When negative stereotypes about India are taught as fact in American classrooms, students of Indian heritage may be adversely impacted as they struggle to work out their identity in a pluralistic, predominately “Anglo”-Christian environment. This summary article is partly based on surveys and interviews with over seventy Indian-American students.
Hindu teenagers who study about India in their social studies classes at U.S. high schools often describe the discomfort they experience when confronted with exotic or distorted images of their cultural heritage. Most of the Indian-American students whom I interviewed were quite critical of the manner in which information about India was presented. They felt strongly that their educational experience should have informed their non-Indians classmates about the vibrant philosophical tradition that is Hinduism and the dynamic and enduring qualities of Indic civilization, thereby sensitizing them to alternative civilizational sensibilities. But instead, many Indian-American students complained that images used in their classes tended to perpetuate predominantly negative and often quite erroneous perceptions.
News stories about India in the popular media usually feature sensationalist generalizations that provide Americans with preconceived ideas about such issues as “bride burning, child labor, or the worship of rats”. It is not uncommon for teachers to bring these misconstrued notions with them into the classroom. Stereotypes about other cultures that are learned through the media or at church or school, attitudes and assumptions color personal socialization experiences. Informed teachers can play a critical role in eliminating prejudices, but if they reinforce stereotypes about cultures different than their own, and present biased information about non-Western/non-Christian traditions, the intended impact of Global Education is not only lost, it is reversed.
A myopic focus on the world, exclusively through the eyes of the dominant culture, undermines the oft-stated goal of social studies education–to create citizens who are responsible actors in a multicultural society and able to relate to the rest of the world from an informed perspective. When the life styles of non-Western peoples and their philosophical traditions are approached without adequate respect and understanding, inappropriate inferences are often made and prejudicial misconceptions perpetuated. If children of Hindu heritage are taught mostly negative stereotypes about India in American classrooms, it can have a devastating impact on their self-worth and cultural identity. This is especially important for students who may feel culturally somewhat set apart from their peers, particularly during the formative and sensitive years of secondary education.
U.S. school districts are increasingly diverse ethnically. Between 1990 and 2012, the number of American citizens of Indian descent more than doubled. Due to changing demographics of U.S. schools, it has been argued that Asian Studies should be reconsidered in the field of Ethnic Studies rather than Area Studies. The presence of Asian-American students in today’s classrooms has certainly made social studies teachers more circumspect in their presentations and has stimulated a closer scrutiny of India, as well as countries such as Korea or Vietnam. However, in general, India remains a misconstrued curiosity, in the Western popular consciousness the Indian subcontinent tends to evoke two contrary images. On the one hand it is lauded as an ancient land of mystery and romance, extraordinary wealth and profound spirituality. On the other hand it is denounced for its irrationality and inhumanity and derided for its destitution and squalor.
Hinduism is included among the “World’s Five Great Religions” and yet paradoxically, Hindu beliefs and traditions are often represented as a localized collection of complex archaic cults, characterized quintessentially by the evil caste system. One young informant complained that Hinduism was described as “some sort of bizarre mystic religion in which people do dances and worship strange things.” Hinduism is seen more as a “curiosity than a World Religion.” In this context, Hinduism is referred to as “a way of life” rather than a “religion” as we understand the term in the West. Many scholars would agree that the Western concept of religion is too narrow to adequately contain the scope of Sanatana Dharma (Most Americans would not know that this was a common term used in India to refer to Hinduism). However, when Hinduism is called a “way of life” as opposed to a “religion” it is made to seem like a disorganized collection of conflicting beliefs, not really a World Religion at all. During the impressionable teenage years, such slanted portrayals can cause shame among Indian-American students and engender a disdain for their cultural ancestry.
At the University of Texas at Austin in the late nineties, I interviewed seventy “heritage students” who had attended over fifty different high schools across the USA. Their experiences indicated that negative portrayals of India are ubiquitous in social studies classes. Because these students are better informed about India and Hindu practices, they are aware of the stereotypes in a way that their Euro-American, African-American, or Hispanic classmates are not. They are also more able to sift through the misinformation whereas their classmates are subjected to this one-sided view of India without any reference points or any real desire to dispel the errors. Negative stereotypes may ultimately be more detrimental for non-Indian students
Compelled to correct mis-perceptions, many of the students adopted a defensive posture vis-à-vis the material presented in their classes. Students of Hindu heritage have told me that they felt their presence in the classroom influenced the manner in which information on India was presented. Had they not been in the class to challenge the predominantly negative images and stimulate the discussion, “topics would have been even more briefly discussed and possibly more misrepresented.” One student felt that the dismissive approach to the study of India and “other non-U.S. cultures” had a “detrimental impact on her classmates”. She pointed out the results of this lack of coverage and the negative stereotypes,
At the middle school age, you’re still learning things, and a lot of middle schoolers have very open minds. Some of my friends from middle school are now very racist, and it’s because they are so ignorant about the rest of the world. They don’t know anything about India, they don’t know anything about Japan and China and Taiwan and Vietnam. [. . . .] It was really sad to see some of my friends grow so racist. It’s because they just didn’t have the exposure. I have a friend who admitted that if he hadn’t been taught negative things about other nations at school, he wouldn’t be the way he is now. He has a closed mind because he’s ignorant. But that’s the result of the way that World History was taught to us. It was European history—with nothing worthwhile coming from Asia. I argued with the teacher several times, ‘This is not suppose to be European history, it’s World History’, but between WW I and WW II there was never time.
When asked to list what topics were covered in their social studies classes, dozens of students recalled similar lists, “Wars, disease, population, pollution, poverty, the caste system, female infanticide, flooding, starvation, nuclear threat, idolatry.” Many students stated that India was “considered a third-rate third world country– inferior in every way and totally ignorant of world events.” Several mentioned that the “economic backwardness of India was blamed on the superstitious and polytheistic nature of Hinduism,” and noted that, “The centuries of economic exploitation that caused the poverty were never mentioned.”
Quite a few students commented that only two topics, “the ancient civilization of Mohenjo-daro and the political leader Mahatma Gandhi were presented with any respect.” Many students mentioned, ironically that “when our class studied India, all we talked about was Mother Teresa. She’s not even an Indian!” The majority of students felt their teachers and textbooks approached India primarily from a negative perspective and, “showed only the desolate parts of India, not the beauty.” “We only studied the problems, not the accomplishments.” The questions at the end of the chapter on India focused on the negative, whereas questions at the end of chapters about other cultures focused on the achievements. Sometimes the materials chosen to help teach about other cultures and religions may do more harm than good, “In World History, we were shown a film which documented some isolated tribesmen who pierced their bodies in the name of religion–it perpetuated Hindu stereotypes.”
Most of the informants concurred with this catalogue of negative essentialisms–topics that were predetermined to present an unfavorable view of India. “Most non-Western cultures, except Japan, were shown as very primitive–as if people don’t know what TV is, microwaves and other modern technology.” “Nothing dealing with the current economic or political standings was presented.” Several contrasted the emphasis on India, “poverty, religion, reincarnation, caste, British rule, Gandhi,” with the emphasis placed on China and Japan that focused “more on forms of government and main exports and imports, rather than religion and social problems.” The students said they were left with the impression that “India is full of poor uneducated starving people, a country on the verge of collapse.” The informants were acutely aware of the detrimental aspects of this perspective, “All Indians that live in India are poor, have lots of cows, they worship everything and everyone. The Indians who live in the U.S. all have M.D.s, are rich and their children are all genius kids.”
Many Hindu-American students, after “coming of age,” study their ancestral languages and other humanities courses about their heritage at the university level. Dr. Rodney Moag, the professor of Malayalam at The University of Texas noted that this may represent a stage in which students are trying to work out their identity, “a sequential process, and a response to being subjected to negative stereotypes about South Asia arising from their main-stream American educational experience.” Negativities may persist in classes at the university level in which Hinduism is represented as myth, rather than a living tradition embodying universal truths–as Hindus would naturally perceive it.
During the past few decades the presence of large numbers of Hindu students in American university classrooms has impacted the manner in which material about India is presented. University professors, when planning a class on a topic such as the Ramayana, must be aware that there may be at least one student in the class who is a Ram bhakt.
Philosophy professors may earnestly tell their students that “the West contributed activity and ambition, individuality to world culture and the East gave us renunciation, impersonality and a sort of mushiness.” However well intended, such statements are misleading and counterproductive. Other, more articulate, post-modern professors, from both India and the West, may reduce Hinduism down to disconnected fragments that had no unity or identity until constructed from the outside by foreigners such as Afghan invaders or English imperialists. Regardless of who is teaching what from which perspective, the view of Hinduism is distorted. In response to these approaches, Hindu students often do some serious and productive soul searching which gives rise to a unique cultural hybridity.
More than two decades ago, the topic of anti-Hindu bias in academia captured the attention of Indians living in the West– the blatant stereotyping was just too obvious. Indians, educating their children in the West, come very close to the problem on a daily basis. Whereas in earlier generations, the Indological errors could be viewed from a theoretical/academic post-colonial perspective, but when the education of your children is involved, it personalizes the issues. One of the most obvious repercussions of the high school World History experience is that the “non-Dharmic” audience, doesn’t have a clue– the prejudices and biases are ingested and internalized without any hesitation, nothing to weigh them against. That is why ongoing efforts to rectify the discourse so very important.
Usually, when there is bias, it is recognized and the first to demand changes are those in academia, who are concerned about non-prejudicial representations of the “other”. In the case of Hinduism, that basic policy is not followed. The value of yoga is recognized, but it is reasoned that the culture from where this life-science evolved has become corrupt. So as India is dissected, the positive aspects are disassociated and all that remains are negativities that then become the core understanding of India’s culture.
It is important that currently burgeoning analyses are not viewed as just a bunch of Hindu Internet cranks complaining. Hindus in the U.S. have in the past decade taken a proactive/positive approach, approaching school boards and reviewing textbooks. Unfortunately, because their critiques challenge the basic orientation of many of the western scholars of Hinduism, scholars tend to react stridently, without considering the issues. This is much the same as the UPA Indian government’s approach to the M.M. Joshi era NCERT textbooks, assuming that they are toxic, withot reading them, and not looking into different approaches to historiography. Because of ideology, they threw the baby out with the bath water! That happens in this debate as well. Hindu parents across the USA are working to overcome this built in bias and deal with controversial issues and misperceptions that are translated in to curriculum, turning stereotypes in to fact.
This paper is based in part on my Masters Thesis:
 Sugata Bose, Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (Routledge, 1998).
From a personal communication with Dr. Moag.
From notes taken during a lecture at an academic conference on Hindu Religion and Culture held at Elon College in North Carolina, March 1998.
Featured Image: A page from a California textbook describing the caste system in India (The New York Times)