Caste in the USA, Episode 1: Conversations about casteism in Indian diaspora are vital to challenging its impact

'Caste In The USA' is a podcast series examining the pervasiveness of caste discrimination among Indians in the US, hosted by Equality Labs' Thenmozhi Soundararajan. This is Episode 1.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan October 30, 2020 15:06:31 IST
Caste in the USA, Episode 1: Conversations about casteism in Indian diaspora are vital to challenging its impact

Editor's note: Firstpost is holding a series of conversations with Indians in the US, across its campuses, offices and households, to understand how caste discrimination pervades the community just as much as it does back home in India. Hosted by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist, artist, technologist and executive director of Equality Labs, the podcast cracks taboos about caste among Indians in the US.

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In Episode 1:

"Caste doesn't just impact the caste-oppressed, caste impacts all of us," says host Thenmozhi Soundararajan in the opening episode of Caste in the USA, a podcast which brings to light experiences of caste discrimination in the US.

This episode reiterates why the need of the hour is to increase conversation around the topic of caste in the diaspora, which is otherwise considered taboo or brushed aside as a conversation which will shame Indian culture in front of non-Indians.

Laying out a structure for this podcast series, Thenmozhi explains that in the episodes to come, she will engage in conversations that explain how dominant caste networks in the US work to keep caste alive. Sharing her experience from having steered a caste survey which brought forth the extent of caste discrimination prevalent among South Asian communities, Thenmozhi also shares the hope that these conversations will eventually help those in the audience self-examine how caste impacts one's own psyche everyday.

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Listen to Caste in the USA, Episode 1 here:

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Read the complete transcript for Episode 1:

Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri everyone.

I am Thenmozhi Soundararajan and this is the series Caste in the USA with Firstpost.

Today’s episode is just an introduction. It’s just you, me and our conversation about caste in the United States.

This is an important topic for myself and many caste oppressed Americans, because we have been grappling with the spectre of caste — particularly because we see caste pretty organised all throughout the diaspora, because we often do not talk openly about the taboo it has become in many of our networks all across the country. The purpose of this series is to have one-on-one intimate conversations with people who have seen it and who are working to dismantle it and this is an unusual conversation. Partially because of the fact that we have both caste oppressed people and people with caste privilege openly sharing the pain of caste apartheid.

This is something we don’t really often like to delve in, but caste is violent for everyone that’s involved.

For me, I have been really influenced by this one thinker Resmaa Menakem who wrote this really beautiful book called My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialised Trauma and a Pathway to Mending Hearts and Bodies. What I loved about this book is that it really looked at the problem of racial violence and anti-Black violence through this lens of trauma. He doesn’t just talk about white supremacy as a political construct or an ideology. He talks about it as white-body supremacy. So a lived, somatic experience that has been built up through centuries of inter racial violence and that, Black communities experience one version of white body supremacy but so do white Americans who watch and are complicit with the violence that is unleashed in their names in order to create white dominance.

To me that is what I really hope to explore more deeply with y’all as we go into these conversations... how are we seeing the violence in caste we created as networks of complicity get dealt throughout the country. For me, from where I really encountered this was in the battle around the California textbooks. For anybody who knows this, you know, this has been a recurring challenging battle throughout the years where we are seeing, you know, dominant caste forces wanting to push a very particular origin story when it comes to caste.

So, in the round that our team was involved in, this was in 2015, we saw dominant castes, primarily Brahmin individuals from groups like the Hindu-American foundation who were leading a charge to basically erase caste from the textbook and erase the word “Dalit”. And their argument was that by teaching caste, Hindu children would be bullied and, you know, in some cases this was done by the scholar, Dr Shiva Bajpai, who was the intellectual architect of their campaign. He would argue in his many letters to the California Board of Education that in fact caste was a good thing. Caste actually helped India endure colonialism and wasn’t even really a big deal in India at all.

And, you know, as a Dalit, we obviously thought that this is absolutely like h****shit. So, you know, many, many, many caste oppressed Californians mobilised to tell their testimonies around this issue. And the thing is that as you begin to scratch the surface of these dominant caste coalitions coming forward to erase caste and doing all sorts of other kinds of mischievousness in terms of erasing, you know, evidence based history from the textbooks. So one of the things that is so interesting is that with all of these dominant caste people, who were Brahmin, and were writing to the board of education and making this like very spurious, non-evidence based claims, is that Dr Shiva Bajpai who was like the leader of all of this, he never divulged that he was on that chair of the Brahmin Samaj of North America. So if caste doesn’t exist in the diaspora, why is the chairperson of the Brahmin Samaj of North America writing to erase the word “Dalit” from textbooks?

Just think about that, think about how wild that is... And that really goes to show to me the sickness that we have in caste, where we see dominant caste people shirking their responsibilities of acknowledgement and recognition of what creates their dominance. While at the same time punishing and creating great consequences for Dalits that speak out about this issue as well as terrorising American institutions that want to address this situation. I think this is why we want to speak out and this is why this is such a deeply intercaste effort. To me the thing that I thought that was so profound in my learning from California textbook battle was that in working with board of education, there was another wrinkle to being able to come out about what caste looks like in the US, is that for them they were like, “Wow, you guys have compelling stories and we know that you guys are survivors of the atrocity and that you are experiencing discrimination but you have no data.”

I just looked at [them] and I just thought again this is one of big traps caste oppressed people have to fall into, is that narrative of institutions is the narrative of data, is the narrative of proof of structural discrimination and yet how few Dalits exist who have that skill set that are able to create processes to be able to document that.

And for me, that really is like again one of the other strange pieces of this is that Dalits have to simultaneously gain access to institutional power as well as learn the tools of institution building, as well as the pedagogies of data, while also living through incredible violence in order to tell the stories of the violence.

So, when faced with that conversation and also seeing the mess that dominant caste people were able to make with their resources and their access, it was really clear for our team at Equality Labs that we needed to push this conversation forward and take what we knew anecdotally, in terms of how caste operated in our community and tried to create a first data set.

I was very lucky to work with my colleague Dr Maari Zwick Maitreyii and we created a really powerful set of first questions and we were lucky to have mentorship with scholars like Dr Cornel West. As we put together our questions, we were really anticipating this not just to be a question set that was directed at Dalits but really towards all South Asians, because again, caste doesn’t just impact the caste oppressed, caste impacts all of us.

So, we actually reached out to hundreds of organisations across the country. It included religious institutions like temples, gurudwaras and churches as well as organising institutions like SAALT which actually works with the South Asian community overall. As well as cultural associations like the Telugu association of North America. To me what was so interesting at that time was when we started to do this outreach, it really showed how controversial it was to have this conversation at that time. Even simply disseminating the survey lead to tremendous amounts of attacks against our team of primarily Dalit women, scholars and researchers.

Caste in the USA Episode 1 Conversations about casteism in Indian diaspora are vital to challenging its impact

For example we got hate threats, we got slurs because we were trying to get people in Indian districts to sign up and take the survey. During that time, there was a lot of contentious engagement of people saying that we were splitting the community. Some threw actual caste epithets and tried to intimidate us from taking survey content.

We also saw that like even the discussion of caste among certain South Asian organisations threw them into existential crisis, where one organisation said that they could not disseminate the survey unless they have a meeting of the board and that the board conversation was super heated because there was a question about whether or not if they did release the survey to the membership, would it divide people because doesn't the discussion of caste itself divide.

All of this was just so fascinating because again these were conversations that were really held and really reflected to us savarna fragility, that even when everybody knows that caste comes up in like key moments of our lives, whether it’s around relationships or who was allowed into what places of worship or who do we rely on in terms of professional networks at the workplace. Savarna fragility comes out, when caste oppressed people say, let’s talk about it, lets see what this looks like from my vantage point for someone who is caste oppressed versus from you who is caste privileged.

As soon as those tables turn, as soon as we take a scholarly objective eye to better understanding what is the scope of this problem, all sorts of fragile behaviour starts to come out and the thing that I really credit like our team and the collective community that came out to support. Because again the caste survey was supported and endorsed by many Ambedkarite organisations all across the country. People wanted to be heard, people wanted to discuss and see what was going on in the realm of caste.

Of course once we conducted and got through that harrowing phase of data collection, the data was pretty clear. In our data set, it showed that one out of four Dalits experienced some form of physical violence, one out of three experienced some form of educational discrimination, and two out of three experienced some form of workplace discrimination.

Just those stats alone was enough for people to take a pause and say, “Wow, we've a serious problem here." And that's why according to our data set, one out of two Dalits are afraid of coming out and being outed as caste oppressed.

Those findings just blew our team away. Because we knew the problem was bad but we didn’t know how bad it was. It was an incredibly validating thing to be able to have a data set that we can now use and move change and open up a conversation related to caste all throughout the United States.

When we first started as Dalit feminists scholars, we were so deeply connected to the material conditions of our community. Because we had seen this show up in so many different institutions — from immigration to domestic violence partners, to workplace incidents. But to now have a data set to move those institutions was remarkable. And in the course of the three to four years after the survey findings, we've seen a sea change in the way that caste is discussed all throughout the diaspora. For example, groups that went through an existential crisis to talk about caste are now including caste as their protected categories.

We also are seeing in the state of California, the first lawsuit against an American corporation about caste discrimination in the workplace. It is a great honour to know that Dalit feminist scholarship with this survey and the report that followed was used as part of those filings. Those are incredible wins. Particularly as it came out of a period when caste itself was being denied in another set of policy hearings related to textbooks.

So, to see such an incredible turnaround shows the power of what happens when we as a community tackle caste head on and have open and frank conversations about its impact, its consequences but also the strategies that we can share to dismantle it.

And that's really what we hope will come out of conversations inspired from these podcasts. We don't anticipate being the deliverer of answers to all things caste apartheid. But we are hoping that through listening to these intimate conversations, everyone in the audience gets inspired to challenge caste in big ways and small ways, but also learn to better self-examine the hidden nooks and crannies of how caste has impacted your own psyche. And the harm that it has done. And the harm that we can release if we talk about it together.

And with that welcome to our podcast. Join us on our next episodes, where we start to talk with different people across the United States about how caste materialises in their lives and the ways they dismantle it.

We look forward to catching you on our next episode. Until then, if you want to learn about our work at Equality Labs or read our caste survey, you can find it on the web at equalitylabs.org or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Until then, Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri.

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