Scrolling through my blog reader feed Friday afternoon, I was struck by an image from Scott Schuman’s street style blog, The Sartorialist. The image is captivating: a young woman sweeping the street in Delhi, her face covered with bright sheer scarves, a floral tunic/kurti bright against a muted backdrop of two others in western dress. I stopped to take it in and noticed the title given by the blog’s author: “The Untouchables.” I pressed on then, reading through the comments, interested in the response that such a post would draw.
The points brought up by readers of The Sartorialist were interesting, if not entirely surprising. While the blog typically includes shots of fashion editors and stylists pre-shows, more and more Schuman has been traveling to worlds away from Milan and Paris and capturing the essence of local style. Typically, I find these images more engaging–I think he has a way of capturing the sense of pride and ingenuity that people from all classes and locales can express in their own clothing. But there are those who comment that these images are out of place on the blog, or out of touch with the realities of life for people in these locations; that they show a superficial view of the locale. In this case, readers expressed concern about the ethics of such a shot, of evaluating it for beauty, questioning why it was supposed she was an “untouchable” (something I wondered, too), and, from one commenter named “Nina” stating: “Basically, please don’t go to India and be all “wow, look at the poverty, so sad.””
I’m not entirely sure what Schuman was thinking by posting his image, but I am sure he was aware that it would invite questions and perhaps criticism. It reminded me of the challenges I feel when addressing the issue of caste, India, and Hinduism in the classroom. Whenever I ask students what they know about Hinduism, caste is one of the first things that comes up. But I’m never entirely sure how to handle the caste system and its role today in India: I have no firsthand experience of the nation. I find myself, like Schuman, raising more questions than giving answers and I worry about perpetuating stereotypes or misconceptions and even about offending Hindu students in the room. However, from what I can tell based on conversations and readings, there is still discrimination based on class and race in India (as in every other country in the world) and it is connected to, if not reflective of, Hindu beliefs. Therefore it merits discussion in the World Religions classroom.
So, what I have done about the issue? Typically, I rely on a variety of sources to serve as experts and leave my voice out of it. This year I had students read about the origins of the caste system in beliefs about dharma and one’s duty or role in the world, the ways that the system was reinforced under British rule, and the activism of Ambedkar and Gandhi. We take about the status today of “dalits” or “harijans” and how the name “untouchables” is in fact inappropriate (these readings are all listed on my resources page). We watch a short video on caste-based discrimination today (found on Youtube, made by Indian students). Recently I came across this summary from the Hindu American Foundation, which makes it clear that the teachings of Hinduism do not condone caste-based discrimination, but equally recognizes the issue of such discrimination as a challenge that Hindus must tackle head on. The summary reinforces an understanding of Hinduism that values the idea that Brahman exists in each person and that we are all one over a belief system emphasizing the differences between varnas or castes, and as a class we have discussed those competing understandings of Hinduism’s core teachings. Finally, I ask them to compare how religion, race, class, and the law interact in India and here in the United States (drawing on what my students know about Christianity, slavery, and the American civil rights movement). For ,my students who are simultaneously taking American History, we covered Hinduism just as we were talking about antebellum slavery in the U.S., and had also discussed how Christianity was used both to reinforce the inequality of slavery and also by abolitionists to challenge the system: one set of beliefs, and two opposing interpretations. We note that “de jure” is often different from “de facto” when it comes to segregation and discrimination all around the world.
That last piece is the part that may be most important when it comes to talking about difficult subjects in World Religions class: drawing connections to our own cultures and experiences and understanding the competing views within religions/belief systems. I have faced a similar hesitation when I’ve tried to teach about the role of women, polygamy, homosexuality, or even animal sacrifice as they appear in one religion or another. How can I approach topics that incite emotional responses (either positive or negative) without risking the imposition of my values on my students or unfairly presenting the material? My best strategy is differentiating theory from practice, using a variety of sources or voices, and looking for parallels with our own culture. Most important, I think, is to allow the students some space to ask questions and to aim to replace judgment with knowledge. That is not to say that they can’t decide that they disagree with a practice or belief, but I expect them to have more than a superficial understanding of it before they do.
I think perhaps the readers of The Sartorialist assume a superficial understanding of his subjects. I give him more credit than that. His image initiated conversation about India today–I have to think that was part of his goal. I took a break from writing today to go check out the Robert Rauschenberg exhibit at the Nasher museum. There, I came upon this quote:
If I had to guess, I’d say Schuman wanted his readers to “take a second look,” and I think the title itself is a hint. Why the plural? Does the subject represent a whole? Possibly…but I think in that plural rendering Schuman hints at more: those questions we are afraid to tackle head on, that we hesitate over; or even at another cultural reference, that of those bad-ass corruption-free federal agents led by Elliot Ness, or “untouchable” as that general sense of being wonderfully elusive and unattainable. Now, the Sartorialist is no Rauschenberg, and I can get a little weary of some of his fashion photos (perhaps because they too, represent a world that is unattainable for me!). But in this case, it’s a beautiful picture, directing our attention to a part of the world most of us will never get to. He serves it up and lets us draw conclusions, creating a space for conversation, which I appreciate.