Introduction: Calling Out and Challenging Caste
Look. It’s time that we South Asians of the diaspora call out caste. Every issue that we might want to understand better and address — whether it is indigenous rights of the First Nations, Aboriginal populations or Native Americans, misogyny, racism, feminism, labor rights, heteropatriarchy, immigration issues, settler or neo-colonialism, anti-blackness, Islamophobia, transphobia, environmentalism, militarism, or Hindu fundamentalism — will not be possible if caste is not dismantled.
Caste isn’t limited to our particular South Asian homeland, it migrates, too.
Caste isn’t limited to our particular South Asian homeland, it migrates, too. Caste is embodied by all of us diasporic South Asians, regardless of ethnic, national, linguistic, religious, sexual, or political affiliation. Thus it is all of our responsibility to interrogate our privilege. For far too long we have watched caste re-emerge and settle in our new geographies. We have shied away from discussing caste in diaspora. And most importantly, we have let this silence allow South Asian diasporic movements to erase caste from their intersectional analysis. But this ends now.
For radical South Asians, this is the moment to include caste into your intersectional analysis. This is the time to begin the long, complicated conversation of taking caste into account. This is not a conversation that happens at the end of a meeting. This is not where having a Dalit friend gives you a free pass not to recognize your own caste privilege. And if this article makes you feel like this is not meant for you because you are not a Brahmin, then this article is especially for you. For caste has internal, interpersonal and institutional effects. And every caste is implicated in maintaining its hegemony. Yes, every caste. It is only when we actively challenge caste together that we have a chance to end it in our lifetime. But for this to happen, we need to name, see, and reckon it for what it is first.
It is only when we actively challenge caste together that we have a chance to end it in our lifetime.
Most importantly, it does not end just by simply reading this article — you have to commit to wrestle with these ideas and then put what you read into practice.
Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis have so far been the only ones to raise the issue of caste. Just because we bear the brunt of the violence of this system it does not mean it is only our problem. Caste is, in fact, a structural problem. Therefore, it needs structural solutions that are grounded in collective and inclusive actions to dismantle it. It is time that those who are Savarna, or Upper-caste, begin to learn to name and own their privilege and take on the burden of educating and dismantling caste in your own families and social networks. For the hardest work is to confront those that are closest and most intimate to you in your personal and professional lives. In fact, this is where really allyship begins. This is the point when complicated conversations begin. It starts when you become the uncomfortable voice laying bare the privilege to the social locations from where caste trickles down from: your friends, family, and professional colleagues. It begins when you break the silence of your own privilege.
It would be far worse to remain silent, at worst awkward and blasé, but still very much complicit with this violent system.
So far, Dalits have always shouldered this responsibility alone; but Savarnas, it is actually yours. And yes, it can be hard when there are not a lot of models within upper-caste cultures for calling out caste privilege, let alone renouncing one’s caste power. It is difficult to know where to begin this intervention when you have been shielded your whole life from negatively experiencing caste, understanding it as a structure, and coming to terms with your own position within it. But it would be far worse to remain silent, at worst awkward and blasé, but still very much complicit with this violent system. And make no mistake that silence becomes an accomplice to the systemic violence that is crippling our countries and lives every day. Remember, complicity is both an active and passive process.
Until now, there have been countless upper-caste scholars and writers who have become ‘experts’ by studying our experiences, but the locus of violence is to be found in your cultures that beg for much needed confrontation and analysis. To understand caste, you need to understand yourself. If you are ready to be part of anti-caste movements, then let’s move towards understanding your privilege. Below are some urgently needed caste interventions to help you reflect and get started.
1) South Asian Identity is a social and political construct.
South Asian, or in the UK, Asian, has, over several decades, become a prominent and popular umbrella identity used by Desis of all walks of life, as a self-reference to our origins. As a social category, it homogenizes and masks the tensions and hierarchies present in our individual national, cultural, caste, gender, and linguistic identities, ones we still carry and which continue to inform our respective communities abroad.
These categories were often introduced as government-backed racial categories to track our communities for purposes of state services and surveillance. From these state-sanctioned social categories we crafted identities that respond to the racialization that occurs to us when we migrate to new countries, lumped together as South Asian, not Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, etc. But let’s understand what this South Asian, or Asian, identity in self-reference means. It is a social and political category that emerged in the Desi diaspora, because of pressures we experienced as racialized immigrants and refugees.
It’s hard to hear when we might hold privilege.
If we do not approach, with critical reexamination, what those tensions and hierarchies are that exist between and within this plethora of identities, and instead choose to conveniently embrace the South Asian identity, we will continue recreating the structural injustices of our home countries within our progressive circles. We will thereby erase the multiple histories, experiences, identities, and reasons for why these diasporas have come to exist in the first place, and instead replace it with a mono-narrative of South Asianness. That is why, in relation to caste, open conversation and a commitment to listening without defensiveness to Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi peoples is critical for all self-identified South Asians.
If this is the first time you are hearing those words.
Well then. Case. In. Point.
It’s hard to hear when we might hold privilege. No one likes to acknowledge that. No one likes to face the consequences of ‘knowing.’ But, try not to resist. Let it sink in, engage in research, and get to know the majority that is not visible in the power narrative of South Asia and South Asians. By learning to recognize it, you can begin acting against it.
2) Identities Matter: For the absence of a conversation about caste is the manifestation of caste hegemony.
When asserting our Dalit, Bahujan, or Adivasi identities, we are often dismissively told by Savarnas that we practice ‘identity politics’ and are playing the ‘Caste Card’. It is as if individual identities, whether Savarna or others, don’t matter in the process of political education and organisation. It is as if Savarna identities can be neatly divorced from their everyday politics and violence. And, most importantly, it is as if we are the only ones to be stained by our identities and political assertions.
Privilege provides you the opportunity to unsee caste and with it also your own caste heritage.
This is particularly true when Savarnas assert that because they don’t talk about caste in their family and social or organised circles, they have not experienced caste privilege. They are, however, wrong. Privilege provides you the opportunity to unsee caste and with it also your own caste heritage. It is in fact that very privilege of unknowing and the ignorance begotten by that silence, which indicates that you have already benefited from the caste system. This is caste privilege 101.
Take this in: You are just as much invested in your identities as we are. Your politics are as much reflective of your identities as are ours. The hypervisibility of our identities, when asserted in public, reflects our marginality and your centrality. To be able to be invisible, to be norm is a privilege.
You remain the diasporic mainstream. You continue to sit at the centers of power. And you reproduce your stories as our universal experiences. But they are most definitely not.
If you want to explore your privileges, think about the questions we use to socially locate each other in the caste hierarchy. This can include questions about where your family village is located, to dietary restrictions, to the assumption of shared religious festivals as “desi” festivals and making non-participation a vetting ritual for those of acceptable castes. As caste is both geographically and culturally marked, these questions help to profile the caste-Self from the caste-Other, and reproduce centuries-old lines of separation and segregation.
Here are some examples of social locating questions we put together so you could begin this process of self-examination:
|SAMPLE SOCIAL LOCATION QUESTIONS||DALIT, BAHUJAN, ADIVASI ANSWERS||SAVARNA ANSWERS|
|What is your family’s last name?||Kamble, Khobragade, or even Christian last names||Rao, Iyer, Iyengar, Patel, Jat, Nair, Reddys, Yadavs, Jats, Gownders, Patels, Rajputs, Thakurs, etc.|
|What religion do you practice?||Buddhist, Ravidassia, Christian, Atheist, and some Hindus. But, in general, Hinduism is not a safe space for us, as we are not recognized equal before god.||Hindu, Sikh, and other traditions emphasizing purity.|
|Who does your family associate with?||Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi Friends||Friends from same linguistic, cultural, and caste background|
|Do they eat meat?||Yes. We are very proud of recipes that feature our meat-eating tradition. Whether its beef or scavenged meat, there has been much shame put upon what began out of families’ exclusion from food networks in the system of caste apartheid. As a result our hard-won food decisions are a form of culinary self-determination||No and sanctimonious about vessels, plates, and even being present around the eating of meat.|
|Do they have land?||Not always, but if so, may hide location because it locates caste identity due to caste apartheid in village areas.||Yes and are landowners.|
|Who have they wanted you to marry?||Other Dalits, Bahujan, and Adivasi and inter-caste with trepidation.||Definitely same caste or higher. Will often talk of good matches and good family as a code for caste and class.|
|Did your parents hide when they came abroad?||Yes.||No.|
As you can see from the sample answers above, Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasi people have very specific answers to these questions. And these answers are almost uniformly different from the Savarna responses to the same questions. That is because these questions get to the heart of the social locators our cultures use to situate one into the caste hierarchy.
These are not neutral questions. So please recognize that asking these questions can often be triggers for Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis. Caste safe spaces recognize this and do not recreate false notions of shared South Asian culture. Some examples of when this occurs is, for instance, when South Asians hold events with only vegetarian food, celebrate Hindu gods and goddesses as empowering, and use Hindu caste norms. The assumption is that everyone in the room is Hindu, which is not the case.
3) Caste vs. Class
Conflating caste and class is not effective. For while they may overlap, they are not the same thing. You can still be poor and have caste privilege. You can also conversely be Dalit and be wealthy. But the reality is that most Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis struggle with class ascension because they have to overcome generational disparities of wealth. Remember, caste equates to social as well as economic capital. Caste is also structural and generational.
Caste is also structural and generational.
What does that mean? It means that whatever your family’s dire economic circumstances were at immigration, we can guarantee you the Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi experience was fundamentally more difficult. We had to battle against institutionalized forms of casteism in addition to generations-stretching and violently imposed poverty to be able migrate in the first place. The struggle of Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis, however, didn’t come to an end there. We then had to navigate caste hostile immigrant and refugee networks in our new communities that recreated those very same structures we thought to have escaped from. This process of negotiation and navigation continues for years, if not decades and detrimentally colors the lives of many Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis.
Read more about this in “Politicising the personal: Who am I, Who are ‘we’ as people?” and “Still I Rise.”
4) Brahmins are not the only perpetrators of caste privilege.
Another misnomer people have is that if they aren’t Brahmin they can’t be casteist. The reality is quite different. It doesn’t take a Brahmin to uphold the structure and to have benefited from the caste system. In fact much of the violence in our home countries is often exacted by non-Brahmin dominant castes eager to maintain their hegemony of power and resources through a climate of terror. This includes Reddys, Yadavs, Jats, Gownders, Patels, Rajputs, Thakurs and more. If your last name is one of these names, or others that denote and mark an upper-caste origin, then yes, your family has probably had some benefit from the caste system. You even being able to use your last name without fear or reprisal is just the beginning of that privilege. For many in South Asia, these are the last names of perpetrators of caste atrocities that include rape, murder, arson, and worse. It is a painful legacy that you can be a part of changing but only if you recognize the privilege of your castes.
Violence in our home countries is often exacted by non-Brahmin dominant castes eager to maintain their hegemony of power through terror.
That recognition can lead to you being part of the solution by opening the dialogue with your family and challenging their status quo. Some Savarnas drop their last name to acknowledge the legacy of violence their names represent. We are not advocating a particular strategy here, just that these decisions, like so many around our culture, are seen as automatic and help normalize privilege. We instead want to encourage the questioning, the challenging, and these dialogues so that the burden of ending the caste system is not simply on those who face it at the frontlines. It is now, Savarnas, most importantly also yours.
For it is way more difficult and unsafe for someone like us to have that complicated conversation, but it is one you can have because these are your families, friends, and social networks. Change is, indeed, personal. Change is hard. But this is the real work.
5) Caste is inter-generational and in all of the traditions we keep, remix, and recreate.
A lot of second generation Desis feel like caste is part of their parents’ culture but not theirs. But you would be surprised. It translates right into contemporary desi cultures as well. Desi hip hop is a case in point. It is ok to be Desi and love hip hop. It is, however, not okay to base your Desi street cred on caste privilege. And neither is it okay for Desi hip hop to be complicit in the long and violent history of the appropriation of African-American traditions and movements.
It is not okay to base your Desi street cred on caste privilege.
Today, Desi hip hop unfortunately often includes assertions of casteism as well as anti-black racism, which sets it against the very communities that have created, nurtured, and carried this art form to the wider public. Desis need an outlet for the racism we experience abroad, and it feels good to claim your name, caste, and geography as part of your rep. But hip hop is a culture that came out of a history of resistance to oppression, so you can understand the contradiction of trying to assert your down brown game with something that is essentially supremacist in nature. For as we mentioned above, many of the last names, which are also caste names, are linked with fear and violence in India and elsewhere. Your caste credentials are essentially an assertion of supremacy and a representation of a long history of oppression.
For example, for Punjabi hip hop heads: there are so many MC’s who have repped being Jat. Well, being proud of being Jat is one thing. But, acknowledging the oppression and violence asserted by this very caste community is another. Jats have consolidated land and local power, and held that power through violence and intimidation against Dalits throughout much of North India. Hip Hop, as a culture of resistance, is a music of oppressed people, not of the oppressors. So think before you spit on the mic and build your own knowledge, responsibility, and accountability.
6) Listen Don’t Dismiss: Caste is also discursive.
When someone who is Dalit, Bahujan, or Adivasi speaks, LISTEN. Listen before you bristle, listen before you challenge. And more specifically, listen before you dismiss. Don’t try to dismantle our point of view, before being open to how it might change or expand your own. If you felt it was annoying when white folks did it to you because of your South Asian identity, then imagine how we feel when we have to experience white supremacy, on top of dealing with caste privilege. Trust us when we say it is exhausting and tiring.
Listen before you bristle, listen before you challenge.
That is the reason why many Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi activists skipped over postcolonial and subaltern studies scholars and writers from India, and chose to ally and identify with other theorists of color like Audre Lorde, Frantz Fanon, bell hooks, Angela Davis, and more. We had more in common with the experiences of marginality that these writer activists spoke of than with Savarna writers from our own nations, because of the exclusion, co-option, appropriation, and dismissal of our own experiences illustrated by them.
7) Dr. Ambedkar. Know him. Read him. Share him.
Dr. Ambedkar. Do you know him? He was one of the first Indians to study abroad, wrote the Indian constitution, and was a tireless freedom fighter for Dalits and all Indians. But most in the South Asian diaspora have no idea who he is. This silencing is caste oppression at its worst. The silence is an active process of suppression and erasure. But Dr. Ambedkar is for Dalits, what Malcolm X, Leonard Peltier, and Cesar Chavez were for each of their respective communities. And he is not just a Dalit leader, but also a real symbol of liberation for all of us South Asians. To be robbed of this historical figure in the diaspora is a loss for us all. It is an issue we should all be concerned with.
And when you read about Dr. Ambedkar, do not read about him only in the context of Gandhi. Listen to his speeches and his radical critiques of caste, patriarchy, and religious fundamentalism on his own terms, independent and divorced from Savarna interpretations and attempts to contextualise his words. You will be glad that you did.
You can find his work here: The Annihilation of Caste
8) Do not tell Dalits, Adivasis, and Bahujans how to run their communities and movements.
This might seem quite obvious. And yet it is a significant structural problem in the attempt of building inter-caste alliances. Institutions that we interact with, from Funders, Desi Associations, Temples, Gurdwaras, South Asian Studies Departments, are run by Savarna leadership. When we are forced to constantly negotiate the right to our own experiences and history with the power brokers of our communities, we don’t want to repeat this tiring process in the safe spaces we have fought to build.
This idea may be new for many Savarnas because our spaces are probably the first anti-caste structures led by Dalits, Adivasis and Bahujans they have engaged with. As with any new culture, it is better to be silent, observe, and wait for directives of what would be good strategies for allyship before imposing your own viewpoints. Unfortunately, most Savarnas do the opposite. They are, often subconsciously so, disruptive, condescending, and harmful.
Respect our autonomy and focus instead on the privilege in your own communities.
One key point to avoid doing this is to remember this: It is an extension of caste hegemony to assume that the role of a Savarna in a Dalit, Bahujan, or Adivasi space is one of leadership and control.It is also similarly not for Savarnas to critique, advise, document or use the resources of our communities without prior request. Once again, you might think this is obvious but unfortunately it is not. This has to be put on paper because we have seen this time and time again happen in our interactions with Savarnas. And it is our hope that in naming this you can respect our autonomy and focus instead on the privilege in your own communities.
Conclusion: This is the Beginning
This essay is part of a long tradition of Dalit and Adivasi scholarship/activism aimed at eradicating caste. It is also for us the continuing of the difficult process of rendering caste visible in the diaspora. We must hunt all the places where it remains unnamed and name it fiercely. For this is the beginning of reckoning how caste, as a system of oppression, operates and transforms across borders, peoples, and times. It is also our attempt of tying South Asian diasporic communities to the violent caste-stratified geographies of our ‘homelands’.
To create safe spaces for discussions of casteism in our organizing circles requires self-reflection and action. It is simply not a progressive, anti-communal, and revolutionary space, if all the leadership is upper-caste. Period. If this is happening in your network, then you must critically examine why this is happening. You must be open to radically think about what types of spaces you are making and supporting, as well as what space you are taking up. This is our attempt to name caste in our communities to help end it once and for all, for if you are not part of the solution, you are most definitely part of the problem.
Onward with the Struggle
Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a Dalit-American transmedia artist, journalist, and theorist who believes story is one of the most important units of social change. Her work can be found on www.dalitnation.com and on twitter at @dalitdiva.
Sinthujan Varatharajah is a Dalit Tamil scholar, artist, and activist. His work explores the connections between caste, race, diaspora, migration, memory, geography, and postcoloniality. His work can be found at @varathas and @rootsofdiaspora.