This is an excerpt from the book ‘The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition’ by Thenmozhi Soundararajan.

thenmozhi soundarajan at a public gatheringAuthor/Thenmozhi Soundararajan
Features books Tuesday, January 03, 2023 - 13:58

As the caste equity civil rights movement grows, Dalits are at the forefront of redefining what it means to be South Asian American today. Many people see South Asian Americans as a monolithic group made up of middle-class, upwardly mobile “model minority” families. Under white supremacy we were racialized into the social category “South Asian,” which homogenizes and masks the tensions and hierarchies present within our individual national, cultural, caste, gender, and linguistic identities—ones we still carry and which continue to inform our respective communities and our relations with each other. If we do not approach, with critical reexamination, those tensions and hierarchies and instead choose to conveniently embrace a flattened South Asian identity, we will continue re-creating the structural injustices of our home countries within our progressive circles. And in doing so we erase the multiple histories, experiences, identities, and reasons for why these diasporas have come to exist in the first place. It is a false mono-narrative of South Asianness that serves only to perpetuate the violence of caste and other historic traumas while providing new terrain for exploitation and discrimination for us as South Asian Americans.

This is one of the reasons I choose not to identify as a “brown” immigrant. Within the context of mainstream American popular culture, many South Asian Americans make a nod to their racial category by self-identifying as “brown.” From meme pages to Instagram influencers bombarding feeds on topics like bindis, reclaiming the sari, and hot takes on representation, these posts are accompanied by feel-good hashtags like #browngirl, #brownskingirl, and #browngirlmagic. The majority of these brown girl influencers are upper caste, cisgender, Hindu, and Indian by origin. The presumption of shared cultural relationships hides the violent cultural practices that cause harm to vulnerable South Asian minorities. In embracing brownness as the key identity, they make their privileged positions of caste, class, immigration, and race—which would situate them in a position of not only oppression but also privilege much harder to interrogate. The challenge for equity within South Asian American immigrant networks is to understand how our communities must grapple with both racism and our internal structures of caste apartheid. Dalits then are a minority within a minority and need to be centered as such.

Especially given the size of the South Asian presence in the United States, the issues and discriminatory practices that happen in our community affect all Americans. Our history isn’t just Asian American history. It is American history. The lessons we learn will teach all Americans. Together we can learn more about who we are in the face of adversity. There’s much that we can do to determine a future where everyone finally achieves equity.

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In majority-white institutions Dalits are in a double bind where we have to be recognized both by white-supremacist knowledge structures and Brahmin gatekeepers. And that has been such a difficult process because there are so few Dalit professors with tenure in the United States and Europe. Many of our great anti-caste writers are not even recognized in the canon of thinkers on freedom and human rights. Thus, part of our struggle to be free as Dalit peoples is to identify ways that we can make our struggle legible without compromising ourselves. We might be brought to the table in the name of diversity but not granted the power to shape the discourse. There is a seduction with assimilation, which asks us to sacrifice our self-determination or deradicalize our demands for equity, in order to achieve visibility. As caste oppressed peoples we need to be aware of that trap and to walk away. Only we can be the arbiters of our worldview, our systems of knowledge, how we understand our culture, our practices, stories, and wisdom. Legibility is not the same as legitimation by Brahminism or white supremacy. Whether or not it gets legitimated is beyond the point. We have to have the boundaries, as well as the clarity of vision, to know that our freedom is not dependent on certification by our oppressors.

To be an ally to Dalits in this realm is to reject the oppression of institutions that have tried to create scholarship about Dalit communities without centering Dalit agency. The time is over for intermediaries who speak or write on behalf of Dalits without Dalits leading or coauthoring. Scholars, media institutions, funding agencies, governmental bodies, and other intermediaries cannot favor their leadership over our autonomy. It is actions, not messaging, that will deliver the path to equity. For people who are really interested in the project of liberation, for all peoples in all times and all spaces, there needs to be knowledge of, and an acknowledgement of the vicious project that is Brahminism. After all, it constitutes one of humanity’s earliest projects of domination.

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People in the West need to know that most of the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural products of South Asia are tainted by Brahminism. What may have offered you liberation and healing also causes caste-oppressed people to suffer. You don’t have to give up those practices or concepts, but the call is to be intentional and acknowledge the caste harm. Your faith is bound to the violence it sanctions. For practitioners of Brahminical traditions, this reckoning may be painful; it is hard to admit the gulf between your values and the history of your spiritual practice. But if you do not wish to be complicit in the suffering of others, then you must confront these truths.

When we exalt some aspects of spiritual practices, we cannot be fully aware and present. People enter spiritual practices and surrender everything without critical judgment and informed consent. Any faith is a practice of teachings that come from an ego, and those can then be interpreted by bad actors. To my mind, part of being a seeker is to interrogate all teachings and practices, to stay soft and flexible as opposed to rigid and dogmatic, to move slowly enough to be able to see when we’re being blinded to the truth.

And finally I would like to decouple caste abolition from the idea of religious reform so that I can create space for my Dalit kin. For you, my Dalit siblings, I want to hold space for us to breathe. We have a right to claim embodiment. To take inventory of where grief, historical and present, lives in our body. We have the right to weep from so many centuries of oppression under faith and to sit still as we give reverence to everyone we have lost to Brahminism. It is too much to hold religious reformation and our pain in the same process. We must instead center our right to heal and reflect on what pain we bear.

We also have a right to claim our divinity. And to relentlessly pursue our own relationship to the universe, for we too deserve grace, love, and infinite possibility.

Excerpted with permission from the book The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition by Thenmozhi Soundararajan. The book can be bought here.

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