30 Years Later, Cultural Stereotypes in CA Textbooks Still Hurt

My old high school is just down the road from you, Prof. Palumbo-Liu -- in Cupertino, California, not Kapadwanj, my family's ancestral town in India. I was born and raised in the region -- before it was called Silicon Valley, and well before it became the intensely diverse metroplex it is today. I am a Hindu; I am of Indian origin; and I am an American. So when you, in your piece, India, Israel Bring Their Disputes Over History into OUR Schoolbooks, and More (emphasis mine), make baseless and xenophobic claims about the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an American organization which I co-founded and now lead, injecting foreign politics into our schoolbooks, a response, and more importantly, fact-checking, is in order.

I happen to have been educated through those schoolbooks -- including having to bear the confusion and humiliation caused by a portrayal of Hinduism and India that was so stereotyped and essentialized, that it bore no relation to my lived experience. And even though it was nearly 30 years ago, the excruciating 50 minutes of world history class are as clear as day. I was the only brown student, so naturally, the teacher chose to single me out as the "expert." But her line of questioning wasn't concerned so much with my perspective or how it might differ from what she was teaching, as much as it was an interrogation based on the Orientalist and Eurocentric presumptions found in the pages of our textbook:

"Suhag, tell us, what caste are you?"

"Is your marriage arranged?" and "Are your parents saving for your dowry?"

I knew the answer to the second set of questions (no and no), but about caste, I actually had no idea because it was irrelevant to how we were Hindu. By the end of the unit, which was collectively 150 minutes at best, awkward glances, whispered slurs, and relentless teasing from my peers became my reality.

I thought that my children and nieces and nephews, as third generation Hindu and Indian Americans, wouldn't have to relive my humiliations. After all, they are growing up in an era of political correctness gone wild. The Hindu and Indian population in the U.S. has quadrupled; yoga and ayurveda are beyond popular; and globalization and the internet have made the world shrink like never before. But the sad fact is that the way Hinduism and India are taught in California schools hasn't changed much. And, my experiences are far from unique. They are shared with many, including my colleagues at HAF, and therein lies our motivation to improve the portrayal of Hinduism and India.

For well over two years, HAF, alongside other community groups and scholars, has worked constructively with the California Department of Education's Instructional Quality Commission through a public process to ensure that our next generation is better prepared for an increasingly globalized society, at least when it comes to their understanding of Hinduism and India. Given that the Framework is for 6th and 7th grade teachers to guide their teaching of middle school students, HAF's recommendations have been vetted by numerous scholars of religious studies and history, and are in line with best practice pedagogy and academic consensus.

Contrary to the potential noise created by academically lazy theorizing about foreign nationalistic takeovers of California's education, HAF's recommendations, as well as many of the Uberoi Foundation, have been endorsed by Professor Ross E. Dunn, one of the foremost experts in world history who also has been at the forefront of developing more balanced and inclusive instructional materials. HAF has also earned the support of public officials and community groups representing a diverse coalition of 100+ interfaith and civil rights leaders, as well as members of cultural and educational organizations.

What have we recommended? We've asked for the Framework to convey that:

○ The origins of Indian history and Hinduism are contested, as evidenced by current scholarly debates;

○ Caste and caste-based discrimination developed over many centuries, and discussions need to be nuanced for a better understanding of how a social practice arose - often in contradiction to Hindu teachings;

○ Hinduism's core philosophies, including its inherent pluralism, are included in the Framework

○ Patriarchy be discussed in all contexts, not just Hinduism (the current Framework mentions it only in the contexts of Hinduism and Islam, but not other religions)

As for the characterization of HAF being a political action committee that endorses political candidates, the Hindu American Foundation is a non-partisan, 501(c)3 organization, not a political action committee. HAF has not, does not, and will not endorse any political candidate. That would be contrary to our charter.Of course, individuals within the organization are welcome to exercise their civil rights and endorse whomever they want, but that is entirely separate from HAF.

It should also be obvious from the "A" in HAF that we are an American organization. But no matter how many times HAF has clarified that it is not affiliated with any Indian political organizations -- and no matter how many times one of our co-founders has clarified his positions and condemned extremism and violence -- activists and academics like you, Prof. Palumbo-Liu, continue to spread the same zombie lies over and over, hoping they will stick.

The respect and trust HAF has earned from leaders in academia, media, policy, and amongst interfaith circles during our 13 years advocating for civil and human rights speaks volumes. We are a leading voice on international and domestic civil rights issues, including advocacy on behalf of minority women's rights in Pakistan and for Hindus and atheists in Bangladesh; voicing opposition to the criminalization of homosexuality in India, Uganda, and other nations; advocating for marriage equality and access to contraception at the federal level; and supporting Muslim and Sikh employment rights in California through Assembly Bill 1964.

Lastly, your implicit portrayal of the South Asian Faculty as some benign, apolitical committee of scholars is farcical, Prof. Palumbo-Liu. No scholar is neutral, and this is especially true of these well-pedigreed academics, hailing from "Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia University and others." They are as much activists as they are academics. Most are active participants in the BDS movement, as are you, Palumbo-Liu; in disinvite campaigns on campuses against speakers with whom they don't agree with politically; and in a variety of petitions and letters against American and Indian policies, and Hindu American efforts.

Academically, the South Asia Faculty Group is not representative of the expanse of scholarship as it relates to India and Hinduism. They clearly have a theoretical and political perspective, and one that is reflected in their academic work and in their recommendations on the Framework. While they are entitled to that, it is only one perspective among many.

But, the writing team of the draft Framework, the "California History-Social Science Project," of which one of the South Asia Faculty Group is a member, more or less accepted the vast majority of the group's edits -- an unprecedented 80% acceptance rate -- with little or no explanation. Contrast this acceptance rate to that of the academically corroborated recommendations of other well-reputed scholars from relevant areas of study from over the past two years -- a significantly smaller percentage were approved and incorporated into subsequent drafts. We believe that it is simply inappropriate and contrary to the statutory directives for the State Board of Education to elevate one group's perspective rather than trying to reconcile various perspectives in a way that results in a neutral portrayal in the Framework.

We do not begrudge honest, even adversarial critique, nor healthy debate between scholars; quite the contrary. But activist scholars conjuring up a Hindu nationalist bogeymen with forecasts of violent gloom and doom in order to bully their way into the tail end of a public process and impose their ideologies on a Framework -- that was increasingly balanced and relatively neutral politically -- is inappropriate. So too is the effort to tar the well-intentioned efforts of Hindu Americans seeking agency in how we are defined in California's history and social science curriculum framework.