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'The Caste System Is Over' and Other Sayings to Gaslight Dalit People

One of the most intriguing words for me is the term gaslighting. This deliberate manipulation makes people question their judgment, perception, and sanity and has always been at the back of my mind when applying it to larger societal issues like caste. One thing remains clear: Caste gaslights Dalit people.

Successful gaslighting induces a state of confusion that shifts attention away from the real problem. Gaslighting mechanisms have double-edged consequences: they allow social evils to persist and they cause deep traumas in Dalit people. There is potential for healing, no doubt, but only when we recognize how gaslighting operates.

Imagine this scene. A woman takes her seat in a crowded bus in India. A man in the row behind her reaches from the side to grope her. The woman immediately realizes what’s happening and turns around to shout at the man. The man pretends like nothing happened. Fellow passengers don’t do anything to support the woman but the woman initially knows that she has been subject to sexual harassment. By the time she gets off the bus, however, a few questions — all products of gaslighting — present themselves. Since no one took her side, perhaps she was mistaken that it was the man’s hand that grabbed her? Maybe the problem was that she questioned the act and shouted at the man? Even if the violent act did in fact happen, was this only to be expected in a crowded bus? If it happens all the time, perhaps it’s just the way things are? If nothing outside of the woman is the problem, is the problem, then, in being a woman?

On good days, the woman shakes herself off of these gaslighting barnacles. On other not-so-good days, these gaslighting barnacles make the questioner reel in confusion even as social violence continues to operate, producing more victims. This is similar to the way in which casteism operates. Dalit persons are often gaslit by casteist mechanisms that allow casteism to evade blame: either we are the problem or someone/something else other than dominant caste imaginations and structures are the problem.

A typical example of gaslighting is when dominant caste persons begin by remarking, “the caste system is over.” This genesis has multi-pronged effects. One, the implicit argument in such a remark is that Dalit persons are overreacting or making things up. Two, denying the existence of caste-based discrimination makes others listening question when Dalits speak up. In other words, this mechanism subjects Dalits to outside suspicion, forcing Dalits to offer several examples of caste-based atrocities simply to be taken seriously.

Those who remark “the caste system is over” often say, “Throw the word ‘caste’ and it divides us.” This is a knockout blow. Now, in addition to the emotional and mental exhaustion, Dalits are made to feel like we are the ones who have done something wrong by “throwing” the word caste and “dividing” people. Never mind how this presumed unity is fundamentally untrue.

The effect this sort of gaslighting has on our psyche is tremendous. Victims of gaslighting are fed false information—“you are making things up,” “you are dividing us,” and so on—that makes them question their own sanity, feelings, and lived experience. Gaslighting hooks victims into a seemingly inescapable cycle. If the victim questions what the abuser says, the abuser acts as the victim, essentially telling them, “you are the problem.”

Consequently, the way Dalit people gaslight themselves is by internalizing these beliefs, making ourselves think that we are not worthy, that our feelings are not real, and that we are not the victims of centuries of oppression. In such a context, it would not be surprising if we Dalits began to embody habits and patterns of thinking in our daily lives that denied the care and dignity we deserve. I always wonder, if Dalits have been gaslit by others and we have internalized casteism, do we in turn end up treating ourselves like how dominant caste persons treat us?

While gaslighting certainly produces negative feelings in the person being gaslighted, at times, gaslighting also operates by temporarily making the questioner feel good. During my graduate education in the south of India, I remember a student half-joke with me, remarking, “John, you look like a Tamil Brahmin.” Upon hearing this, several thoughts rushed into my head. “Am I supposed to feel good about being mis-recognized as a Brahmin?” “Should I feel good that I was not identified as Dalit?” “What made this person say that to me?” “With my skin being lighter brown, was it because of the colorism associated with imagined caste hierarchy?” As these questions kept pouring into my head, the student went on to add a qualifier to his previous remark, “John, you look like a Tamil Brahmin; you have a sharp nose.”

This happened at a time when I was just beginning to own my Dalit identity. I was gradually taking pride in the richness of what it meant to be Dalit. There was honor — not shame — in that.

So, when I heard this nonsense, it made me angry. My anger was stirred further when I realized that the statement was intended to be a compliment. I thought to myself, how twisted is his perception of what a “real Dalit” looks like? There are many Dalits with sharp noses. Dalit noses — like Dalit skin colors or Dalit eyelashes — come in various shades of brown and various shapes as well. More fundamentally, isn’t the purpose of a nose to smell?

Nevertheless, deep down somewhere, there was a part of me that, in the moment of its utterance, “John, you look like a Tamil Brahmin; you have a sharp nose,” almost felt good that I was mistaken to be not Dalit.

As Dalits, we inhabit spaces where ambiguous messages about shame and honor are peddled with respect to caste and identity that includes a whole range of factors—strangely, even shapes of body parts. How many times I have witnessed “sharp nose” compliments. How many times I have seen adults pinch children’s noses in an effort to make the children’s noses “sharp”? From where did we get these caste-informed ideas about beauty? I realized all of these societal conditions almost did a number on me. I was being gaslighted, made to question (whether it was intended or not by the speaker) my own sense of equilibrium. Should I even have pride for my Dalit identity? I had to shake myself out of it.

It occurs to me that there are parts of our Dalit journeys where we will find ourselves in spaces, constrained by societal conditions that gaslight us, on the one hand, and finding ourselves resisting such conditions by shaking ourselves out of it, on the other. I’m not sure, however, if we always win. Without a doubt, Dalits can and do note how obsession with nose shape, among other things, are rooted in mistaken casteist logics and pseudoscientific racial theories (for instance, Herbert Risley’s nasal index that falsely associated broad nose as a marker of inferiority). Nevertheless, if constraining societal conditions are always in operation and we are flooded with messages and actions that privilege so-called non-Dalit physical and aesthetic elements, shaking oneself off of such casteist barnacles is not going to be easy.

I fear that gaslighting mechanisms have partly succeeded. Whether it is obsession with nose shape or skin color, I fear that gaslighting has catalyzed a chain reaction in which a dominant caste person need not necessarily say or do anything to us for us to lose our equilibrium. The effects of caste are carried now in our actions, reactions, and habits. All this, for me, is not an indication of hopelessness. This state of affairs simply points to the depths to which we much reach into to weed out gaslighting logics. Because gaslighting mechanisms use our noses against us and send us sniffing in unhelpful directions, we’ll have to train our Dalit noses to sniff out gaslighting nonsense.