THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD
Acknowledging our privilege as members of the diaspora—and staying connected to our communities.
By Arpita Bajpeyi
A few months ago, a friend of mine posted a critique of a story about a queer desi-American’s call for a New York City bar to redesign its washroom, which was plastered with images of Hindu gods. In her letter to the bar, Ankita Mishra wrote that “Hinduism does not believe in eternal damnation. It has not also, conquered, traumatized and converted whole civilizations and countries as part of its mission.” My friend, who is Indian, was based abroad for many years, and is now back in India, pointed out that Mishra’s “description of Hinduism as a peaceful, non-aggrandising religion [was] remarkably naive,” and ignores the internal violence embedded in Hindu culture. Nor was there an acknowledgement in Mishra’s letter -- or reflection on her experience -- of the privilege she held in a religion that, at a deep, structural level, is founded on inequality.
I had no disagreement with my friend’s critique, but it still stung. It felt to me that, however valid her point, her post dismissed the racist and appropriative act represented in that washroom. It was as if all the energy I had spent on tiny cultural negotiations, fending off microaggressions, and outright racism was being tossed aside. I’ve come to realize that many of us who ‘read’ as minorities experience this differently. I’ve spoken to people who don’t feel they are treated any differently because of their physical appearance, name, or any other signifiers that their heritage is non-European. And I know many people who do. Both of those experiences are real and one does not negate the other. Racism is real. The helplessness you feel, for being scrutinized, excluded, or worse, for something you have no power to change — for simply being — is maddening and humiliating. It sits in your body like a weight, burns your skin, and claws at you in ways you thought nothing could.
But despite my initial reaction, I know that structural problems within Hinduism, like the ones my friend was pointing out, need closer examination, too. Yes, Hinduism as a religion and South Asian cultures more broadly are casteist and oppressive. Individuals from upper caste backgrounds tend to have access to better education, jobs, and an ease of mobility not afforded to individuals from lower caste groups, Dalits (members of the ‘backwards/untouchable’ castes), and Adivasis (South Asia’s Indigenous peoples). Notions of ‘purity’ held by members of the upper castes are often put into practice by keeping these groups out of certain spaces (particularly religious ones), and ensuring they stay in roles that reinforce this hierarchy. These often involve menial labour, and pay very poorly in a region that already undervalues labour. And, many individuals who may decry casteism still enact it on a daily basis by demanding that their maids eat and drink out of separate dishes and cups, or favouring upper caste office employees for promotions. Marriages, too, across South Asia and even in the diaspora, are often based on caste communities. All of this means that unequal structures created along caste lines have not seen significant change for a long time.
And look, I get it. The parts of Mishra’s letter and reflection where she writes of the embarrassment we are silently taught to feel for our names, the stereotypes constantly thrown up against us, and the questioning of our ‘authenticity’ resonated with me. We in the diaspora are preoccupied with trying to define and defend what it means to be South Asian in a society and culture that is continually othering us. That is real. And that is hard. We may not all experience it in the same way, but for many of us, it is a lingering presence as we live our daily lives. But if ‘we’ is only the dominant, upper caste versions of South Asia, then we are perpetuating a violent cycle of erasure and discrimination. If the only groups that speak on behalf of South Asians within and outside of the region are the most privileged ones, then we are replicating structures we find fault with in the ‘western’ world.
I, and many children of South Asian immigrants in North America and other parts of the west, are privileged by this structural inequality. And yet many of us don’t know about it. For instance, I grew up in a family in Canada that taught me that caste was a thing of the past, that it wasn’t relevant in India or my life in Canada. And because caste wasn’t something my parents, relatives, and their friends were talking about, or any of the Indian cultural content I had access to, for that matter, neither I nor the South Asian friends I had growing up had any real idea about what caste was, or how it affects people today.
The socio-political structure of caste is not limited to Hinduism, but shared across Muslim, Sikh, and Christian communities in South Asia and the diaspora. And while I understand that there’s a range of experiences in the South Asian diaspora, that’s also precisely my point: there are experiences we don’t hear about because much of the South Asian culture we consume, and what is created in the diaspora, reflects a majority experience that benefits from ignoring the oppressive structures that support it.
We in the South Asian diaspora in North America, are privileged in relation to a number of communities: Indigenous peoples, whose land—much of which is unceded—nourished and sheltered us. Black communities, who built much of our cities and infrastructure, and who continue to face deep cultural and structural racism. And many of us have benefited from similar structures, based on caste, that have afforded our families opportunities, cultural and monetary wealth, and mobility not available to Adivasis and Dalits.
It is unsurprising that the news stories coming out of South Asia for diasporic ears rarely deal with these issues. I didn’t hear about the recent Supreme Court ruling in India that has made it legal for the Indian Government to evict two million Adivasis from their homes in forests across the country until a friend mentioned it. I only heard about the backlash that the #smashbrahminicalpatriarchy Twitter event inspired because I was in India at the time, and I happened to follow some of the people involved. What shocked me the most about that was the way that responses to the story framed Brahmins as minorities and victims in India today, never mind that most hate crimes (including rapes) are committed against Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis.
It is also unsurprising that most of the stories created by and conversations circulating within the South Asian diaspora do not acknowledge these realities. What this means, effectively, is that groups already marginalized in South Asian contexts are doubly marginalized in diasporic ones. Instead of having a community and network to turn to for support when they face discrimination, alienation, and racism, many Dalits and Adivasis in the diaspora find themselves shunned by South Asian communities, particularly where they are dominated by upper caste groups. Asmita Pankaj wrote “As word that my family belongs to Dalit community spread like wildfire, this led to seclusion of my child from all other caste Hindu children. It angered me and broke my heart that my child had to face the feeling of being outcaste in the 21st century in the United States too.” A 2017 survey of South Asians in the United States reported that 52 percent of Dalits and 25 percent of Shudras who responded to the survey were afraid of having their caste ‘outed,’ and 41 percent of Dalit students (K-12 and in college) reported experiencing caste discrimination in school. Twenty-six percent of Dalit respondents reported being verbally and physically assaulted because of their caste. That’s compared to 0 percent of other caste groups.
I really began understanding my caste privilege only when I was staring it in the face on a daily basis. From 2015 to 2018, I lived and worked in Bengaluru, Karnataka. It was only there, when I had to awkwardly negotiate the spaces opened up to me, and respect afforded to me because I was read as upper caste that I began to see my privilege. Sometimes it was small actions, like the ‘helpers’ who worked in my office waiting for me to go by while they held tanks of water to refill the cooler. Or the fact that I had a staff lounge I could go to, but these women took their breaks on the washroom floors. Sometimes it was more obvious, like my caste background being interrogated by a priest before I could enter a temple as a tourist in another state.
One of the biggest learning curves I faced in Bangalore was that I did not understand the politics of the social and cultural landscape I had moved to. I knew in theory that my North American context was not the ‘centre of the world’ but, in practice, I clearly didn’t. It was shaken out of me over three years as I learned, constantly, how much I did not know. And still don’t know. My point of reference, though in so many conversations around oppression and privilege, remained race. Those were the histories and experiences I was familiar with, that had been available to me growing up in Canada, where caste was not spoken about. As a result of being able to move through India and Canada without obstacles because of our caste, caste had become invisible to my family. That invisibility is what gives our privilege away.
The South Asian diaspora today has many voices and faces telling our stories. And while representations like Apu and The Big Bang Theory’s Raj Koothrappali still persist, I now need two hands to count the number of South Asians in mainstream culture (Mindy Kaling, Hari Kondabolu, Tanweer “Tan” Wasim France, Hasan Minhaj, Priyanka Chopra, Kumail Nanjiani, Jameela Jamil, Aparna Nancherla—just to name some). And if the roaring success of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians this past year is anything to go by, we’re going to continue to see more diverse faces on our screens. So we’re winning more spaces in the west, yes, but we need to work responsibly with that terrain, to offer more complete representations of our communities.
And, we need to remember, that’s only half of the story. Not the centre.
I’d like to share what I plan on doing to be better.
Acknowledge my privilege.
Especially when I am sharing stories, histories, and other narratives. I sit at a complicated, messy intersection, where race and caste do not negate each other, but add to my story, and give me the ability to listen, and the power to speak. And, most importantly, the opportunity to make spaces for others to share their stories.
Listen and amplify.
I have more to learn. I need to spend more time reading, listening and making an effort to understand the experiences of communities that I don’t know enough about because my privilege has hidden them from me. That’s on me—it is not anyone else’s responsibility to teach me these things. And as I encounter these stories, I can share them, spread them, and help them reach wider audiences. That means looking for these stories coming out of South Asia and my own diasporic context. A good place to start is the Equity Lab’s 2017 Report on Caste in the United States, which offers an accessible introduction to caste, as well as its history and contemporary issues in the diaspora.
Use teachable moments.
For me, that means engaging family in conversation when they say ‘caste doesn’t exist’ or ‘I have never experienced caste.’ It means expanding conversations started by others (like the fantastic Hasan Minhaj’s episode on the upcoming Indian elections, which covered how the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise to power has enabled a major increase in violence against Muslims and Dalits in the country). It also means helping to build safe spaces, reaching out in solidarity to communities within and without the South Asian diaspora. As violence against immigrant communities, Indigenous peoples, and the Black community continues to rise, it is more important than ever to make sure we are not inflicting harm on each other. If our cry is for others to see humanity as equal, and no one as ‘less than,’ then we must make sure we follow our own advice.