April 9, 2013

Letter: Student culture at heart of SASA show

In response to “SASA show a surface-level affair” (Apr. 5)

When I first read Raghav Rao’s column, “SASA show a surface-level affair,” I was inclined to agree with him. As a South Indian–American, I didn’t see or hear anything at the show that connected strongly with my ancestral background. Yet, as I watched the show, I began to realize that Mr. Rao’s column was in fact guilty of the same crime that he accused the South Asian Students Association show of committing: being a “surface-level” examination of culture.

Culture is not simply an object to be shown to the world; it is an ongoing and integral part of life. As this is the case, it is subject to the pressures of generalization and conflation from hegemonic society. As Vijay Prashad (Ph.D. ’94) writes in his seminal work on South Asian–American identity, The Karma of Brown Folk, “People adapt and incorporate artifacts from the past in the context of their own particular historical conjuncture, fighting their own battles and struggling with their own contradictions.” Culture is an active process—a process performed by individuals—that draws from a well of ancestral and societal knowledge and customs. In this vein, it is worth noting that this was not the “South Asian Cultural Show,” but instead the “South Asian Students Association Cultural Show.” While the culture “presented” at the show may not have been an accurate representation of the culture of South Asians as a whole, it is unfair to claim that it was not representative of the culture of the students involved. Indeed, to argue that SASA’s culture is inauthentic would be to claim that all culture affected by social pressures—that is, all culture—is inauthentic.

While at first glance cultural shows seem to also fall victim to the view of culture as an object, it was clear to anyone attending the SASA show that the goal of presenting culture to the wider world was, at best, ancillary. The attendance of hundreds of members of the South Asian community as well as the raucous cheers coming from SASA members themselves belied the true purpose of the show: to provide South Asian members of the UChicago community a method of expressing aspects of their culture in a way that American society does not normally permit.

Does this mean that SASA should not examine the problematic aspects of its organization? Certainly not: Culture, as a part of life, is not divorced from social responsibility. I hope that the members of SASA take some of Rao’s criticism to heart. However, the fact remains that the SASA show was a vivid and valid expression of the culture of its participants.

Yadav Gowda, Class of 2014