HOUSTON, TEXAS, July 5, 2016 (Houston Chronicle, by Kavita Pallod): For me, as for most tweens, middle school was a time of all-encompassing awkwardness. I didn't know what to do with my oddly proportioned limbs, how to dress while my mom was still shopping for me, what was acceptable to pack for lunch or even how to greet my friends in the morning. I certainly didn't need the help of my teachers or social studies textbooks to feel out of place. But, as so many things are at that age, it was out of my hands.
As a Hindu American growing up in Alief, I was faced with Texas textbooks that made my faith look strange and primitive, even to me. We were taught about a discriminatory caste system that deemed people untouchable, the practice of sati (where widows threw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres), the lower status of women in ancient and modern India.
All but absent from the textbook were the things I did know about my faith: karma, dharma; the four yogas (the paths to spiritual liberation). And, of course, the teachers had no knowledge of Hinduism outside of the textbooks in front of them, nor a very well-developed sense of cultural sensitivity. My tenth-grade teacher was not trying to be cruel when he had me stand up in front of the class, then asked me what my caste was.
In addition to this, always hovering over me was the specter of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an essentialized character from The Simpsons, who believed odd things and scammed people at his convenience store. Between Apu and the textbooks, misconceptions and prejudice in my classmates was inevitable, as were the isolation and shame that dogged me.
I kept my head down. I passed quizzes and tests by answering questions about caste and rituals in ways I knew to be incorrect. I tolerated classmates who insisted I was going to hell for worshiping idols. I tried, to work up the nerve to speak up about the misrepresentations in my textbook, but I was stymied by shyness and embarrassment.
Unfortunately, the Hindu American Foundation's 2016 Bullying Report shows that I am far from alone in my experience: Half of the students who responded to the survey said that they felt awkward or socially isolated because of their religious identity. Well over half said that their classes focused on caste and included claims about Hinduism that they knew to be inaccurate, in debate, or long debunked. Caste, when presented as a hierarchical and rigid system at the core of the faith, implies that people who follow the faith are inherently oppressive, judgmental, and exclusivist. Dharma is the set of basic principles that most Hindus use as a moral cornerstone to navigate daily decisions. To have it tainted in this way is hugely damaging.
Many Hindus growing up in the United States have little or no attachment to caste, much less any engagement with the caste-based discrimination that is excruciatingly highlighted in textbooks. But it would take a remarkable amount of wherewithal (an amount that cannot be expected from a sixth-, eighth- or even tenth-grader) to dismiss their textbooks and teachers. Worse still, one in eight Hindu students said their teachers have made sarcastic remarks about their faith. It's hard enough to get through a lesson with a teacher who is trying to be sensitive, let alone one who isn't.
Bullying is of course ubiquitous in this age group. Teens can and do make fun of just about anything. But there is something particularly insidious about being attacked for your core beliefs, as opposed to, say, a sweater that can be ditched or a haircut that will grow out.
These days, I work as a therapist in a setting where I see middle and high school students during the school day and help teens navigate a spectrum of challenges: depression resulting from issues at home, anxiety from school and academic pressure, angst about who they are. Across the board, they feel isolated, judged, awkward and alone.
Teenage years are tough. Tough enough that students shouldn't ever feel like their educational institution is attacking them, however subtly -- or unsubtly. For Hindu American students exposed to current social studies textbooks and the problematic understanding of Hinduism that they foster, the challenge is magnified. The textbooks' mistakes aren't the only thing that makes life hard on Hindu students. But those mistakes are something that Texas can -- and must -- remedy.
Kavita Pallod is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, studying clinical psychology. She holds psychology and education degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. She is active in the Hindu community of Houston and serves on the steering committee for the Hindu Heritage Youth Camp. She is also the 2011 winner of the Hindus of Greater Houston's Youth Leader award. Kavita's work at Hindu American Foundation is focused on K-12 curricular issues.