Voices

Biracial student snubbed by Georgetown cultural society

April 17, 2013


Although we live in the capital of a country led by a biracial president, discrimination against multiculturalism is blatantly manifested here on campus. As a biracial student myself, I have had the burden of facing prejudice within one of the ethnic communities I belong to at Georgetown.

My mom is Indian and Hindu, and my dad is Nigerian and Christian. As such, I was raised at the intersection of two cultural spheres that otherwise share little middle ground. I’m sure others would readily agree that being biracial, or multiethnic more generally, isn’t easy. I’m a living, breathing contradiction, racially ambiguous to most. I am regularly faced with the process of categorization-sorted and identified by checking off the “other” box in the question about race. I’ve never quite fit perfectly in either ethnic group; my skin is too light to be Nigerian, and my hair is too curly to be Indian. There’s no question that I look mixed, though only a select few can correctly guess my ethnicity.

I, along with my sisters, was born and raised Hindu and have only been to church a handful of times. I’ve grown up fully exposed to all aspects of my Indian heritage. I go to temple, speak Hindi, go to India, eat meals using only my right hand, and debate the hottest Bollywood actors. And after 20 years, I can easily tell my mint chutney from my coconut chutney without tasting a drop. Despite growing up steeped in Indian culture, the Georgetown community has yet to accept me.

So maybe I can’t dance bhangra and maybe my hair is too crazily curly to look like the standard silky Indian hair. But I have received no greater insult than being asked if I only attend weekly Hindu prayer services as a requirement for a class, or having simple customs and Hindi words patronizingly explained to me as if I were a small child. I’ve been approached at South Asian events at Georgetown and asked from whom I borrow all my Indian clothes because they couldn’t possibly be mine. I’ve had a tableful of Hindu girls get up and move to another table after I tried to sit with them after prayer services. I’ve watched the Indian community embrace Indian freshmen and transfer students, forming instant friendships upon first meeting, while I’ve stood on the sidelines for two years awaiting their acceptance.

I don’t naïvely expect to be best friends with the entire community, but public acknowledgment would be nice. Recognition of our shared culture without the need for me to circulate a copy of my family tree at the next South Asian event would be even better. I find that I would much rather have people openly ask me about my racial background than have them make baseless assumptions about it. It is the strangest and most absurd thing, to have so many people ostracize you without knowing anything about you, and do whatever they can to exclude you from a public student group at Georgetown.

As hurt as I am by the discrimination I face on a regular basis in the Indian community, I am not about to stop attending their events or going to prayer services just because I don’t have anyone to sit with. I have a right to engage in and celebrate my culture, and I won’t give others the satisfaction of excluding me from it.

All that said, I love being biracial. I wouldn’t give it up for anything, or elect to be one race over the other. The different perspectives I’ve been exposed to have made me more open to new experiences and given me a unique appreciation for other cultures. We attend a university rich in diversity, dedicated to religious and cultural pluralism. That is what makes racial profiling and prejudice on campus so disappointing. Maybe if we set aside our preconceptions and hasty judgments, we would realize that we have more in common than we thought. As for the South Asian students, I’ve got some chai and samosas; so why can’t we be friends?



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    A wonderful piece, Sonia.

    As an alumnus of Georgetown, former South Asian student leader and simple member of the community…this article was a real wake up call. I’m so incredibly glad that you took the time and mustered up the courage to write it. As a community, the South Asian community at Georgetown really does rest on its laurels far too often. We look at the stats from Rangila with 500 dancers and 80% non-South Asian participants…and think wow, we must be doing a really great job at inclusion. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, being part of the community means much more than just dancing in Rangila, and there’s no reason why someone should have to beg and prove themselves to be a part of it. I’m actually quite ashamed of myself that I didn’t have the sense to reach out sooner.

    You shouldn’t have to have great dance moves or chance upon being roomies with an Indian student to be part of the community. Knowing how dedicated you have been to the community over the past several years, it is a blatant mark of failure that it has taken everyone so long to wake up…especially for a group of people who’s mission is to share culture and love for South Asia.

    Can’t speak for everyone, but I personally apologize for not showing even a fraction of courage that you demonstrated by writing this article. You say you have chai and samosas? Well, I make a pretty bad ass chicken curry and daal. I’d love to share sometime. Bravo.

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    good job beta!

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    Wow, this is a great article! It should wake up the staff of Georgetown and the South Asian communtity who call themselves very mixing and welcoming people. I hope that this is well distributed to the higher levels also so when a new student comes to Georgetown they should be given admission to a campus where everyone gets equal treatment whether they are complete Indian or any other relgion. It is great shame on the South Asian community and its leader to run such a two faced organization. Maybe they first need to give lectures on being human and than do their pujas! Great show of courge Sonia

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    Insightful read, thank you for sharing!

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    Dear Ms. Okolie,

    The everyday and very personal difficulties involved in doing the work of straddling two cultures is no small task. You deserve much respect for carrying that particular challenge; however, your article was curious. Yes, the South Asian community at Georgetown has not fully lived with an open mind, but they are human and human beings categorize and organize in ways that are not always accurate or gentle. In your article you say, “I’ve watched the Indian community embrace Indian freshmen and transfer students, forming instant friendships upon first meeting, while I’ve stood on the sidelines for two years awaiting their acceptance.” Why have you waited on the sidelines? It is not necessarily fair that the world often requires you give an extra explanation where others breeze in so easily, but why not respond to the individuals in person who may not have recognized you immediately? Why “sit on the sidelines” for 2 years and then write a distant online op-ed piece? My bet is that the large majority of students in these communities would have a furrowed brow for a moment before joining you in prayer. It’s not fair- there’s no doubt about it, but the status quo will not alter while people are on the sidelines. The difficult work of building friendships and relationships and opening eyes and hearts occurs in person, on the ground, not in online op-ed forums.

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    Sonia,

    I have to respectfully disagree with your opinion of the South Asian community at Georgetown. In fact, I will go as far as to say they are one of the most inclusive and accepting clubs on campus.

    I am white. Period. Before Georgetown I was never especially involved in any ethnic club and did not grow up in a particularly diverse area. When I came to Georgetown I tried my hand at a few different clubs, looking for my niche. I went to a few GUSA meetings, worked on a few theater projects, did some after school tutoring, and even applied for the Corp. They were all fine. They were each cliquey in the own right and I never felt like I had joined a community. Who you were in high school, where you grew up, and who your friends were were HUGE factors and obstacles to getting know the older students and participating. Like I said, they were all fine, but not great.

    Sophomore year rolled around and it was soon Ranglia season. A few of my friends had participated in the past and encouraged me to give it a shot because they had so much fun. Only ONE of my friends who had done Rangila before was Indian. When I got to the kickoff event, no one questioned my ethnicity or religion, or even my dancing ability for that matter (of which I have none). It was a complete non-factor. The dance I was in was a beginner level and we were all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. Also, I think it is important to note that anyone who wants to participate in Rangila can; there are no try-outs or applications. Over the next few weeks, I found myself becoming part of a culture, part of the South Asian Society. A group of somewhat random individuals who went from literally a bunch of flailing arms and legs into a choreographed whole.

    I became good friends with many of the members of the South Asian Society over the next two years and consider many members to be some of my best friends. I was never not invited to a party, told I couldn’t bring a friend somewhere, or gossiped about in a negative way. I know this seems a bit idealistic, but it’s true. As time passed, I learned that SAS’s members were comprised of students with unexpected backgrounds, historically opposing religions, and everything else in between. Never once in my experiences was there ever an issue.

    Your feelings towards SAS are probably a result of your own insecurities. You didn’t fit it, oh well. You were not snubbed for being biracial, you probably weren’t even snubbed at all. I think it is a bit much and definitely rude to accuse an entire community on campus of discriminating against biracial students simply because you didn’t become best friends with them. For as proud and confident as you say you are above about your cultural background, you just thew the entire Georgetown South Asian Society under the bus, I bet without ever even expressing your unhappiness to the board. I hope you reflect on your own feelings before blasting other people again as being insensitive.

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      “I was never not invited to a party, told I couldn’t bring a friend somewhere, or gossiped about in a negative way.”
      You’re in SAS and you think that you’ve never been “gossiped about in a negative way”? hahahahahahahahaha yeah right

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    Sonia,

    I have been to just about every SAS event for the past 4 years, I’ve choreographed dance in the show for the past 3 years, and spent the past year as a board member. I, however, am not of South Asian descent; my mom is from the Bahamas and my dad is from Jamaica. The only person I knew at the first SAS event I went to was my next door neighbor. No one went out of their way to welcome me, or to spark a conversation with me. So, I took the initiative and started the conversation myself, and 4 years later that conversation has yet to stop.

    I don’t write to belittle your feelings; I think it’s horrible that you feel this way. I write because I think it’s unfair for you to say you haven’t been accepted into the community with open arms when I’ve seen you at all of the events, not joining the conversation, but observing it. There is no discrimination in SAS, and I am personally insulted that you would say so as I, along with fellow board members, choreographers, and even Rangila coordinators, are breathing proof that SAS opens their arms regardless of race or religion. All it takes is a conversation. Perhaps these Indian freshmen you see welcomed into the community each year is a result of them taking the initiative to befriend the members of the community.

    I see you around campus multiple times a week, and I smile, wave, and say “hi” every time. I’ve complemented your outfits at events and tried to make small talk in an attempt to reach out to you and include you, but I have yet to do so successfully.

    You say you’ll continue to come to the events, and I genuinely hope you do. This Saturday is my last Spring Dinner at Georgetown and I would still love to finally have that conversation with you.

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    I am very sorry that you feel that way and this opens many eyes to the fact that even those groups that try their best of being inclusive can let things fall by the wayside. I, however, agree with the other comments. The best way to address this is not by posting an op-ed but reaching out in person.

    Also, I’ve been to many HSA services and events. Weren’t you on their board or something? Wouldn’t that qualify you as being accepted by that community?

    I am Catholic and even though I sometimes have empty spots next to me during mass does not mean that the spiritual community has neglected me.

    I hope that your future experiences are not like these past ones.

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    I would like to know how the people who acted the way they did managed to get into Georgetown in the first place. I would like to know if Ms Okotie’s experiences were isolated incidents, commonplace or her own perceptions. If her criticisms are indeed warranted, it will impact my view of Georgetown. Please…more info.

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      Read the comments above. They came from two white people and a student whose parents were Jamaican/Bahaman who were all impressed by the South Asian community.

      The South Asian community at Georgetown (cultural and faith based) in fact is much more engaging than other campus where all South Asian activities seem almost exclusively South Asian.

      Georgetown’s ethos with interfaith and it’s cultural dialogues make it very unique.

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        Wasn’t her whole point that she’s biracial, and that’s part of what makes her unaccepted? Aren’t those people who commented of one single race, and therefore can be easily categorized as Indian or non-Indian?

        Let’s read the pieces before we comment about them, hm? Also, great piece Sonia, very insightful and personal.

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    Hi Sonia,

    While the issue of discrimination on college campuses is prominent today, I would venture to say that the South Asian Society is one of the organizations that is LEAST affected by this at Georgetown. Rangila is a clear illustration of this point; I have been to other similar types of dance shows at different universities and the participants are almost all exclusively South Asian. Not only are the majority of the 600 some dancers in Rangila not South Asian, the event also has non-South Asian choreographers, leadership, and board members. In the past, non-South Asian people have even coordinated the whole event! In my past 4 years at Georgetown, we have had people of White, Black, East Asian, and biracial descent on the board. This inclusiveness extends to other South Asian organizations on campus such as the bhangra team. For example, I was at a dance competition this past weekend at another college and all the other teams were comprised of all South Asian members; in contrast, GU Jawani looked completely different in terms of diversity.

    Honestly, the purpose of cultural student organizations at Georgetown is not to force relationships between people. Like Monique stated, many of the people who are not South Asian and have been really involved in the community (of which there are plenty) actively made friends instead of “stand[ing] on the sidelines.” You cannot expect to make friends by waiting around and hoping that others will take initiative to reach out to you. Regardless of a person’s ethnicity, friendships should not be expected to be made on that basis alone. I really do not understand how you can say that the South Asian community does “whatever they can to exclude you” and discriminate against you on a “regular basis” when it makes every effort to have as diverse of a membership as possible and encourage everyone on campus to partake in its events. Why would it single you out for being biracial while many other people who are not South Asian at all have an amazing time choreographing and dancing in Rangila, serving on the board that puts together all the events, or be involved in the dance team? I see absolutely no incentive for this type of premeditated discrimination to be the case. Thus, I find it to be a bit offensive, disrespectful and rash to categorize an entire organization on campus as being racist by suggesting that it doesn’t include you on due to superficial factors like your hair being too curly. I am really sorry that you have felt this way about HSA or SAS but I believe that the best way to address these grievances is not to label the groups as being discriminatory on a campus newspaper. Instead, I would recommend that you reach out to people and not use race as justification for why you feel excluded.

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    It was ridiculously inappropriate for The Voice to print this letter. The accusations of the young and woefully misguided Ms. Okolie are very serious. She asserts that a large and prominent organization is racist and exclusionary. These are very serious charges that the Voice allowed to be printed without any hesitation or corroboration! To the Voice editors: did you do any screening of this letter before you printed it? The Voice negligently printed a very silly and juvenile identity politics piece to satisfy its own political inclinations. I guess we can’t expect much from the same newspaper that printed the Teach For America piece, explicitly lying to all of its sources that it would never be printed. Shame on Julia Lloyd George, Keaton Hoffman, Gavin Bade, and Sara Ainsworth for reckless and ethically bankrupt practices.

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    The comments on here make me cringe with frustration. Ms. Okolie had every right to voice her opinion and to illustrate her perception of how events unfolded. The Voice had every right to share Ms. Okolie’s piece, and I applaud them for doing so. I believe those who have commented have completely mischaracterized Ms. Okolie’s comments and, of even more concern, have completely disrespected her, suggesting her feelings and perceptions are completely baseless and ridiculous.
    A student organization can be perceived as accepting as everyone else on campus may want it to be, but that does not make prejudice within that club impossible or inexistent. Ms. Okolie has brought to the spotlight a topic that Georgetown needs to seriously consider. While campus may be making improvements with respect to multiculturalism, it is not enough for white students on campus to be welcomed to a club to make it exempt from the problem or for one club to be most welcoming for the problem to be solved.

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      Your comments make me cringe Diego! How does Ms. Okolie have “every right to voice her opinion” in an online public forum with no opportunity for response when that opinion includes extraordinarily serious accusations of racism and is based solely on “feelings”? No one has mischaracterized Ms. Okolie’s comments. The exact problem with Ms. Okolie’s piece is that it is all about her “feelings”, Of course no one can disagree with someone’s “feelings”… that’s why they are “feelings” and not “thoughts”. But that is also why Ms. Okolie should have had the respect and dignity to discuss her feelings and concerns with members of this group before flying to the Internet to suddenly wave them out. Your comment is such a naive position that asserts everyone’s opinions and feelings deserved to be broadcast by “right”. What about the rights of this group to not have uncorrobotated attacks of racism be thrown at them without consultation on Internet? Where are their rights? What about the responsibility of the Voice to corroborate and otherwise vet the opinions of a single individual? This piece should never have been published.

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        Two words:

        First Amendment

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    It seems like this discussion has quickly turned into a Sonia vs SAS battle…but I don’t think that was the real intent of the article at all. The issue is simply, how does one who looks different or comes from a different background become a part of the community. That’s an issue that isn’t just unique to south Asians, it happens in any ethnic group. I suspect the south asian community is actually better than most BECAUSE we have groups like SAS. Might there be a factor of outgoing personality involved? Absolutely. But all else being equal, including appearance, the issue remains with how open a community, ANY community, is with people who are different.

    Sonia- I’d take these comments in stride. I don’t think you were wrong to say what you did, but I think this serves as a lesson learned in execution. Race is quickly associated with discrimination, and using specific names will make people feel offended. I I read the title of your piece and find that it really misses the point of your article, and it turns what could have been a deep discussion on inclusion into a shallow one about whether SAS is rascist.

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      It’s possible that The Voice editorial board chose a title they felt was eye-catching and appropriate without input from the author.

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        If that is the case, they should have consulted the “cultural society” that this article was referring to first or apologize on behalf of the author.

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    For those of you who are attacking Ms.Okolie and saying she’s going around making baseless accusations from a distance without making efforts to talk to the people of the South Asian community in person, she gives examples. Was it not enough for her to make an attempt to sit with people at prayer services and have the entire table of Hindu girls so rudely get up and move to another table? Nobody deserves that. This wasn’t an anonymous article; she’s obviously getting a lot of flack for it. This was a courageous stand when so many people in this community obviously view her as an outsider. For the white people and clearly Indian people, SAS sees the boxes you fit into perfectly and apparently, that’s all that’s need to accept you. Obviously, they can’t place Sonia as easily and that bothers them. What terrifies me is that everyone keeps saying the South Asian community at Georgetown is the most accepting. If that’s really true, that is cause for great concern indeed.

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      Yes, she did provide an example of being excluded by a group of Hindu girls. However, is there any reason to assume that these girls got up and moved to a different table because Sonia is biracial? because they do not think she is Hindu? It is possible that these girls did not want to talk to her, but one cannot reach the conclusion that these girls are discriminating against Sonia. It is a completely different issue to feel excluded, but to feel excluded based on RACE is what has provoked many of the people commenting on this article. Claims such as discrimination based on race cannot be taken lightly.

      Furthermore, she says that students from these organizations have “do[ne] whatever they can to exclude [her] from a public student group at Georgetown,” but does she present any evidence of being actively excluded from organizations? or any evidence of being excluded because of her race? Absolutely not.

      This article could have been a deep insight into the life of a biracial Georgetown student and the challenges she faces; instead, it is an attack on a Georgetown cultural society and a religious organization, HSA, about their efforts to exclude someone as a result of her race.

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    I concur with Arnab Sarker. I find it interesting that Sonia does not mention SAS, HSA, or even Rangila in her article, yet these organizations’ members have hastily replied with statistics and other anecdotes to prove her wrong. This reactionary attitude is precisely what the author is trying to create a conscience of in her piece; these members’ demeaning comments only confirm her opinions.

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      The title of her article states that she was “snubbed by Georgetown cultural society” and the rest of her piece exclusively refers to the South Asian population on campus….. how is there any confusion as to which societies she is referring to? It is quite obvious that she is not talking about the Black Students Alliance or the Vietnamese Students Association. You take offense to the commentators’ “reactionary attitude”? Is this a joke? It is definitely within their rights to defend themselves against what they perceive to be extremely controversial accusations of blatant racism that is so different than the experience of other students in the organization.

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    I would urge everyone to step back and understand this article in terms of the “big picture” rather than focusing on specifics. We can debate forever about how inclusive SAS/HSA really are, but the fact is, Sonia’s feelings are not unique to these groups, or even to Georgetown. There are probably many students who have felt excluded from a group at one time or another, but they were not able to make their feelings public. Sonia’s article, regardless of whether you agree with it, has started an important conversation about diversity and inclusiveness on campus. Reading about the controversy surrounding “Georgetown Confessions” demonstrates how necessary that type of conversation is.

    I will also disagree with Sarah’s comment reply. You cannot assume that the author never discussed anything with members of those clubs. Perhaps her feelings were not taken seriously, so she decided to make them public knowledge? The entire point of freedom of speech and the press is that people can express whatever they want, as long as the newspaper is willing to publish it. To David’s comment, it is extremely unfair to call out members of The Voice board by name. This is an opinion piece, and obviously, does not necessarily represent the views of The Voice board. By simply putting her name on this article and willing to accept the criticism and awkwardness that comes with this publication, Sonia has been incredibly brave. This article is not racist; to the contrary, it argues that race is still an important issue that needs to be discussed.

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    To those commenting above:

    I think Sonia’s main point is being mischaracterized. Her thoughts are based on her personal experience as a biracial student. From my personal experience, the South Asian community is a very open and inclusive community to those with no South Asian roots. As others have mentioned, the majority of Rangila dancers in SAS are not South Asian and many non-South Asian Catholics, Muslims, etc. regularly attend the weekly HSA prayer services. These students seem to have very fulfilling experiences. However, Sonia is offering her thoughts as a BIRACIAL student. We have been so enthusiastic in trying to include the members of our community who are not South Asian even though she already knew the things we were trying to explain to her. This is because of natural human tendency to box people into categories, but that put Sonia in the wrong box. Though we have a wonderful and welcoming South Asian community at Georgetown, Sonia’s experience teaches us that we can still improve to be more open to half-Indian students who may not “look Indian.”

    To Sonia:

    I would love to have a personal one-on-one conversation with you to discuss what ways we can make biracial students feel more included. I believe personal conversations are the best way to address these issues.

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      Amen sister.

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    yes well put and great idea. This is what we need, no more arguments please

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    I don’t say it just for the sake of it, but I really feel for you. Indians are, generally very discriminating. And being Indian isn’t enough to get accepted in their midst. Whether you are a Gujarati, a South Indian a North Indian, and so on, people tend to judge you even in the US. Unfortunately though, Indians who have settled here should probably be more open to a biracial community, which apparently isn’t and its really disturbing.

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      you are stereotyping hardcore which is just as bad

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        I know you are but what am I

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    This article is an outrage! How dare she be so blatantly racist against a group that she forgets she isn’t even a part of! Keaton, Gavin, and Sara aught to be publicly shamed and forced to do the weekly GUSA updates for the HOYA until they graduate!
    Remember it is spelled cenSASip for a good reason!

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      Not sure if this comment is ironic or just simple trolling.