Ashoka apologizes for ‘hurtful, resentful and unacceptable’ Diwali skit

| Managing Editor
A crowd of people gathers on stage as one person on the far right in a yellow shirt speaks into a microphone.

Members of the Diwali skit cast perform. The skit, which centered around a group of students forming their own dance team, received backlash over the weekend for use of ableist and transphobic language, jokes about predatory behavior and use of AAVE. Photo by Morad Suliman | Student Life

After students called out this year’s Diwali skit for heavy use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), ableist and transphobic remarks and making light of mental illness and predatory sexual behavior, Ashoka’s executive board released a statement on Monday night outlining their plans for accountability.

For future Diwali shows, each segment must be unanimously approved by the executive board and the organization’s advisor, with the potential for future skits to require approval by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) and for the skit to be removed from the show entirely if any future incidents occur. Students who participated in the skit may also lose their eligibility to participate in future events hosted by this year’s Ashoka executive board. 

In the statement, posted on Ashoka’s Instagram, the organization wrote that they discussed these measures with an administrator and listened to concerns that were raised by students.

The skit, entitled “Masla,” which translates to “problem,” was a part of the annual Diwali show hosted by Ashoka, meant to celebrate a multitude of South Asian cultures. The skit was made up of eight scenes dispersed between a fashion show and performances by campus dance teams and singing groups such as Sur Taal Laya, WashU Bhangra and WU Chaahat.

The characters in the skit used AAVE and language pointed toward the Black community throughout all eight scenes. These lines were both ad-libbed and planned in advance, with phrases like “#melaningang4lyfe” in the copy of the script posted online. One character mentioned that her father was writing a seven-volume series about “how gangster rap is destroying our children.” During the Saturday night show, one of the actors ad-libbed a joke about “ACAB” in response to a character’s complaint that a WUPD officer turned dining hall worker forced her to watch their TikToks.

“We are sorry that what should have been a joyous celebration of culture and diversity evolved into a hurtful, resentful and unacceptable demonstration of toxicity as a result of an unacceptable skit,” Ashoka’s statement read. “We are sorry that members of the Ashoka community were defamed, that marginalized groups were put down at the expense of cheap laughs, that our wonderful acts were overshadowed and that our audience endured disrespectful and vulgar content far beyond the realm of a cultural celebration.”

Hours before Ashoka’s official statement, members of the Skit Committee also posted an apology statement on Instagram. 

“We as a cast came together to create a culturally diverse and sensitive show, and despite this genuine effort, we deeply offended members of the WashU community,” the Skit Committee’s statement read. “Showing our script through reviews internally by cast members, by Ashoka’s executive board and by others that heard our script at Diwali’s rehearsals did not create an inclusive feedback loop. We are incredibly sorry for this shortsighted and exclusive process.” 

They also posted a draft of the script, saying that many of the offensive lines were ad-libbed during the show. 

Ashoka’s apology statement painted a different picture of the script review process. They claimed that members of the executive board had reviewed the script and brought concerns about the offensive content to their attention multiple times, writing that the Skit Committee referred to their concerns as “poor arguments,” “f*****g stupid” and “unnecessary.” Ashoka’s executive board also said that they condemn any ad-libbed lines in the three shows.

Members of WU Garba dance during a Thursday dress rehearsal of Diwali: Illuminate. This year’s showcase, which ran on Nov. 5 and 6, featured a fashion show and performances from several student singing and dance groups. Photo by Morad Suliman | Student Life

After the show’s opening night on Friday, several students called out the problematic nature of the skit on Twitter. Following the show, Ashoka’s executive team again requested that the Skit Committee remove the offensive lines from the show. In their statement, they claimed that the team complied for the Saturday afternoon show only for the Skit Committee to put many of them back in and add even more offensive ad-libs during the final performance on Saturday night.

The Ashoka executive team’s statement also asked that the members of the Skit Committee issue another apology to the WashU community, acknowledging that the committee was already aware that the skit was offensive and that they had deliberately ignored “several attempts at constructive criticism.” They also requested that the committee issue an apology to Diwali’s 2021 philanthropy partner, The Sikh Coalition, and attend diversity and inclusion training.

Members of Ashoka’s executive board either declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

“The reason why it was so alarming was because the intention of the show was to display [South Asian] culture, from traditional to modern…” said freshman Maame Darkwah, who attended the show. “However, the references were very pandering towards Black people, even with certain accents that they would put on to be funny. And the intention was to be funny, but it wasn’t.”

The skit also featured several lines poking fun at poor mental health, including one of the characters wanting to be a part of a dance team because it was a better use of his time than trying to befriend an Uncle Joe’s operator. 

Sophomore Bella Stull attended the show and said that the way that mental health was addressed in the skit was insensitive but also reminiscent of how many students discuss it on campus.

“They were making light of a lot of pretty serious issues that I think are really prevalent on campus right now and are not necessarily being addressed by the University in general,” Stull said. “We have a lot of mental health resources, but there’s not a whole lot of discussion about the prevalence of depression and anxiety on campus. And I felt like it was kind of making light of the fact that it is so prevalent on campus and that everyone’s kind of struggling with it, which I found a little bit concerning.”

Members of WashU Bhangra (WUBB) perform bhangra during a dress rehearsal on Thursday. Photo by Morad Suliman | Student Life

Senior Aisha Odusanya, who danced in the show as a member of Raas but was not affiliated with the production of the skit, said that it was disappointing that more campus attention was placed on the skit’s content over the performances, but that these types of conversations are important.

“It does sadden me a lot that a lot of the performances and a lot of the hard work are not getting the same chance to be showcased as they would have been in a different situation,” Odusanya said. “But I would not say that we should just push aside this discussion to focus on dances or anything like that. I think this is a discussion that needs to be had. I know that I am extremely proud of my team. I am extremely proud of other teams, other people who put a lot of hard work and dedication to this show. And no matter everything that was going on, in my mind, I’m just proud of what we put out there. And I’m glad we got to have those experiences.”

At the time of publication, Skit Committee had not publicly addressed the accountability measures written in Ashoka’s statement.

“One thing I really want to see is an explanation for is why… even though people from [other] marginalized communities expressed that they were hurt by certain lines and actions in the script, why Skit Committee felt okay keeping those things in the script and adding more to it on Saturday night’s show,” Odusanya said. “Because at that point, the first night, that was the chance to take accountability, to make changes and to reflect. The fact that it was brought back and added on to, another night, at that point makes it feel more malicious. And I really would like them to address that. I really need that to be addressed.”

Editor’s note: We have updated this story as of 2:10 p.m. on Nov. 11 with a photo that more accurately depicts the skit’s cast.

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