The Non-Dalit's Guide To Debating Meaningfully About Caste

01/02/2016 2:46 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
A man inspects a locket with an image of Bhimrao Ambedkar for sale on Ambedkar's 124th birth anniversary near the historic Chaitya Bhoomi memorial in Mumbai on April 14, 2015. Ambedkar known as the messiah of the Dalits and one of the key authors of India's constitution, fought for equal rights for the low-caste during and after British colonial rule, which ended in 1947. Dalits, once known as 'untouchables,' is the term used for those on the lowest rung of India's rigid Hindu caste hierarchy. In recent years things have started to change with the government taking steps to improve the livelihood of the Dalits by improving education and creating job opportunities. AFP PHOTO/ Indranil MUKHERJEE (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time since the advent of social media, caste has taken centrestage in mainstream discourse. Debates on caste, discrimination and privilege are playing out on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Reddit and even Instagram. It's heartbreaking that a bright, young man -- Rohith Vemula -- had to commit suicide for us to pay heed to caste-based injustices, but still, this is a conversation that has been long overdue. So, if you are non-Dalit and are considering jumping into the deep end of these debates, hold on and read this first:

1. Be aware of your confirmation bias

If you have never experienced caste-based discrimination first hand, you will simply tend to assume that it doesn't exist. Because that's not your lived experience. But for millions of Dalits, it is their everyday reality. So listen to them and their stories of discrimination before you say how "casteism in a thing of the past" or "it's not even a big deal anymore."

Listen to Dalits and their stories of discrimination before you say how "casteism in a thing of the past"...

2. Learn the history

Try to educate yourself about the exact nature of the caste-based oppressions that are being discussed, because our textbooks don't tell us enough. Figure out for yourself why the reservation and the quota system were needed in the first place. Question why the names of certain castes continue being used as slurs; think about the psychological impact of this on the people from those castes. Annihilation of Caste by Dr B R Ambedkar and the more recent Hatred in the Belly are good starting points. You can also check

3. Understand your privilege

Caste structures don't exist in isolation. For someone to be oppressed, someone has to have unfairly benefitted from it. And if you are non-Dalit, that someone is most likely you. The advantage your ancestors received in open and unchecked access to education and wealth, while Dalits were brutally denied all of those is a privilege that you have enjoyed through history and continue to do today. It doesn't disappear simply because of something you did or didn't do. You are born with that inherited privilege, just as us Dalits are born with inherited oppression. And while you can't change its existence, you can certainly choose to accept it.

For someone to be oppressed, someone has to have unfairly benefitted from it. And if you are non-Dalit, that someone is most likely you.

4. Don't make it about you

No one is calling you out personally. If you don't associate with a casteist mindset, have no prejudices based on it and are fully aware of your own complicity in caste structures, you are an exception, not the rule. Saying #NotAllUpperCastes is a wasteful misdirection from the real issue: discrimination against Dalits. If a car hits someone and you tell him/her that neither you nor all drivers kill, then you just allowed a person to die because you were too busy feeling "victimised" yourself.

5. Don't try to be the tone police

Dalit identity, which for so long has been built around shame, is slowly coming to be associated with pride. And subverting this dynamic will involve a strong assertion of that pride. Our Dalit pride does not exist to offend you, but as a reminder to ourselves to feel it more often. Again, it's not about you.

6. Accept you are not casteless

Saying you don't see caste is like saying you don't see the warm bed of flowers you walked on all your life, while others were forced to put their bare feet on coals. You or your ancestors were not barred from reading, thrown out of universities because of your last name, or shamed simply because you existed. Millions of Dalits were and still are. While you conveniently claim "castelessness", several others continue being persecuted for that very part of their identity, which they don't even have the option to renounce. Because unlike with you, prejudice hunts them down and forces them to submit to it. Your caste exists, as does ours. Not acknowledging it is not making that go away.

Thinking you are being "nice" by understanding the complex debate for our benefit in itself is casteist.

7. Realise you are not being "kind"

By trying to understand your privilege and acknowledging the widespread oppression of Dalits, you are not doing anyone a favour, least of all the discourse on caste. As a civic-minded, nationalist citizen, it is your duty to learn and understand your history. Don't expect the Dalit discourse or community to be grateful just because you are deciding to engage. Thinking you are being "nice" by understanding the complex debate for our benefit in itself is casteist. Because more than your "kindness", we deserve an engagement as complete equals.

PS: That you are in the unequal position from where you can look down on someone to be "kind" to them is also an example of your privilege.

8. Understand you are not being "demonised"

When upper caste privilege is pointed out during the discourse, don't go on to complain, "I am not going to blame my birth."Blaming your birth is not what this is about. It's about reminding you how "lucky" you got while some of us didn't. The current discourse predicates on attacking a mindset of privilege and prejudice, not individuals.

9. Ask yourself why you're so angry

If you constantly find yourself flying into fits of rage in the face of a rational opinion, maybe it's time to ask why. Is it because someone you thought of as inherently "lower" than you is now speaking as an equal? Hint: This is what prejudice looks like.

However, if a meaningful debate is not what you're after, then none of this applies to you. But then again, no one is listening to you either.

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