In an institute that prides itself on having one of the most culturally diverse campuses in the world, we often find ourselves in conversations surrounding the representation of the various cultures around us, both inside the classroom and outside. Too often, however, such discourse takes place under misunderstood definitions of “culture” itself and a superficial understanding of cultural diversity.
How do we then go about navigating such a cultural landscape? Whose responsibility is it to be the manager of this cultural exchange that so many of us have come to associate with NYU Abu Dhabi? What are some of the mediums of representation of cultures that we see at our university?
When it comes to the question of cultural representation, one first thinks of cultural Student Interest Groups. From Africa Global to TASHAN, these SIGs are an excellent place for those outside of that region to engage with its culture and for students to stay in touch with their roots. They become a sort of home away from home. But any representation of said culture in a certain way risks both the perpetuation of existing stereotypes and the formation of new ones.
The Mock Wedding by the Pakistan Student Association is a clear example. Some argue that it perpetuates harmful stereotypes regarding the wedding culture in South Asia, such as indulging in material extravagance and their exhibitonist nature. There are also legitimate concerns regarding the glorification of the patriarchal aspects of the institution of marriage and its perpetuation of toxic power dynamics between men and women. And yet, many in the community still feel that this wedding captures a sense of community celebration that is a reminder of home. These contested views on the Mock Wedding illustrate how imposing the burden of cultural interchange on a SIG alone — such as the PSA — will never achieve perfect representation. Culture is never just one thing or the other; it is a ground of debate and conflict which blends and bleeds into the said culture itself.
What of the students on campus who do not have the numbers on their side? What of the students who are the sole flag-bearers of their respective cultures? Or the students who do not have at least ten others from their culture to organize themselves into a SIG? This is when the notion of SIGs being the only representatives of cultures on campus becomes problematic: numbers grant certain cultures visibility over others. A programming event surrounding Emirati or Indian interests will undoubtedly attract a larger audience simply because of the disproportionate size of these nationalities on campus. Similarly, a single student from Afghanistan wanting to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, will never have the same institutional support or access to resources that the former will.
The conversation around SIGs being a bearer of culture is further complicated when one realizes that many times, these SIGs are representing populations that are extremely heterogeneous. None of the cultures on campus are a monolith — they contain complexities and contradictions and a true appreciation of cultural diversity on campus can only be achieved with the acknowledgement of these very contradictions. For example, the Arab Culture Club represents nationalities with regional and thus, cultural differences. What is needed here is a shift of focus — from the collective SIG model to the individual. An organization such as a SIG will inevitably fall short of this burden of representation simply because there are too many individual identities within a culture to represent in the first place. The burden of cultural representation, hence, must fall on the individual.
We must then look toward alternative mediums of cultural representation on our campus beyond student-interest mediums, which allow for a representation of culture on an individual scale. This entails recognizing that cultural identity at NYUAD is complex: it is never determined by just one part of us but by an intersection of other social constructs such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, race etc. A true and honest commitment to cultural diversity looks like the appreciation of each individual and the cultural richness they bring to the NYUAD community, by giving visibility to the individual nuances that populate each culture rather than a monolithic or stereotypical representation of it.
This requires investment in platforms that allow for this individual cultural identity to be enriched and presented to the larger community, similar to the FirstHand Initiative organized by SLICE on-campus
. The FirstHand Initiative is a platform for NYUAD students to represent their cultural practices in front of the larger community with full agency — this allows for the representation of these individualities instead of them being presented as part of a larger collective. However, this is one of the only platforms available for students — all other institutional avenues such as SIGs fail to fully touch on the individual nuance that is needed for cultural discourse.
This shift in perceiving cultural identity from a collective to an individual sense is not easy, but it allows for greater visibility of the gray areas that populate the many cultural landscapes NYUAD is home to. It enables us to move past the superficially visible parts of said culture, to acknowledge the nuances in personhood. It further helps us reevaluate our preconceived notions of a culture and examine how different peoples interact and relate with parts of the cultures that they identify with. However, that being said, institutional and logistical limitations such as budgets, understaffing etc. prevent the realization of such an idealized cultural space.
What is important is not the actualization of this utopian vision but an introduction of this nuance in the way that we celebrate and engage with cultures on campus. A consciousness of the individualities that characterize a given culture alongside institutional efforts such as Sustained Dialogue and the InterCultural Learning Program are tangible movements toward such a cultural landscape, and are worthy of recognition. The cultural diversity of NYUAD is one of its biggest virtues but there is always room for more sensitivity when having these conversations.
Ibad Hassan is Communications & Social Media Editor. Email him at email@example.com.