The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Letter to the editor: Cultural Night in review

Is it possible for a person to feel completely overjoyed, in awe and furious all the same time? Well, that is how I feel every time I attend the International Student Organization’s Cultural Night. This year’s event was well-organized and well-attended, with many student groups performing songs and dances from their homes. The performances aptly commenced with a Vietnamese lullaby about migratory birds and finding home in a new and strange land. I cannot think of a better way to begin the evening than with a performance that captured the intense, often painful desire of many international students to create a home in a faraway place, especially when that place is often hostile towards difference. 

There was no dull moment in the night, with many breathtaking performances. The “SenBonZakura” included a live band, which reminded me of the prominent role that the saxophone plays in my childhood memories, bringing me to the brink of tears. The “Slavs Across Centuries” performance exhibited the subversive potential of the space when the student performers, not all of whom were Slavs, danced to the popular Bosnian band Dubioza Kolektiv’s song “U.S.A.,” which begins with a speaker demanding to be taken to the “Promised Land” to see the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate bridge and promising, “I will assimilate.” However, upon realizing that the American promise was a lie and that there is “no place like a motherland,” the speaker leaves the United States, announcing “I want to start all over, return to no man’s land / Send greetings to your leader, don’t want your green card / I want to fly back like a rocket to the Balkans.” Dancing to the catchy music of Kolektiv’s song, the student performers tore up a giant green card on stage and discarded a photo of Donald Trump. I found their performance bold and confrontational. It was a reminder of the scary moment we inhabit and a biting commentary on the narcissistic assumption that all who come here want to stay.   

Nonetheless, I find the Cultural Night deeply troubling. It presents a false sense of global Grinnell, where difference is embraced and celebrated when we know it is not. International students still experience hostility and racism in the town and on campus. This year domestic students started chanting “USA” at the only Harris party that ISO organizes. Our curriculum remains mainly European- and American-centric. The College, which is currently in the process of erecting multi-million-dollar buildings, asserted that it did not have funding to fully furnish the MSA suite that was only constructed after students protested its elimination. The list goes on and the evidence is clear: Grinnell, despite its grandiose claims and flashy statistics, is far from embracing diversity. So, the problem with the Cultural Night is that it introduces a fleeting stage where, for a couple of hours, international students are compelled to bring exotic aspects of their homes for the mostly white audience to openly marvel at without actively interrogating the institutionalized ways that international students are compelled to erase and compartmentalize home on a daily basis. The fashion show portion of the Cultural Night perfectly illustrates this dynamic. In the beginning of the evening, students are invited to wear traditional dress and walk the runway. However, I wonder what happens if those same students want to wear those same attire for class or a dinner at a local restaurant? That is, for difference to be celebratory, there first must exist equality among difference. And given the reinforced hierarchies of such difference at Grinnell, its community does not deserve an evening like the Cultural Night.

I know that some would disagree with me and argue that events like the Cultural Night have the potential to combat the hostility and hatred of which I speak, and while that might be true, I wonder if we are comfortable in asking our fellow community members to use the cherished artifacts of their home as a bargaining chip for belonging. 

It is hard to critique something when the intent is pure, when the performers are your friends and classmates, when the organizers are your most loyal allies, when the audience consists of your peers, neighbors and faculty members and, most importantly, when you have thoroughly enjoyed the generosity of those who offered to share a piece of their home with you. It is hard when it is home. But it is precisely because it is home that it becomes necessary.   

— Farah Omer ’19

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