Caste in the USA, Episode 3: Understanding caste from the lens of the privileged — a Brahmin's journey
'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 3.
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. Listen to more episodes here.
In Episode 3:
“You are told from very early on that as a Brahmin man you are ‘the best of the best’, and so everyone else is basically subordinate to you. You are told that you are part of this special group of people and this is exactly how the world is supposed to be, wherein you are at the top of hierarchy, which they say is primarily driven by the fact that you have good karma from your previous lives, and that is why you were born a Brahmin," says Shambhu on how caste supremacy was imbued in him from an early age.
In the third episode of Firtpost’s podcast 'Caste in the USA', Thenmozhi Soundararajan (@dalitdiva) speaks to Shambhu, a Brahmin in the diaspora, about his experience of growing up in a household that reiterated caste hierarchy at every level of his upbringing. This didn’t stop once he left his home. He saw these hierarchies maintained in the diaspora every country he went to.
Shambhu says it was only much later in his 20s that he began to question caste and where he factored in it. Up until then, he was oblivious to the ‘thread-bound privileges’ offered to him as he was taught this is how caste works.
While mainstream conversations on caste only crop up during times of caste atrocities which get ‘noticed’, the attempt to understand caste supremacy from the lens of privileged castes and what goes on in their homes is often left unexamined. Exploring these experiences is crucial to understanding and unlearning caste supremacy, and that is what this episode attempts to do.
Listen to Caste in the USA, Episode 3 here:
Read the complete transcript for Episode 3:
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri, everyone. I am Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and this is Caste In the United States with Firstpost. Today’s episode is an exploration of how caste privilege gets developed. Joining us is Shambhu. Shambhu is a Brahmin in the diaspora who has done a lot of work related to unlearning caste supremacy with other dominant caste people all throughout the United States. We wanted to bring him on to explore caste from the lens of the caste-privileged. We know a lot about what it is to be Dalit, but we don’t know what it is to be built a Brahmin. This is where Shambhu comes in. He is going to talk a little about what it was like to learn his privilege and also what are the steps to take to unlearn it. Shambhu, so nice for you to join us. I was wondering if you can share what it was like to grow up Brahmin? Will you paint a picture for our audience of how caste hegemony was imprinted on you from a young age?
Shambhu: Yes, I am a Brahmin. Just to give you a little background of where I come from - I am Brahmin from South Kannada or Dakshin Kannada, which is the southern part of Karnataka which borders Kerala. I primarily grew up in Mumbai but all my relatives live in Southern Karnataka. We grew up with stories that are embedded in Brahminism, which includes the Mahabharata, and/or the Ramayana. In terms of hierarchy, you are not allowed to question those who are older or those above, that’s what is taught from really early on which gets embedded in you right from the beginning. Those who are your elders or ‘betters’ know better. Decisions more or less that they make are for your own betterment, so it is not something that you question. So in a sense hierarchy is imbued right from the beginning for a Brahmin.
But you are also told very definitively that as a Brahmin man, you are ‘the best of the best’, and so everyone else is basically subordinate to you in some way or the other. There are multiple sub-castes but as long as you are Brahmin, you are told that you are part of this special group of people and this is exactly how the world is supposed to be, wherein you are at the top of hierarchy which is primarily driven by the fact that you have good karma from your previous lives and that is why you were born a Brahmin. This is embedded or imbued in Brahmins from really early on. What that translates into is that you are allowed to look down on other people.
Southern Kannada has been a hotbed of right-wing Brahminism in many ways for a long, long time now. It emanates a lot from the community that I am part of. In terms of Brahminism, we continue to get taught that ‘yes, you are better than everyone else’. Be it in schools or public spaces, your parents or your relatives consciously make comments or comparisons with your other friends. The question always starts with, where is he from? Who is he? All these questions are not about the individual but actually about his family and very consciously about caste. Those are some of the things that make your brain think in a certain way about the people you are associated with or the people you are connected with, and who you are supposed to be connected with and who you are supposed to be associated with. There are always these codes that are being used. ‘Oh, he is from a good family’ or ‘she is from a good family’ or ‘they are very good people’ or ‘don’t associate with them, they will betray you’ or some version of that is something you always hear as you grow up, and that somehow subconsciously becomes a part of you as you grow up. So that is how a lot of my childhood was.
We had the opportunity to go abroad; because of my dad’s last name that opportunity was afforded to us. I spent about nine years of my life — very formative years as well — abroad. But even during that time, we went to a country in Africa, we went to Nairobi, Kenya, and so even there, for example, the diaspora community that we were a part of was very exclusive and discriminatory in many ways. Not just among Indians, but also very anti-Black.
Primarily, the folks who were part of the contingent that grew abroad were upper-castes, and mostly Brahmins. And so the conversations there were more about looking down on the African folks who were working with people like my father. The fact that they cannot ‘manage their own affairs’ and that’s why they need Indians from the diaspora. 'Indians' was a very loose term used by the diaspora for upper-castes, Brahmins — as you must know already. That’s how it is used, in the sense that ‘Indians’ have to come in and manage the affairs of the ‘Africans’. So a very anti- Black sentiment was prevalent which I got to see in my formative years.
Back home in India, for example, you also hear the same thing being said about Dalits or Muslims, in an ‘othering’ sense. These people (Dalits, Muslims) are here because of what they have done in their past life, that they deserve to be where they are, that they are lazy and not hardworking enough, and that’s why they need reservations because they are not good enough. This take is the standard which is part of the discourse when you grow up in a Brahmin household. You see this more so in the villages of Southern Kannada, where they believe that some folks cannot eat with you inside your house — those working for you are always served outside and never within the house. In every house in Southern Kannada there is sanctum sanctorum where God is placed. Non-Brahmins are not allowed in that sanctum sanctorum.
The folks that my parents and relatives associated with were all Brahmins, so you get to see no other point of view other than Brahminism and that is deeply imbued in every fibre of your being in some way, and so you don’t think of these things as being artificial or extraordinary, you are taught to not see that. Yes, you see everyone who comes to your house goes and prays to God, but the primary driver of that is that they are all Brahmins. If anyone else comes they won’t be allowed inside the house. Servants, domestic workers, or workers in the fields in Southern Karnataka are treated in a certain way, they are given their food outside the house and aren't allowed to enter the house unless they are coming to do a particular task, like cleaning the house etc. which again is taught to be normal. So these are some of the ways, I would say, that really break down your critical thinking and you are taught not to see certain things that are obviously discriminatory, obviously unfair, which when I look back, I find it frankly disgusting.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Thank you for sharing that perspective, Shambhu. How does it feel, as a child, to see this level of segregation — separate places for people, separate eating utensils — how does it feel as a child to witness that?
Shambhu: Again, because of how it is imbued in us all through our childhood, there is no feeling that there is something off. It might be my personal lack of critical thinking at that point of time, but you believe that this is normal. You believe that this is how things are supposed to be, this is how things are supposed to work. You do not think about the humanity of other people, you are actively taught that this is how people are supposed to be. This is the rational order of things, so you don’t necessarily question that. This could be my personal experience and there might be people who might have reflected on this in a different way growing up Brahmin, but I didn’t for sure. You see the difference, you see other people not being treated the way you are treated, but you believe that’s exactly how the world is supposed to work. You are not taught otherwise, and why would you be taught otherwise at the end of the day if you are on top of a hierarchy for generations, if not a couple of thousand years?
There is no reason for you to question that hierarchy when you are the beneficiary of that hierarchy.
So frankly speaking, growing up I believed that is just how things are, and when I say growing up, to my utter shame, it went all the way up to my mid-20s. I continued to believe this is how things are supposed to be and I refused to question it until that belief was untenable with everything else that I was seeing around me. Up until then, I thought that everything is normal and there is nothing wrong.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think this is a really important point, and I have been doing a lot thinking about this Shambhu because we do a lot of unlearning caste supremacy work together, and you know about the workshops we do. It was very striking to me that someone who came to one of our workshops actually participated in a deep act of casteism afterwards. To me, what was so striking was the continuance of caste privilege, that it is not simply a cognitive function, meaning that if people know the truth, or read Ambedkar or go through training or workshops, that caste can be quickly dismantled. But there is actually a deep behavioural component that comes from your childhood training, that also comes from trauma, and this is where the work of thinkers like Resmaa Menakem is so useful, because in his work around dismantling race as a psychologist, he thinks that white supremacy is also a trauma response. He talks about white supremacy as white body supremacy, that there are some responses related to race that happen at the body level because of the violence that is experienced by everyone in all sides of the racial divide.
There are particular experiences of those who are racially oppressed, but also those who benefit from white privilege. I think that really speaks to Mari’s question and your response when children are exposed at a young age to violent divides of society — there is something that happens which is very profound, that takes another kind of shattering of your worldview that has been developed before you are willing to challenge deeply held beliefs that have been with you as a young person. And I guess that’s what I wish to speak about a little bit, because particularly, in the way we met, Shambhu, one thing you talked very poignantly about was shedding the thread or the sacred Brahminical thread that Brahmin men carry.
Can you talk a little about that moment for you and also what it was like? I think there is a lot of fascination around what happens, what is so esoteric that is learnt that helps create that divide. I ask this from a very personal level because I remember being in undergrad in college and there was this Indian kid who was a diaspora kid, and this guy was ‘Mr Woke’. Anytime there was a protest for Black rights, he was there. He lived in the Mecha house, which is the house for the Chicano rights (Chicano movement) and he was the star of the house, they gave him an honorary award at the end of the year, so he was woker than woke. This guy came to my house afterwards, and he was telling me how he spent the summer at his grandmother’s house where he received the sacred thread right after talking about his award. And he said with a lot of excitement that he had forgotten what it felt like to be in a place where he had power.
He mentioned this in the context of experiencing racism in the US, but back home having the sacred thread meant he could tell anyone anything he wanted. He said that to me in my home, as a Dalit person, that he didn’t think at all about what he was saying, flexing the power and privilege of his thread. He didn’t see it in contradiction with his fight for racial justice, or that he was using it to find relief in Brahminism as a response to white supremacy, and he didn’t see the hypocrisy of that. So let’s start with your experience of shedding the thread.
Shambhu: As part of my journey, to let all of you know as well as your listeners, after I came to the United States in my late 20s, I started using my critical thinking while working with NGOs that were kind of left-leaning. But even in those spaces caste is not addressed, and being in the diaspora, I sought out the same ‘good people’ who looked like me and had the same ‘backgrounds’, which is a code for caste. I found some of those people in liberal NGO spaces, these were spaces towards which I gravitated and that’s where my critical thinking started, but, to be honest, I was not introduced to Ambedkar or any of the other Bahujan writers before I met you. It was after our talk at Stanford, seven years ago or maybe more, that I started engaging with the question around caste. You helped me open my eyes in so many ways, you have no idea.
One of the things we do when we are in Southern Kannada is we go to temples, especially when we're with family. My parents are devout Brahmins and Hindus. You always visit temples that have Brahmin patrons and they are considered 'good' temples in South Kannada. Around my mid-20s, one of the things that were bizarre to me when I visited one such temple with my upper-caste friends who were not Brahmins was that while anyone can enter the temple and have a darshan, only Brahmins were allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum. The way they do that is they ask all the men to take off their shirts and display the thread that marks them out as a Brahmin before they can enter the sanctum sanctorum. It was very profound for me to kind of understand what it means to be Brahmin.
Before I used to take everything for granted. But my friends who were non-Brahmins had to stay out, while I could go with my family inside the sanctum sanctorum. That is something that left a deep impact on me because this was the time when I was seeking ‘Hindu unity’ in some ways, so that was the start of me realising that the caste system was not particularly good. That kind of prompted me to start thinking about shedding my thread, but over time, I would have it on because of family pressure, and that’s how a lot of upper caste men justify it too. They say there is family pressure or that they do not want to hurt their parents or relatives or grandmother. But I think for me, once I came to the US and had conversations with folks like you about privilege and what it affords me, that’s when I made an active decision to stop wearing my thread. I made an active decision also by letting my parents know that I will not be wearing the thread anymore, no matter the ceremony or event that we are going to be part of as a family. It is not something acceptable to me anymore. In many spaces, I do get mocked, but some of them [those who mock] also think that because I am in the US now, it is okay for me to take my thread off. Or they would think that because I am in the US I am no longer tied to my culture anymore, so that’s how they interpret it.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Can I ask why people want the thread on? Is it because that just shows you are part of that inner circle? So it is controversial because you are laying down the privilege, correct?
Shambhu: In some ways it is. But you really never lose the privilege. It is controversial in the sense that it is part of your identity and it identifies you as a ‘good person’ who follows traditions and all the diktats of the Vedas and so on, which have been laid down for you that mark you out as a good person. But you never really lose the privilege, to be honest. Your parents and your close family still stand up for you anyway. If you go to a Brahmin space, as long as you are not alone and with your family, you are still welcomed because you are perceived as part of that network. So you never really lose your privilege. Some level of ridicule comes your way from within your family wherein they will pass snide comments like ‘oh you think you are very smart now, you don’t care about traditions’ but your privilege is not really touched within that framework.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Something that might be helpful for our listeners to know is that there are many people who come from Brahmin-caste backgrounds who are listening to this podcast. I was wondering, knowing your own journey and also that of some of the people who I have had conversations with, what do you think are some of the roadblocks that Savarnas face in dropping their privilege? How do you handle family disagreements? It feels like there is internal critical thinking that's important, but then [you're] constantly having to face battles within your networks of privilege. So what are some of the things that help you as you begin that journey?
Shambhu: That's a good question. I think for me, in the beginning, reading helped a lot. Again, I am not very well-versed in all of Babasaheb’s works, but Annihilation of Caste and his other speeches had a very profound impact on me. You also actively have to want to understand anti-caste perspectives, and for that, you need to go to Bahujan and Dalit folks to have discussions, not as a consumer but also as an active listener. I think a lot of people that I have seen pay only lip service to the idea of an anti-caste movement or “passing the mic” or “using your privilege to move the movement forwards” without centering themselves. I think that is really hard for Brahmin and other upper caste people to do. It is very, very hard because you are taught as a child that you are the centre of the Universe.
Why would you displace yourself from there? It's very hard psychologically to be able to do that. You are hardwired to want to be the centre of attention, to want to be the person who is celebrated; you want to be the hero. It is imbued in you that you are the “leader”, and you have to defeat casteism yourself — and that’s how many upper-caste and upper-class men see themselves. You will see them taking a lot of space in Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi spaces. You will see them talking over Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi folks. You will see them even talking for Muslims, in many cases. It is so bizarre now for me to see that, but I can see where that is coming from. Let me be very honest, to a large extent I am complicit in it too. In many ways I have been taking up space in places where I am not supposed to. It's been a learning experience for me.
In the case of disagreements with family, I find that to a great extent you have to navigate it on your own to see where the boundaries lie. With my immediate family, to be honest, I have had disagreements for a long, long time now. Especially since I came to the US and discovered Babasaheb’s works, and interacted with other folks in the diaspora who identify as Dalit and Bahujan, disagreements have increased. It's been quite a journey. Again, my parents are devout Hindus and Brahmins, as well as supporters of extreme right-wing politics. That’s largely where the disagreement between us stems from. It's been very challenging, I will be honest.
For almost five years, we had numerous shouting matches which also eventually led to long periods of silence when we didn’t talk to each other. We have come to a tacit understanding that we don’t discuss certain topics at this point because it immediately sets off my dad or me or some other close family member. This does not mean that we are not triggered by each other. When I go to India, I see my parents sometimes make certain comments on something that's in the news, which strikes me, but sometimes I cannot speak about it. There are other times when you feel safe and you can speak out. Sometimes, my relatives dismiss my arguments on the ground that I now live in the US and therefore I don’t need to care about tradition. For example, there are times when I have talked to my mom’s uncles about Ram and the casteist nature of his story and his misogynistic actions, critiquing how unfair he was to Sita. But they immediately respond to that by saying that now that I live in the US, I don’t care about traditions. This becomes a means of protection for me as well as them. That's something that continues to happen. But in real ways, non-participation in household rituals, like yagnas or fire sacrifices or refusing to bow in front of the deity, is mostly perceived as an eccentricity and less as a conscious choice on your part. This is where maybe some of my privilege also comes in as a Brahmin man, where your family lets you be, but you continue to be part of their club. Until you dig too deep and point things out starkly, they mostly let you be. This is what I have seen; disagreements up to a point are tolerated, after which you have shouting matches between family members
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: What you are saying is so important; challenging Brahminical structures within your family is one of the hardest things you could do. I want to flag here that there are actually many dominant caste people challenging casteism across many faiths. While caste has its origin in Hindu scriptures, we see that it has percolated down to many different faiths at this point. But I think one of the unifying experiences that we keep seeing that there is loneliness and a sense of cultural loss when you have to pull yourself out of the rituals that have built your family, and also when you are in conflict with your family over certain positions that you are taking. Other ways in which I have seen some people conduct these conversations is by always keeping love in your heart when you are trying to build a conversation, because it is really about moving everyone to a place where there is more inclusion and to also heal these very violent divides that have split us from each other in society, and as people of conscience. Sometimes, you have a conversation that is really explosive, but other times you have conversations that help move the needle. People also get respite from their chosen families, making sure they have allies who are also doing this work with each other to discuss strategies and tactics that work, but also so that we are not removing something without replacing it with love, empathy and human connection. I want to give you the last words here, what are some of the chosen families that you have built around this issue, and if you were to give a piece of advice to someone who is starting on this road, what would it be?
Shambhu: More than anything else, it is about listening. We have been brought up in a very insular environment as Brahmins because of which we are not easily open to hearing or listening to other points of view or ideas. I think listening is a very critical component of the growth that we need to have as a community, and we are a community in many ways. So that's one piece of advice, but also materially using your privilege if you can is important. If you are at a position wherein you can materially make a contribution to help move the anti-caste discussion forward, not just among your family, but by centring Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi folks by materially contributing to their movement, please do that. You may not agree with everything that they do in terms of tactics or strategy but that's not your place to make that decision. That's what Brahmin men especially need to understand, that look, your opinions are valuable only when you are called to provide those opinions. Until that point it's not your place to opine or make decisions in a space that is not for you. That's not to say you end your critical thinking, but realising that this is not your space to pass judgement on how Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan people choose to take the movement forward. They are the leaders of this movement and so you need to centre them and not yourself. Again this is a very hard concept for a Brahmin man to understand but that's part of the critical growth that needs to happen. I am still trying to learn that and I have a long way to go. That's what I would say in terms of offering advice.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Thank you for joining us Shambhu and thank you to all of our listeners. We look forward to catching you on our next episode. Until then, Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri everyone.
Transcription by Pritha Bhattacharya.
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