Last week’s Confederate flag incident at Bryn Mawr College, one of the nation’s top small liberal arts institutions, raised important questions about how colleges with progressive reputations are combating anti-Black racism. But the incident also highlighted the continuing struggle to develop and sustain interfaith efforts—particularly involving Dharmic traditions—to combat prejudice.
Given my own ties to the South Asian community, I’m personally most connected to the effort to persuade South Asian Americans—the majority of whom identify as Hindu—to become more active in combating racism. For college students of South Asian descent, the reluctance to join in anti-racism efforts can be from a combination of factors, including general apathy, a lack of recognition of the social histories of race and exclusion, or simply an unwillingness to speak out in fear of violating campus norms.
One Hindu American student, Shreekari Tadepalli, a freshman, said she was disappointed by the lack of strong response from the campus’ South Asian community to the flag’s exhibition. Many of Bryn Mawr’s South Asian American students are immigrants from countries like India and Pakistan, but even among those born and raised in America, the flag’s symbolism doesn’t hit home the way it should, Tadepalli said.
“The incidents on my campus last week brought home to me what it means to be an Indian-American, Hindu-American growing up in this country,” she said. “As the daughter of immigrants, I recognize my community’s relatively recent entry into the conversations about racial, religious, and socioeconomic conflicts in America. Still, the Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and hatred that affects all minorities and is an issue that all of us at the table must collectively address.”
Indeed, anti-hate groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have noted that the Confederate flag has been used as a way of intimidating religious minorities, most notably in cases of anti-Semitism. For groups such as Hindu Americans, the racial connotations might not seem tangible, but religious discrimination is a very real problem and is linked with racial othering. Often times, Hindu American students have faced challenges in making those connections and building coalitions to fight intolerance.
“It’s important for us to be involved in society and tackle issues of discrimination head-on, be it against our own or others,” Tadepalli said. “So many other communities are willing to build alliances, if we just reach out and learn to overcome our own prejudices.”
For many young Hindu Americans, particularly those in college, there continues to be a reluctance to openly self-identify as Hindu when fighting against racism and other social injustices. Fortunately, young leaders such as Tadepalli, whose progressivism is deeply tied to her religious beliefs, are stepping up at places such as Bryn Mawr. She was one of just a handful of South Asian Americans who joined a Sept. 19 campus demonstration against racism.
“At the end of the day, it is my Hindu beliefs that drive my passion for equality and social justice, that motivated me to demonstrate on Friday, Om necklace and bindi and all,” she said. “As Hindus, it is our collective dharma to take action, to take a stand, to do something to make the world a better place.”
Tadepalli’s sentiments perfectly encapsulate the opportunity we as Hindu Americans have to be the change we wish to see, particularly when it comes to combating and ending intolerance, prejudice, and hate. Hopefully, the Bryn Mawr incident will become a rallying call for young Hindu Americans to join the front lines in the struggle for social justice.
Murali Balaji is Director of Education and Curriculum Reform at the Hindu American Foundation. A former journalist, he had previously taught at Temple University, Lincoln University and Penn State University, and has been a social justice advocate for nearly two decades.