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Endurance is not transformation: Caste in the US

It’s been a week since the most important political event I’ve participated in for a while, perhaps ever, in a pretty crazy life (and no, it was _not my MIT talk, though I’m glad it hit a chord with so many folks!). I’ve needed to let it sit in my heart and head, so I could speak the truths that may be difficult for my savarna/”upper”-caste friends to hear. I ask you to open your hearts and minds to our own living realities, in order to make a better and more just world around us.

Last Thursday, in Boston, Equality Labs launched the first ever #CasteintheUS survey led by the mind-blowingly brilliant Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Maari Zwick-Maitreyi (supported by an amazing team). And yes, in partnership with Black Lives Matter Boston and the always provocative, always inspiring Dr. Cornel West. I was lucky enough to be in Boston at the time (so thank you again, Chris Spitzer Bourg and team!)… I could therefore be both joyful and sombre witness to what I hope will be a turning point in the way we think about caste oppression as savarna folks.

The full video of the event is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYRbFBlpTpo&feature=youtu.be

And here is the full text of the survey (endorsed by a number of organisations and individuals, including both SouthAsianHistoriesforAll and WhoseKnowledge): https://www.equalitylabs.org/caste-survey-2018

What does the survey tell us? That even in the United States, many Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi folks (for non desi South Asians: our first peoples, and those either “lower” on the caste hierarchy or formerly, pejoratively outside the caste hierarchy as “untouchables”) face various forms of caste oppression. They immigrate here to escape it, and yet:
* 1 in 3 Dalit student respondents said they’d faced discrimination in education because of caste
* 2 out of 3 Dalits surveyed said they’d faced workplace harassment because of caste, and
* over 40% of those responding said they’d been rejected in romantic relationships because of caste.

We know how much worse this is back home in India, and across South Asia.

As progressive savarna folks – whether in the diaspora or back home in desh – we can no longer pretend this does not exist, and that it is not our problem. This has *always* been our burden to bear, and it is time we took responsibility for it. Every time you think about about what it means to be brown in the US right now – and all its attendant dangers – think about what it means to be Dalit in India right now, and all its ongoing dangers. We didn’t choose to be born brown, no one “chooses” to be born “untouchable”. We have been far too complicit in a completely fictitious, constructed social hierarchy for far too long. I ask you to think about one action you can take today, that you will take through the rest of your life, to be a savarna ally to Dalit communities. If you can, please share that in the comments section below this post.

For my own part, I sit with the complex discomfort of being a brown, savarna, woman, in the US, whose heart is in India. I wear that discomfort like a second skin, and I hope it helps me be the ally others need me to be.

</sombre, reflective piece>.

On the joyful side, it was, amazingly enough, the most celebratory evening, even as we reflected on some of the most enduring forms of structural violence we know. As bell hooks has said, endurance shouldn’t be confused with transformation, and I truly did feel the beginning of a journey from endurance to transformation. Besides, who can deny #curlyhairedgirlpower!!! I love you and learn from you every day, Thenmozhi, Maari and friends.

Being Ayize Jama-Everett at FOGCon

Last year, at the Bay Area Book Festival, I listened to (and wrote about) a fabulous panel of speculative fiction writers, including Ayize Jama-Everett. I ended up coming home from that panel, and finding to my surprise (and horror, frankly) that there was no English Wikipedia article on him.

One of the niche areas that is impressively covered by enWP editors is that of science fiction and science fantasy, especially for writers from the United States. I could only think of Ayize’s absence from that coverage for one reason: that even when you’re a well-meaning Wikipedian who loves science fiction, it’s likely that you’re white and male, and reading primarily white writers. So in my ongoing quest to write Wikipedia articles on marginalised communities and themes, I created a stub on Ayize over the next few days.

Through asking Ayize for a triangulation of facts and a photograph (a task that took some persuasion), we ended up getting to know each other, and I learnt a great deal about Afrofuturism.

Then Ayize was invited to be an Honoured Guest at this year’s FOGcon (Friends of the Genre Convention) – an intimate, deep geek gathering of science fiction and fantasy writers and readers in the Bay Area, that took place over this past weekend. One of the conversations he had was with Lonny Brooks, on what it means to be an Afrofuturist and an African-American SF writer who dreads writing about the future, when the present is already so disturbing.

To my surprise, and delight, I was invited to write a reflection about Ayize for their conference booklet, as is their practice. Quite truly a privilege, given folks like Sherryl Vint and Steven Barnes have written about past Honoured Guests like Donna Haraway and Honoured Ghosts like Octavia Butler. Tell me what you think of mine.

Ayize slips between human and plant, between reality and fantasy, between philosophy and fiction, and offers up a liminality which is where we all live, if we are honest enough to recognise it. He pushes us beyond binaries with deft dark humour and the confidence of living in multiple spaces himself. Despite being a theologian, a psychologist, and a teacher, Ayize never gives in to either the righteousness of philosophy and psychology, or the self-consciousness of pedagogy. He leaves it to us to wander amazed in the worlds he constructs for us, or – as is far more likely – hurtling between them in gasping breaths of questions, about ourselves, about each other, about the ways in which our marginal, liminal selves can get centered in a writer’s imagination.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest gift Ayize gives us. He once said, “There’s a big wound in not being seen, in having your reality not being represented in any way.”[3] Yet that lack of representation is not solely of race, or gender, or sexuality, or age, or… it’s a wound of invisibility that comes from not being easily categorised, even as those around you try strenuously to fit you into a box of their shaping.

Bloomberg BizWeek asks: is Wikipedia woke?

Whose Knowledge? gets featured in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek – and far more importantly, US media begins to see the multiple dimensions of gender, race, language, location… (especially the global South) as part of the ongoing Wikipedian efforts to be more plural and diverse. Shout out to all our friends and allies who are mentioned: you rock!

Dimitra Kessenides did a great job navigating the complex universe that is Wikimedia. And I’m honoured that she used some of my work as the frame for the story. She ends the article with this:

Like many people in the “free knowledge movement,” as some in the Wikipedia world describe themselves, Sengupta has been discouraged by the rise of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S. and Europe. But they see Wikipedia as a potential bulwark against those tides—if it can live up to its own ideals. “Making Wikipedia more plural and diverse in terms of who edits and what they edit is one of the most effective ways in which we can move beyond the stereotypes that exist all around us,” she says. “There is something very, very meaningful about this moment in time.”

Feministas, African Women’s Development Fund and Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi get mentioned right at the start (courtesy of my first ever Wikipedia article).

A frustrated feminist aside, though: why do media groups find it hard to understand shared leadership models? Whose Knowledge? wouldn’t be what it is without the co-scheming of Siko Bouterse. Our knowledge production and storytelling can go beyond the individualist paradigm, and still be compelling.

Is everyone welcome here?

Everyone is Welcome Here posters across Berkeley, California

The tiny city of Berkeley, California saw at least 14 reported incidents of hate in the first 15 days since the election of Donald Trump. Recently, a group of South Asian Berkeley residents — three of whom have personally experienced post-election hate — hit the streets to respond to the unexpected climate of fear, armed only with hope and posters.

Here’s a piece Anisha Chemmachel, Anirvan Chatterjee, and I wrote about our (ongoing) experience. We distributed a bunch of posters this weekend too, and are expanding into our neighbouring city, Albany, through the efforts of friends and allies.

The Aerogram is an online magazine offering a variety of South Asian perspectives.

Everyone is welcome here

This past Sunday, I joined a group of South Asian Berkeley denizens, to put up posters by the artist Micah Bazant in shops across downtown, with the simple but powerful message: “everyone is welcome here”.

poster-at-mikes-bikes

The reason? Despite Berkeley being a sanctuary city, we know of at least 14 incidents of hate since the elections. Some of them truly horrifying, including Asma Mohseni’s, which she describes as “the worst ethnically motivated aggression she’s ever experienced, far worse than what she faced living on the East Coast after 9/11.”

We can do better. And we can do it together. In this critical wake up call for Berkeley and the greater Bay Area, Anirvan Chatterjee describes what we know so far, and what we can do next.

For me, it was affirming to see how many local establishments immediately agreed to have us put up the posters. And interesting that people of colour were unsurprised and supportive, while white allies were shocked (by the number of reported incidents) and supportive. All of us need to stay informed, and step in as and when we can.

Please help us pass this message on.

Satire is not yet dead…

Here’s a telling piece, written about the elections as though the USA were an African nation.

The US of A, a nation located in the center of the North American continent, is shaken by its latest electoral results, which threaten the weak racial equilibrium the nation has painstakingly built since the abolition of racial segregation, a mere half a century ago, thus heralding a fresh round of racial tensions and social instability.

 And from within the US, “My Fair Trump”:
Obama: I understand that it can be difficult to go from not having to read or study or do anything even a tiny bit hard or boring at all, ever, to being the CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE MOST POWERFUL NATION ON EARTH, whose life is an unceasing parade of unpleasant responsibilities and difficult decisions, but, please, focus. The second article — what do you think that deals with?
Trump: That’s the one that says everyone has to have a gun.
Obama: Okay, I think I see what our mix-up is here. That is the Second Amendment (mumbles); also that’s not exactly what the second amendment says, but — (louder) I’m talking about Article II, which deals with the powers of the executive. That power has limits, Donald. Are you paying attention? It is important to understand what those limits are. I know I’ve issued my share of executive orders — take that out of your mouth, Donald.
Donald Trump spits out a curtain tassel.

All communities at risk: #ReportHate

More on reporting in general, for all communities at risk, via the fabulous Berkeley South Asian Radical History folks.
 

REPORT. REPORT. REPORT. Every post-election hate incident (from a racist statement up to a physical attack) needs to be reported — whenever it’s safe/appropriate to do. Bystanders/observers can report too.

(1) When you report a hate incident to a national anti-hate group, they can use that data to understand the national pattern. Did hate incidents jump 20% or 2000%? We have no clue unless we report.

(2) When you report a hate incident to a national anti-hate group, you can sometimes also get help from an attorney, counselor, etc. if needed.

WHERE TO REPORT?

• Report ALL incidents to https://www.splcenter.org/reporthate
• Report anti-Muslim incidents to https://www.cair.com/civil-rights/report-an-incident.html
• Report anti-South Asian incidents to http://saalt.org/policy-change/post-9-11-backlash/
• Report anti-Sikh incidents to http://www.sikhcoalition.org/…/leg…/request-legal-assistance
• (multiple overlapping categories? just copy/paste the report into each form)

If possible/safe, please also report incidents to the local media, school/city officials, police. Unless we speak out, people don’t believe the attacks are real.

P.S. Hate incidents are not a joke. Check up on your friends and family. Keep your phone charged, have cash on hand, remove your headphones, and be aware of your surroundings.

Safety pins and beyond

To allies wearing safety pins, know what it means, and be prepared to act upon the symbol you wear. Have a plan. Thank you for the support.

Know What The Pin Means.

It is a sign that you are a safe person. A marginalized person who is being harassed will look to you to help keep them safe. By wearing the safety pin you make a public pledge to be a walking, talking safe space for the marginalized. All of the marginalized. You don’t get to pick and choose. You can’t protect GSM people but ignore the Muslim woman who needs help. You can’t stand for Black people who are dealing with racial slurs but ignore the disabled person who is dealing with a physical attack.

But really, away from the public spaces, in your homes and workplaces, be prepared to have the brave, difficult, painful conversations around power and privilege (including your own) that you may have been uncomfortable, wary, afraid of having so far. Those may well go much further than safety pins.
 

Reporting hate: South Asians and Arabs

We’ve been hearing of increased incidents of targeted violence across the US, post elections. For South Asian and Arab communities and friends who are vulnerable, here are some tips from South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). I’ll keep posting updates on some of the response mechanisms we’re all working on to put in place. Stay safe, and please pass these on to others in our communities.
 
1) SAFETY: Check up on your friends, family, and community spaces. Keep your phone charged, have cash on hand, take off your headphones, and be aware of your surroundings. During an incident, do your best to get to a SAFE PLACE, try to RECORD with a phone if you’re able, contact folks who can help ASSURE YOUR SAFETY (for some this may include the police), and then REPORT the incident.
 
(2) HATE INCIDENTS: If you or someone you know is subjected to a hate incident, it’s important to address and report it. This can include things like name-calling, vandalism, school/workplace harassment, housing discrimination, or physical attacks.
 
(3) HOW TO REPORT: If you encounter a hate incident (anything from name-calling up to physical assaults) targeting South Asian, Sikh, Muslim, and Arab communities, report it via South Asian Americans Leading Together’s online form.

Fascist Club meets Capitalist Club

How apt that this popped up in my ‘memories’ feed today, and I could share it (ironically) to my Facebook community.

Mirza Waheed writes:

During his trip to Silicon Valley in September [2015], Modi was seen hugging a fawning Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, at the same time he was promoting Digital India to Silicon Valley tech-plutocrats, his government turned off the internet in disputed Kashmir for nearly four days.

Modi, Zuckerberg, Trump, and the unholy nexus of greed and power for profit. Beneath it all, the racism, the misogyny, the homophobia, the xenophobia… is a wildly monetised consumerism of fear. Produced by Modi, Trump and their ilk but also by Zuckerberg and his ilk. Fascist Club partners with Capitalist Club. Will Silicon Valley do any soul searching at all?