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 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…

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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.

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.”

Where On the Internet is Your Knowledge?

So Siko Bouterse, Carmen Alcázar, María Sefidari, Sydney Edmonds Poore and I are off to Bahia, Brazil, in a week. We’ll be at the AWID Forum – a gathering of 2000 feminists from over 40 countries – as the Wikimujeres delegation. It’s going to be a powerful opportunity for different avatars of mine to come together – the feminist with the free knowledge advocate – and a wonderful space to meet old friends and new.

More on what we’ll be doing there, in this piece I wrote published by AWID, Where On the Internet is Your Knowledge?

…our knowledge is not yet on the internet as it should be. Whether it is our lives as women, our experiences as feminists, our histories as indigenous peoples, our struggles as trans women, our analyses as black academics, our achievements as disability rights activists… very little of our complex knowledge and wisdom is easily accessible to the rest of the world.

Why is this a problem? Because the internet is becoming the default reference and library of the world, especially for young people and powerful decision-makers. And the less we are seen, the less we are heard, the less we are known… the more difficult it is for us to inspire, to challenge, to change the world.

For those who’ll be at the AWID Forum, come find us! For those who won’t be there, join us virtually! @WhoseKnowledge will be launching its mapping process, and all the #WikiMujeres will be working on improving Wikimedia content on feminists and women’s human right issues. We’re excited!

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.

We Also Made History

Over the years, I’ve learnt how much the histories and voices of marginalised communities can be made invisible, rendered unheard. And in an intersectional world, those who carry multiple invisible/unheard identities are discriminated against the most. The greatest irony, of course, is that in most cases, these identities – privileged or disprivileged – are accidents of birth. Race, sex, caste… did you choose to be born as you are?

What we do choose is how we understand and live with our privilege and power, or its lack. For me, it’s been (almost) a lifelong learning process of understanding the privilege and contradictions of being born into an ‘upper caste’ family in India. And of rejecting that system for myself, and more structurally.

But some of the bravest, most resilient women I have known over the years are Dalit women who have faced multiple forms of oppression, of discrimination, and have fought, challenged, and sometimes triumphed over human-made awfulness. And yet their lives and struggles are rarely marked by the rest of us.

In a tiny contribution to seeing and hearing and marking these lives, my week 4 contribution to the ‪#10wikiweeks‬ challenge is a stub on We Also Made History, the first book ever to pull together a history of Dalit women’s contributions to the anti-caste Ambedkar movement in India. It was unbelievably difficult to find reliable sources, even for such a notable addition to historiography. When was the original published? In 1989, in Marathi, and in 2008, as an English translation. This is not ‘old’ archived material; this is contemporary scholarship that has gone relatively unmarked by Indian scholars and media.

I’m reading the English version now, I’m saying their names.

Musawah and other musings

Three weeks ago, I decided to give myself a #10wikiweeks challenge: write a Wikipedia article every week, for ten weeks. The first two weeks, I wrote about Freedom Nyamubaya and Peggy Antrobus, amazing feminists from Zimbabwe and the Caribbean, respectively. Now I’m into Week 3, and it happens to be the first week of Ramzan/Ramadan this year. So here’s my iftar offering: an article on the incredible network of global feminists working on feminist interpretations of Islam, Musawah. Many of those in the network are personal inspirations, and they delightfully confuse and confound the stereotypes around Muslim women (as though this is a homogenous category). I would love to know how many of you knew Musawah existed, and how many of you are surprised and pleased to know what they do. Ramzan Kareem, everyone!

I also snuck in an article earlier in the week, on Ayize Jama-Everett, the inspiring African-American science fiction writer I heard at the Bay Area Book Festival last weekend. I’m rarely shocked by gaps in the English Wikipedia, but this one did surprise, given that Ayize is a US citizen, and has written a fairly acclaimed trilogy. Wonder why he got left out, despite obvious notability? People do often choose to write about what they know (and whom they look like), including on Wikipedia.

As Siko Bouterse and I have said on Whose Knowledge?: there is a historical process of socio-cultural colonisation and imperialism that has outlasted the territorial. In a sense, the ‘global South’ and the ‘global North’ are political terms of geography, history, as well as ideological and material dis/privilege: there is a ‘global South’ in the global North and vice-versa.