Running, passing, hiding. This is the litany of the Dalit American. Growing up in southern California, my family was one of the first Tamil families to immigrate to Los Angeles. Representatives of the Indian brain drain that started in the 1970s, we were part of the first wave of Indian immigrants whose functions, sangams and religious communities helped establish the little India enclave in the now-famous Artesia.
We were also Dalits living underground. Caste exists wherever Indians exist and it manifests itself in a myriad of ways. The Indian diaspora thrives on caste because it is the atom that animates the molecule of their existence. In the face of xenophobia and racism abroad, many become more fundamentalist in their traditions and caste is part of that reactionary package. So, what does caste look like in the US?
Quite like in India, it is the smooth subtext beneath questions between uncles, like, “Oh! Where is your family from?” It is part of the cliques and divisions within those cultural associations where Indians self-segregate into linguistic and caste associations. It continues when aunties begin to discuss marriage prospects. They cluck their tongues softly, remark about your complexion, and pray for a good match from “our community”.
It’s dangerous, this culture of caste-based intolerance in the diaspora for it extends beyond individual relationships. Individuals build institutions and institutions are steeped in caste. From Hindu temples to gurudwaras, there is a separate yet unspoken policy of worship for those that are Dalit. Furthermore, in the over fifty south Asian and Asian studies departments in North America, there are less than a handful of tenured Dalit faculty. And, crucially, as the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate has shown, NRIs in the US have directly funded and fuelled communal violence in India by supporting cultural and aid programmes that are fronts for local Hindutva organisations.
Through it all, Dalits Run. Pass. Hide.
For while caste is everywhere in the diaspora, there is a damning silence about naming caste. And in the silence there is violence.
I know because my family passed for many years. It was confusing, painful and lonely. We could never truly unpack the memories that my parents fled in India, nor could we confront the same infrastructure being rebuilt here in the shining land of the American Dream.
Many Americans and Indians can’t imagine what it looks like to pass. For my family it was finding ever clever ways to sidestep the ‘jati’ question, attending temple functions and never speaking about “our community” in public functions ever. We got away with it because there were so few of us in the beginning, and every Tamil was a valuable connection while learning to navigate this new country.
The leverage of our new lifestyle however allowed my family to support Dalit causes back home and work underground through a network of uncles who debated caste issues over phone calls, meetings and conferences. And, of course, while the men were active in this way, the women, like my mom, would pass on Dalit songs and stories holding on to that space—which was important even if we could not share it.
For though it has been almost 100 years since Ambedkar came to study at Columbia University, Dalits like my family are still struggling to find a foothold that is uniquely our own. Unlike other Indians, Dalits do not have their own public institutions within the diaspora. There is no way to go into any city and find and connect with local Dalits unless you are already plugged in to the unofficial Dalit underground communities held together by mailing lists, Facebook groups and phone trees that help us survive the double whammy of racism and casteism.
I do not know exactly what age I understood I was untouchable, for it was always around me. But I knew exactly when it was that I became a Dalit. It was only when I was 17 and picked up a book about Ambedkar that had grown dusty in our family library that a lightning rod singed my soul. I read his work alongside my Dad’s battered copies of works by Black activists, Stokley Carmichael’s Black Power and Malcolm X’s Autobiography. Through their words, I found the courage and conviction to be able to address the profound lack of information and access to Dalit history in the diaspora. I was part of a powerful tradition of resistance.
Despite having two parents who are doctors, I returned to my caste’s profession of singing and telling stories and found dignity in this. When I assumed my performance name, Dalit Diva, it was a declaration of the joy of being part of such an incredible line of creators, survivors and leaders. And there have been repercussions. I have been served by Indian friends in ‘different utensils’, curses and even death threats have been hurled at me. But I have never regretted coming out. I sing the Dalit history of resilience, resistance, revolution.
(Thenmozhi is a filmmaker, singer and transmedia artist. Her first solo album, Broken People, is out in October 2012.)
I refer to the article by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, on the experience of Dalits growing up abroad (The Black Indians). I think it’s important that people like Thenmozhi share their stories—and publicise how much baggage about caste and other things immigrant Indians carry with them. The story’s value lies in that it doesn’t pretend to be uncomplicated and black-and-white. There is recognition of the compromises made by the family: “For my family it was finding ever clever ways to sidestep the ‘jati’ question....” Amongst the diaspora, we still victimise and discriminate against people on caste terms in the worst possible manner.
Umang Kumar, Nashua, US
Thanks to Thenmozhi for speaking out and relating her experience of casteism in the US. As a Brahmin raised in the US, I saw problems with caste segregation more in terms of whom my parents wanted me to marry, and less so about whom I socialised with—a silent disparity between public and private. I am not a practising Hindu, for no religion, except maybe Buddhism, has a strong system of practising equality, though all of them talk about it. This also applies to issues like gender equality and homophobia.
Hima B., New York
And lo and behold, another anti-Hindu, Brahmin-bashing Dalit victim getting free publicity in the august newsmagazine, Outlook. After showcasing Meena Kandasamy, it’s now Thenmozhi’s turn!
Subba Rao, Dallas
The title of the article—Black Indians—conveys a distorted picture of the Indian diasporic experience. Thenmozhi talks of ‘passing’. No Indian can pass for anything else, because of the colour of our skin. And nobody forces anybody to reveal their jati or anything. Truly, Thenmozhi and her family are great examples of people who beat the odds. But I don’t understand her concern that Dalits have no public institutions. Hindus have very little representation in terms of institutions because they are a minority population.
Meera Venkat, Boston
A heart-felt and honest article. It made me look deeper into my family and community, and their attitude towards things like caste. It seems caste discrimination among the diaspora has been unchecked because stronger voices, like Thenmozhi’s, have never been able to articulate their concern.
Barni Qaasim, San Francisco
As someone who’s stayed in the US for over 20 years, I can say that the article speaks untruths. I interact with US-born teens and college-going students daily, and I never once had anyone ask about my caste. Maybe the language one speaks at home, but never things like caste. People born in India, like the author I suppose, bring their own prejudices. This article can resonate only with Indians in India, and maybe first generation Indian-Americans. The average US-born desi does not care for anyone’s caste.
Jay N., Los Angeles
I like the article and commend the editors for highlighting the persistence of caste issues as perceived by those at the receiving end. Thenmozhi, I look forward to your music, as well as more articles.
Dwiji, St Paul, US
I applaud Thenmozhi’s courage in speaking the truth. And it’s obvious that her account makes people feel threatened and uncomfortable. I was born and raised in the States, but currently live in Chennai. As a dark-skinned Malayali, I have a lifetime’s experience of being resilient despite colourism, among other ‘isms’ I experience.
Jasmin, Portland, US
A breath of fresh air to read a perspective of caste from a Dalit brought up in the US. As a US-born Indian American with a mixed caste heritage (Brahmin-Vaishya), I’ve seen and made many incorrect assumptions about Indianness and Indian heritage. Yet, caste discrimination is alive and well in the US.
Anul, Washington, DC
What a pity! To go half-way around the globe, to the world’s most meritocratic, upwardly mobile society, and to still feel the barbs of age-old prejudice.
Ashok Lal, Mumbai
There are no Dalit Americans as Thenmozhi Soundararajan would have us believe (The Black Indians). I’ve been staying in the US for the last 40 years and can categorically say no one cares for caste. The second-generation Indo-Americans don’t even know what caste differences are; when someone asks, ‘where’s your family from’, they want to know which part of India you’re from, not your caste.
If you meet anybody from India ask him "What Is Your Caste?" If he answers it, then you're doomed. Because he has already injected Cancer into your society. Caste is like Cancer. It cannot be Cured. It has to be Cut-Off.
Castesim is another way of maintaining the ETHENIC IDENTITY of different section of people and isnot restricted to India. The Serbs,Croats, Slovenes, Latin,Germanic, Celtic, Greek etc etc insist on maintaining their ethnic identity inspite of being all Christians. The Turkish, Arabic, Indian, Mongolian, Chechenetc etc Muslims too insist on protectingtheir ethnic identity. Similarly Jats, Yadavs, Brahmins, Rajputs, Ahirs, Nairs,naidus, Raos, Vokalingas, Ahoms, Bodos etc etc are distinct ETHENIC GROUP and maintain their identity by calling themselves a sub-castes of Hinduism. It is prevalent inother religions of India too. The NE Tribes like NAGAS, KUKIS, MIZOS, KHASIS etc have all fully converted to Christianity but they do not inter mingle/ inter marry- in fact they live in PURE TRIBE VILLAGES not allowing anyone from any other tribe to live in their villages even today . Even amongst NAGAS- theThangkhuls, Ao, Semas, Angamis etc maintain their separate "ethenic identity"in spite of being NAGAS and Christians. The ARAB MUSLIMS treat INDIAN MUSLIMSas untouchables and KASHMIRI MUSLIMS treat UP/ BIHAR Muslims as "lowercaste" while SAYYED MUSLIMS are the BRAHMINS amongst Muslims.
Ms Soundararajan speaking about castism from a country which CAPTURED, TRANSPORTED, TRADED, BRED & TREATED BLACKS like CATTLE is rediculous. There are separate CHURCHES for BLACKS & WHITES in USA even today and let her convert to Christianity and try marrying in any of the WHITE US CHURCH and see what will happen. ---------------- Castesim in INDIA is another way of maintaining the ETHENIC IDENTITY of different section of people and is not restricted to India. The Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Latin,Germanic, Celtic, Greek etc etc insist on maintaining their ethnic identity in spite of being all Christians. The Turkish, Arabic, Indian, Mongolian, Chechen
etc etc Muslims too insist on protecting their ethnic identity. Similarly Jats, Yadavs, Brahmins, Rajputs, Ahirs, Nairs, naidus, Raos, Vokalingas, Ahoms, Bodos etc etc are distinct ETHENIC GROUP and maintain their identity by calling themselves a sub-castes of Hinduism. It is prevalent in other religions of India too. The NE Tribes like NAGAS, KUKIS, MIZOS, KHASIS etc have all fully converted to Christianity but they do not inter mingle/ inter marry- in fact they live in PURE TRIBE VILLAGES not allowing anyone from
any other tribe to live in their villages even today . Even amongst NAGAS- the Thangkhuls, Ao, Semas, Angamis etc maintain their separate "ethenic identity" in spite of being NAGAS and Christians. The ARAB MUSLIMS treat INDIAN MUSLIMS as untouchables and KASHMIRI MUSLIMS treat UP/ BIHAR Muslims as "lower caste" while SAYYED MUSLIMS are the BRAHMINS amongst Muslims.
>> Caste exists wherever Indians
Like many others on this board, I've had the privilege of living in and visiting different parts of India, and now, for several years, in the bay area in US, with a huge desi population.
I've never had an experience of caste in my entire life. Contrary to what the writer, many others of his/her ilk (can't figure from the name), and even many members of this board would like to pretend, I don't know the caste of most of my friends, and I doubt they know mine. How the hell am I supposed to know the caste from their names anyway? Not everyone likes to roam around with a name/caste mapping, as the author is trying to suggest.
As to trying to find out "where is your family from", it is often to identify language. I ask this question of a lot of people, and get asked in turn myself. Sometimes it is to check if the person has any association with one of the places you might have lived in India for some time, providing some common background. In fact, lot of Americans ask this question, particularly those who have visited India, again for the same reason.
But these caste warriors have to spread hate. They probably get their funding based on that.
I am not surprised i met a Indian guy in oslo i was happy when i started the conversation he asked what am I . I was confused i told him profession he showered me with praises until he came to know i was a dalit using careful open ended questions. He has been living there for more that 10 years wow. Ok world beware of Uppercaste indians from India they will corrupt your country as well with their nonsense . Probably my article would make it easy for him to state ruthlessly i am a muslim from pakistan even may be a terrorist lols. The amount of hatred they have for lower caste is so much that my head is spinning. I wonder where do these guys get all the time in the world to sit and write bad things about dalits and make other investors of indian beleive they are the big shots in india.While they are just another citizen only 100 time evil than normal indian . NOrmal indian includes neutral people including neutral brahmins. Only i havnt met anyone.
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