Why did Brown students protest a white person doing Hindu chants?

May 2, 2016
Carrie Grossman

Students recently interrupted a performance at Brown University of Hindu chanting with questions that critics say suggested the performer, Carrie Grossman, who is white, was appropriating Hindu culture.

One student asked, according to the student newspaper (and confirmed by Inside Higher Ed), “How does your whiteness impact how you engage with these cultures?” Another said Grossman’s website used “appropriative language.”

Administrators attending the event -- “An Evening of Devotional Music,” organized by students, with Grossman chanting Hindu hymns -- asked the protesters to hold their questions for a designated question-and-answer session after the event. Instead they elected to leave and set up camp outside (where the performer met with them afterward). But backlash is building against the protesters from a couple different directions.

The usual right-leaning voices decried the protesters for overreaching on what they suggest is a nonissue. “Brown University Students Flip Out After White Person Sings Hindu Chants,” reads one headline from The Daily Caller. “White graduate performs Hindu music, Brown University [social justice warriors] get huffy,” reads another.

That’s more or less as expected, but a number of Hindu practitioners, on campus and off, have also objected to the protest on the grounds that the religion is open to all, regardless of race.

“Color of the person should not matter in devotional singing, and anybody should be able pay respectful homage to Hindu deities through kirtan [a call-and-response Hindu chant] or other forms,” said Rajan Zed Kirtan, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, over the weekend. “Kirtan offered means to connect to the heart, to the divinity that lies within.”

A Hindu student at Brown published an op-ed in the student newspaper arguing a similar point.

“Grossman’s whiteness should not, and cannot, be the single factor that precludes her from expressing genuine artistic and scholarly interest in Hinduism,” writes Anuj Krishnamurthy. “My brownness does not make me a better Hindu -- that’s a self-evidently absurd proposition. By the same token, Grossman’s white skin does not automatically make her a worse, or less deserving, practitioner of Hindu chanting … The visceral association of whiteness with cultural appropriation is both a grave injustice against the welcoming foundations of Hinduism and a significant impediment to intercultural exchange more broadly.” (Although Krishnamurthy does note that cultural appropriation of Hinduism in other forms is “unacceptable.”)

Sohum Chokshi, one of the protest organizers, said critics had misconstrued their objection to the event. The fact that Grossman is white isn’t the problem, he said, it’s that she lacked the authority to demonstrate and educate others about Hinduism.

“Our issues with Carrie Grossman’s event were not about free speech or with the fact that she was white and chanting kirtan,” Chokshi, who is himself Hindu, said. “Our issues were centered on her grossly inaccurate, offensive, racist and misinformed portrayal of Hinduism.”

Chokshi said Grossman offered a shallow, simplified and voyeuristic representation of Hinduism. He pointed to statements on her website where she says she enjoys “pretending to be a Vedic priestess” and that she composes sacred music “spontaneously” as examples and noted that she “presented traditional Hindu practices as traditions that require little rigorous understanding and thus, something she could teach and convey to others, which is also a privileged and inaccurate thing to say.”

Harold Roth, director of undergraduate studies for the contemplative studies concentration, which sponsored the event, said in an email that right or wrong, the style of protest was the real problem.

“Whether or not the protesters had a valid point,” he said, “the hostile and uncivil way in which they disrupted the performance and their sometimes cruel personal criticisms of the performer are not justifiable. Nor should they be tolerated in what we presume is the civil society of a modern liberal arts university.”

“Ms. Grossman was not invited as a representative of Hinduism. She is not a practicing Hindu,” Roth said. “In any case, she was judged superficially on her website. The protesters were not interested in actually listening to her performance and left in its early stages. Furthermore I doubt that you will find many practitioners of these hallowed religious traditions willing to claim the disrespectful disruption of her performance and interrogation after as any kind of example of their values.”

Brown’s protest and demonstration guidelines prohibit halting or interrupting a speaker, even briefly. Officials at the event asked the protesters to save questions for later, and instead the students opted to hold their own chant outside.

“Freedom of expression is central to Brown University’s mission,” said Brian Clark, a university spokesman, in a statement sent to Inside Higher Ed. “It’s important to note that after students briefly interjected with questions early in the program, Thursday night’s event proceeded as planned. Even so, we closely assessed the circumstances afterward to ensure that the guidelines and protocols in place for protests and demonstrations on campus will continue to serve our commitment to a free exchange of ideas.”


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