Every year, Hindus across the world celebrate Diwali, a religious and cultural festival that can be crudely boiled down to a “Festival of Light.” For many families, the idea is to banish the old and dark things in our lives with new ideals, warmth, light. As a child, Diwali thrilled me for its more material aspects—it is, after all, closely associated with Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, meaning that I’d usually end up with a new set of clothes to wear to school that day. Our tiny South Asian community would usually convene in the lobby of a local church, the only space large and open enough for us to celebrate our culture thriving and existing on its own tiny geographic island in the middle of rural Ohio. To an outside observer, it must have looked hilarious—dozens of little brown kids running around playing tag as aunties and uncles gossiped about whose kid was going to what college, all under the watchful eye of what I can only assume was a very bemused statue of the Mother Mary.
I only celebrated Diwali once at Claremont McKenna College. My first year I put on my kurta pajama, ready and thrilled to celebrate my culture and heritage with my new friends and family at school.
My hall reacted less enthusiastically. “Why the fuck are you wearing a dress?” one boy asked. “Is this some Asian shit?” another inquired. My personal favorite was the simple “durka durka Mohammad jihad,” which confused me not only for its blatant racism, but its lack of applicability to the situation. I’ve always been of the opinion that if you’re going to be a bigot, at least match your insults to the situation.
It was then that I decided to dim the light of my Indian heritage and fit a cultural mold that would get me less negative attention at CMC. I never joined a single South Asian club or organization, I never went to another Diwali celebration on campus, and I certainly never made it out to Holi on Walker Beach. Terrifyingly, I began to see this as normal, as “the correct way to fit in as a minority on campus.” CMC prides itself as an school that raises students that “make change from within,” which is to say, leaders that rise up through the institution to alter it from the inside. While initially my reticence to display my Indian background was fear-based, it became a twisted sense of purpose, a desire to one day rise to the top and only then display my identity.
I will always regret not fighting back more while I was at CMC. I will always regret snuffing the light of who I was in order to fit a CMC mold that was defined, dictated and practiced by people who looked at my culture and identity disdainfully. But most importantly, I will regret not having learned and understood the politics of my identity until after having left CMC.
There are people far braver and more bold than I was who have worked tirelessly to illuminate and try to break the CMC mold. They have taught me that while I may love my college for the academic knowledge, friendships and experience that it gave me, it was still four years of systemically enforcing a monolithic culture that I wasn’t a part of. This email from Dean Mary Spellman is living proof of that idea, an email sent to a fellow student of color that objectively states: “You are not one of us, and you never will be unless you throw away that which makes you you.”
There is one last great thing that CMC teaches all of its students—it’s our school motto, after all. The idea is that crescit cum commercio civitas, or that civilization prospers with commerce. The idea here is that money and commerce is the driver of our society and civilization, and ultimately, while ideas are nice, money speaks louder.
Let me speak now with my money and exhort others to speak with theirs as well. I pledge not to give a single cent to Claremont McKenna College until they address our school’s institutional problems and begin working to fix them. I will not give more money to a school that demands its students of color fit into a mold in order to become a true CMC student. I will not give more money to a school where the administration freely admits to the enforcement of a monoculture.
Today is Diwali. I will do away with the old and dark mold that I squeezed myself into at Claremont McKenna. I will relight the lamp that is my cultural identity, and hey, maybe I’ll even buy myself a new jacket.
Aseem Chipalkatti is a 2015 graduate of Claremont McKenna College.
Author's note: This action is meant to stand in solidarity and support of students taking action at CMC, given they are the most obviously affected by campus goings-on. A resolution should come from their needs being satisfied, not those of alumni.
Editor's note: This piece was originally published on the author's Facebook page.