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Congratulations, You Are Not Casteist! Now What?

09/02/2016 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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A man gets a tatoo of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, near his memorial in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007.Ambedkar, an untouchable, or dalit, and a prominent Indian freedom fighter, was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, which outlawed discrimination based on caste. Hundreds of thousands of low-caste Indians are expected to pay homage at his memorial Thursday, on his 51st death anniversary. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh)

So, you are that unicorn. You are not only outraged at the current state of discrimination against Dalits, but are also willing to acknowledge your own privilege as an 'upper caste' individual. You are disgusted even at the idea of doing something blatantly discriminatory, like barring your 'lower caste' maid from cooking your food. You might have even have participated in the solidarity protest for Rohith Vemula's death, or at least posted a (rightfully) indignant comment on the Facebook links describing the police brutality against the protestors.

But is that enough? No, not yet. Not until you examine the insidious caste structures that exist around you, in your office, at that party or in the shopping mall you visit over the weekend. It's not enough until you confront your own 'possibly' unconscious prejudice and actively attempt to undo it.

Being blind to the advantages you received by not being from a 'lower caste'... is like winning a marathon against a differently abled person. And then saying, "I don't see handicaps."

So if you want to stop perpetuating caste bias, and the casteist microagressions you might not be aware of, read on.

1. Acknowledge your caste

Do this first. Because you CANNOT escape it. As I mentioned in a previous piece, you are as much a product of the conditioning your caste provided as the opportunities ours took away from us. Being blind to the advantages you received by not being from a 'lower caste' and attributing your achievements only to your hard work instead of your 'good fortune', is like winning a marathon against a differently abled person while being able bodied. And then saying, "I don't see handicaps." Seeing those 'handicaps' is the first step in undoing your prejudice.

2. Think about caste pride

Whether it's a t-shirt from the local brand that announces you as "100 % Kshatriya/Rajput/Baniya" or the local sweet shop you prefer, where things are prepared "only by Brahmins", 'upper caste' pride inevitably denigrates the 'lower castes'. The pride you feel when declaring your immense luck in being born as an 'upper caste', reflects an inherent bias against those who aren't.

Giving up the pride associated with your 'upper caste', while agreeing for us to salvage ours, is possibly the least you can do.

And before you ask, no, it's not the same as us declaring #Dalitpride, which essentially is an act of subversion and reclaiming of our dignity against millennia of oppression. It's our protest against the shame we are made to feel. Unlike your assertion of pride, ours is not an abuse against someone who isn't Dalit. In the larger system of privilege -- which has unfairly allowed (and continues to allow) the 'upper castes' to progress in education, wealth and culture, while withholding the 'lower' ones -- giving up the pride associated with your 'upper caste', while agreeing for us to salvage ours, is possibly the least you can do.

3. Be sensitive to casteist slurs

Please, just stop already with affronts that make our very identity an insult. Being a 'bhangi' or a 'Chamar' is not something we have any control over. Just like you didn't choose to be complicit in a system that ultimately promotes prejudice and casteism. Simply being born under those or any other Dalit castes does not make us 'dirty', 'uncouth' or another crude stereotype. So, next time you feel like laughing at someone being called a 'choodi chamar' or a 'phatichar bhangi.', just do us a favour and don't. And if you still do (because we need to chill/it's just a joke), do reconsider calling yourself "not casteist".

4. Know your friends

If you studied in a certain kind of institution, work at a certain multinational/media outlet/ research organization/ government institution, wear certain clothes and communicate in a certain way, chances are your friends do similar things. You might not openly inquire about their caste, but the assumption that they share yours is inherently built in your choices (because Dalits are not 'supposed' to look, act, speak the way you do). And I speak from personal experience, when a 'respectable' journalist declared complete shock at me being Dalit and studying at Columbia Journalism School. Because for him, those two were obviously mutually exclusive.

A 'respectable' journalist declared complete shock at me being Dalit and studying at Columbia Journalism School... for him, those two were obviously mutually exclusive.

News flash: You (and him) couldn't be more wrong. Few of your friends, like I did for years, might be passing as 'upper castes' only because of their fear of exclusion by you (and society). We are not a separate species who all look the same or different than the rest of you. The assumption that we can only 'be' of one type is also casteist. So, before you vehemently insist that 'all quota guys' are undeserving and maintain that 'these people' get everything easily, remember that 'these people' might be your closest friend sitting right there, pretending to agree with you or rushing out to make that fake phone call. You can't undo the prejudice they might have faced for most their life, but you can make it easier for them to come out, even if just to you.

5. Know those who are NOT your friends

Sure, you selectively gravitated towards those who reflected your life choices. But what about those who didn't? The ones, who didn't speak, look, present like you. Those, who put all of their and their family's wealth on the line, just to be able to attend the same college as you. The ones who didn't always go out for brunch or after-work drinks because they were sending a chunk of their income home? Or those who spoke English haltingly, going over every translation in their head, conscious of the judgment you had already delivered. Sure, you don't have to be their friend. But by judging their worth based on their background (against which they had no chance because... oppression) you are not less casteist (or classist, as the case may be) than the garden-variety troll either.

Now, if you are still casteist and struggling to acknowledge your 'upper caste' privilege, you need immediate help. Read dalitdiscrimination.tumblr.com to find out how your experience differs wildly from those born in 'lower castes'. Or just pick a good textbook of Indian history. But whatever you do, act fast! Before casteism blindsides you culturally.

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