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.

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.
 

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.

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.

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)!