Academia, whether in the US or in India, is a deeply exclusive space available to a select few. These few are often picked and pruned on the basis of ‘merit’ which is a pre-legitimizing step toward any production of knowledge. Often liberal students in particular, perform wokeness in order to legitimize their scholarship or appear subversive on social media platforms. Currently, a PhD student in Iowa, I am guilty of perpetuating this performance by seeking to publicize my attempts to address my casteism and access points within academia and beyond. This piece of writing is an attempt to engage with fellow savarna / upper caste people by redoing the models provided by Devon W. Carbado and Peggy McIntosh. Of course, Hindu upper castes are diverse groups but as historically privileged communities, each one of us benefits by pushing Dalit and Bahujan voices in the margins.
Confession as Performance
In 2019, I asked my Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) course instructors about the relevance of a prescribed essay, written by Shailaja Paik. I insisted that the 2014 article wasn’t making any new feminist methodological claims about commonalities between African American and Dalit testimonies. One of the instructors was annoyed at my flippancy and wondered if I had come across any similar works in the past. She added that Paik was one of the few Dalit researchers in the US academia. At that point in my time, I read the inclusion of the essay as an act of tokenism, particularly when the other instructor mentioned that they need not justify their course material.
Retrospectively, I recognized these attempts as possible reconfiguration of the canons of feminist writing. While I have bitter memories from that classroom, I would strictly use this essay to address my casteism that a fellow research student alluded to, in a recent Facebook comment. It is irrelevant whether I knew about Paik’s caste before the exchange. Nivedita Menon’s patronizing comments about Raya Sarkar have taught me huge lessons. The very fact that I was so dismissive of a researcher, indicates a liberal casteist belief on what good writing should look like and a paradoxical ‘wokish’ propensity to decide the terms on which syllabuses can be de-Brahmanized.
As a Kayastha, this was not the first time that I was being casteist. My English medium school education did not facilitate an understanding of the caste system. I became aware of the institution through constitutional provision of reservation, (which I read as discriminatory toward me) and media reports of caste-based atrocities, (which I interpreted as a disturbing but normal aspect of Indian democracy). As an undergraduate student in University of Calcutta, I contributed vocally to the collective anger, shared by the upper caste students of UR category. We were casteless, until we spoke about reservation! Of course, we didn’t feel irked by the Boses and the Guhas occupying teaching positions. We celebrated this Brahmanical hold on knowledge production.
We were also annoyed if OBC, SC, ST students, got admission under UR seats. “Don’t they have reservation? We have to work so hard!” As a colleague later told me in a different context, liberal crowds such as those in Kolkata or Delhi don’t want to see Dalit and tribal students in academia. Their very presence either in reserved or unreserved seats, is seen as a constant threat. Thus, in 2014, when there was an UR vacancy in an M.Phil. (English) course in University of Hyderabad, I took it for granted that as the next UR person, I am entitled to it.
When the OBC candidate who was ranked above me, was moved to the UR seat, I broke down. My tears were the product of the very casteism that had made me equate UR with upper castes. I also convinced myself, somewhat like SB’s upper caste friend, that economically well-off SC and ST students were being unfair to poor students from all communities. Such an accusation uses shame to silence Dalit voices and simultaneously reinforces the idea of the quintessential poverty-ridden Dalit who should not aspire toward dignified ways of living. In liberal upper caste circles, reservation is always seen as a privilege and not a means toward representation.
When I got admission in JNU, I was convinced that I had sufficiently interrogated my casteism and can call out the practice, without sounding problematic. In wokishly trying to expose kinship in academia (that many critics of Sarkar’s LoSHA were accused of), I ignored the nuances of merit-making. Retrospectively, I think I also ignored the mental health of my teachers and batchmates. However, I don’t think that I should stop asking questions. Rather, I need to be more aware about my intentions for doing so.
Am I performing wokeness or solidarity or behalfism? Each of these has a different goal and may also require calling in, rather than calling out. Though it is important for savarnas to check each others’s casteist practices, we can’t claim to be superior over one another. You see, liberals find a way to camouflage their casteism and repackage it with some other names or use friends from marginalized backgrounds as evidence of their wokeness. Casteism, if subtle, is perhaps worse, since it suggests liberal upbringing and a propensity to pass off as anti-caste.
I write today after being reminded once again that the onus to educate upper caste people shouldn’t be on structurally marginalized scholars. I am grateful to Delhi friends, who often called me in and also dismissed me with “fuck-offs.” Perhaps, moving away from familial home, also helped. However, I wonder if such realizations have come at the expense of Dalit and Bahujan lives. After all, upper caste students disproportionately gain from the interaction with marginalized voices and use that knowledge to secure PhD positions or tenure-track jobs in the global North. As artist/rapper Sumeet Samos continues to remind everyone, universities and societal structures cannibalize Dalit and Bahujan students – Rohith, Muthu, Payal, Delta, Anitha and many more.
I have a few questions for Hindu upper caste savarna readers (even if they feel/are oppressed by Brahminism) who don’t recognize caste privilege as part of their everyday living. Often, Indian students in the US claim to be as oppressed as other minorities under the umbrella term, ‘people of color’, thereby erasing the histories and practices that gave us access to academia. You cannot be anti-caste and anti-reservation at the same time.
1. Do you have had any ancestral landed property (however little)? How did you receive it?
2. Despite being “poor”, do you still have access to Hindu wedding rituals and the food that is served to guests in such events?
3. Do you or your family have any domestic help? Do you serve them in different utensils?
4. Did your family ever tell you that your “help” is unclean? Did you ask yourself how unclean people keep your house clean?
5. Do you clean your own toilet? If not, why?
6. Have you ever been told by parents not to touch manual scavengers? Did you give similar advice to others?
7. Have you ever been stopped from entering a kitchen, not your own? Have you stopped anyone because you felt they were not clean or pure? (Menstrual taboos are Brahmanical)
8. As a teacher, have you judged people if they do badly in certain exams or tests? Do you judge them more if they belong to SC/ST/OBC categories?
9. As a teacher, do you seek approval from “bright” upper caste students? Most surnames (definitely not all) make caste obvious.
Also read: To The Bhadralok Academia, With Love
10. As a student, are you likely to question the qualifications of a teacher if they speak English with a certain accent or don’t look ‘respectable’ enough?
11. In school or college or workplace, did you ever make any classmate/colleague uncomfortable about their access to reservation?
12. Have you ever judged a well-off Dalit or a lower caste or tribal student, availing reservation? Why?
13. Do you feel that if someone’s parent(s) had access to reservation, their children should not avail of it? Do you then believe that structural oppression can end in a generation?
14. Have you shamed a Dalit or a Bahujan student for wearing expensive clothes?*
15. Do you recognize your birth and family lineage as privileges?
16. Do you support giving admission or jobs to an upper caste person under reservation, meant for OBC, SC or ST candidates? Have you justified this by emphasizing the lack of “good candidates”?
17. Do you appreciate diversity and find yourself more willing to talk to students of color in the US, while looking down upon Dalit and Bahujan students back in India?
18. Is your research focused on a marginal community or movement? Even if your research has an impact on the communities and persons with whom you are working, are you willing to reflect if this is disproportionately profiting you?
19. Did you ever feel that you would like to avail reservation too? Does that mean that you support reservation as long as you are able to access it?
20. The central government has now reserved seats on the basis of income level. Does that make you happy?
21. Have you equated reservation with nepotism? Do you know the history of reservation? Have you heard of the Poona Pact?
22. Do you know how many Dalit persons are employed in senior positions within academia?
23. Do you feel that Dalit persons are well represented in politics? Can you identify any Dalit woman pliticians except Mayawati?
24. Have you ever made fun of Mayawati because of her accent and clothing? Why?
25. Did you notice how most teachers, scientists and bureaucrats have upper caste family names/surnames? Do you notice a recurrence of these surnames in other professions like manual scavenging and cleaning? What you see here? Caste privilege or ‘merit’?
26. When you think of a Dalit person, how likely are you supposed to envision a doctor or a teacher?
27. Do you see violence against Dalit and other caste minorities as normal? Why?
28. Do you believe in inter-caste marriages? Are there any such marriages in your family?
29. Do you fetishize Dalit and tribal bodies but dream of marital companionship with people from your own caste? (This is meant for queer people too)
30. Do you feel more angry/sympathetic when the victim/survivor of a sexual assault looks fair or “beautiful”?
31. Ever since India has been grappling with the corona virus, have you blamed any lower caste, Dalit or tribal person (particularly those from the “Northeast”) for it?
32. Are you making similar claims about Muslims? (Caste endogamy and Islamophobia are related)
33. Do you have Dalit or Bahujan friends? Have you ever referred to them to deny your casteism?
34. Are you currently supporting Black Lives Matter but not anti-caste protests in India? Why?
Also read: Can Academia Be A Site Of Activism?
I am not in a position to face caste-based discrimination and these questions may seem too stereotypical. This test can be modified to suit specific regions across India or the diasporas. It is never too late to apologize and be a non-intrusive ally. However, “we” should not expect apologies to be an end in itself. I am not making a case for performative allyship. This test is not meant to make you feel good by acknowledging your privileges. You can’t wake up one day, feeling casteless! I repeat, unlearning casteism is a lifelong process. There cannot be any closure.
*Suggested by SB.
Rajorshi Das is a non-binary poet and researcher who is currently pursuing PhD in University of Iowa, with a focus on queer desires. They strongly believe that recognizing caste privileges is a lifelong process and performative allyship needs to be checked. This test, if taken by people, should not be seen as an one-time woke exercise. Savarnas aren’t doing any favors to anyone by “unlearning.” You can find them on Facebook and Twitter.
Featured Image Source: Outlook India