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Caste

How to talk about caste and casteism

A step-by-step guide for Savarnas to acknowledge and address an age-old evil, and become part of the solution

Sabrangindia 17 Jan 2020

Caste

It isn’t easy to talk about caste, especially for those of us who have, perhaps inadvertently, benefitted from a hierarchical social structure built upon the foundation of oppression. But this doesn’t mean Savarnas cannot play a role in eliminating discrimination and prejudice. Here is a step by step guide.

1)     Understand the concept of privilege: People often have a very narrow view of what it means to be privileged. The concept is often wrongly tethered to financial might. While it is true that more privileged people are likelier to have greater access to all kinds of resources including money, privilege is actually a much more complex concept. Instead of approaching it as a “have vs have-not” idea, try to view it as the following question: “What have I not been forced to endure?” For example; “Have I ever been forced to sit on the ground while my other classmates sit on benches or chairs in school?” or “Have I ever been presumed to be unhygienic because my ancestors have historically been associated with professions related to sanitation and waste management?”

2)     Understand intersectionalism: This approach to the idea of privilege will also help you understand that being able-bodied and having a sound mind are also a privilege, and therefore a disabled Dalit person experiences two layers of challenges. The more the layers of challenges, the harder a person has to work to overcome them. Therefore, often underprivileged people work twice as hard but get only half as much.

3)     Accept that there is a hegemony: The hegemony is a social order where the most privileged people are on top, and as each layer of privilege disappears, their location falls lower and lower in the order. For example: Cis-gender, hetero-sexual, able-bodied, upper caste male members of the majority community who are of sound mind will always have a higher location in the social hierarchy than a lower caste, homosexual, disabled woman or a mentally challenged person from a minority community.

4)     Acknowledge historical oppression: This is often the hardest thing to do. We all love our families and accepting that our ancestors either engaged in caste-based discrimination or benefitted from it on account of their higher location in the social order, is difficult. But, what can help make it easier to accept is that you do not have to be defined by the bad decisions (even if they were inadvertent) of your forefathers. You can help undo their wrongs and build a more just society.

5)     Educate yourself: There are many books, studies, research papers and other resources that trace the genesis and impact of casteism. Read up as much as you can. This will help you form stronger arguments against what is clearly a social evil, instead of just engaging in tokenism like dropping one’s surname. If generation after generation of your family have already benefitted from having a certain surname that indicates that you belong to a so called “upper caste”, dropping your surname will neither erase privileges that you already have, nor will it empower people who come from historically oppressed families and communities. This will also help you acquire the correct vocabulary required to address communities with respect and help you identify offensive words and terms that you must avoid at all costs. Also, share your knowledge with friends and family. This might lead to uncomfortable conversations with parents and grandparents, so find a way to keep it civil.

6)     Pass the mic: Once you have educated yourself you might feel tempted to organize a demonstration or a public meeting. But instead of hogging the mic to talk about what you have discovered, why not let a less privileged person speak and narrate their story in their own words? Why not let them tell you what they want and need, instead of you pontificating on the ills of casteism?

7)     Introspect: Look at your immediate surroundings. How many of your friends, neighbours and colleagues belong to the same social strata and caste as you? Instead of accusing Dalits and minorities of living in filthy ghettos and hovels, ask yourself what prevents their integration into your spaces, neighbourhoods, schools or workplaces. Are Savarnas not guilty of building their own islands of privilege, spaces designed to keep out Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis and minorities? Are you actively or even passively a part of the “othering” process? Does your domestic help drink from the same tea cup as you? Do you eat at a table away from the ‘vernacs’ in the workplace? Do you live in a “proudly vegetarian” neighbourhood? Do you just have that one token Muslim friend who you only speak to or about in context of Eid or biryani? Once you have identified your own possibly subconscious discriminatory behavior, push for measures to remove these obstacles to integration with the “others”. Demand more diversity.  

How to talk about caste and casteism

A step-by-step guide for Savarnas to acknowledge and address an age-old evil, and become part of the solution

Caste

It isn’t easy to talk about caste, especially for those of us who have, perhaps inadvertently, benefitted from a hierarchical social structure built upon the foundation of oppression. But this doesn’t mean Savarnas cannot play a role in eliminating discrimination and prejudice. Here is a step by step guide.

1)     Understand the concept of privilege: People often have a very narrow view of what it means to be privileged. The concept is often wrongly tethered to financial might. While it is true that more privileged people are likelier to have greater access to all kinds of resources including money, privilege is actually a much more complex concept. Instead of approaching it as a “have vs have-not” idea, try to view it as the following question: “What have I not been forced to endure?” For example; “Have I ever been forced to sit on the ground while my other classmates sit on benches or chairs in school?” or “Have I ever been presumed to be unhygienic because my ancestors have historically been associated with professions related to sanitation and waste management?”

2)     Understand intersectionalism: This approach to the idea of privilege will also help you understand that being able-bodied and having a sound mind are also a privilege, and therefore a disabled Dalit person experiences two layers of challenges. The more the layers of challenges, the harder a person has to work to overcome them. Therefore, often underprivileged people work twice as hard but get only half as much.

3)     Accept that there is a hegemony: The hegemony is a social order where the most privileged people are on top, and as each layer of privilege disappears, their location falls lower and lower in the order. For example: Cis-gender, hetero-sexual, able-bodied, upper caste male members of the majority community who are of sound mind will always have a higher location in the social hierarchy than a lower caste, homosexual, disabled woman or a mentally challenged person from a minority community.

4)     Acknowledge historical oppression: This is often the hardest thing to do. We all love our families and accepting that our ancestors either engaged in caste-based discrimination or benefitted from it on account of their higher location in the social order, is difficult. But, what can help make it easier to accept is that you do not have to be defined by the bad decisions (even if they were inadvertent) of your forefathers. You can help undo their wrongs and build a more just society.

5)     Educate yourself: There are many books, studies, research papers and other resources that trace the genesis and impact of casteism. Read up as much as you can. This will help you form stronger arguments against what is clearly a social evil, instead of just engaging in tokenism like dropping one’s surname. If generation after generation of your family have already benefitted from having a certain surname that indicates that you belong to a so called “upper caste”, dropping your surname will neither erase privileges that you already have, nor will it empower people who come from historically oppressed families and communities. This will also help you acquire the correct vocabulary required to address communities with respect and help you identify offensive words and terms that you must avoid at all costs. Also, share your knowledge with friends and family. This might lead to uncomfortable conversations with parents and grandparents, so find a way to keep it civil.

6)     Pass the mic: Once you have educated yourself you might feel tempted to organize a demonstration or a public meeting. But instead of hogging the mic to talk about what you have discovered, why not let a less privileged person speak and narrate their story in their own words? Why not let them tell you what they want and need, instead of you pontificating on the ills of casteism?

7)     Introspect: Look at your immediate surroundings. How many of your friends, neighbours and colleagues belong to the same social strata and caste as you? Instead of accusing Dalits and minorities of living in filthy ghettos and hovels, ask yourself what prevents their integration into your spaces, neighbourhoods, schools or workplaces. Are Savarnas not guilty of building their own islands of privilege, spaces designed to keep out Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis and minorities? Are you actively or even passively a part of the “othering” process? Does your domestic help drink from the same tea cup as you? Do you eat at a table away from the ‘vernacs’ in the workplace? Do you live in a “proudly vegetarian” neighbourhood? Do you just have that one token Muslim friend who you only speak to or about in context of Eid or biryani? Once you have identified your own possibly subconscious discriminatory behavior, push for measures to remove these obstacles to integration with the “others”. Demand more diversity.  

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