Image via Nabigal-Nayagam Haider Ali

Dear Chithi: I'm Being Portrayed as the Angry Dalit Woman. What Should I Do?

Dear Chithi,

I am a mild mannered Dalit women. I don’t cause problems. I pay my bills, avoid drama, and do my work. I also have been very discrete about my Dalit activism, because I did not want to make my caste identity a thing to deal with at my workplace. I have a lot of pain around this, as my dad was fired back at home for agitating at his work. As such, t’s a haunting family trauma. My activism, which happened later in life, has been a secret private joy but also one that can be dangerous, given the casteist nature of my workplace.

Cut to the Hathras case, which was such a flashpoint for our people. It is the latest of a long line of indignities. As a survivor myself, I spoke out on social media. Having seen a social media post through a mutual friend, one of my other savarna coworkers reached out and asked me point blank if I was Dalit. I panicked and I told her yes.

That was a big mistake.

She is determined to make me her “Dalit friend.” She hounds me with overly invasive questions about Dalit issues and wants me to constantly educate her. She also said quite proudly that she wants me to call her out if I ever see her make a caste-related faux pas. I did so, stupidly, when she said something deeply casteist and I told her. As opposed to taking the feedback reasonably, she reported me to H.R. I am beside myself. While I was able to manage the situation at work, I find myself so mad. I am mad at myself for believing her nonsense. I am mad at her for being such a textbook caste of savarna fragility. And I am so frustrated at having been portrayed as an angry Dalit women when I have spent my life explicitly cultivating a public persona that was the opposite of that so that I could live my life in peace. What should I do now?

- Angry Dalit Woman

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Dear Angry Dalit Woman,

Welcome. You are now part of a tribe of millions of Dalit women and femmes who routinely get gaslit, siloed, and targeted by savarnas whose fragility cannot handle being in the same space as a fully realized Dalit woman.  Because make no mistake the most threatening thing to the savarna ego is us.

I want to first acknowledge that you made clear choices, in a hostile casteist workplace, to have firm boundaries around who knows your caste identification, despite a savarna intruding on your personal caste choices and then proceeding to tokenize you in order to pacify their own oppressor caste guilt.

It reminds me of what Benson Neethipudi said previously in my podcast, Caste in the United States: " Savarna folks who were against reservation till a year ago, who have now read 'Annihilation of Caste'  now they say Jai Bhim and we have to accept them as our comrades.”

He was speaking to this phenomenon of the “eager savarna,” whose newly discovered performative wokeness is just as grating as people who are outrightly casteist. These folks think that a simple slogan can erase years of their caste denial and complicity. Even worse, a lot of them force intimacy on people they had harmed earlier. This is peak savarna arrogance and as someone who has experienced this myself, I have just no more spoons to give to people with such little self-reflection.

I also want to flag the arrogance of your savarna’s colleague ask to “call them in.” This is a power move that is fraught with plain old hubris. Many times when savarnas ask this, they are putting the burden, onto Dalits, of the work they need to be doing themselves. Dalits are tired of being responsible for addressing and naming caste pressure in our institutions. You do not have the same generational and structural access to power they do. And yet, your colleague is now asking you to do their work.

This requires de-centering themselves, not being knowledge producers around these issues, and sitting back instead of leading.

This work does not require Dalit people to call them in. They can do that themselves. In fact, they do it routinely in racial justice spaces to white folks, it is just much harder to do that for their own caste privilege as they must confront their caste privilege.

I really blame social media for this. For there is a type of savarna woke signaling where savarnas that try to "out woke" each other with more and more frequent with public clap backs and less actual organizing. They attack air rather than the structural because to do so would require them to address their own complicity. Savarnas need to stop taking the analysis of Dalit people to make themselves look publicly sharper and do the work internally out of the public eye to meaningfully understand what it means to be anti-caste. This does not happen over night as centuries of reprogramming needs to occur.

This means practical material understanding of what being an anti-caste ally truly is.

Accountability implies a significant working relationship and a real covenant to work together. Such relationships must be grounded in trust and transparency. Emphasis needs to be given to clear communication and providing good feedback. Hopefully, there is clarity about the goals and objectives that are to be achieved. Along with accountability goes the commitment to make things different. In an ideal situation, accountability is a two-way process.

I think it’s important for savarna allies to understand the praxis of de-centering. If you are not Dalit, do not publicly represent Dalit issues. If you are not Dalit, do not try to be an influencer around anti-caste thought. If you are not Dalit, don’t speak for Dalits.

I can assure all of those folks that Dalits are in fact more than competent to be our own advocates, writers, influencers, and policymakers. What we no longer want to do is carry the burden of dealing with casteist networks. That is dominant caste people's work to. Instead of clamoring to write about caste issues for your ‘woke’ popularity points, look at your networks of complicity.

Fundamentally, the savarna gaze harms us because of how it demands our unrelenting attention at a time when we need to focus on ourselves. I am so sorry about how this savarna colleague used you, jeopardized your job, and brought you mental turmoil. I would say that one painful lesson that you can take form this is that Dalit people need is to have the focus on our work of liberation by first focusing on ourselves.

Instead of reforming savarnas, we must focus our attention on what our healing, our power building, and what real independence looks like. We need space for that, and not constantly be in service to the savarna gaze. For that, we are learning new ways of holding boundaries and investing in our minds, bodies, spirits, and families, so that we can imagine worlds where we are out, bold, and proud. This is our urgent work. And it is unfair and cruel to ourselves to deny it, especially by savarnas who need to learn boundaries, accountability, and de-centering by putting in the work of unlearning casteist practices themselves.

So while they are learning that, which many are, it is important for you to continue in your own journey of freedom and possibility. Keep building a strong Dalit community around you. Find ways to plug in and be part of the movement, as well as cultivating love and joy in Ambedkarite spaces. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are here, walking with you and looking forward to seeing how it goes.