Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I was often peppered with questions from both classmates and teachers about my religion. A teacher asked me once if Hindus performed animal sacrifices while numerous classmates — including friends — asked me repeatedly about the caste system, arranged marriage, and reincarnation.
My parents used to feel frustrated by the stories I’d tell them when I came home. But ultimately they felt powerless to do anything about it. Sadly, for my generation of Hindu Americans who grew up in the 1970s, 1980s, and even 1990s, there weren’t too many options in terms of dealing with misinformed teachers or ignorant classmates. Of course, our parents could complain (and they would), but it rarely led to any sort of tangible outcome. As a result, misrepresentations about Hinduism — whether they related to caste, cultural practices such as arranged marriage, or philosophical views such as karma and reincarnation — went unabated and sadly became entrenched in America’s classrooms and textbooks, where they continue to reside.
There are two extremes which may arise when it comes to relationships between Hindu parents and their children’s educators. One is the in-your-face approach and the other is non-confrontational. Much of this could be a result of how some Hindus, particularly those who immigrated from other parts of the world, feel constantly slighted in their workplace environments and in the public sphere, thus making them more sensitive to perceived affronts in the classroom. The latter might be more attributable to many in the post-Gandhi generation who conflate non-confrontation with passivity and do nothing to change misconceptions. Either way, Hindu parents too often end up being more reactive than proactive when it comes to addressing issues in the classroom.
Sometimes, kids themselves don’t want to bring up these issues out of fear that it would exacerbate an uncomfortable classroom dynamic. One of my HAF colleagues’ kids begged his mother not to address the way Hinduism was covered in a social studies class, concerned that it would lead to retribution among his peers and from his teacher.
In my role at the Hindu American Foundation, I’ve talked to numerous parents frustrated by what their children are learning about Hinduism. While I occasionally quip that their experiences are a slight improvement over being asked whether I ate “chilled monkey brains” (after Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom), I empathize with their plight. That’s why it’s important for them to understand two important truths in education: a) teachers don’t intentionally teach wrong information and are almost always willing to learn and b) parents can work with schools, school boards, and individual teachers to help fight stereotypes and wrong information.
One of the most important things parents must learn is that confrontation upfront rarely, if ever, yields results. Most teachers and school officials don’t respond well to accusations that they are racist or purposely discriminatory towards one group or another. This isn’t to say that some educators’ personal views don’t come into the picture. My second grade music teacher once gave me a notebook full of Gospel songs and asked me to take it home and share it with my parents, arguing that it would help us understand what being American meant. Needless to say, even as a 7-year-old, I never showed it to my folks out of fear that my dad would raise hell. How would a parent respond to this situation today? As I’ve learned, having a short conversation with an offending teacher about Hinduism can go a long way in preventing something like that from happening again.
Passivity or pretending that a problem will go away is also disastrous. For instance, parents are so sensitive about their children’s names — often derived from Sanskrit — that they will go to great lengths to insist that their kids be called something “more American.” Trust me, that only internalizes a child’s sense of inferiority at an age when confidence-building is paramount. When I was a professor, I once called a Hindu student by her birth name during roll call. She promptly corrected me by saying her name was Amber. From personal experience, I can say that attempts to make your kids’ names sound less foreign-sounding (even though Hinduism has been intricately weaved into America’s social fabric for generations), doesn’t help in the education process. When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who got so tongue-tied pronouncing my name (it’s actually pretty simple to pronounce) that she just said, “Oh whatever the heck your name is.” I told my dad, who promptly met with her to explain not only the pronunciation of my name, but what it meant. Needless to say, that teacher never repeated that mistake. Remember, it’s OK to work with your kids’ teachers on name pronunciation, even if it does yield the occasional response such as “Wow, that’s such an exotic name!”
While I work with educators (and am one myself) on a daily basis, I know that parents face what might appear to be a daunting task when it comes to explaining cultural or religious meanings to their kids’ teachers. There are plenty of resources to help, so make sure you know what you want to talk about first. Also, be prepared to present your ideas in a way that speak to a more general knowledge about Hinduism, not a specific sect or regional worldview. Keep in mind that public school teachers cannot accept religious materials for distribution and instruction, so make sure that you get information that has been vetted by academic sources (HAF can help parents who need these resources). Last, but not least, make sure you approach your child’s school as a potential partner rather than an adversary. Having worked with some outstanding educators (including my best friend), I can attest to the fact that many educators — regardless of grade level — are passionate about lifelong learning and would be open to learning about different belief systems.
Exercising your right as parents to educate your child’s educators can help us make for more respectful and pluralistic discourses in the classroom while helping your child feel equally American and Hindu. More importantly, it upholds the fundamental American belief that the inclusion of all voices ensures the ideal of pluralism.