Asani Uses Diverse Background as Tool in Teaching Indo-Muslim Language, Culture

Professor of the Practice of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture Ali S. Asani '77, who serves on the Faculty board of the Harvard Foundation for Race and Intercultural Relations, says he remembers when the schools around him ceased to be segregated, and even when the patriotic songs in class changed.

"I remember going to school, not having to sing 'God Save the Queen' but singing another anthem, and all the British flags coming down, to be replaced by Kenyan ones," says Asani, who grew up in Africa. "Also, after independence, the school curriculum changed to stress Africa. Before, we studied Britain and Europe, and next to nothing about Africa."

"In Africa I didn't have a single white friend," says Asani, who is of South Asian decent. "It was a class issue. Whites generally kept to themselves."

Now a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and culture, Asani strives to break ethnic and religious stereotypes both in his teaching and in his support of students.

"I grew up with a triple heritage. I grew up speaking Indian languages at home--Gujurati [mother's language] and Sindhi [father's language], at school we spoke English and to communicate with other Africans, we spoke Swahili...being Muslim also added another measure to my identity," Asani says.

Asani says he had a comfortable middle-class upbringing in Nairobi, which was racially stratified under British rule. His father was an accountant, and his mother worked for East African, later Kenyan Airways.

"East Africa at that point of time--the British were creating a society that was very racially segregated, a colony very similar in structure to South Africa. Africans, Indians, whites--we all had separate schools, separate facilities. My early childhood was still under British rule, which was a time of social segregation," he says.

Asani says he personally did not experience many problems with the black Africans, mainly because his school had already started to desegregate by the time of independence in 1963. "I had lots of black friends." he says.

"Since Indians were used as a buffer by the British from Africans, and also because of their long history of trade, Indians tended to be better off. Also because of this, there was some resentment from Africans toward Indians as a minority," Asani says. "[However] there was no segregation between Muslims and Hindus within the South Asian community in Kenya, unlike the subcontinent. There was a great deal of religious tolerance."

Asani came to Harvard as an undergraduate in 1973, when the University was "just beginning to diversify racially" and went through enormous culture shock.

"It was the first time I left Africa. I think my big shock was that I again found myself as a racial minority, only this time the majority was white instead of black."

The bewilderment was mutual.

"Everyone was shocked." Asani says, recalling the many times when he had to introduce himself. "They asked me, 'How can you be African? You look Indian. You can't be African.' I would respond, 'What's an African supposed to look like?' I was really shocked at the extent of ignorance among the students. They would ask me if we lived in huts. One person even asked me if there were lions roaming the streets."

Eventually, Asani says that he was able to adjust, though he still had to deal with a sense of ethnic isolation.

"I made friends with black, South Asian and white students. There was just a handful of South Asian people...scattered in all the different houses," he says.