I speak Hindi, I am Hindu, and I’m an American: Fighting “Little Things”

Cultural ignorance slows the progress of social justice.

nikkis-photo.jpgGuest Contributor:  Nikita Srivastava, (’19)

As a minority woman in the United States, I am often defined by the color of skin. Although I take pride in my heritage, it is not the only thing that defines who I am. I find myself explaining who I am (or what defines me) more often than my white peers. Not only is this common in social settings, but professional settings as well. What makes matters worse is that my concerns about cultural ignorance are dismissed as “little things.” 

For example, I consider myself a Hindu. However, I am not a strict Hindu. I occasionally eat beef, which is frowned upon in Hinduism; but, when others see me eat beef, they ask me:

“Aren’t cows sacred in India?”

“No, they are sacred in Hinduism – not a country.” I reply. In the U.S, there are many people of Indian descent residing here. However, many people are ignorant of Indian culture. Many assume Hindi is a religion or a type person, when it is actually a language. People, who are not of Indian descent or Indian, always ask me if I speak Indian, which is the one of the worst questions for me to answer. I am positive that almost every Indian india_colorfeels this way. Indian is not language – it is an adjective used to describe a person who comes from the country India. No one speaks Indian!

 Every time someone asks me whether I speak “Indian,” I think:

 “Sure, they do not know much about Indian culture. They do not know that not all Indians are Hindus. There are Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist, and Christians in India. They do not know that Hindi is not only the language spoken in India. Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali, English, and more are spoken in India. I should not take offense to it.  It is not their fault they are not exposed this information. But, Indians have been here for so long. There are so many of us in America. Shouldn’t they be more aware of this? Aren’t schools supposed to teach World History?”

Such inquiries are rooted in cultural ignorance, a problem many do not realize exist. But being unaware of prejudice, racism, and bias is the problem affecting minorities in their everyday lives.

Sociologist Elijah Anderson describes a different reality, the cosmopolitan canopy, in which people of all races and cultures are found. Such areas are very rare. In his book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, illustrates the concept with the Reading Terminal Market

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Reading Terminal Mkt by Mark Bonica 

located Center City Philadelphia. People of all races and ethnicities intermingle peacefully there. But, outside that canopy, there is little to no diversity. According to Anderson, most areas are considered “white space,” which homogenous places where white people usually reside and are lacking in multiculturalism. For Anderson, the Reading Terminal Market is aspirational for the U.S.: he thinks we can get there, but there will be a struggle to do so.  Ultimately, he concludes, going through any difficulties is worth it because cosmopolitan canopies have less racial tension for the very reason that they embody the notion of tackling issues head on.

The aspirational nature of the cosmopolitan canopy is very clear in law schools, which, by and large, are white spaces. Having four Indians classmates, a handful of African American students, and one Pakistani student out of 124 students is not diversity. In fact, these people of color may be seen as invading white space. This lack of diversity in law schools contribute to whites seeing the law as a white profession. Popular culture and media reinforce that message, which only exacerbates the notion of white supremacy.

Joe Feagin, the author of the White Racial Frame, explains that the centuries-old notion of white superiority is embedded in the national subconscious and reinforced by the use of certain imagery and language.  The WRF is such an integral part of society that Americans—regardless of skin color—are skilled in its use even though they are

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1960s TV Attorney Perry Mason 

unaware that they engage in practices reinforcing white superiority, such as stereotyping people of color. In the context of law, many television programs, movies, and media reports often show white men as attorneys, supporting the white supremacy the frame. When people of color appear, it generally is in stereotypic roles, contributing to the superiority-inferiority relationship.

I’ve experienced the WRF first hand. When I went the University of Cincinnati College of Law Summer Public Interest Fair in the Spring of 2017, everyone who interviewed me was white. Most the people applying for jobs were white. I knew that I had to work twice as hard and be more likeable in my interviews than my peers to get a job. In fact, around my peers, I also have to prove myself more than others. Every time I answer a white friend’s question, he or she double checks to make sure what I said was correct. For example, I was teaching some of my friends how to properly do a plank pushup, which is a power yoga exercise. If you do not go down in one fluid motion, then your spine will get damaged. When I explained this, my friends doubted me. But a couple days later, one of my friends reported a conversation with other people who said the same thing. I have been practicing yoga since I was 18 years old, and yoga originates from India. I know my fair share about yoga.

In class, such discounting of my knowledge is particularly annoying.  For instance, in Constitutional Law we read a case about Nazis seeking to march in Skokie, Illinois, with a swastika on their flag. The swastika does not originate from Nazi Germany; in fact, it comes from Hinduism, where it means peace or well-being. During our discussion this 78b91bcaea013da74c8b0f1e8ffe9fd3case, the professor asked whether this symbol be banned.  Immediately I thought “no,” but was well aware other students see the swastika as a hate symbol. After class, I vented about my frustrations about the symbol to my friends. One of friends said, “Just accept it is a hate symbol and move on.” To my friend, this discussion was a little thing, but not to me.

I think:

“I used to have the swastika debate in undergrad in all my history classes. People in law school should know by now the complexity of the symbol. Why should I accept that my religious symbol is a hate symbol? It is not my fault that some crazy dictator used it to symbolize torture and discrimination. I understand why people are uncomfortable with the swastika. Why can’t they understand my frustration when it is culturally appropriated? Seriously, we need to change how we teach world history. I cannot keep explaining to people over and over again why this is so insensitive to say.”

But I keep my thoughts to myself because when I speak, I am ignored, doubted, or told to “let it go; it’s only a little thing.”

These little things are reinforcing the white racial frame in which we live. These little things add to discrimination in the workplace. These little things ultimately cause great harm to minorities, excusing unnecessarily strict scrutiny that costs jobs or access to high ranking positions.  I know I will have to deal with this when I am an attorney. Many of my peers do not share my skin tone nor do they understand my experiences. Strong scrutiny of minorities, doubting or ignoring minorities reinforces the superiority-inferiority relationship between races. 

This is what I have observed growing up. That is what I have experienced. The little things are extremely harmful. As a society, as a community, we need to be better at identifying these issues and addressing these issues.

Nikita Srivastava is a rising 2L at Cincinnati Law.  She is currently at Fellow with the Ohio Innocence Project, secretary of UC Law Women, Vice President of the Criminal Law Society, and treasurer of the Public Defenders’ Club. 

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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