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Finding a place in the halls of DuBois

(12/08/00 10:00am)

When I first entered DuBois College House three years ago, I was unsure of my place there. And then, on the House's dedication plaque, I read a quote by W.E.B. DuBois that would change my view of the House and my place within it. "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others," DuBois wrote in his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk. From that point, although still unsure of my place, I sensed that DuBois College House had something to teach me. Three years later -- now a graduate associate in the House -- I have learned plenty about what DuBois has to offer. But through this experience, I have learned even more about myself. DuBois serves two unique purposes. One is to educate the University community about black history and issues. There is probably no better source of information on the history of African Americans at Penn than the walls of DuBois. The multipurpose room and first floor east hallway are like a museum -- filled with plaques, pictures and newspaper articles dating back over 100 years -- even before W.E.B. DuBois himself came to Penn. Second, DuBois provides a family atmosphere and living space for the entire black community on campus. On any given day, it hosts everything from study groups to rehearsals to academic lectures. Many non-residents attend these activities, and some come to DuBois just to hang out in the Gallery and talk. So it provides a common space that extends far beyond residents. But what I have gained from DuBois goes far beyond this dual mission. In addition to learning about black history and meeting people in the Gallery, living in the House has challenged me to think about my own identity and confront my own "double consciousness." In a place that is defined by black identity, I wondered whether my ethnicity would be an issue. Where would I -- as a South Asian American -- fit in? And why did this matter to me in the first place? Why didn't the issue of race occur to me when I was in a predominantly white crowd? After all, I am also in a minority there. Unfortunately, predominantly white institutions often convey an attitude of colorblindness, acting as if race does not matter. Yet, these organizations are usually dominated by white leadership, cultural norms and values. Thus, I have often felt uncomfortable in these settings, and because race is not discussed, I did not even know how to articulate my concerns. However, in DuBois, black issues and interests are always at the forefront, and there is never any attempt to hide that. So if you are not black and want to be involved, you must make an effort to understand how you fit in. Thinking about this may cause discomfort. But in the end, if you interested, you can find a niche. And dealing with race is far better than hiding from it. As it turned out, no one in DuBois seemed to care much about my ethnic background -- except for me. In all of the black student activities I have attended over the years, not a single student has raised my ethnicity as an issue. But personally, I still had to struggle with the question of how I fit in. And as I have resolved this question -- and created my own niche in DuBois -- it is a more comfortable home to me than any other place on campus. In fact, thinking about how I fit in at DuBois also propelled me to consider identity issues for South Asian Americans. As a result, I became involved in the South Asia Regional Studies department, the South Asian Society and Sangam. I have found this involvement very rewarding and complementary to my residential experience. Ironically, living in DuBois has helped me embrace my own South Asian American identity. And ultimately, that is DuBois' main principle -- being aware of yourself and your roots. Seeing myself through the eyes of DuBois College House has become part of my own "double consciousness." And more than anything else, this view has taught me about myself.

The stumbling block of white privilege

(12/01/00 10:00am)

As anyone who reads my columns regularly knows, race is a very important issue to me. This past summer, I was intrigued as The New York Times ran a series of 15 articles entitled "How Race is Lived in America." And I am equally glad that The Daily Pennsylvanian has launched a two-week investigation of race issues on campus. But the most interesting issues to me are those not explored. The Times series focused on personal stories, neglecting the structural racism and racial inequity that exist in America. And both the Times and the DP to date have ignored the matter of white privilege. White privilege comprises all of the advantages that whites obtain in society solely on the basis of their skin color. Many of these are things that don't happen, such as not being stopped by the police, like a black person might. These non-experiences preclude many whites from understanding the everyday burdens that people of color encounter. As a result, whites are typically not even conscious of the privileges they usually take for granted. An example I learned in one of my classes highlights the issue of white privilege. Unbeknownst to most, there are a significant number of illegal immigrants from Romania who come to the United States across the Mexican border. Why? Because the border patrol does not even bother to check their papers. Its officers are busy looking for Mexican illegal immigrants, and the Romanians know that their skin color -- the marker of white privilege -- will allow them to cross the border unnoticed. White privilege derives from the fact that whites have the power to make all decisions of importance in America. Even political gains made by people of color -- such as civil rights and affirmative action -- had to be sanctioned by elite white men. And white privilege extends benefits to all white people, including Romanian illegal immigrants who have no special power except their skin color. One article in the DP series ("A brotherhood of homogeneity," 11/30/00), explores Greek life on campus and illustrates another facet of white privilege -- the ability to define the terms of integration. This article only explores why people of color do not join predominantly white fraternities. Although the article discusses the Bicultural InterGreek Council -- the umbrella group for black, Latino and Asian-American fraternities and sororities -- it does not ask why whites do not routinely join BIG-C fraternities. After all, that too is integration. In recent years, when there have been housing shortages on campus, many white students were placed in DuBois College House. While some loved the experience and returned, a number were appalled by the prospect of living in a predominantly black dormitory. Many of their parents called the housing office before move-in, claiming vehemently that their white sons and daughters would feel uncomfortable as the minority. But black students can experience the same discomfort anywhere on campus, except perhaps in DuBois. And in most classes and campus activities, they have no choice but to be a minority. Whites, however, usually do not have to face this discomfort. Nor are they expected to bear the burden of integration; minority students are expected to come to them. Whites who are truly interested should actively seek out student of color institutions and deal with their fear of being in the minority. Otherwise, they are merely asserting their white privilege, which is at the heart of American racism. Although I did pose the question, I would not advocate for the full integration of DuBois, the BIG-C or any other institution for students of color. While I fully encourage people of all ethnicities to participate in their programs, black, Latino and Asian-American groups provide some of the few spaces on campus where these students are not in the minority. However, in many cases, the benefits of interaction between diverse groups of people are tremendous. And I think that students of all ethnicities should come together and talk about issues of race. But the idea of white privilege must be part of this conversation. Although often taken for granted, race is also an issue for whites. And the first type of integration that must take place is the integration of privilege and power.

A battle for the soul of hip hop

(11/17/00 10:00am)

Last Monday, as part of Unity Week, I helped facilitate a lively discussion on Asian participation in hip hop culture. I have studied this issue and talked with students of all ethnicities on the status of the musical genre. While many significant ideas emerged from these exchanges, the central theme for me is the growing disconnect between the popularization of hip hop and its social and political roots. In this era of mass commercialization, it seems as if these original messages have been lost. The roots of rap music and hip hop culture trace far back into the history of the African diaspora. Hip hop, as we know it today, originated three decades ago in the black and Latino neighborhoods of the South Bronx. These are still some of the poorest communities in the entire country; yet, the spawning of the rap phenomenon -- perhaps the most popular music in the world today -- is a testament to their resilience. Yet, the divorce between commercial hip hop and its social and political roots is a shame. The creative styles that emerged during earlier eras combined fun-loving, confident displays of prowess, such as emcee battles, with messages of rebellion and resistance. When I first listened to rap music over a decade ago, these were the most prominent genres of hip hop -- and one could not escape their inherent politics. I remember the revolutionary messages put out by Public Enemy and KRS-ONE. Songs like Stetsasonic's "A.F.R.I.C.A./ Free South Africa," which called for an end to apartheid, helped raise my own political consciousness and still resonate. Unfortunately, hip hop, as the public knows it, has been co-opted by commercial forces. Many people identify hip hop primarily with material commodities and entertainment -- clothing, dance music and partying. The lyrics and messages of songs do not seem important, and when they do, the emphasis is usually on violence and misogyny. The positive, political themes of hip hop are largely relegated to the underground. It is true that some of the realities of urban life reflected in rap music have been misrepresented and marketed for profit. And hip hop has never been free from the misogyny and homophobia that pervade American society. But to me, hip hop is not really about any of these things. It is not even, at its core, simply about the so-called four basic elements -- emceeing, deejaying, break dancing and graffiti -- that purists identify. Hip hop is essentially about a particular mentality -- one of resistance to oppression and assimilation, of carving out your own space, of showing pride in who you are and letting the world know about it. And it's about having fun the whole time. All four basic elements reflect these themes in some manner. And the political overtones of many hip hop lyrics also express this resistance and self-assertion. Many people have lost sight of this essence, instead identifying hip hop with whatever commercial fad is "the flavor of the month." But I have also met people who do appreciate the essence of hip hop as I know it. My own involvement in hip hop is not widespread, but it goes quite deep. It got me thinking about many issues of social justice that are important to me to this day. And ultimately, if people make the effort, hip hop can be a bridge for social change and empowerment. Understanding of urban life and politics must accompany the growing interest in hip hop culture. To the extent that involvement in hip hop can help build a resistance movement, I fully encourage it. But we must realize that this goes far deeper than material consumption of hip hop culture. It even goes beyond the music; it involves understanding. As Chuck D of Public Enemy once said, "Rap is an introduction. If people really want to learn something, they got to pick up some books." Awareness and self-assertion are not commodities that can be bought; people must work to acquire them. And, if properly understood and appreciated, hip hop can play a very positive role in this process for people of all backgrounds.

On wings of Angelou

(11/03/00 10:00am)

Last month, I was delighted to learn that the University may invite Maya Angelou to deliver this year's Commencement address. I cannot think of a better choice to enlighten the graduating class. I write from experience; I have seen Maya Angelou speak twice, including my own undergraduate commencement in 1996. Both times, Angelou's messages were poignant and artfully delivered. Her speeches were woven with poetry and song, and her presence was enthralling. More significant was the lesson I learned by contrasting between the two speeches -- one at my alma mater, the predominantly white University of Delaware, and the other at Hampton University, a historically black institution. Angelou gave a wonderful speech at my graduation. She began by singing, "When it looked like the sun would not shine anymore, you became my rainbow in the cloud." She built upon the metaphor, telling us that we had "incredible responsibility" to become "rainbows" for the world. She dedicated a poem entitled "When We Come To It" to my graduating class. In a most inspiring manner, Angelou chanted that "it" was the realization that we are the true "wonders of the world" -- and that we have the power to change it. The audience cheered, and I thought it was the most wonderful speech I had ever seen. That was until I saw Angelou's remarks at Hampton University later that summer. Although I viewed this event on tape rather than in person, it was even more amazing. Angelou had this predominantly African-American crowd absolutely roaring. She engaged the audience throughout, sharing her laughter and pain. Angelou talked about her experiences being raped as a child and not speaking for years during her early teens -- incredible given her stellar oratorical skills. She told of the struggles of black people in America, relaying the history of slavery and the resilience of those who have survived. Similar to the rainbow metaphor used earlier, Angelou sang, "You are my balm... to cleanse the sin-sick soul." Besides sharing her pain, Angelou rejoiced with the crowd, reading her "self love" poetry. Her words illustrated the pride she felt as a black woman, not only the struggles. My first reaction was to wonder why didn't Angelou deliver these remarks at my commencement? Her address at Delaware was excellent, but it was not nearly as captivating as the message she delivered at Hampton. Both times, Angelou spoke of our responsibility to support our fellow human beings, but her remarks at Hampton were more personal, and she infected the audience with camaraderie. Could Angelou not have connected with my graduating class in the same way? I realize now that she probably couldn't have. Her gleeful nuances about her grandmother braiding her hair, about Sugar Hill in Harlem and about having "the luck to be black on a Saturday night" are all part of a common history and understanding -- one that traces back generations and that most people who are not black cannot fully appreciate. While not all African Americans know these experiences, enough did at Hampton to let Angelou establish a sense of family through her words. Unfortunately, rather than trying to understand this bond, many people feel threatened by the assertion of ethnic selfhood. Whenever African Americans on campus come together in joy or in pain, they are accused of self-segregation. But pride in and awareness of one's group identity are vital, and African Americans must assert this identity in order to maintain it. Whites usually do not have to think about these issues, but African Americans get so many negative messages that they cannot afford to ignore them. Even when their individual experiences and views differ, the common identity that develops among many African Americans is a powerful and positive force. And while we can all share our stories with others, people who have not grown up with these stories simply cannot understand them as well. None of us can be "balms" or "rainbows" all the time. Maya Angelou knew this when she gave her speeches at Delaware and Hampton, and I have come to learn it, too. Overall, Maya Angelou would make an outstanding choice for Penn's Commencement speaker. Her message transcends divisions among people, yet still celebrates her identity. She is a talented poet and an insightful humanist. And Maya Angelou is, above all, a strong and proud black woman.

SARS on the skids

(10/27/00 9:00am)

Tonight, the South Asia Society will hold its ninth annual Diwali show, which has grown into one of the largest student-sponsored events on campus. With its diverse and colorful displays of South Asian culture, this celebration packs Irvine Auditorium and testifies to the South Asian presence at Penn, which has one of the largest populations of South Asian students in the United States. Penn's renowned South Asia Regional Studies Department, the first of its kind in the nation, anchors the community's academic presence on campus. Founded in 1947, the SARS Department has not only educated undergraduate students; it has also populated other South Asia studies departments around the country with its graduates. In fact, the department at the University of Texas at Austin, a rising star in South Asian studies, is jokingly called "Penn West." Recently, however, South Asian studies at Penn have suffered setbacks. This year, for the first time ever, Penn did not receive a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant as a national resource center for South Asian studies. Nine other universities received this grant -- quite a shock given Penn's stellar reputation. It is, however, indicative of the University's tenuous commitment to South Asian studies. For example, the SARS Department has not had a full-time faculty appointment in 25 years, and the number of standing faculty has dwindled to less than half of what it once was. Faculty appointments to replace SARS retirees have gone to other departments such as History, and while appointees are sometimes interested in South Asia, the department has suffered greatly. Area studies departments, such as SARS, are important to mitigate Eurocentric biases within academic institutions. While the History Department may hire a few South Asianists, they will sadly always be fewer than the department's number of European historians. South Asian studies may easily be lost in the mix. SARS also offers unique opportunities for interdisciplinary studies. Last spring, I took a course with Rosane Rocher entitled "South Asians in the United States," which combined History, Literature, Political Science and other disciplines. It was a most enlightening educational experience. I learned about the Bhagat Singh Thind case of 1924, in which the Supreme Court ruled that South Asians were not "white" and therefore not entitled to citizenship. We discussed the Immigration Act of 1965, which allowed my parents to come to the United States, and the broader implications of immigration for both South Asian countries and the U.S. The class also covered family issues, religion and other dilemmas faced by South Asian Americans. This knowledge allowed me to see my own experiences in a larger social and historical context. And no other department could have provided it. SARS fills a unique niche at Penn, and with the increasing South Asian student population -- 8 to 10 percent of undergraduates and growing -- this niche will only grow. Recently, the University appointed a task force to make recommendations for the future of South Asian studies. Hopefully, this will include strengthening the SARS Department. According to SARS Chairman Guy Welbon, if the current situation continues, we will "need bloodhounds to find the department in five years." Students interested in South Asian studies need to be aware of the situation and speak up in support of SARS. Many South Asian-American students rely on SARS classes to learn their native languages and study their cultural heritage. While students of Western European descent can generally take these opportunities for granted, South Asian students cannot afford to be complacent. We cannot buy into the model minority myth, which discourages activism. In spite of stereotypes of South Asian passivity, we are here today because our forebearers lived by two words: Inquilab Zindabad, or "Long live the revolution." If you don't know the significance of these words, take some SARS courses to find out. Then stand up and declare to the University, "SARS Department Zindabad!" -- "Long live the SARS Department!"

Direct action makes it Election Day every day

(10/20/00 9:00am)

With less than three weeks until the 2000 election, America's attention is focused on politics. This presidential election will be one of the closest in history, and although there is little enthusiasm for either George W. Bush or Al Gore, the fact that we really cannot say who the next president will be has increased interest in the race. Some contend that this election will be a turning point for many issues. They claim that the next president will appoint several Supreme Court justices, deciding the future of issues such as affirmative action and abortion. However, politics is not just about elections; it is also about people taking direct action. Voting is merely the beginning -- not the end -- of political activism. And recent events around the world have demonstrated the power of direct action. A few weeks ago in Serbia, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets in order to validate their votes. They successfully ousted Slobodan Milosevic, who tried to hold onto power in spite of his electoral loss. Demonstrators in Cairo convinced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to convene a summit for peace in the Middle East after his reluctance to do so. And just yesterday, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) held a rally in Ann Arbor, Mich., ending a week of events in protest of the two anti-affirmative action lawsuits against the University of Michigan, which may well go to the Supreme Court. When they visited Penn this year, BAMN members pointedly said that they would not sit back and let the Supreme Court determine the fate of affirmative action. They have learned history's lesson that what counts most is not who is in public office, but who in the electorate is most vocal. And public offices are ultimately determined by the people and accountable to them. This past week also saw the fifth anniversary of the Million Man March, celebrated by a Million Family March that was held in Washington, D.C. These events have been among the largest mass demonstrations by blacks ever in the nation's capital. In fact, the Million Man March drew more people than the march in 1963 at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. However, the Million Man March did not have an explicit political focus. It was a day of atonement for black men to bond, reflect upon their experiences and make a commitment to uplifting themselves and their communities. And while the march was a powerful statement, people have wondered whether attendees actually kept their promises. But the greater issues not addressed by the march are the large, structural problems in American society that still hold back the majority of black Americans and other people of color. Huge racial disparities still exist in educational opportunities and health care, and major policy changes are needed to eliminate these injustices. While the march's theme was one of self-determination, we cannot ignore the fact that government policies created and maintain racial inequity. And mass actions such as the Million Man March can help change those policies. In fact, Congress was quite daunted by the prospect of one million black men gathering near the Capitol until march organizer Louis Farrakhan announced that he was not interested in engaging politicians. Thus, there was no real political impact. The next time one million blacks, people of color or any progressive-minded people demonstrate in Washington, I hope they will not only ponder what they can do better, but also actively challenge the federal government on its home turf. The power of one million people marching to the Capitol or the White House and demanding change from politicians would have a tremendous impact on public policy -- one greater than any election result. Political activism is not a single act, like voting; it is a way of life. Despite the importance of voting, the outcome of this election will not matter if we do not challenge the government with massive, direct action. Because if we are unwilling to do so, neither affirmative action nor any other policy enacted by the government can help us much in the long run.

Don't root, root, root for offensive team mascots

(10/06/00 9:00am)

Monday marks the observance of Columbus Day in the United States. This holiday celebrates the birth of Christopher Columbus who, as we all know, "discovered" America in 1492. It is ironic the United States now celebrates this "discovery" in light of the fact that Columbus did not know where he was going nor where he landed. The fact that this day is even celebrated shows how some groups are valued in America while others are derided. Columbus' "discovery" set the tone for an era of genocide, disease and the destruction of indigenous cultures. These events are typically viewed from a Eurocentric perspective, promoting the view of Native Americans as inconsequential savages -- much as Columbus originally viewed them. And while this blatant disrespect has many tragic, unrecognized consequences, one very visible example is that of Native American team mascots. Indeed, it is amazing that millions of fans can support teams like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians without even thinking about how disrespectful those team names and team logos are. The term redskin is an outright racial epithet, and the Chief Wahoo logo used by Cleveland is similar to blackface images of African Americans that still often recur. The Atlanta Braves, with their "tomahawk chop," also egregiously misappropriate Native American culture. At the collegiate level, the Florida State Seminoles and the Illinois Fighting Illini perpetuate the view of Native Americans as warlike savages, although they claim to promote cultural awareness. And numerous amateur teams use similar mascots. How is it that we continue to accept the mass marketing and institutionalization of these terms and symbols? Protests over these mascots continue around the country, often met by ignorance and resistance. In 1997, one student justified his school's mascot by saying, "We simply chose an Indian as an emblem. We could have just as easily chosen any uncivilized animal." This general ignorance and negative stereotyping of Native Americans pervades American society. In reality, the indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere represent an enormous amount of diversity of language, culture and customs. The rain dancing, tomahawk-chopping savage used by sports teams trivializes this diversity and dehumanizes Native Americans. It is only through this dehumanization that the United States can justify its history of genocidal colonization. Although many organizations, such as the American Indian Movement, have addressed this issue, Native Americans generally lack the political clout to do much about it. Some have been so detached from their own cultural roots that they even support this misrepresentation of their heritage. And indigenous communities are often plagued with such serious problems of alcoholism, poverty and crime that people may forget about their rich cultural strengths. Indeed, the major reason that Europeans were able to colonize the Western hemisphere was not because of any cultural or technological superiority. Rather, Old World diseases, such as smallpox and dysentery, decimated Native American populations that had not been previously exposed to them. Sometimes these disease were spread deliberately by trading contagious items such as the blankets of smallpox victims. Also, the U.S. government routinely broke treaties and legal rulings when dealing with indigenous peoples. For example, in the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson defied a Supreme Court ruling, forcing Cherokees to leave the Southeast for Oklahoma -- the infamous "Trail of Tears." The depiction of Native Americans as savages is not just a matter of political correctness. It was used to justify the destruction of inhabitant cultures on two entire continents. In the same way we would not make light of the Holocaust, it is inappropriate to use this demeaning imagery. While we can do little to make amends for the suffering of Native Americans, the U.S. government should provide more aid and honor its treaty obligations. And as residents of the U.S., we should voluntarily relinquish usage of ignorant and disrespectful imagery. Students at Dartmouth and Stanford did this many years ago, successfully protesting to have their teams, originally called the Indians, renamed. Today, San Diego State University is considering renaming its team, the Aztecs, and changing its logo of Aztec leader Montezuma. And if you are a fan of any team that has a Native American mascot, don't abandon your team. Instead, make your voice heard to have your mascot changed. You are actually in the best position to do so.

A moment etched in memory

(09/29/00 9:00am)

As the 2000 Olympic Games wind down, it is an ideal moment to reflect on the history of this monumental event. For over one hundred years, these international contests have captured the world's imagination and provided lasting memories. Moreover, the Olympics have not just been about athletic competition; they have provided a pivotal forum for social change and political expression. And embedded in these expressions have been powerful messages for all humanity. For example, Jesse Owens' four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics shredded Hitler's theories of Aryan supremacy. It also defined the beginning of an era of black athletic prominence in track and field and other sports, which played a notable role in the civil rights movement. Olympic politics have also created their share of negative consequences. The murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich games was an appalling tragedy. The 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics and the Soviet payback four years later in Los Angeles robbed many athletes of Olympic memories that never came to bear. But the most significant moment in Olympic history was not about winning medals or breaking world records; it was about two athletes who did both of these and then used their acclaim to deliver a message to the world. During the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, American Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter dash, breaking the world record. His teammate, John Carlos, took the bronze. Unlike the 1980 and 1984 boycotts, politics didn't affect the outcome of this race. But what these two African-American athletes did during the medal ceremony shocked the world and created an image that we will never forget. As the U.S. national anthem played for Smith's victory, the two athletes adorned black gloves, Smith on his right hand and Carlos on his left, and raised their fists in a Black Power salute. They bowed their heads in shame of American racism, and stood barefoot on the medal platform to symbolize the poverty of black America. No picture in Olympic history resonates more powerfully than this 1968 protest. Smith and Carlos, along with their message, are indelibly etched in the minds of millions. Their actions made headline news across the entire planet. And they took their stand without compromising athletic competition, instead using their victory to make a statement. Rather than erasing another Olympic memory, Smith and Carlos provided us with perhaps the most poignant Olympic memory of all. Both were immediately kicked off the Olympic team and vilified in the press. Despite their victories, they lost numerous opportunities for endorsements and profit. Already poor -- they only had one pair of gloves to share in their protest -- Smith and Carlos suffered immensely for their actions. But history has upheld their statement and, looking back, we realize the significance of their act and why it was so despised at the time. America was not ready for their message of black power. In fact, America still does not realize that black power is not just about civil rights, affirmative action or even monetary reparations. Black power is about ensuring that blacks gain control over their own political and economic destinies. And this is one step that America has not been willing to consider. Ultimately, the empowerment of black people will not come about through athletics, but through education and political activism. Although stereotypes of black physical prowess and aggression are primarily used to perpetuate racial fear, the most forceful weapons against the oppression of black people are educated and politically active black men and women who are committed to their own empowerment. Nonetheless, athletics can provide a powerful medium to help people reach this end. Athletic scholarships provide opportunities for many young blacks to gain an education, and as Smith and Carlos demonstrated, sports can bring world attention to social wrongs. And I hope that today -- in an era when athletes garner much more media attention than they did in 1968 -- black athletes will look not only to emulate Michael Johnson or Marion Jones, but also to follow in the footsteps of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Mocking religion at the altar of the almighty dollar

(09/22/00 9:00am)

Every Friday during the football season, The Daily Pennsylvanian presents a group of Penn students who predict how Ivy League football teams will fare in each of their games. These "swamis," as they are called, adorn themselves in turbans for photographs and make light of their prognosticating powers. The DP also includes a comical cartoon of a "swami," riding on a magic carpet, and challenges readers to play the "Online Swami Challenge" to test their own mystical predictive abilities. The first "swami" article of the year disturbed me as soon as I read it. Although I am an agnostic, I know from my own family background that swami means a special Hindu religious teacher -- a person with divine knowledge. I wondered whether the DP would be willing to mock other religious figures, such as rabbis and priests, in this same manner. Would it be appropriate to have these jesting prognosticators wearing yarmalkes instead of turbans? I brought my concerns to DP Executive Editor Binyamin Appelbaum, himself one of the "swamis." Binyamin was sympathetic but did not feel that the depiction of the DP "swamis" is offensive. While the DP is sensitive to religious issues, Binyamin said, he did not feel the "swami" depictions are in any way connected to Hinduism. He pointed out that the "swami" cartoon was flying on a magic carpet, and that the article made references to snake oil. These features, and others in the article, are drawn from several different cultures. Binyamin felt that the "swami" concept was a farce, so far removed from a divine Hindu teacher that readers would not even think of the word's religious meaning. As I reflected on Binyamin's comments, it occurred to me: These religious figures have been so exotified and misappropriated that their original significance has been lost, allowing them to be mocked shamelessly. For similar instances of misappropriation, go to the Urban Outfitters at Sansom Common or any similar store, and you will see clothing and artifacts for sale with Hindu religious symbols, gods and goddesses, and even mere random Hindi letters that amount to jibberish. One friend of mine pointed out a Buddha's head candle in Urban Outfitters. How would Christians feel if Jesus' image was designed to be desecrated in a similar manner? Several other questions ran through my mind. Do consumers know the difference between Krishna and Buddha? How do Hindus and Buddhists feel about their religion and culture becoming a fashion trend? What will be the consequences of this commercial blasphemy? For years, white Americans have embraced the "spirituality" of the East and molded it to satisfy their own desires. Opportunistic South Asian "swamis" and "gurus" have aided this process, capitalizing on the alienation of modern society to market their New Age Orientalism. And as the West has incorporated these ideas into its culture, marred by ignorance of different Eastern traditions, the swami -- the divine Hindu religious teacher -- has been reduced to a farcical mystic, a combination of everything Eastern that America finds amusing. South Asian Americans need to speak up and reclaim the power to define our own culture. If we don't, it will continue to be transformed by the self-gratifying whims of American consumerism, and this will come back to haunt us. In light of our own deeply rooted struggles, how can we tolerate that the bindi -- a sign of marital fidelity -- is becoming a fashion trend when anti-South Asian gangs like the Dotbusters in New Jersey persecute us for celebrating this facet of our cultural heritage? For the predominantly white consumers of New Age Orientalism, I have a similar message. People often look to "Eastern spirituality" for "good karma." But the true meaning of karma is not spiritual currency -- it is action. The word kar in Hindi means "to do." So if you are understandably disillusioned with Western society, don't support American corruption of Eastern traditions. Instead, do something to change America.

The importance of reading between the lines

(09/15/00 9:00am)

For the past 10 years, incoming Penn freshmen have taken part in a "shared intellectual experience" during New Student Orientation -- the Penn Reading Project. During the summer, the entire freshman class reads one book selected by faculty. It's students' first exposure to academic life at Penn, but it is as much as anything else a lesson on the University's values. Professors also present lectures on the book, and book discussions are led by deans, faculty fellows and graduate associates in the college houses. This year's selection was Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, a story about a young man, Gregor Samsa, who awakens one day finding himself transformed into a "monstrous vermin" -- a beetle. As a GA in DuBois College House, I was the organizer for one of the discussion groups. This was my first time participating in the Penn Reading Project, and I was initially skeptical of the whole idea. I did not like the idea of giving incoming students an extra academic assignment right before they start rigorous college courses for the first time. I was pretty sure that most incoming freshmen had figured out that they could skip "mandatory" activities like the Penn Reading Project without any penalty. Also, I was dismayed by the fact that project organizers chose yet another white author to read for this year. In its 10 year history, the Penn Reading Project has included only two works by authors of color -- Frederick Douglass' Narrative and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. While this may seem like significant representation to many -- a sign that the University has embraced the language of diversity -- for some reason it did not seem adequate to me. The first of my concerns was largely unwarranted. Students not only came -- they also engaged in a lively discussion. My group dissected Kafka's work from every angle, noting comments on the author cited in the faculty lectures and drawing their own interpretations. We drew analogies between The Metamorphosis and the students' own transitions to college life. We looked at Kafka's work as a critique of capitalism, discussing how Gregor's burden of labor had transformed both him and his family. Some strongly disagreed with these interpretations, while others saw Kafka's story as a symbolic portrait of oppression. Indeed, Gregor's suffering reminded me of W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk, where DuBois asks, "Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?" And as I compared Kafka and DuBois, it dawned on me exactly why my second concern -- inadequate attention to authors of color -- was warranted. Kafka's Metamorphosis is rightly viewed as a work with universal appeal, transcending time and place. Gregor's plight is applicable in some form to people all over the world, and Metamorphosis is respected as such. The works of many great European authors are viewed in this light. In contrast, works by authors of color are rarely said to have this universal appeal. When DuBois writes about "double-consciousness" -- the sense of being the other and being judged by others -- people say that he is describing the experiences of blacks in America. This being true, we should look deeper to see what DuBois says about our own lives -- even those of us who are not black. Also, while the Penn Reading Project has included two authors of color, it has not incorporated works from outside Europe and America. Again, classical European works are thought to have universal appeal; their lessons supposedly apply to everyone. However, works like the ancient South Asian epic, the Mahbharata, and Chinua Achebe's classic African novel, Things Fall Apart, also explore universal human qualities no less than The Metamorphosis or Euripides' The Bacchae -- a Greek tragedy used for the first Penn Reading Project in 1991. One must ask why non-Western works are not respected in the same way as European classics. Contrary to my initial skepticism, I do believe that the Penn Reading Project is an important and worthwhile endeavor, and I hope to participate in it again. But I also think that more attention needs to be paid to authors of color -- and particularly international authors -- when selecting texts for reading. And this is not just a matter of representation -- it is a matter of respect. The University has come to recognize that students of color should have the opportunity to read authors who share their experiences, and that white students benefit by learning about other cultures and people. However, the University should also realize that white students will not only learn about others by reading authors of color; they can also learn about themselves.

Affirming what merit really means

(09/07/00 9:00am)

Few issues are as divisive or as potent as affirmative action in higher education. Attacks on race-sensitive admissions policies have led to the elimination or reduction of affirmative action in California, Texas, Florida and other states. And with a lawsuit against the University of Michigan expected to go before the Supreme Court, this unresolved debate is sure to return to the Ivy League, which has abided by past decisions. Yet, most of the rhetoric surrounding affirmative action misjudges the critical element of a student's "merit." Opponents of affirmative action often assume that black and Latino students are lacking in merit when compared with white students. There are many reasons to question this assumption. In 1998, the year affirmative action ended in California, the University of California at Berkeley rejected 800 minority applicants who had 4.0 GPAs and 1200 or higher on the SAT. Many of these students did not have access to Advanced Placement courses and test preparation classes that would have boosted their scores even higher. More significantly, SAT scores are good for only one purpose -- predicting first-year college grades -- and they do a weak job at that. There are no differences in graduation rates among students who score above 1100. And above a certain level, there is no evidence that the SAT indicates anything about one's potential for long-term success. Indeed, given the outstanding qualifications of most applicants, it is difficult to argue that any elite institution compromises merit when considering race in admissions decisions. In fact, the use of race actually serves to enhance merit in the long term. For example, black graduates of elite colleges are far more likely than their white counterparts to become involved in political, civic and community service activities, thus using their talents for the betterment of society. Black and Latino physicians are twice as likely to provide medical services to poor and under-served communities, whether or not they grew up in poverty themselves. Similarly, minority educators are more likely to teach in low-income areas, and black and Latino lawyers are more likely to pursue public interest work. These kinds of positive contributions, which have tangible, real-world benefits, represent true measures of merit -- and are far more important than first-year college grades. Moreover, while affirmative action policies should target individuals from low-income families, this is not a substitute for using race. Poverty is not solely a function of family income; community resources also matter. For example, 70 percent of blacks living in poverty reside in highly impoverished areas where the majority of residents are very poor. In contrast, only 30 percent of impoverished whites live in such areas, and poor and middle class white families generally have access to more wealth because they have more family members who are financially stable. Therefore, black and white families from similar economic backgrounds can lead very different lives, and black families -- even those who are relatively well off -- generally face more barriers to success. Affirmative action cannot make up for all of the obstacles that people of color face in American society. What it can do is highlight the unique potential of those who do well in spite of those barriers. And as many of these individuals give back to impoverished areas, they are making a contribution to society that test scores can't measure. Indeed, it is unfair to refer to students of color as mere "beneficiaries" of affirmative action. The students are not just benefiting from these institutions; society benefits from their training. With the growing diversity of the U.S. population, cultural competence is becoming increasingly important in all fields, from health care to education to business. The need for individuals who are motivated to work with diverse populations will continue to grow. While race is not the only factor to consider, it is an important one. Of course, not all people of color make the kinds of contributions I have mentioned. In the same vein, not all people with high SAT scores do well in college. There is no infallible way to predict who will make positive contributions to this university and society in general. But when looking at a group of highly qualified applicants, race is an important factor to consider. We should recognize that affirmative action is enhancing merit, rather than reducing it