14 episodios

Firstpost is holding a series of conversations with Indians and Americans of Indian origin in the USA, from its campuses, offices and households, to understand how caste discrimination pervades the community just as much as it does back home in India. Hosted by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist, artist, technologist and executive director of Equality Labs, the podcast cracks taboos about caste among the Indian community in the USA.

Caste in the USA Firstpost

    • Sociedad y cultura

Firstpost is holding a series of conversations with Indians and Americans of Indian origin in the USA, from its campuses, offices and households, to understand how caste discrimination pervades the community just as much as it does back home in India. Hosted by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist, artist, technologist and executive director of Equality Labs, the podcast cracks taboos about caste among the Indian community in the USA.

    Casteism among South Asian Christians in the US

    Casteism among South Asian Christians in the US

    "In Texas which is already a very red state, it is easy to fall into these kinds of patterns. I think in Malayali spaces which are these large Christian culture spaces that are very casteist and very exclusionary too, there is an invisible problem of caste there," says Vani, a Dalit Christian feminist from Texas who works on caste and gender issues. 

    The most common notion around casteism in Christianity focuses on escaping the same post conversion. For the immigrant South Indian diaspora in the US, ties to your community then become the only way to establish links to your old life. 

    However, in conversation with host Thenmozhi Soundarajan, Vani sheds light on how the oppressed are then left to choose between white supremacy and ostracism from Savarna Christians. Living in fear of their caste being detected, they often choose to operate in silos even in church. Dalit families often chose to not talk about caste to their children, thereby taking away from their identity in an attempt to protect them from oppression.

    "A lot of people don’t hear second-generation people talking caste practices, and outside of these circles of faith, did you like see this operating in terms of your other networks, in terms of your other South Asian friends or in college because I think second-generation people particularly those who were born in the United States the language of caste may or may not have been conveyed to us by our parents," she adds.

    An already invisibilized population, the addition of caste oppression to the community takes away from the fact that most of the conversion took place to escape casteism. A certain amount of liberation and access to opportunities and resources were awarded, recalls Vani, however, a lot of it also included moral and sexual policing, especially for women and queers. 

    With curiosity pushing her through barriers of silence reinforced by elders, it was only research and education that gave Vani the vocabulary to articulate all the wrongdoings in terms of caste, religion, and more. 

    "There was a long period of time when I didn’t want to call (myself) Christian (as) I was figuring out what faith and what connection with the divine looks like for me. Then I discovered liberation theology, I read a bit of James Cohn and I started doing a bit more research on what this faith looks like for people who have been deeply oppressed. [When] I started reading more liberation text it started becoming easier for me to understand that a lot of what I was taught when I was young was all very, very wrong," notes Vani. 

    • 39 min
    How women's bodies are used to reinforce caste hierarchy

    How women's bodies are used to reinforce caste hierarchy

    "I still remember my dad telling me that it was fine for you to love but I just wished you loved a person from the same caste. And I guess that is when I saw that they are so deeply invested in caste. Before it was happening but it was implicit - it was not clear, there were actions and things that they were saying but now these are people that are telling me that I should marry a person from the same caste," says Priya from API Chaya, who we are in conversation with for this episode of the podcast 'Caste in the USA'. 

    As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse from an upper-caste neighbour she considered a grandfather, Priya is not unfamiliar to the perversions of trusted relationships. The policing of lower caste communities comes naturally as part of the systemic oppression set up from back home, but takes on more complex tones in the context of dealing with gender violence.

    For the South Asian community in the US, caste-specific dynamics have a huge part to play in how gender-based violence occurs and is dealt with. Pressure cooker relationships, as host Thenmozhi Soundarajan calls them, have maintained complicit silence around gender-based violence across caste.

    From coercion to remain silent, threats of deportation exemplified in cases of abusive partner dependent visas, to outright dismissal of reported assault to preserve caste honour - Priya has seen it all get worse in family circles, from both personal experiences as well as her work with API Chaya.

    Even as they continue to work towards opening up large conversations within the survivor power building space, it is hard to explain the connections of gender-based violence and caste to authorities in the US. Primarily accustomed to a nuclear family structure, they fail to understand the abusive power held especially in intercaste relationships. For women looking to seek financial independence, there is a need to engage with the partner as well as the state in order to attain a visa as a survivor of domestic violence. However, the threats to 'harm your family back home', coupled with a silence cultivated through the years make it nearly impossible.

    "We have to re-work the entire ways in which we love each other as we move towards caste abolition, and this is only one of the ways in which we will be doing it but it is such a promising way of seeing survivors building power all around the world as we shed the violence of the Brahmanical patriarchy," concludes Thenmozhi.

    • 26 min
    Caste hegemony in the tech world

    Caste hegemony in the tech world

    As someone who has worked at Microsoft and in the larger tech sector for 15 years, Raghav speaks of how caste plays out in tech through education, meritocracy, purity of food at workplaces and so on. 

    Higher education access in India has always been limited to dominant caste circles, who then believe their entries to IIT and other top schools are based on being the 'best', as opposed to the privilege of generational wealth and other resources. This ignorance prevents them from speaking up against oppression, and also to band together against affirmative action. According to Raghav, it is also the discomfort of having policies that directly out you for your part in the violence that prevent even well-meaning savarnas from taking a stand.

    "So many of the people who are in power in tech in the United States came of age and were in school during these very polarising times around reservation. It is actually very critical for people to know this," says Thenmozhi.

    She also highlights how the internal referral system at workplaces in the US make it easier to create a caste homogenous space, thereby making the environment prone to hostility for Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and other marginalized communities.

    "I guess the third symbol of casteism which is relevant in the tech sector directly is food. There is this big hoopla around vegetarian food and its purity which is a very common cultural thing in institutions of higher education in India," adds Raghav on how all the educational biases reflect parallelly in the US tech sector, with people unafraid to display caste bigotry and normalize broadly Brahminical narratives as Indian culture.

    Another unique aspect of work culture in the US also happens to be the need to be 'politically correct' in the workplace, says Raghav. This makes people less likely to report cases of discrimination. Add to that the lack of legal remedy and the absence of caste as a protective category in organisational policies across major companies like Microsoft, Amazon, CISCO, etc - and you have an extremely volatile setting.

    The CISCO case of discrimination being pursued under the Civil Rights Act presents immense potential for caste to finally be recognized as a separate category. As Thenmozhi points out, it stands to create a precedent nationally which will not only open up conversations but also lead to well-structured policy change. Listen to Episode 12 of Firstpost's Caste in the USA to find out more.

    • 34 min
    A Brahmin woman's tryst with Savarna fragility

    A Brahmin woman's tryst with Savarna fragility

    For Priya, a Brahmin in the diaspora, critical anti-caste thinking came through reading Dr Ambedkar's work, forcing her to question the trauma inflicted by her community for generations, as well as her own complicity in maintaining it. What helped her as she discovered a systemic understanding of caste was self-examination and a desire to learn more, as well as a safe space to ask questions in.

    As many within the Indian diaspora take steps towards undoing casteism, savarna fragility (faux outrage to hide structural privilege) of the savarna castes
    continues to be a potent hindrance. For Brahmins and other upper-caste communities, the journey towards understanding caste bias is complicated, especially when most of them are fed with sanitized versions of glorified caste history while growing up.

    Priya recalls how moving to the US later in life put her at a crossroads between holding on to memories, traditions, and also letting go of processes that perpetuate caste hierarchy. It's a combination of two things, she says, "One is the discomfort of being questioned around your identity which is the only thing you have had grown up in those spaces, and second, as an immigrant, you want something that anchors you to your ancestors, to the life that you have left and moved into."

    In this episode of Caste In The USA, host Thenmozhi Soundararajan takes a deeper look into what drives savarna fragility both in India and within Indian communities in the US, and how overcoming it is a very real possibility.

    • 23 min
    Challenging caste supremacy on social media

    Challenging caste supremacy on social media

    "Because for a Savarna to do some kind of virtue signalling for the Blacks, they do not have a direct oppressor relationship, if it is rewarding then they would do it why not. But to be able to stand up for people oppressed by their own class, to stand up for reservation which is positive discrimination, to help people oppressed by the Savarna’s own class, it is not like this person is stupid doing a #BlackLivesMatter but not doing it for Dalits," says Prakash, a Savarna from the South Asian diaspora in the US. While most educated dominant caste Indians like to proselytise a general, liberal stance online - the truth on smaller WhatsApp groups and anonymous Twitter accounts remains starkly casteist.

    One of the editors of Savarna Rehab, Prakash joins Thenmozhi Soundararajan for a conversation on challenging casteism online and unravelling dominant caste ideals he had grown up with.

    "They change their tone based on the anonymity they are getting and also the environment they are in. So on WhatsApp groups they know they are exposed but it is private to that particular group, and they know who exists on the group and who is reading their messages," says Prakash.

    As someone with the privilege of being upper-caste in the US, Prakash's livelihood being independent of his caste identity has made it easier for him to introspect. He also knows the casual ignorance, tone-policing, and gaslighting of the oppressed communities from behind a screen all too well.

    Savarna Rehab, therefore, was introduced as a medium to hold a mirror up to the ugly realities of caste hierarchy. However, violent threats, unwarranted reporting and frequent bans on Facebook, coupled with silent Brahmins not wanting to get their hands dirty on ignorant comments led to the page eventually shutting down.

    "The silence is really built in that lays the framework for impunity. And so being able to talk about these issues or use humour or direct confrontation, we have to do whatever we can to chip away at these hegemonies," observes Thenmozhi, of privileged castes who don't speak up in the face of blatant oppression.

    • 28 min
    Caste in the art world: In conversation with Jaishri Abichandani

    Caste in the art world: In conversation with Jaishri Abichandani

    In this episode of Caste In The USA, Thenmozhi Soundararajan speaks to internationally renowned curator and artist Jaishri Abichandani about the challenges involved in representing caste in the US and global art world.

    Jaishri highlights the difficulties in fighting for representation in the US art world. In terms of representation, the numbers are frighteningly low for South Asians in art. According to Jaishri, for every 100 artists in New York, only 0.2% are South Asian. The Dalit representation? Almost invisible, she says.

    With billionaires using art to maintain hegemony, there is a limit to the amount of diversity they are allowed to bring in with their work. Most of what counts as the voice of Indian art has been framed by early independence Brahmin ideologies, creating an uneven setting. For Dalit artists, the inability to access the 'elite' world of art is that much harder. 

    "The value of art is assigned very arbitrarily by gallery dealers, it depends on exclusivity, it depends on a kind of esoteric community supporting it very much in the ways Brahminism works," says Jaishri.

    Join the conversation around fighting for art that represents the stories of the oppressed, at the intersectionality of caste and class. With art being a powerful tool, both Thenmozhi and Jaishri agree that it is important to use the medium to prevent the silencing and erasure of marginalized communities.

    • 30 min

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