Front and Center: Dalit Bahujan Feminist Voices

Published: March 1, 2019 at 6:12 PM

Why we can’t talk about South Asian American Experience without centering Dalit Bahujan Feminist Voices

(and why we're bringing this conversation to AAI)

(image courtesy of Equality Labs)

Histories of violence, oppression, and privilege follow us across oceans and borders, and the legacies of caste apartheid and brahminical supremacy are no exception. The caste system, as dictated in Hindu scripture, is the hereditary social stratification of South Asian communities which secures social and economic privilege for Brahmin and upper caste Hindu (Savarna) families, who thereby assume the dominant cultural identity of the region. Under this system, non-hindu (Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian) communities, Adivasi (Indigenous), and Dalit (formerly known as “casteless” or “untouchable” hindus) communities live in apartheid: they face economic, social, and cultural marginalization, institutionalized discrimination, as well as targeted acts of violence and sexual assault. Trans and Cis women, queer and non-binary folk in the Dalit community experience targeted violence at hyper magnified rates. Yet all across the South Asian diaspora, the legacy of Caste Apartheid, and the stories of violence, oppression, and marginalization it carries with it, has been silenced.

Equality Labs is breaking this silence by uplifting Dalit Bahujan Feminist voices. They’re not just bringing Dalit Bahujan voices to the table-- they’ve organized a new, Dalit Trans and Femme-led table, and invited everyone else to it. While shaking out the silence all over the U.S., Equality Labs is also providing spaces for Dalit feminist and caste-oppressed artists and activists to grow their practices, and providing multidisciplinary platforms to make their voices heard.

AAI sat down with Thenmozhi Soundararajan to discuss Equality Labs, the upcoming exhibit, and artmaking to construct new futures.

On why this work needs to be brought to South Asian American Anti-Racist spaces, and Asian American in general:

“It’s becoming a growing issue for all Asian Americans: our struggles can no longer be just about White Supremacy, they have to be about our internal hegemonies. In the context of the South Asian American community, caste is as big of a hegemonic problem as Anti-Blackness is. In fact, Anti-Dalitness in the context of the South Asian identity landscape is the root of Anti Blackness for our communities. In many ways, we have to do our work as a community to address this problem. Those who have caste privilege are accountable to the caste-oppressed to unlearn their privilege and counter their structural networks of impunity that have silenced this oppression for such a long time. It’s no longer acceptable to only have positions about race in South Asian Organizing Spaces and still be called progressive.

Moreover, Savarna American communities are participating in the perpetuation of Caste-Apartheid in more discrete ways than ever before:

Especially with the rise of Hindu Extremism and a Modi government in India: we see funding leaving from here that supports the infrastructure there, we see soft political support, and we see tacit support in terms of policies they want to push on the hill

Equality Labs is calling on Savarna Americans to do the following:

“Savarna Americans need to take on their networks of privilege. They need to talk to their mothers, their fathers, their brothers and sisters, they need to challenge their temple networks. They need to go and put their bodies on the line and challenge the Hindu Extremists that are not in India, but here in the United States. The burden of trying to change caste hegemony has really been on the backs of those who are caste-oppressed. The time really has come for Savarna Americans to take this on. When we start to center the caste-oppressed, we can rework our total understanding of who we can be and what the possibilities are as progressive South Asians.

To this effect, Equality Labs is launching its first series of Unlearning Caste Supremacy workshops in Philadelphia (at AAI!), New York, Chicago, and the Bay area this spring, all of which are sold out. The workshops are a space for both caste-oppressed folks to explore their histories, and for caste-privileged folks who want to work to be allies for caste-oppressed Americans.

On the role of artmaking in the work and mission of Equality Labs:

Art creates the possibility of exchange and dialogue and creates networks of empathy for issues that are obscured by structural power, it opens up relationships between our communities and end the isolation that caste would try to create.

We as Dalit artists are a different school of creation and imagination because we need to hold close all the radical possibilities that allow us to be free. As a dalit futurist, I think that the process of making is a process of inquiry into future practices.

Moving from inquiry of new futures to construction them, Equality Labs is growing Dalit Bahujan Feminist technical and creative power:

We want to apply our problem-solving skills to creating systems that will be used not just by us but by society at large. Training dalit bahujan feminists to make, create, and build technology is at the core of being able to be the builders of the future today. We a currently working on an app to support better anti-surveillance practice and larger community resilience measures. With expected release in Fall 2019, The app will provide assessments, training, and incident tracking for holistic coverage for organizers and blanket coverage for a sector or movement.

What we can expect to feel when visiting the exhibit:

In this exhibit there’s a sense of urgency to use our bodies and imaginations to hold that space open and shake South Asian Americans perspectives around the fact that we exist. In this space, we express our resistance and make a visionary call to end caste in our lifetime. While a sense of agitation is really present in the material, the pieces are also working to humanize and create beauty at the frontier of violence. We are building parallels to those violent systems even as we resist them.