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.

The numbers don’t vote :-(

The numbers update (with help from a brilliant political scientist friend parsing them through her fury and grief) for 9/11/2016:
 
231,556,622 eligible voters
46.9% didn’t vote
25.6% voted Clinton
25.5% voted Trump
 
So when you don’t vote, it counts. When you do vote, it… counts. :-/
 
The biggest shock demographic that swung it, may well have been the *53%* of white women who voted for the most outrageous woman-hater President-elect ever (a good reminder that being a woman doesn’t mean you’re a feminist). But there’s also the people within 47% who didn’t vote… if it’s you, you have soul-searching to do. (And ‘didn’t’ is very different from ‘couldn’t’ – a proportion of the 47% _couldn’t vote because of the repeal of the Voting Rights Act. We know who they are and how they’d have voted if they could have.)
 
On the positive end, don’t forget the map of the 18-25 year olds (the 51% of millennials who turned out). If the US (and the planet) survives the next few years, it might well be a very different election in 2018 and 2020.

Remember the black suffragists

#Remember. What it took to #getoutthevote for _everyone.

When and Where I Enter: a difficult but needed reminder that Susan B. Anthony did not believe in the black vote. And from black suffragist Anna Julia Cooper,

The white woman could at least plead for her own emancipation; the black woman, doubly enslaved, could but suffer and struggle and be silent.

And from the article, the African-American Suffragists History Forgot, a prescient quote from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,

I do not think the mere extension of the ballot a panacea for all the ills of our national life. What we need today is not simply more voters, but better voters.

 

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)!

 

Whose Knowledge? at the AWID Forum

We set up a Wikimedia user group! This means we join a set of formal and informal organisations within the broader Wikimedia movement, who are thematically or geographically focused around free knowledge.

We wrote a pretty fun grant report (oxymoronish, hmm?) in which we reported back on what we did. As I wrote in it: “I had many fascinating conversations about Whose Knowledge? and Wikimedia at the AWID Forum. But one of my most delightful (and delighted) stories is of supporting Lebanese activist Nadine Moawad, to learn how to create a well-sourced and written Wikipedia article. We uploaded a stub on Isatou Touray, and then spoke of her first foray into Wikipedia editing in 2010, with a stub on a Lebanese women’s rights advocate. Nadine had felt upset with the way a patroller had treated her then, and thought her article had been deleted. We went looking for it. Not only does the article continue to exist – Laure Moghaizel – but it has since been improved by over 10 other editors, and translated into both Arabic and French. By the time we finished our Wikipedia editing session, Nadine was planning an editathon in Beirut!”

…and here’s the op-ed we wrote for GenderIT.org on our mapping.

Amplification, not representation

And this, my friends, is one of the essential pillars of Whose Knowledge?. Not only re women, but around race, sexuality, caste, class, indigenous peoples… the many many marginalised communities of knowledge and wisdom in our worlds. Obama staffers talk about how they made sure women were heard: “Female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”

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.)

Defending our Dreams: revisited

As I start packing for the #AWIDForum, excited and grateful I’m going to see so many old friends who have sustained me through the years (and make new ones to inspire me now), I realise that the last AWID Forum I was at was Bangkok 2005. Where we launched Defending Our Dreams (AWID and Zed Press), afaik the first ever international anthology of young feminist analyses.

DoD was a labour of love and passion for Shamillah Wilson, Kristy Turest-Swartz and me, with the faith and incredible inspiration of Peggy Antrobus, and with the amazing contributions and collaborations of a bunch of fabulous feministas. It’s been ten years, sistahs!

As I look back, this excerpt from the introduction (pulled together with Shams’ thoughts and my crazed writing at 5 in the morning one long ago day in Bangalore), still seems relevant. What do you think?

“We are straddling many complex identities and locations; we are both insider and outsider, rooted in our origins and yet diasporic in our natures. Very often the only way we survive is by using spaces in-between: spaces where we create our own families and communities. Feminist communities have been one such space, where we have flourished and grown. We are a generation of feminists who dream and imagine – like those before us, and no doubt, like those after us – many other worlds. We defend those dreams in our engagement as advocates, organizers, spokespersons, protesters, researchers, and strategists in social movements across the globe. We believe that our energies, friendship, love, creativity, and passionate advocacy for equality and justice can spark holistic visions, fresh analyses, and new strategies for change. We hope that we will embody our own visions of leadership – of being both follower and leader, of being inspired, and becoming inspiration.”

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