Caste in the USA, Episode 5: On social isolation as a result of caste networks in the diaspora

'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 5.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan November 14, 2020 11:35:38 IST
Caste in the USA, Episode 5: On social isolation as a result of caste networks in the diaspora

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.

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In Episode 5:

Thenmozhi Soundarajan (@dalitdiva) is back with a new episode of the podcast, which focuses on social isolation as a result of entrenched caste networks in the diaspora.

Speaking to Thenmozhi is Priyanka, a Dalit professional who has lived in the US for many years. Priyanka has witnessed conversations around caste being silenced since she immigrated there as a high school student.

"My first interactions with the diaspora was with Indians who were in the foreign service. And down south it became very clear to me how the Indian state plays a very key role in crafting the narrative around caste, in that it doesn’t just make it invisible, [but also] pushes a narrative of this diverse democracy with a rich flourishing culture, so these were some of the first conversations and gathering," says Priyanka of her early years in the US.

Through the course of the conversation, the two highlight several instances where their identities were invisibilised in the diaspora. Questioning this was met with gaslighting and gatekeeping across the community, including academia that attempted to silence the oppressed.

"There were no overt discussions on caste, you could see how it shapes social dynamics, you could see the segregation. My parents would only feel safe socialising or confiding in others who were Dalits or lower castes and of course, there weren’t many to begin with and these institutions are hierarchical to begin with," Priyanka added.

The roots of the matter are deeply entrenched, further highlighted by the obstacles Priyanka faced while working on a dissertation around caste bias.

"I chose to write a thesis on caste in India especially looking at reservation quotas, a very exploratory project...When I did try to reach out to an Indian professor [who] taught South Asian history he got very antagonistic and told something like ‘I am attacking the hand that fed me’ with regards to me asking for more than just quotas for Dalits. So you know, these were the types of instances that told me how silencing of people happens when they want to speak up about Dalit identity, rights or simply just ask for more," said Priyanka. Tune in to listen to her journey of navigating caste bias as well as reaching self-acceptance despite of it.

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Listen to Caste in the USA, Episode 5 here:

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Read the complete transcript for Episode 5:

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 the social isolation that results from caste in the diaspora. Joining us is Priyanka, a Dalit professional who has lived in the US for many years. She will share her own journey to self-acceptance and also the difficulty of navigating a casteist diaspora. Welcome Priyanka and Jai Bhim.

Priyanka: Jai Bhim Thenmozhi, thank you for having me.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: So Priyanka, when did you immigrate? And what were your first impressions of the diaspora?

Priyanka: Sure, so I moved to the US about fifteen years ago when I was in high school. And since then you know overall its been a very isolating experience. We didn’t come here with the intention of immigrating at all. One of my parents worked for the Indian government but I ended up staying back for higher education and I work here now and I have a life here. So my first interactions with the diaspora were actually with Indians who were in the foreign service. And down south it became very clear to me how the Indian state plays a very key role in crafting the narrative around caste, in that it doesn’t it just makes it invisible and pushes a narrative of this diverse democracy with a rich flourishing culture, so these were some of the first conversations and gathering.

There were no overt discussions on caste you could see how it shapes social dynamics, you could see the segregation. My parents would only feel safe socialising or confiding in others who were Dalits or lower castes and of course there weren’t many to begin with and these institutions are hierarchical to begin with. You know my first consciousness of caste actually came from my parents’ experiences and of course there is so much stigma around reservation quotas and degradation really starts from there that you don’t belong here, the resentment, the looking down on you because your English isn’t good, sometimes even sabotaging prospects of promotions or any advancements. So really this is backdrop against which I began looking at immigrant diaspora.

And you know I was a teenager when I first got here so I just wanted to fit in but I remember being really turned off by how insular you know most Indian-American circles were and I felt more kinship with working class brown and black students and immigrants. Even though I didn’t have that vocabulary for model minority, that idea was very toxic to me and even though we had huge financial burdens I just couldn’t relate to this race of making it ‘in America’, not to mention that those circles were straight up racist. Like I remember one of my Indian guy friends telling me in high school that he was disappointed in me because I was dating someone outside of my race. Literally saying to me ‘I thought you were a good Indian girl’. That idea of respectability and even purity became very clear early on and it was just disgusting and turned me off completely and it wasn’t until college that I explicitly started talking about caste, thinking about caste and having conversations about it. Yearning for academic mentors who could help me make more sense of it but honestly just couldn’t find any but despite that I chose to write a thesis on caste in India especially looking at reservation quotas, a very exploratory project on what the impact has been and basically concluding that more obviously needs to happen and when I did try to reach out to an Indian professor who I think taught South Asian history he got very antagonistic and told something like ‘I am attacking the hand that fed me’ with regards to me asking for more than just quotas for Dalits. So you know, these were the types of instances that told me that how silencing of people happens when they want to speak up about Dalit identity, rights or simply just ask for more. Brahmins get very uncomfortable. Luckily I had a professor in my department who I had a good relationship with and who guided me even though he didn’t know much about the subject - he was white-American - but he really stood by me and encouraged me to pursue the topic and that was a really important lesson for me that those who weren’t actually invested in Brahminism could be better allies. Even when I did start to find Dalit scholars and people who were working on caste in grad school it was hard to find someone to just connect with you know at a human level and not just as a thing that had to be studied or theorized. So there weren’t that many resources or much guidance or circles that I could connect other Dalit with and I also felt self-conscious I couldn’t discuss this even my closest friends with when I was younger it was something that I felt I had to carry by myself.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think this is such a poignant point that you grew up so isolated as a Dalit in the diaspora because of people wanting to hide, because of the shame but also once you are an adult and are able to make your own choices  cause my parents definitely hid as well - but I think you know the challenges of all these institutions that line up to tell you that and basically gas-light that caste doesn’t exist. It’s shameful to talk about and you are ‘biting a hand that feeds’ that was like text book some of the same exact things that happened to me. Like I remember having a conversation with someone who had been referred to me to help shape a conversation around caste and that person was from the foreign service who said ‘you know there is no problem with caste in India. And in fact you know you might be better served if you focused on the plight of the red Indian and the reservation they are on as opposed to stirring up trouble where there is none, you have been mis-educated’. And I remember it feeling like a tight slap on my face and the go between us was a white-American who was Jewish, who knew as a survivor of the holocaust that I wasn’t lying, they knew because they saw the images of atrocity and so they knew I wasn’t lying. And this person who they had respected when they saw the denial in that concrete form then they understood how deep the impunity went. As a young person and also as a young adult navigating these spaces where you have gate-keepers including in the academia it is very difficult. I had a professor who also said to me caste was not the axis to examine South Asia and there weren’t any significant Dalit leaders and it would be better to look at people from the leftist ranks because again the Dalit movement wasn’t significant. And this is in the 1990s, and if in the 2000s they are saying this it is wild. So it's really poignant and I think that might be a really great place for you to share with our listeners how did stuff like this make you feel? And what were some of the challenges you had within your family when you guys were all going through this?

Priyanka: A lot of this processing honestly happened much, much later to the point that I am still processing so it was not like in the moment I was realising all this and the point about gas-lighting is so real because there were times when I felt this is not a valid thesis topic. For years I felt like ‘oh this was not a good thesis’, I didn’t really get the validation that I wanted even though I had a great ally who encouraged me but I felt for years that it was not the right thing, am I just making this up because I didn’t get that validation. Talking about processing this with my family that is still happening you know and that is one of the hardest things about this. Because of the shame, the erasure we don’t even have a space to process this as a family.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Priyanka do you feel there any one instance that really stands out in your mind about it? Maybe like a casteist experience that you have had.

Priyanka: There were obviously instances like the recent CISCO case where there is clear harassment based on caste and it is a clear violation of someone’s humanity but in my experience, the way I felt it was the other way of making you feel invisible and presenting assimilation as the only route to success and mobility. There is a real violence to that because according to that logic the only way you can survive and create a legacy for yourself is by denying yourself and espousing this dominant culture even if that culture denies you your humanity and kills your people. There is erasure, there is never seeing yourself in textbooks, be taught Hindu scriptures in college without any critical analysis on caste. It's like me trying to tell students who went to Columbia who Dr Ambedkar was, this is Indian students who saw a picture of Dr Ambedkar at my home. Its things like that, this logic of assimilation and making yourself invisible and your Dalit identity invisible has really penetrated the psyche of my family to the point that we don’t really talk about caste or rather the impact it has had on our lives. There is so much fear and shame that has plagued our lives, there is no real pride in claiming who we are. I think it has had very real effects on our self-esteem, on envisioning a thriving life for ourselves. I suppose the intergenerational impact this has had on my family has been the hardest I would say, even though it's not an instance it's like the effect.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: The thing that I thought was always so profound about being out as Dalit was that every time we would publicly speak or there would be a place where I would engaging with South Asians someone would always come up to me in secret and tell me ‘I am your community too, this is really important, I am sorry I can’t be out but thank you for being out’ and there was this profound exchange of oppressed people seeing each other and also recognizing the limitations we have with all of this violence around us. So I am just wondering, knowing that these are some of the limitations what was the turning point for you in terms of coming into your own as a Dalit American and in terms of how you look at this moment for yourself.

Priyanka: It was community, and obviously you were a huge part of that it was like to be seen. Being like oh wow this is a conversation that people within the diaspora are having and we don’t have to continue like this. The dominant sort of narrative of diaspora doesn’t have to be this empty, full of platitudes Savarna culture. It was really that to be honest, it was like being seen by other people and to - I am still working on this - start to cultivate a community. It was not just Dalit people it was also other allies who really included caste in their analysis, included caste in their organizing, that really gave me the impression that wow like an alternative is possible that whatever I am struggling with like has a vocabulary, has a space in the diaspora.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: So Priyanka thank you for saying those things, they are so hard hitting and close to the heart, I am just wondering there are many people in the diaspora who are Dalits who are growing up often without knowing or facing these same issues to come out. I am wondering if you have any kind of advice or even coping strategies that you have to offer for other Dalits who are navigating some of these same issues.

Priyanka: I mean to be honest I have been coping firstly by reconnecting with our history. I talked about assimilation and all that erasure that happened for me it's really important now to regain all that which has been denied to us to get inspiration from our ancestors, encouraging my loved ones to talk about their journeys and actually document them. Assimilation is of course a survival tactic but now I have the privilege to break out of that mould so really devoting myself to that. Treating our stories as being worthy of documentation, like oral histories are especially important for us I think so diving deeper into the brilliance of our people so even when I felt the loneliest Isort of  dug deeper into our ancestors you know and reading and learning that to me felt like I was connecting with a piece of myself.

For other people I would say find a community that is safe, supporting and affirming, I know that is easier said than done I have only started building this now it took me more than a decade to realise that I needed this. You know even before this I have been lucky to be able to lean on very supportive black and women of colour who  are very dear to me but there is nothing like having a community where you don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to educate others on your background, you can just be. You also obviously need mentors who understand caste-oppression regardless of which industry you are in.

And this is how my part of my consciousness was, it was like Dalit folks seeing Dalit folks really be on the front lines fighting for their rights and dignity but its just not okay that it is only time that they are valued. It doesn’t always have to be you, I feel like society can’t stand it if a Dalit person is just off living their best life and this is pretty obvious but self-preservation is so important for Dalits and actively taking care of yourselves.

Especially for queer Dalit people, and trans and non-binary people, especially when there is such a struggle with mental health in our communities. So I would say go to therapy, if you are able to, its still hard to find Dalit therapists of course in the diaspora but there is a movement to de-colonize therapy and those folks to understand the power dynamics that come with casteism. Learning about Dalit Feminsim has been a real gift because let’s face it the reality is that most Dalit space are quite male dominated, and patriarchal so trying to cultivate a truly inter-sectional way of being and centering Dalit woman that’s helped me navigate things. And also my background is in International Affairs so it's been very helpful to have an internationalist outlook on caste and struggle to create trans-nationalist solidarities.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I am just wondering, one question that is also stemming from this conversation is really what do you want to tell savaranas who are listening? Because I think when we are talking about the development of caste in the diaspora it's not just something that happens to Dalits, it's actually something that is being actively cultivated, built and invested in by networks of caste privilege. So what would you say to the Savarnas listening who are really angered and moved by what you are saying? What should they be doing next?

Priyanka: I would say you have a lot of work to do that this is your problem. This is the doing of you and your ancestors and you must do the labour now of undoing it. Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi people bear the brunt of caste-oppression and it’s been inhibiting our own potential. We have been the ones on the front lines of every action, of all the organizing that happens against casteism and so it's time to make the connections between the rise in casteism and all the linkages the political, the capital, the tech linkages that are rooted here in the diaspora that fuel the rise of casteism. In one way or the other you are complicit. This is bigger than you as an individual, it doesn’t matter if you go to every BLM protest or you are doing a lot for your community we just cannot afford to not incorporate caste into the framework of social justice in which you operate. So you know you might call yourself progressive but if you are not doing something actively to undo caste it's not enough. It is going to difficult, whether you realise it or not, Brahminism is a central part of your identity as a Savarna and spurning it will cause a lot turbulence but that is what is needed, that is the level of commitment that is needed, you have to step up and make space for Dalit, Bahujans. Also think beyond representation politics and look inward, I think a lot of Savarnas don’t realise how they reproduce caste, wealth and other privileges, just because you are not roaming around with a bio-data doesn’t mean this is not happening. Savarna spaces are so exclusionary to begin with. Stop making memes about Indian matchmaking show and start doing something to annihilate caste.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: So my take away from that is we need less memes and more organizing would that be right Priyanka?

Priyanka: Sure or like the right meme like if they are subversive about caste sure but a lot of them currently are just empty and they are actually not challenging Savarnas. So more memes perhaps but challenging Savarnas and challenging caste.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Hidden in what you are saying is also that for South Asians in the diaspora there is a comfort hiding within the category of Brownness and be submerged in the wounds from white supremacy but not really look at the fact that South Asians as a category is fraught with all of these divides of caste, nation, language - and really also marked by deep, deep centuries of violence between all of our communities because we may be racialised into one category by white supremacy but we have a lot of fish between us that we need to structurally take on and the burden of taking on caste by the caste oppressed is just unacceptable at this point particularly when caste privileged communities have way more thresholds for wealth and spaciousness to take this on.

Priyanka: Correct, you are so right. There have been so many times when I have tried to bring up caste that I have been accused of fracturing the community or preventing unity which is more important to people.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Can you tell us more about that cause I am sure that's an experience other people have felt.

Priyanka: Even in progressive, social justice circles If we bring up caste, there is first of all like there is hierarchy of priority among different social justice issues and caste is just never a priority and whenever I have tried to provide critique, so for example with any sort of pop culture appearance - what was that Mindy Kaling show? Never Have I ever - when I tried to bring up how the Brahminical family was and how for me watching it was not a pleasant experience at all, in fact it was somewhat triggering, so when I brought that up it's almost like you are just like a killjoy that took away this very private moment from Indian-Americans who were just so happy to see themselves be represented and that actually is the point.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: There is so much more to this conversation Priyanka and we hope to have you back because your voice is so insightful, powerful and deeply poignant. So thank you for joining us, we really appreciate you and we appreciate all our listeners who have joined us online and we look forward to you joining us on our next episode. Thank you everybody, Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri.

(Transcription by Pritha Bhattacharya)

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