The Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College (ASCMC) Executive Board voted Dec. 7 to reject the proposal for a “Bollywood Reception” theme at CMC’s annual Wedding Party. ASCMC’s decision came after the idea was met with disapproval from students across the Claremont Colleges, causing a 5C-wide debate.
ASCMC President Ben Tillotson CM ’15 first proposed the idea for a theme at the Nov. 4 Executive Board meeting. The board then voted to reject the proposal at its last meeting of the Fall 2014 semester.
“Ultimately, [the decision] came down to the fact that we wanted to respect all opinions and concerns that were raised with regards to the theme,” Sophie Galant CM ’15, an ASCMC presidential advisor, wrote in an email to TSL. “While some of us on the board and many other students were excited about sharing this cultural event, we recognized that others saw a possibility of doing it injustice and inappropriately portraying certain aspects of the event.”
Tillotson said that an ad hoc committee would be assembled to organize this year’s Wedding Party.
The Wedding Party “will be similar to last year,” Tillotson said. “I’m excited for it.”
The initial proposal provoked controversy and an active student response across the Claremont Colleges in November, with some students expressing support and others disapproval. Ekta, the 5C South Asian student association, held an open forum Nov. 12 titled “Appropriation vs. Appreciation: Open Forum on an Indian Wedding Party.”
A group of seven Scripps College students, including some students in Scripps’ Asian American Student Union (AASU), sent a petition to ASCMC Nov. 10 criticizing the proposed “Indian” theme.
The students circulated it among their friends and acquaintances on the evening of Nov. 9 and received 116 signatures from students across the 5Cs.
“Possible risks include the caricaturization and essentialization of South Asians, hypersexualization of South Asian attire, disrespect of religious and cultural customs, and the disregard of negative experiences South Asians face because of their race,” the petition reads. “The premise of paying tickets to be ‘Indian’ for a night without any of the racial baggage Indians have carried with them for their whole lives is unjust.”
Maddy Rao SC ’16, a member of AASU and Ekta, said she first brought the issue up to AASU because she was concerned that an “Indian”-themed wedding party would trivialize the challenges South Asian students face.
Rao noted that many international students expressed support for the theme, while many domestic students like her tended to be more skeptical of the proposal.
“Growing up in America, we have a different perspective of how it is to be a not white person growing up in a really white place,” Rao said. “[Our experience] is really different from being a not white person growing up somewhere where everybody looks the same as you, so I think that was a really big part of what the two sides of the debate were.”
Electra Chong SC ’15, an assistant co-head of AASU who helped draft the position, wrote in an email to TSL that the petition was not distributed publicly due to the sensitive nature of the issue.
“We didn’t want individuals who signed it to come under fire for their viewpoint,” Chong wrote. “We were prepared to launch another petition, this time public for signing, if ASCMC decided to go through with the theme.”
Before ASCMC voted to reject the proposal, Tillotson spoke with members of Ekta, including Ekta co-president Parth Patel PO ’15, in an attempt to resolve the students’ concerns.
“ASCMC and the ASCMC president were very supportive,” Patel said. “I talked to [Tillotson] for extended periods of time.”
Rao also said that she was appreciative of ASCMC’s fair consideration of concerns from both sides of the debate.
Patel said that he and his co-president Anshu Shah CM ’15 recommended to ASCMC at one point that it affiliate the party with the Claremont Bollywood Dance Company rather than Ekta.
“I thought it was a good middle ground where we could bring in some sort of culture and Indian-ness to it without culturally appropriating or hurting people,” said Shah, who is also the vice president of the Claremont Bollywood Dance Company. “There wouldn’t be much tradition involved in it, but more just fun aspects of Indian culture.”
Chong noted, however, that while a Bollywood theme would be less problematic than an “Indian” theme, it could still lead students to caricature “South Asian cultures and tropes” and that ‘Bollywood’ could be “construed as emblematic of South Asian cultures.”
Aman Raghuvanshi CM ’18, an international student from India, said that he was disappointed with the decision when he first heard about it back on campus after winter break. He said that the Indian theme did not seem racially offensive to him or the Indian international first-year students that he had talked to.
Addressing the argument that the social nature of the party might undermine respect for the Indian culture, Raghuvanshi said that alcohol is often a normal part of some Indian weddings. And as a member of the ASCMC Senate’s budget committee and development committee, Raghuvanshi said that he was planning on proposing to the Senate, once back in session, to invite Indian students to be consultants for the party.
Raghuvanshi added that even though he still plans to go to the Wedding Party, he believes ASCMC should have gone through with the theme.
“One of the biggest conversation topics I see happening [on campus] is that this was supposed to be the Indian Wedding Party,” he said. “Because frankly speaking, Indian weddings are ridiculously fun. So not having it is a shame.”
Regardless of ASCMC’s final decision on the proposed theme, Patel said that the discussions sparked by the proposal were beneficial for the 5C South Asian community.
“With any ethnic identity based student group, it’s easy to view [members] as all being homogenous in a sense and having the same stance, the same views, the same political opinions,” he said. “This was one of the great opportunities where we were actually able to explore the diversity of thought and opinion that exists within Ekta.”
This article was updated Jan. 24. It originally indicated that Maddy Rao is a member of the class of 2015.
This article was updated Jan. 25 to include quotes from Aman Raghuvanshi CM ’18.