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.

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.

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.

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.)

Aami Dhaka. Man Kabul. Ben Istanbul.

Aami Dhaka. Man Kabul. Ben Istanbul.

And if you have no clue why I’m saying any of this, please crawl out of your US-European bubble and look at how the rest of the world is hurting. I’m tired of the biased reports, the skewed responses, the invisibility of pain. We may be brown, black, and beyond your geography. But we hurt in the same way, we bleed in the same way, and the same warped forms of terror kill our peoples – whether they claim Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism or any other form of religion as the basis for their hate.

And for my friends in the US and Europe who hurt with me, thank you for your love and solidarity.

Seeing each other fully: IRL, on Wikipedia

This has been an extraordinarily complex 24 hours. On the one hand, in the Wikimedia free knowledge world, I am celebrating Christophe Henner and Maria Sefidari being made Chair and Vice-Chair of the WMF Board (there’s power for you). And then the new Board’s bold and brilliant decision of making Katherine Maher WMF Executive Director, removing months of possible uncertainty and waste in a fell swoop (there’s leadership for you). And the Wikimedians of the Year being declared as Emily Temple-Wood and Rosie Stephenson-Knight (there’s almost redundant affirmation for you; Emily has been my Wikipedian of the decade for a while now).

On the other hand, there’s the world beyond, the expanse of the ‘real world’ these past few days: the awfulness of the Brexit vote, the portents for the November election in the US, and the overall environment of hate, racism, xenophobia, and ‘othering’ of multiple kinds. And yet, these two worlds are connected. In multiple ways.

Take as an example, the two English Wikipedia articles on the Orlando shootings and Jo Cox’s assassination in the UK, both awful, gut-wrenching acts of violence and hate in the past weeks, occurring days of each other. The descriptions of the perpetrators in the lede paragraphs are currently this, respectively: “The assailant was Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American” and “A 52-year-old man was charged with her murder and will stand trial under terrorism protocols”. In the Orlando article, the lede goes on to describe Mateen’s alleged (and disproved) links with ISIL. The Cox article has nothing further in the lede, not even the name of the proven neo-Nazi Thomas Mair, who shot her; you have to scroll down to the end of the article to find a single paragraph on the man. Omar Mateen has a long, separate, article on him. Thomas Mair doesn’t. In previous versions of the articles that I remember seeing just a couple of days ago, Omar Mateen was described as ‘being of Afghan descent’, while the unnamed (from the start of the article) Mair was believed to have ‘a history of mental illness’ and links to ‘right-wing extremism’.

These two articles demonstrate both what is extraordinarily brilliant and amazing about the Wikimedia community – and what is deeply, deeply troubling, and needs shared, collective, reflexivity and leadership. The fact that they exist, that 608 distinct humans have worked so far on the Orlando article and 243 on the Cox article, that each iteration is meant to improve in all good faith, the substance and quality of the article… all this matters, is meaningful, and worthy of celebration. At the same time, the fact that these brilliant, passionate, committed authors have their own systemic – possibly unconscious – biases of how they describe the perpetrators of these crimes, while possibly lacking the self-reflexive thought on how that impacts countless innocent people tarred unfairly with the same biases… that is the critical challenge for the future of knowledge on the internet, and far more broadly, the critical challenge for the future of our world as we live it today.

What does each of us take away from reading these articles as ‘fact’, as ‘information’, as ‘knowledge’? What ways of seeing the world, of seeing *each other* do we imbibe?

I deeply miss being at Wikimania right now, celebrating the joys of moving on from mayhem with some sense of balance and thoughtfulness. Yet I urge everyone who is lucky enough to be at Wikimania to look at each other today and over this weekend, and ask yourself this question (as I asked it of senior leadership at the WMF a few years ago, to uncomfortable silence): ‘Do we in this room even begin to represent the swathes of humanity that exist in the real world, that are on the internet today, that will be on the internet tomorrow? How can we possibly begin to design with, create with (*with* _not *for*), and amplify the knowledge of, those who do not look like most of us in this room, and who have had very different life experiences?’.

My hope is in the fact that people like Katherine, like Emily, like Maria, like Christophe – they are brave enough to ask this question of themselves, and of each of us, knowing that the answers are going to be messy, uncomfortable, painful, and yet will lead us in the only direction worthy of free-as-in-‘libre’ knowledge. Towards a world in which we truly see each other fully. Whether on Wikipedia or in the real world.

Shut Up and Listen (also, Read).

20160604_103350Just back from two days at the Bay Area Book Festival in downtown Berkeley, where we bookended our time with the most brilliant panel yesterday of five authors of speculative and subversive fiction in which only *one* was a white dude (and the others covered a multiplicity and intersectionality of races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities), and ended today with an Egyptian transnational secular Muslim feminist speaking with a Bay Area African American feminist.

20160604_112602In between, we went to a panel of science nerds who write about cooking, linguistic nerds who are conlangers (those who construct languages) for shows like the Game of Thrones and the Expanse, wandered down Radical Row and talked revolutions, and made friends with bookshelves in the middle of the road. Bibliophile, activist, heaven.

While my brain is still processing and sedimenting all I learnt, I’ll leave you with a few brilliant lines from Harlem/Bay Area African American science fiction writer, Ayize Jama-Everett, who when asked how/if his speculative fiction is also subversive, said: “I’m a black man in America. Every thing I *do* is subversive… When I read about utopias, I ask: where are the black people? …Writing is both an act of lunacy and bravery. It’s blood on a page.”

And the final final word from the fabulous Mona Eltahawy, speaking to the equally fabulous Chinaka Hodge, to folks who think about ‘rescuing’ people from ‘over there’ and bringing them back ‘over here’, mistakenly thinking ‘over here’ is not equally (if differently) misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic… “We’re doing our own work ‘over there’. Work on your own ‘over here’… and don’t forget to shut up and listen”.

Yes, my brother, my sister. *mic drop*.

Calling in for Gaza

From my inbox this morning…

National Call-In Day for Gaza!
January 16, 2009

We designate Friday, January 16th as National Call-In Day for Gaza. Calling is quick, easy, and effective, and will take about 5-10 minutes. We need to keep the phones ringing non-stop for the duration of the day so that our message CAN NO LONGER BE IGNORED.

Contact in order of importance:

1) Call President-Elect Obama’s Transition Team at 202-540-3000.
Ask that President-Elect Obama and his team call for:
1) An immediate cease-fire.
2) An end to the blockade and siege of Gaza.
3) An immediate withdrawal from Gaza.

Be firm and polite and stress the fact that over a thousand people have died and thousands have been injured in Gaza, mainly civilians. This follows months of suffering under a severe blockade that has resulted in shortages of food, fuel and basic medical supplies. When calling, mention (UN Security Council Resolution 1860 that was adopted last week which calls for an immediate ceasefire and unimpeded humanitarian access.

2) Call your Representative at 202-224-3121. Ask how they voted on House Resolution 34 which passed overwhelmingly in the House last Friday, with 390 Representatives voting yes, 5 no, and 22 present. The resolution “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself” and “reaffirms the United States’ strong support for Israel.”

If your Representative voted “no” or “present” on H.Res. 34, thank them and ask that they cosponsor Rep. Kucinich’s upcoming resolution.
(See: http://endtheoccupation.org/downloads/KUCINI_001_xml.pdf)

If your representative voted “yes” on H.Res. 34 state your disagreement with their vote and ask them to co-sponsor the Kucinich resolution.

3) Call your Senators at 202-224-3121 and assert your disagreement with their unanimous vote on Senate Resolution 10 and ask that they introduce a resolution in the Senate that is similar to Rep. Kucinich’s resolution in the House.

Please forward this to all your lists and personally contact 10 friends and urge them to make these calls to save lives in Gaza.

Change happens with numbers. That is how Obama became president and that is how we can bring a lasting peace and justice to the Palestinians. As people living in America, we control the discourse and the funding that has resulted in the present massacre in Gaza. Considering the fundamental role that we play in this political situation, our participation is the least we can do.

“The death of children is the death of innocence, and the death of innocence is the downfall of humanity.”
– Emine Erdogan, wife of Turkey’s Prime Minister, 1/10/09

For 2009: we refuse to be enemies?

What an annus horribilis 2008 was. Clinical depression of every kind: economic, political, personal. India was bombed repeatedly – and with precise geographical equity: north, south, east, west. I was in both Bangalore and Delhi over the summer, and missed the bombing of N block market by a couple of hours. Similar just-misses reported in from friends in Bombay, but the overall horror of it all goes far beyond close encounters of the worst kind. Between the escalation of rhetoric on the India-Pakistan front, and the egregious escalation of far more than rhetoric on the Israel-Palestine front, the new year feels shop-soiled and already ready for return. But since I have been accused of growing tendrils of Pollyanna-like optimism in the midst of utter despair, I leave you with an image from an India-Pakistan peace vigil I attended early last month, and a poem inspired by that, and this week’s protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza.

pc070292

We refuse to be enemies.
We refuse to use your words, claim your politics,
accept your versions of history.

We will wear our anger like a shroud,
we will hold our defiance like a shield,
we will carry our compassion like a sword.

We refuse to be enemies.
We refuse to believe that hate is justified,
that peace is weak, that conflict is endless.

We will sing across the borders,
we will march across the divisions,
we will fly our peace like a flag.
We refuse to be enemies.