Like many other freshmen, Emma Chowdhury (COL ’23) took “Problem of God” her first semester at Georgetown University. For the course’s first homework in the Buddhism unit, Chowdhury’s professor wanted to introduce the class to Siddhartha, the first Buddha, through a movie titled “Little Buddha.”
In the film, Keanu Reeves, a white Canadian actor, plays Siddhartha, who was South Asian.
The professor’s choice to introduce the unit though a film that featured the protagonist in brownface caused Chowdhury to feel uneasy.
“It’s not like it was a great film anyway, and teaching it from having a white guy getting his skin darkened to play the first Buddha just seemed very odd to me,” Chowdhury said in an interview with The Hoya.
Although nonwhite and non-European cultural topics can be a central theme in university core requirements in an effort to increase cultural awareness on campus, some student experiences, like Chowdhury’s, point to a lack of cultural sensitivity in the classroom. However, advocacy by Georgetown’s cultural organizations and hiring a more diverse faculty can help address these shortcomings by encouraging cultural and academic diversity.
Culture in the Classroom
Student perspectives on cultural classes at Georgetown frequently vary based on individual experiences with professors. Citing a lack of professors of color teaching these clases, some students have called for increasing diversity within Georgetown’s faculty to improve the range of perspectives taught in classes.
For Chowdhury, in addition to an insensitive reference to South Asian culture in her “Problem of God” class, the curriculum disproportionately focused on Christianity, with few references to Buddhism, Islam and Taoism.
Chowdhury’s uncomfortable experience when shown material that insensitively covered cultural topics is not isolated to her, as other students have had similar concerns.
Harshini Velraj (COL ’22), who took a sociology class that covered aspects of South Asian cultures with a white professor, felt uneasy when the professor showed a YouTube video that was meant to be a parody of how arranged marriages work.
“It seemed like he didn’t understand that it was a parody and was using it to demonstrate an aspect of South Asian culture, which was just strange, as a South Asian person,” Velraj said in an interview with The Hoya.
Velraj also called attention to the lack of diversity among faculty teaching these more specialized culture classes.
“It seems like a lot of the classes at Georgetown that are about different cultures are taught mostly by white professors,” Velraj said. “It seems like a lot of the time we study different cultures through the lens of ‘white men,’ and it would be nice sometimes to get different perspectives or to see more professors of color teaching about these other cultures.”
13.1% of Georgetown’s total faculty are members of minority groups, according to a 2019 survey compiled by the Common Data Set, an initiative that aims to publish statistics about colleges. Nationwide, 24% of faculty in postsecondary institutions are nonwhite, according to fall 2017 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Mbatoma Kpolie (NHS ’22), a student who identifies as Black, also pointed to white professors teaching classes about identities they did not grow into as creating a disconnect in the classroom.
“There’s definitely a disconnect,” Kpolie said in an interview with the Hoya. “Majority of my professors have been white. I think it’s just interesting to think about how they are certified to teach a language, religion, but someone who actually experienced that life — like they grew up into it — aren’t certified.”
In spite of this lack of diversity, Velraj believes Georgetown’s student organizations are making an effort to encourage cultural and academic diversity.
There are 85 cultural groups among Georgetown’s many student organizations, including Black Student Alliance, Iranian Cultural Society and the Jewish Student Association. While these groups are working to create inclusive communities, the university can work to improve diversity among faculty, according to Velraj.
“Georgetown is a predominantly white institution. I don’t think that’s surprising,” Velraj said. “I do think that there is a substantial chunk of diversity in the student body, and in the range of classes we get to take and in the professors. But we can always do better, we can always incorporate more diverse opinions, especially when it comes to professors who are teaching about foreign cultures.”
Teaching About Culture
Although more can be done to improve academic diversity at Georgetown, current professors teaching classes focused on different cultures have the opportunity to expose students to diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Georgetown’s core requirements intend to teach students about varying cultural, racial and religious experiences.
Cultural classes are crucial for questioning certain assumptions or stereotypes that Americans often have about cultures outside of our own, according to Kevin Doak, professor and chair of the East Asian languages and cultures department.
Doak hopes that by taking his classes, students realize Japanese culture is more diverse, intersectional and complex than many believe.
“I want all students to recognize that Japanese culture is far more global and pluralistic than many realize,” Doak wrote in an email to The Hoya. “In fact, locating Japanese culture as an ‘East Asian’ culture may not do justice to our understanding of the global influences in modern Japanese culture.”
Similarly, Tamara Sonn, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and professor of Islamic history, emphasized the importance of learning languages and reading literature from around the world in an attempt to understand the circumstances of those living in marginalized communities.
“I try to stress the importance of knowing languages, literatures — including religious literature — of people around the globe,” Sonn said in an interview with The Hoya. “Especially those who are living in the most difficult circumstances, and those are people who are primarily those in formerly colonized countries, but elsewhere as well.”
Courses such as Doak’s “Catholicism in Japanese Culture” challenge cultural stereotypes of both Catholicism as a Western culture and of Japan as a Christian-free culture, according to Doak.
Sonn realized the importance of cultural understanding after returning to the United States from Jordan just as the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979. Studying cultures and listening to people’s perspectives is essential for comprehending the real world, Sonn said.
“We have to listen to more than just what their rulers are saying, what their governments are saying, what their militaries are saying, what their economic elites are saying,” Sonn said. “In order to understand the world we live in, we need to listen to the people who live there.”
Kpolie is taking “Intro to Cultural Studies,” and she feels a lot of the students in the class do not understand the minority experience in the United States.
“When I look at that class, I see a lot of people who don’t really understand what people go through — what minorities go through — in America,” Kpolie said. “How, because of the culture of America, how people are displaced because of their race, because of their gender, because of their religion.”
However, taking a course like “Intro to Cultural Studies” exposes all students to the struggles and obstacles facing marginalized communities in the United States, allowing them to expand their worldview, according to Kpolie.
“The conversations we have in that class are very awakening for some people,” Kpolie said. “I think overall it’s kind of been a good experience to have those kinds of discussions because I have a professor who actually gets into the reality of it.”
Building a Curriculum
Professors teaching cultural classes at Georgetown are integral to supporting Georgetown’s core requirements, which cover a variety of topics, including classes that address religion, race and diversity. The university requires students in all schools to complete the 10 university core requirements during their undergraduate years.
The requirements include two theology courses, two philosophy courses, one first-year writing seminar, one integrated writing course, two engaging diversity courses, one natural science course, and one humanities: arts, literature, and cultures course.
The core curriculum intends to provide students foundational knowledge that helps them engage with the global community and think critically about the world, according to Vice Provost of Education Randy Bass.
“It is the hope of the University that the entirety of a Georgetown education will prepare students to embody certain life-long habits: participating creatively in an intellectual community, addressing complex issues and problems, developing a worldview that is both intellectually grounded and personally compelling, and engaging responsively in the world,” Bass wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The original structure of a curriculum has always been a part of the university, while the current framework has been in place since around 50 years ago, according to Bass. Since 2011, the university has amended its core requirements, adding the first-year writing, HALC, global diversity, domestic diversity and science-for-all requirements, Bass wrote.
In an effort to address racial injustice and inequality on campus and nationwide, Georgetown approved the creation of the African American studies department in 2016.
However, despite the university’s attempt to include diversity within its curriculum, students continue to push for further cultural inclusion in the academic sphere.
For example, the Asian-Pacific Islander Leadership Forum has called for increased Asian American representation and diversity in the Georgetown curriculum. APILF has advocated for the establishment of an Asian American studies minor to steer away from Eurocentrism in classes, according to APILF Leadership Team member Jennifer Sugijanto (COL ’20).
“APILF as an organization most definitely thinks that Georgetown administrative must decenter whiteness and Eurocentrism in our curriculum,” Sugijanto wrote in an email to The Hoya. “As you mentioned, one of our long-term initiatives is the creation of an Asian American Studies and or Ethnic Studies program.”
APILF’s advocacy work to more accurately and comprehensively represent various cultures and marginalized groups in academia fits into the push by other universities to increase diverse perspectives.
Cultural studies are valuable because they extend beyond education and provide a basis for activism, according to Sugijanto.
“In advocating for Asian American Studies, and more broadly ethnic studies, we at APILF believe that our communities are not just the object of an academic field of study, but rather also the base for collective consciousness and action,” Sugijanto wrote.
Hoya Staff Writer Sana Rahman contributed to reporting