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.

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.

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.
 

A blue(s) nation has to learn from a blues people

Folks have been surprised that I have seemed shocked but stoic through this past week. And a friend just asked about practices and resources of self-care – and I think that’s deeply important as everyone gears up for the long haul (I will post my list, and would love to hear friends share theirs). But it might be helpful to remember that some of us _have been in the long haul all our lives – in the US and around the world – and the histories and stories and music of our peoples have always given us courage, and singing, and sometimes joy, in the dark times.
 
This interview between Toni Morrison and Cornel West in 2004 exemplifies that, and feels poignant and insightful right now.
 

ToniI feel two things at the same time: terrified and melancholy, and I think in both domestic and foreign affairs it’s frightening–the altercations, the agenda. There have been other frightening moments, but the melancholy that I feel now is about a country like this with the best shot in the world, that a country like this with a certain kind of plenitude and intelligence and ambition and generosity and some history from which to learn, could, indeed, throw it all away and become the worst parts of its own self.

Cornel, I see you sitting here nodding and frowning, but what is curious to me is that whenever I read you, as well as talk to you, and as clearsighted as you are and as aware as you are of these difficulties, you always seem to be something I used to be but no longer am, optimistic. And since I’m rapidly losing that quality, maybe just because of age, I wanted to ask you why.

Cornel: I’ve always viewed myself as a person with a deeply sad soul but a cheerful disposition. So that when you say you feel terrified and melancholic, that describes my situation too, but it’s just that I always believe that struggle and the unleashing of moral energy in the form of moral outrage can make a difference no matter what the situation is. And it may have something to do with just having a blues sensibility, a tragic orientation, a sense that no matter how mendacious elites may be, they can never extinguish the forces for good in the world. And if that’s true, then they’re mighty but not almighty.
 
And in some ways that’s a characterization of just being black in America, it seems to me. Since 9/11 all Americans feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred, and that’s been the situation of black folks for 400 years. In that fundamental sense, to be a nigger is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred. And now the whole nation is niggerized, and everybody’s got to deal with it. And I think we’re at a moment now in which a blues nation has to learn from a blues people.

The morning after the night before…

This is the morning after of the world’s largest election of ineligible voters – those disenfranchised within the US, and those disenfranchised as the impotent, unable-to-vote ‘rest of the world’ impacted by the good, the bad, and the oh-so-f***ing-ugly of US politics. And it’s a morning in which – strangely, weirdly – I’ve moved from surreal despair to fierce fierce determination.

We did some simple things this morning. We went for a walk around the Bay and listened to the ocean remind us that it has been here before and will be here after. We spontaneously executed a drive-by-hugs programme, visiting friends in the neighbourhood who needed the comfort we did. And we decided to host solidarity potlucks that will help remind us that the true spirit of organising starts with love and friendship and the openness to have difficult conversations (aided now by legalised recreational marijuana). Let us know, Bay Area folks, if you want to participate in any of the above…

20161109_075847

And in doing all these things, I’ve come home to the realisation that now, more than ever, we need to know each other as deeply as possible, in the fullness of all our complex identities and backgrounds and experiences. The world cannot afford these horrible, awful, echo chambers in which stereotypes and caricatures are built and fuelled for hatred and division. I honour all my social justice warrior friends, who do this every day and will, today, too. And, Siko Bouterse and my Whose Knowledge? compañera/os, we have work to do.  and energy to us all.

Vote to bring satire and irony back

In my last non-citizen attempt to #getoutthevote, some headlines of fascism and dictatorship from other parts of the world. In my birth ‘democracy’ India, a progressive national TV channel is banned for a day, a professor fighting for indigenous rights is arrested falsely, and an entire people are being systematically blinded by the state in Kashmir. Oh, and in the Philippines, Marcos the dictator is being given a ‘hero’s’ burial. Irony has died so many deaths these past few years. Vote to bring satire and irony back to life (in feminist, non racist ways)!

 

I will not die a victim, I want to live as a leader

The incredible Dalit leader, Manisha Mashaal: “When I look at my life I know that as a Valmiki woman there are hardly any places where I can find another of my sisters. Even after my education, my travels, and leadership, I still find myself discriminated against, underestimated, and shoved aside. Discriminated by both upper caste and also other Dalits who do not address their English and caste privileges which act against the members of castes below them, and those whose English fluency is not on par with them. If I struggle like this, then I can only imagine what other rural Dalit women must struggle with?”

At the AWID Forum I just returned from, Dalit feminists had moved from being participants in the past to being presenters of sessions in the present. While I celebrated with them, I also questioned with them when and how the 260M + Dalits of the world would find their place in ‘plenary’, when their struggle and power would be acknowledged widely and visibly. And before we turn to the world stage, let’s acknowledge our own biases and invisibilities in India, in South Asia. Manisha, hum aapke saath hain, lekin bolne aur karne mein bahuth pharakh hai. Keep us honest, my friend. #DalitWomenFight

(and in Hindi.)