conditions of life. Since my courses also focus a lot on state-community relationships, particularly in the context of mega-development projects either failing to meets the needs of grassroots communities, or outright marginalizing the latter, particularly in the context of neoliberal projects. This was particularly true in the context of my seminar course I have talked about above, where we covered topics from Nehruvian projects of big dam constructions to neoliberal Special Economic Zones, we see a pattern of development projects that hardly benefit some of the poorest peoples in India. Further, we also talk about the ways in which class/caste dynamics fundamentally shapes the ways in which benefits from development projects can be accessed. These discussions often lead to a perception of South Asian/Indian governments to be fundamentally at loggerheads with the people of South Asia/India. There is something inherent in the South Asian condition, it seems, that inevitably leads to corruption and concentration of power in the hands of the few. It is very hard to then challenge this notion of the perpetually callous/malicious government that is out there to harm its own citizens. Over and over again, I receive student papers that call for a complete rejection of ‘Western’ models of development and revive ‘traditional’ ‘ways of being. Particularly the indigenous communities of India, many students argue, should be allowed to live out their traditional lifestyles, and should not be subjected to any development projects that attempt to change their traditions. The complex caste/class/regional ethnic variations add to yet another level of complexity that seem to be insurmountable, and definitely very alien from life as experienced in the ‘West.’ The idea of India/South Asia, in such cases, hovers between two notions of a land of rich (and unchanging) cultural traditions and land of unending domination of many by a few – a few who are enamored by the ‘Western’ model of development and are hell bent (as one student put it) to impose this model at any cost.

C) A third category of students who normally take my class are those who are interested in the topics I teach, though with varying degrees of familiarity with South Asia as a region. These students, I have found, find it easier to avoid the pitfalls of ethnocentricism. One of the main reasons for this is that students who are interested in environmental politics or international development, for example, have already taken at least one or two classes on this topic. Hence, these students are already familiar with the different ways in which social dynamics shape environmental politics or development policies. Even then, the specific caste/class/gender dynamics of South Asia can still seem to be too alien/overwhelming, and these students might still be prone to the temptation of stereotyping the South Asian condition as being fundamentally unique.

D) A fourth category of students – going beyond my usual three types of students -comprises of students whom I met during my directorship of a study-abroad program. This was a curious group, because it comprised of ‘heritage’ students, students with a lot of experience in India studies, and students who were genuinely interested in environmental issues. But one unifying factor: none of them had been to India before, at least to that part of India, and were curious to explore it. These students soon started making friends in the local community, and I found it was easiest to teach about caste/class/gender dynamics with all its complexities to this group of students. All these concepts that were otherwise foreign and abstract, made sense while we were being there. Even the most abstract gendered notions of propriety that even the students had to follow themselves (we were in rural Himalayas after all) did not appear as oppressive as it appeared initially during our orientation session in Seattle. Things made sense, this is not to say they were felt as just, but one could get a better sense of the totality of life with all its mores and ways of being, than any description in a text book would do. Paradoxically, it was this same total immersion method, over a period of three months and in relative isolation of Himalayan villages, that also took its toll on the students. Between urgent longings for home and the hard work of walking for miles on mountain roads to fulfill their internship requirements, by the third month the major differences in day-to-day lived realities with life in USA and life in the Himalayas started to loom large. This was particularly true in the case of the young women in the group – and most students were women – who started to feel that gendered ways of being in India to more and more bewildering. In one of the written assignments where the students were asked to reflect on their own constructed gendered identities at home and in the Himalayas, many students portrayed a picture of unbridled freedom from gendered norms in the USA, where a person could be whatever she wanted to be. In contrast, Indian women seemed to be tethered with overwhelming gendered norms that shaped every aspects of their lives

Strategies to counter ethnocentric tendencies

One of the major ways in which I attempt to counter such ethnocentric views while teaching about India/South Asia is to always draw reference to case studies from around the world, and more importantly from the USA. Better, depending on where I am teaching – whether in NYC or in Seattle, I always talk about local issues which, when we dig deeper, exemplify similar kinds of issues and contradictions at play. For example, during one of our classes on Special Economic Zones that are set up by the Indian government to attract foreign investment by offering significant tax cuts and other incentives, we saw a documentary film on the disenfranchisement of a community in Southern India whose land had been forcibly taken away by the government to form a SEZ. The students were shocked to see the film, and also hear from the film maker who was present with us, and had asked how can the Indian government just take away people’s lands without adequate compensation. The prevailing feeling was there is something inherently wrong in the Indian laws that allow any government to be able to do that. In this context, I had to point out that land grab for perceived national good was nothing unique to India, and indeed the principle of ’eminent domain’ exists very much in the USA too.

Another strategy that I have found useful is to situate any ethnographic case study about environmental/development policy in South Asia in the broader context of postcolonial histories and global political economy. Thus, for example, while teaching about green revolution and its impacts on many Indian farmers, I had to contextualize the seeming ‘imposition’ of such technology in the context of a genuine belief in green revolution that had led to a Nobel Prize for the founder of this technology, the state of the world in the age of the Cold War that led to US support for this technology in India, postcolonial necessities of food production in India, and the genuine grassroots demands for access to better technologies for economic prosperity that all shape why and how certain policies get implemented. Thus, in other words, we are talking beyond some elite Indians blindly following a Western model of progress, while erasing the ‘rich’ traditions of India. I also carefully select my ethnographic case studies that exemplify the interplay of very different global and local factors that challenge any notion of ‘West’ vs. the ‘Orient’ that the students might entertain. For my section on Green Revolution in India, for example, I had chosen Akhil Gupta’s Postcolonial Developments that exemplify the strategic ways in which farmers on the ground have chosen to combine both indigenous and technologial modes of doing farming, in a manner that best meets their own financial needs. This, then, was not a story of poor passive Indians being forced to give up their traditional ways of being, but rather a story of active agency exercised by some very poor Indians on the ground.

For students in my study-abroad program, who commented that their lives in the USA is free of any gendered norms, I had to kindly point out the various ways in which all aspects of our lives are shaped by societal norms. Even our sense of freedom, or our sense of fun! and notions of beauty (you do groom yourself, right?) are shaped by the communities we live in. Granted, some communities might give us more options to explore, and we do have significant agency to express ourselves the way in we want, but to say that life in India and in the US are completely opposite to each other in terms of shaping our gendered identities, is simply not correct. This, I said with significant kindness. And yet, this made my student upset, who felt that I was redefining her own sense of being, and am challenging her own experience about her life. The point of this story is that countering ethnocentricism, precisely when the students themselves feel that they are being  culturally sensitive, is not going to be easy.

But most importantly, I teach students key theoretical concepts that help them to develop critical analytical skills. One of the concepts that I have always emphasized on while teaching any class on environmental/social activism, whether in South Asia or elsewhere, is that of strategic essentialism. This concept becomes useful in understanding the necessity to both engage in, and to go beyond, essentialized concepts of the ‘traditional,’ the ‘indigeneous,’ etc. and to analyze how reality is much more complex everywhere .

It is also very important to challenge any case of ethnocentric statements or inclinations in students with compassion. As I was finishing up my last lecture for my seminar class on development and sustainability in India, one of my ‘heritage’ students had said how the class had really challenged her to think about India from an entirely new perspective. While she had started the class with a curiosity to know why India is not developing etc., now she understands how the reality in India is so complex and there are so many factors at play. She, despite her Indian heritage, did not know. I told her that there is nothing to feel bad about this. After all, most middle class Indian young people – and this what I was before I started my own academic journey – do not know about many of the factors and grounds level realities too. After all, how many of us in the USA knew what was happening in Flint, Michigan where the government lied about contaminated ground water to the residents, many of whom are poor African Americans, before it became national news. So you see, corruption, social hierarchy, social discrimination, as well as grassroots movements for social justice , are nothing unique to the South Asian region.