How does Kamala Harris, an African American, Tamil brahmin, raise her voice for BLM while staying mute on caste privilege?

It would be deeply unsettling to see her flaunt her genetic and cultural connection with India, without making a sincere effort to understand its various truths and perspectives — most especially because she is someone who spoke recently of America’s ‘moral reckoning with racism’.

TM Krishna November 27, 2020 09:12:29 IST
How does Kamala Harris, an African American, Tamil brahmin, raise her voice for BLM while staying mute on caste privilege?

Kamala Harris' poster at Thulasendrapuram, Tamil Nadu ahead of 2020 US Elections. Image via Reuters

I spent hours wondering where to begin, but Sadanand Dhume’s article for The Wall Street Journal gave me the perfect opening. His opinion exemplified everything that is wrong with caste privilege and the blindness it causes. In a bid to argue that Kamala Harris’s brahmin-ness needed to be acknowledged — indeed, celebrated — as part of the ‘American success story’, Dhume revealed something vital about his own mind.

In an unironic retelling of that classic Tamil brahmin grievance, especially among emigrants, Dhume spoke of people chased away from Tamil Nadu due to reverse discrimination and identity politics. I quote: “the community’s marginalization and migration is also a textbook example of the folly of pushing identity politics too far.” There is no social or economic data that substantiates this myth that Tamil brahmins are on the margins. The only space where brahmins have been nudged out is electoral politics; everywhere else, they continue to dominate alongside the other privileged castes.

In these narratives, the weight of the cultural, social and educational privileges that brahmins have enjoyed for about 2,000 years — and continue to do so today — are ignored and unrecognised. These mono-colour arguments also invisibilise the innumerable Tamil brahmins who have stayed back and have done well for themselves in the state. Let me be clear: Tamil brahmins had the cultural capital to ‘imagine’, to understand the scope of the opportunities that were present. It is an undeniable fact that oppression and privilege determine the contours of our dreams and aspirations. The Tamil brahmins had the largest expanse of possibilities in their mind’s eye simply because of their immense privilege.

The other question that needs asking is how an individual’s identity is defined. Harris increasingly identifies as a South Asian African American. Though her brahmin maternal grandfather was indeed progressive in accepting an African American son-in-law, I am fairly certain caste would not have been the topic of animated conversations in their home. It is likely that Harris’s understanding of Indian society and culture remains boxed within the brahmin worldview, and this is understandable. But this also means that brahmin privileges did reach her — whether she recognises it or not, and despite the fact that her brahmin mother brought her up as a ‘strong black girl’ in racist America.

And so, on the one side, you have a Harris who has experienced and knows the struggles of the African American community, and, on the other, is a Kamala who comes from ‘caste’ but seems unaware of what it really means. This leads us to wonder if she needs to learn, recognise and problematise this side of her identity. It was deeply uncomfortable for me to watch brahmins support the BLM movement when they refuse to engage with caste with the same empathy and rigour. That discomfiture also attends to the fact that Harris has remained mute on caste discrimination. One can only hope that being self-aware and fighting every form of social discrimination will be the bedrock of her socio-political positioning in her new role.

In another twist to this web of ownerships and identities, the people of two villages in the boondocks of Tamil Nadu rejoiced in her victory. Harris’s maternal grandparents came from Thulasendrapuram and Painganadu respectively. Two tiny villages nestled very close to one another. Not far from them is Mannargudi, an important town. The district headquarters of Tiruvarur, which is about 35 kilometres away from the two villages, is perhaps one of the most revered towns in Tamil Nadu. For a Karnatik musician like yours truly, Tiruvavur is the cradle of my ‘musical civilisation’. Tyagaraja, Muttusvami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri were born here, around the same time and just a few streets away from each other. Every time I sing their compositions, Tiruvarur exists in the body and flow of my music. For the Dikshitar-phile, Tiruvarur resonates even more, as Muttusvami Dikshitar composed over 40 compositions on the innumerable deities that dot the Tiruvarur temple campus. A well-known Sanskrit phrase is ‘jananat kamalalaye’, meaning ‘one born in Tiruvarur attains salvation’.

On the other end of the spectrum, M Karunanidhi, one of the foremost Dravidian leaders and a self-proclaimed atheist, went to school in this very town. He then went on to represent the Tiruvarur constituency twice in his long, successful and dramatic political career. ‘Kalaignar’ (the artist), as he was known, belonged to the isai vellalar community of hereditary musicians and dancers who were marginalised and displaced from the art forms they had practised for centuries.

Quite likely, none of this probably resonates with Kamala Harris or her cultural understanding of her ‘roots’. To be honest, it need not; she is American and that is at the heart of her identity. I am also sure the villagers from her maternal hometowns know that Harris has no connection with their lives, culture, beliefs or rituals; yet she is ‘theirs’; she has an umbilical connection to them. This is another form of belonging that gives those who have never been noticed a chance to bring their realities to our attention. Harris is the much-needed anchor that allows the spotlight to be on them for the first time.

Harris’s use of the Tamil word ‘chitti’ (aunt or specifically mother’s younger sister) sent Tamil Twitterati into a tizzy. The state chief minister also said, “Kamala Harris’s victory has made Tamil Nadu proud.” Harris was not born, did not live, study or work in Tamil Nadu, and probably does not know more than a few words of the language. The need to grab her into this silo comes from the need to establish Tamil pride. We want to tell the world that a Tamil girl is now the second most powerful person on the planet.

The primary question still lingers. What are Harris’s identities? How does she grapple with the various streams that flow into her identity? As Tamilians and Indians around the world assert their claim on her, will it lead to this American politician also dealing with the creases of caste? It would be deeply unsettling to see her flaunt her genetic and cultural connection with this land, without making a sincere effort to understand its various truths and perspectives — most especially because she is someone who spoke recently of America’s ‘moral reckoning with racism’. This would be a huge step forward for the United States, since casteism too is an all-too-real problem in the country. At the same time, we in India have to ponder over our need to find some association with Kamala Harris.

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