Race too, after all, along with Gender: Arvind Elangovan

A few facts and some thoughts on the reception of Michaela Cross’s experience of India – Guest Post by ARVIND ELANGOVAN

Since Michaela Cross’s experience was part of a study abroad program conducted annually by the University of Chicago, and I was part of the program – for three years as a graduate student assistant (for the Fall quarters of 2007-2009), and one year as faculty in the program (Fall of 2010) – I think I could most usefully contribute by highlighting a few facts about the program itself. In the process I would think aloud about some of the issues that have come up in the reception of Cross’s experience in India, especially in the responses of Rajyashree Sen and Ameya Naik. I choose Sen’s and Naik’s responses partly because they have been the most recent, but also because between them they represent the spectrum of possible positions that one could usefully take about this issue. Needless to add, there have been other responses, such as the one posted by another fellow University of Chicago student on the trip, an article titled ‘In Defence of Rose Chasm (Michaela Cross) and countless other comments, criticisms, and responses that have flooded the Internet world.

However, between Sen and Naik, the basic ends of the spectrum are quite clear. Sen contends that it is not only a white woman’s problem but an issue for all women and that some self-regulation and discipline would have gone a long way to avert the unsavory experiences if not completely eliminate their possibility. Naik, at the other end of the spectrum, points out that the expectation of preparedness or caution urged by Sen belies the possibility of questioning the pervasive culture of sexual violence, in which any cautionary attempt to be safe, is to pay merely lip service to acknowledging the crime of sexual violence, instead of combating more difficult questions about such a culture.

In the course of laying out a few facts and some thoughts, while I sympathize with both the positions of this spectrum, I also point out some of the more problematic aspects that reveal themselves when we take a closer look at the structure of the study abroad program and what it entails. However, a caveat is in order before I proceed further. I am no longer formally associated with the University of Chicago, and hence, what follows are my views alone. I do not claim to speak on behalf of the University of Chicago on this particular issue.

There are at least 3 facts of the program that need to be underscored:

1. The University of Chicago conducts several study abroad programs every year in different parts of the world, with the one in India, located in Pune, Maharashtra. The India program is unique in several respects, one of which is that the program entirely houses and takes responsibility for the daily needs of the students, including food for a period of ten weeks. This is unlike some programs that are based in Europe, where students by and large fend for themselves and are not typically housed in hotels. Instead, arrangements are made either with local University hostels or at places that offer paying guest accommodations. Assuming responsibility for the students as in India means that all the students, each year varying from approximately 23-26 with a gender distribution of approximately 60% women to 40% men, are provided accommodation in hotels for the entire duration of the program. Of course, the students pay a hefty fee, in the first place to go to the University and secondly, for being a part of the program. However, the program also ensures that the basic requirements of the students are well taken care of, which makes the India program one of the more popular programs to which students apply.

2. There is a structure to the program, obviously. Without delving into too many details, it is important to note that there is a Director of the Program, who is a faculty member and who personally supervises the selection of students for the program in addition to devising the course of the program every year. Three faculty members from the University or appointed by the University teach in 3-week segments in the program, and a fourth teaches a Hindi course over the course of the first eight weeks. The Director and the faculty are assisted by a graduate student from the University who spends the entire ten weeks with the students, assisting in both academic (as a teaching assistant) as well as offering advice on non-academic matters.

Between 2007-2009, I was the graduate student assistant for the program. As the program assistant, I was responsible for performing the normal duties of a teaching assistant, which included attending all the classes as well as holding office hours to clarify on questions that students were unable to raise and discuss in the classroom itself. More importantly, perhaps, I was also responsible for the general welfare of the students, including taking students to hospitals whenever they fell sick, advising and even accompanying students on certain trips in the city to help them navigate the unfamiliar roads, and having regular real-time conversations about what the students were experiencing in India at the time.

This ‘job’ was, of course, part of the expectations of a program assistant, which both my predecessors as well as my successors fulfilled. In addition to a program assistant, the program also has a program coordinator, based primarily in India, who caters to all local needs such as accommodation, food, access to hospitals, and transport as well as being a storehouse of information on any matter that relates to the students’ well-being. In fact, over time, students have come to rely not only on the expertise of the faculty and the program assistant for their needs but also on the local program coordinator.

3. Finally, students selected in the program attend orientation sessions both in Chicago as well as in India. The Director of the program ensures that there are at least two meetings where students are familiarized with the structure of the program and it is ensured that the students have a basic understanding of different cultural mores to expect when traveling and staying in India. As soon as students arrive in India, there is an orientation session conducted by the graduate assistant where all the details mentioned in Chicago are repeated and some local details are added to make the students aware of the different cultural and social context that they are about to experience for the next ten weeks.

Now, for a few thoughts:

1. At the outset then, a couple of misunderstandings can be easily cleared. For instance, Rajyashree Sen’s puzzle that ‘the University of Chicago gives no briefing to their female students or on the cultural intricacies of India’ is simply not true, as sufficient time, energy, and resources are spent in making sure that the students are as aware as possible about the differences they will encounter in India. Similarly, as Sen indicates, the hotel that is mentioned in Goa is not a ‘shady or dingy’ hotel but actually a well-known 3 star hotel. This hotel was not picked by Cross but rather was one of the hotels in which the program chose to house the students on their trip to Goa. Moreover, this was not the first time that the program chose this hotel. Rather, this hotel has hosted the program participants for the last 10 years. Clearly, then something went wrong in the hotel recently and perhaps will force the program to change its itinerary or location in Goa for the next year. The problem, therefore, was not Cross choosing a ‘dingy’ hotel in Goa on her own or that the University had no advise for its women students.

2. An interesting, yet little discussed aspect of the study abroad program is the question of race. Over the years that I was the program assistant, I noticed that the students of the program (who were predominantly white with some students having Asian-American, Latin-American or Black-American heritage) develop a wide range of responses to their experience of India. As anyone visiting any other place in the world as a foreigner would attest, the level of cultural shock varies with each individual. It is no different with these students, who witness India, with some of the following constituting their first sights: the traffic, the smell, the number of men and the relative absence of women on the roads, men holding other men’s pinkies together (yes, they were quite struck by this and following them, I have been too!), men’s habits of public urination, the strange contraptions called autorickshaws, beggars, cows, stray dogs, relative absence of jogging tracks in neighborhoods, different kinds of food and dress habits, and the list is endless.

Confronting this stark difference from anything they were used to (and some students have grown up in primarily white neighborhoods and have gone to predominantly white high schools before they come to the University of Chicago, with little or no exposure to non-whites, let alone non-Americans), student responses have ranged from embracing the ‘chaos’ that India presents to their minds to relentlessly questioning India’s differences, refusing to see or understand the differences, or completely living in an insulated atmosphere by retreating into a shell. This is true of both male and female students.

3. Therefore, I think that race lies at the core of a student’s experience in the study abroad program. A student is forced to confront these racial differences and rationalize them as best as they can in the duration of the ten-week program. It is here that members of the program staff, including the faculty, staff, and the graduate program assistant – through the course work on “civilizations” and through several unlimited personal conversations over meals; in cafeterias; and during bus, train, and flight journeys – constantly perform the role of helping and channeling the understandably confusing and conflicting series of emotions that students experience in India. Naturally, the students converse among themselves, too, as well as with local friends they make in the course of the program about their experiences, to make sense of these cultural and racial differences.

4. In the process of acquiring cultural education, one of the responses that some students have had, I have noticed, is the desire to ‘experience’ and see the ‘real’ India. What this actually means and what they actually ‘discover’ has been an entirely personal experience for these students. Having had several conversations about the problem of ‘viewing’ India in an unmediated manner, especially by ignoring the position of perceived privilege that they come from, both historically (being white, among other factors) and economically (its always assumed by shopkeepers, auto drivers and any number of roadside vendors that these college students carry a lot of money, which is actually not true), the idea that there is bound to be a misunderstanding in their encounter of India was certainly discussed and shared among the student community. In fact, this conversation, I know, has occurred in the years before and after my stint with the program, which clearly indicates that this question of racial-cultural difference is a recurring one that gets raised every year.

5. It is in this context of hypersensitivity about race and cultural difference that Sen’s contention of equating race and gender needs to be significantly rethought. Michaela Cross’ experience was not only a gendered one (as a woman) but also racial (as a white woman), a condition that was a constitutive part of the study abroad experience. Ignoring this contextual racial aspect tempts an easy categorization of Cross’ experience either as one more along with the millions that occur in India or the inevitable outcome of a deeply sexually violent society.

6. Cross’ experience was exceptional because it occurred in the process of experiencing India as part of a program that is devoted to mediate this difficult cultural translation. In this sense, being part of the program already placed her at a difficult point of having to confront racial and cultural differences. Cross’ difficulties are visible in not only what she documents most effectively but also in what she does not. Thus, the experience at the Ganesh festival, at the bazaar, the hotel in Goa, the gaze of the masturbating man, the stares, and much more, presents a chilling account of what it means to be ‘de-humanized’ every day in India. At the same time, the constitutive difficulty (racial and cultural) of being part of a study abroad program, the inevitable range of responses that different people have, and the presence of members of the program dedicated to converse about these issues are ignored in the face of such a compelling account of personal experience of sexual violence.

7. The aspect of race presents another equally forceful difficulty to consider in the case of study abroad program students in India. On the one hand, students are able to recognize their ‘outsider’ status based on their skin color and looks. Cross notes in a recent interview with Nash Jenkins, who writes for the Wall Street Journal that she “drew more attention” because of her “appearance,” which made her stand out in a crowd. On the other hand, the students have an expectation that their ‘difference’ will not in any way affect their ‘experience’ of a country, such as India.

This raises the following interesting question – how can a process of experiencing or discovering another country be an experience unmediated by one’s awareness of and response to this difference? What produces a paradoxical situation wherein the consciousness of one’s race and gender nevertheless blinds one to the effects of such consciousness?

8. Finally, the racial aspect at the heart of the program is revealed in Cross’s inability to find “a forum to discuss these issues” (stated by her to the WSJ blogger) in the course of the program. Here, of course, one is aware of the culture of silence that accompanies a culture of sexual violence, against which many have struggled to voice their experiences in pursuit of justice. However it is also true that Cross’ silence occurred despite the presence of the program staff, who were dedicated to discussing these matters and offering advice, a fact that brings to the fore the difficulty of inter-cultural dialog that one usually assumes is easy to have.

If anything, Cross’ silence in the program reveals the serious faultlines along which conversations on such sensitive matters actually falter, thereby reinscribing racial and cultural differences rather than overcoming them.

In this sense, to read Cross’ experiences as merely another instance of sexual violence and its pervasiveness not only among white women but all women, though understandable, nevertheless, undermines the larger role that race played as part of her study abroad experience. To be aware of the racial dimension within a critique of gender can only aid the struggle against the culture of sexual violence.

Arvind Elangovan teaches History at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio

6 thoughts on “Race too, after all, along with Gender: Arvind Elangovan”

  1. There are many problematic assumptions in this well intentioned post that I will not go into. This is in the classic tradition of anthropology, where race, culture and difference, are signposts, but colonialism, imperialism and neo-imperialism are not. To see how these occlude all of us, I might recommend a wonderful book I just finished reading: Kamala Visveswaran, UnCommon Cultures, Navayana, Delhi, 2013. This should be made compulsory reading in the University of Chicago, since much of the scathing critiques are of the works of famous anthropologists from there.


  2. Dear Arvind,

    I had no intention to suggest that race (and its perceived connotations) were no part of those experiences – nor, I hope, did my piece actually do so. As you say, one’s experience of another culture is undoubtedly mediated by a number of factors – race, gender, age, appearance are perhaps the most immediately evident, but certainly not the only ones – and each individual will differ in the extent to which they are consciously aware of these influences. I would believe that part of “learning the differences” in another culture consists precisely of understanding how each of those factors is perceived there – and how that differs from the paradigm in one’s own country / culture. Perhaps the end result would be that one becomes more objective (which seems a nicer way of saying “blind to the effects of such consciousness”) – but only so far as it pertains to one’s own perceptions, because the people one interacts with will be a constant reminder of those effects in the living world.

    What Michaela wrote about was clearly a white woman’s experience in this country. It tallied, though I rely entirely on reported and received knowledge to assert this, with the experiences of other white women, as also women of other races (including Indians), in India and elsewhere. It also differed, clearly, with the experiences of many women here, some of whom too have chosen to share them (notably one of Michaela’s classmates, who warns that unsubstantiated generalisations promote prejudice and racism). Was that difference a function of their race? Perhaps. Was it a function of any of the many other factors that could mediate their experiences? Perhaps (I dare say probably) – but we could not say for sure, short of running experiments to verify. Separating their relative effects would be at once breathtakingly ambitious and unfortunately academic.

    To understand the nuance of race in the experience of sexual violence can indeed only be a benefit. But to use race (or any other factor) to devalue, even dismiss, the role of gender in that experience is a grave disservice, and one that many seem eager to perform. As a student of psychology, with some experience as a peer counselor, what struck me throughout this debate was how little value was being accorded to a girl being willing to share her trauma, and making apparent effort to put it in context. (Your account adds richly to that context, and serves as a much needed clarification.) That the University has a support structure in place, and even so she felt unable to speak thus far, suggests that the design definitely needs review (if only to consider if any other students have felt the same way).

    What is it, though, that makes so many readers write back with such a complete lack of empathy?


  3. And Ameya Naik, many people have responded with a shocking lack of empathy, but there are MANY who applaud her for being so brave, and pulling open our eyes at how rampant sexual violence is indeed, in India, so keep heart.


    1. Thank you! : ]
      I wasn’t despondent, though: it was a serious question – what explains the lack of empathy in those responses? I think it comes because she cuts through illusions many of us use to function in the environment she describes.


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