Image via R. V. Russell and Wikimedia Commons

Identities Are Never Neutral

A few days ago, a recurring question resurfaced in my head — how do some  identities and identity-based names come to connote honor and pride, and others shame and revulsion? This question is important because it helps us understand how an unarticulated sense of humiliation is uneasily passed on from one generation to the next, especially in Dalit families.

Histories of naming and identity formations are simultaneously histories of belongingness. They are histories of who belongs and who counts. There are deep and ancient traditions that affirm that all humans belong. Then there are oppressive traditions that write others off.  When such oppressive traditions gain power, they subject some bodies to various kinds of humiliation through unjust laws and practices. This is the kind of humiliation that Dalits were subject to in India. Upholding caste purity, for instance, meant that oppressive traditions discriminated against those who transgressed norms of caste purity.

This continues even today when couples in inter-caste  marriages are murdered by their casteist relatives. The name used to refer to these murders — “honor killings”— says a lot about how the past (with notions of honor and purity) continues to live in the present. Oppressive shadows of history do not disappear, even under today’s noon day sun.

When I lived in Boston, part of paying attention to the local context and history meant that I became familiar with a most peculiar term, “Boston Brahmins.” It was a term that was historically used to refer to Boston’s aristocratic so-called upper class. While we need not waste any time guessing where this group of people got the idea for their name, my deeper question has to do with the connotations of particular words and identities. The name “Brahmin” continues to be used to highlight honor in several places, including in some branding strategies in the leather industry. This is ironic because those who work with leather and tanning — industries considered “dirty” and “impure” according to dominant caste logic — in India are often Dalits.

Using a word like “brahmin” can evoke ideas of honor, while using other identity-based words like “pariah” can do the opposite in popular culture. I often wonder how it is that the name of a particular Dalit community —  the Paraiyars of South India — has come to mean ‘lowly’ and ‘outcast’ in wider usage. For instance, among the several meanings of “pariah” in the Oxford English Dictionary are “a half-wild stray dog” and “someone or something shunned or avoided.”

In South India, there are two species of birds that are named based on similar identity-based histories. A white-chested kite is named “Brahminy Kite” and a brown-chested kite is named “Pariah Kite.” Both species of birds feed on dead fish, but the darker bird was named after the Dalit community while the whiter bird got the dominant caste name, speaking also to how colorism and notions of lowliness play into names that draw their power from caste identities.

Identities are never neutral, and neither are histories of naming and belongingness. We are born into particular contexts with particular histories. For instance, in India, whether the person speaking intends to or not, saying “I am Christian” almost always means “I am Dalit.” Because of this widely held assumption, many Dalits converted to Christianity try to hide their Dalit identities through silence, distancing, fabricating alternative histories, and tragically, also shaming fellow Dalit Christians. I know some of my relatives on my father’s side who have concocted alternative histories to hide their Dalit identity, and even use derogatory language to shame Christians who are open about their Dalit identities.

I vividly remember a story of how a dominant caste family tried to shame my sister by rightly assuming her identity. My sister and I returned to India after living in the United Arab Emirates for a few years. We came to the city of Bengaluru with the exchange rate on our side. We had everything we needed and wanted and more. My sister and I rode to high school together on a fancy custom-painted motorcycle — the only students in school who did so. One day, my sister got invited to her dominant caste friend’s home. Among all invited, my sister was the only Christian. My sister was also the only one who was given a separate and very different looking cup and plate. She felt that experience.

It was only after a full decade after that that my sister and I revisited that experience and were able to articulate that in their eyes; we were Christian and therefore Dalit. They were right about our identities. However, they were dead wrong about its meaning, its history, its story, and its many rich layers of belongingness in the world. They humiliated not us, but a mirage of us — a mirage of their own mistaken and oppressive making.

I wonder if it is this kind of humiliation that forces our parents to try and save us from in their own way, by attempting to hide or disavow their Dalit identities. My parents’ generation of Dalits often felt the sting of caste-based humiliation. When they converted to Christianity, they sought to leave behind every negative association that accompanied their Dalit identities until then. Still, I feel that many of them continue to struggle to differentiate their true selves from the mirage visual their dominant caste neighbors had of them.

As long as a Christian identity is seen in contradistinction to a Dalit identity, the uneasy passing down of a sense of humiliation will continue to happen from one generation to the next. Dalit Christians follow the way of Jesus who was crucified by imperial forces of death and rose from the dead.

It is easy to forget that crucifixion was an extremely humiliating practice that included physical wounding. It is vital, I believe, to remember that the resurrected Jesus rose again with the wounds of the crucifixion in his body. Those wounds did not hold down the resurrected Jesus who still traveled, eating and drinking, comforting and inspiring. Such comfort and inspiration were occasioned not in spite of, but because of the wounds. But there was no shame associated with the wounds; the risen Jesus displayed those wounds.

The wounds of caste are similarly real, but we Dalit Christians will be able to rise in full power and beauty only when we embrace our full histories — wounds and all.