Widgets Magazine


Culturally shocked

My first grade Thanksgiving was as wonderfully stereotypical as anyone could have wanted. I sang a soulful, self-written song about being a turkey to my entire class and forgot the lyrics midway, so I ran out of the classroom, flapping the paper feathers taped to my arm and tripped headfirst into the shrubbery right outside the door. My entire class hooted and hollered and followed my lead—20 little turkeys running wild around the small campus. One of them came up to me and helped me out of the bushes.

“Which kind of Indian are you?” he asked. He had painted blue stripes on his face and worn a feathered headband.

“I dunno,” I said, with a shrug. All I knew was that I wasn’t a very good turkey, and that was really all Thanksgiving was about.

Cultural sensitivity is a very touchy topic on this campus—at least, it’s a lot more serious than it was in Mrs. Dorado’s first-grade classroom. Indeed, I was reminded of my own cultural uncertainty after spotting a good number of badly face-painted white people at Bay to Breakers. Which kind of Indian am I? Perhaps the better question is, which kind of Indian were they?

It’s tough being an ethnic minority here—not necessarily because we’re treated differently, but because we have to spend a good amount of time deciding whether or not we should be offended by the rampant cultural faux pas that happen here on campus. I’m blessed with an even temper and a slower-than-average reaction rate to jokes, so I’m usually spared from having to confront political incorrectness, but as my mother says often, I’m (somewhat) one-of-a-kind.

We’re a sensitive bunch here at Stanford, and that’s a great thing. We’re touchy about our holidays, our customs, our families, our interests—we get prickly about almost everything that we deem important. I myself was terribly offended when a fellow classmate spoke out against PBS’s riveting series, Antiques Roadshow, citing it to be “strange,” “antiquated” (I’m sure the pun was unintentional) and “more boring than playing Planet Earth on mute.” Agreed, my passion for PBS is not comparable to our respective cultural ties, but I think the crux of this problem similarly lies in our loss of empathy, rather than our rise in sensitivity.

Either we’re bristling at the guy in a poncho and sombrero on Cinco de Mayo or frantically Yik-Yakking about our God-given right to get hammered on a colorful holiday. In the end, we’re left with a campus-wide, cultural void that no one really takes the time to fill. We’re left celebrating quietly, within our own residences, our cultural groups, our fraternities and our sororities. Indeed, the Greek scene is no exception to this—the infamous “Indian Wedding” was nixed just last year as an inaccurate and insensitive use of a serious Indian custom. Today, we’re so afraid to make and take offense that we’ve stripped our entire campus of the fruits of Stanford’s considerable cultural diversity. It’s quite a shame.

We’re no longer cute first graders (indeed, my mom says I never really was) who can equate cultural holidays with fun classroom activities and sugar cookies and get away with it. We have to start putting in more time and effort to understand our friends and classmates on a deeper level. We have to understand that St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the patron saint of Ireland, that Rosh Hashanah recognizes the Jewish New Year, that we light candles during Diwali because it signifies the victory of light over darkness. We have to be mindful of the Native American community when we tape feathers onto our heads for the latest progressive. We have to be better.

But when we ostracize our peers for those cultural faux pas that we will all inevitably make, we destroy any and all desire for cultural discovery. When we make culture into an in-group, out-group issue, we turn some of the most beautiful cultural customs into campus-wide protests. It’s a shame that we’re afraid to celebrate cultures that aren’t our own for fear of offending some corner of our campus. And because we’re so busy picketing and drinking and Yik-Yakking, our campus is now in a hopeless state of cultural paralysis.

It’s not an easy fix, and I don’t have a quick solution. But if we all relaxed our grips on what we believe to be “correct” or “justified,” we may just end up with a campus that can boast diversity beyond a list of stats on a Stanford Admit Weekend brochure. So grab a sari, grab a bindi, grab a CTM and come celebrate on the quad with me next Diwali. No singing this time, I promise.

Contact Uttara Sivaram at usiv@stanford.edu.

  • Alum

    Thank you for writing this. This needed to be said for a very long time and I’m glad you did so very eloquently in a manner that will hopefully reach the people who need to hear that message.

  • ’14


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