Please support our programs

The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation

Never miss a show! @ symbol icon Email Signup Spotify Logo Spotify RSS Feed Apple Podcasts

Book cover for "The Trauma of Caste"

Book cover for “The Trauma of Caste” Credit: Penguin Random House

Caste—one of the oldest systems of exclusion in the world—is thriving. Despite the ban on Untouchability 70 years ago, caste impacts 1.9 billion people in the world. Every 15 minutes, a crime is perpetrated against a Dalit person. The average age of death for Dalit women is just 39. And the wreckages of caste are replicated here in the U.S., too—erupting online with rape and death threats, showing up at work, and forcing countless Dalits to live in fear of being outed.

Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan puts forth a call to awaken and act, not just for readers in South Asia, but all around the world. She ties Dalit oppression to fights for liberation among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, femme, and Queer communities, examining caste from a feminist, abolitionist, and Dalit Buddhist perspective–and laying bare the grief, trauma, rage, and stolen futures enacted by Brahminical social structures on the caste-oppressed. Incisive and urgent, “The Trauma of Caste” is an activating beacon of healing and liberation, written by one of the world’s most needed voices in the fight to end caste apartheid.

Featuring:

  • Thenmozhi Soundararajan the author of “The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition” and a Dalit American artist, organizer, technologist, and theorist. Currently, Thenmozhi is the Executive Director of Equality Labs.

Episode Credits:

  • Host: Anita Johnson
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
  • Executive Director: Jina Chung
  • Editor: Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong
  • Engineer: Jeff Emtman 
  • Digital Media Marketing: Anubhuti Kumar

Music:

  • Blue Dot Session – “3rd Chair”
  • Blue Dot Sessions – “Paving Stones”

Transcript:

The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition

Making Contact Button:  

Making, making contact, making, making, making contact.

NARRATIVE – Anita Johnson:

What is caste? According to author Thenmozhi Soundararajan,  “caste is suffering. That one’s worth and fate are determined at the moment of birth. Forced to exist in a caste apartheid of segregated ghettos. To be denied access to schools, roads, and basic amenities. Condemned to a life of servitude, humiliation, and exploitation.”  

 

NARRATIVE – Anita Johnson

Soundarajan was born into a family from India’s lowest caste and was raised by immigrant parents in Southern California. When she found out what her parents’ religion had prescribed for her, she was traumatized. Growing up, she felt different, especially when she saw how caste-privileged Indian Americans began treating her.

(40sec)

AUDIO- Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

I was you know around 10  and I went to uh, Another classmate whose family was Brahmin and you know, I just found out that I was Dalit  So it was like on my mind I wanted to talk about the fact that I came from an untouchable cast and I had something that explained what my lineage was I wanted to just share it with people and You know, process it out loud, you know,  as children do. 

And it was funny, as I was telling my friend that I came from this background, her mom overheard us discussing this and she immediately changed the plates on us because it was before it was like ceramic or, you know, some sort of like, you know, regular plate and she wanted to switch it out to dishware with the presumption being that she didn’t want me to eat on her plates and the way she did it, you know, she didn’t say anything, but it was like  a deep, you know, uh, unease when it happened and I was really shocked, but I didn’t have words for it. So, you know, I just remember the moment and then we went on with the rest of our play date and then I went back home and I talked to my mom and my mom got so mad because she knew what it meant.

She knew that this person was practicing untouchability and she’s like, you don’t ever go to that woman’s house ever again. 

NARRATIVE – Anita Johnson:

It was that one brief childhood experience at a classmate’s home that marked the beginning of Thenmozhi’s traumatization from being labeled as an “untouchable.” This awareness of caste-based apartheid caused her self-esteem to suffer for years. 

AUDIO-Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

 I think that when you grow up untouchable and you have these experiences, it marks you.  And I think for me, I struggled with low self esteem, and I struggled with depression, I struggled with doubt,

 

NARRATIVE- Anita Johnson:

Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s  (Sound-duh-raah-rajin)   family belongs to a caste known as untouchables, also known by the Sanskrit term “Dalit” – the lowest caste in Hinduism. Even though India technically abolished the caste system in 1950, the social and religious hierarchy remains ingrained in South Asian culture.  Today, more than 1.9 billion South Asians and over 5 million South Asians in the United States continue to be born into one of the five levels of so-called spiritual purity.  — the belief is that people inherit their statuses in life based on the sins and good deeds of past lives – with Dalits being seen as having committed the worst offenses in a past life. This traditional belief causes very real life suffering for Indians born into low social and economic status, and forced to suffer hardships

Wanting to know more about Caste and the trauma it bears, I spoke with Thenmzohi  for Making Contact about her book, The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition. We begin with her discussing the violence and the dangers of caste overall for those who are caste oppressed. 

 

AUDIO – Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

You know, and for every data point you have in South Asia,  you know, caste oppressed people are some of the most underdeveloped, you know, we have the highest rates of illiteracy, the highest rates of landlessness, we face incredible unjust violence. We are underrepresented in government and in structural power and institutions.

And yet we are the largest base of voters across much of the region. So we are very disenfranchised as we face the burden of underdevelopment in the region. And in the United States where we’ve seen South Asian caste systems travel with South Asian communities, um, we see that oppression following us here.

So one in four caste oppressed people face physical and verbal assault in the United States. One in three educational discrimination and two out of three workplace discrimination. And the state of California has some of the most intense cases. 

NARRATIVE – Anita Johnson:

Caste and gender oppression are two systems of domination that continue to affect the lives of lower-caste women living in India and abroad- even here in California. In 2000, a Berkeley landlord named Lakireddy Bali Reddy was charged with trafficking caste-depressed workers, including 25 young girls from India, who were being held as sex slaves.

AUDIO- Thenmozhi Soundararajan: 

And they were trafficked right on Shattuck, you know, and they worked, many buildings in Berkeley and people didn’t know that these were children who were being groomed and exploited and trafficked all here in California. 

NARRATIVE- Anita Johnson: 

Thenmozhi urges readers to process these stories of trafficking, devastation, and dehumanization and delve deeper when considering the long-term effects of caste apartheid not only on the human body and mind but the soul of the caste oppressed person. 

AUDIO- Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

So think about what this does to a spirit and to a body and to someone who grows up and is told you are spiritually defiling and therefore here are all the ways we’re going to exploit you and you have no way to change your conditions because to do so means you are resisting your kind of punishment for whatever crime supposedly you did in a past life.

So, this means being able to resist this, especially when there are so many strong, dominant caste networks, it’s a hard, uphill battle. And yet, that’s exactly what caste oppressed people do and have done for many, many centuries, is we find a way to our humanity. And I wanted people to tap into that resilience, that vision of justice, because in many ways, the more we learn about each other’s movements.

It’s the more collective power and resilience we build, you know, for each other.  

NARRATIVE- Anita Johnson:

Similar to social structures under patriarchy, women tend to be the most neglected and exploited under the system of caste. Here’s Thenmozhi discussing the particular dangers for women under the rule of caste. 

AUDIO- Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

So the issue of caste and gender is very important to me, and a big part of it is because I am a survivor, and I’ve worked with survivors across many parts of South Asia. And one of the things that’s very clear is that you cannot end gender based violence in the South Asian subcontinent, unless you grapple with caste.

And that intersectional understanding for me is really connected to one of the reasons why I am part of the Me Too movement. I’m a board member and, um, and I’m also a close friend of Tarana Burke and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the analysis of, you know, what really continues structural systemic violence against, um, black and Dalit women.

And I remember one of the conversations I had with Tarana was about how, you know, ultimately when we’re talking about gender based violence in the United States, the state is responsible and, and the ways that it, you know, we have seen white supremacy and heteropatriarchy entrap, you know, um, black women and black families has been horrendous.

I think similarly, when we talk about.  South Asia, you can’t really talk about the development of the ideas of gender without looking at the, you know, the supremacist ideology that shaped the way people worked with each other and interacted with each other. And in our context, it’s not white supremacy. 

It’s a system called Brahmanism, which is very similar, you know, how we say white supremacy comes from the building of whiteness. Well, in the South Asian caste system, that was built by Brahman priests. So our supremacy system is called Brahmanism. So we often talk about the intersectional understanding of how caste and gender is linked as  Brahmanical patriarchy.

And that to me is such a critical understanding for anyone who’s a global feminist, because, you know, in many ways. Dalit women are the most abused across all of, um, the subcontinent, because, you know, our bodies are basically the way that caste is enforced across the entire geographies. So a lot of times caste based sexual violence, you know, is a very particular form of violence meant to keep our community in line, because a woman’s body is connected to the honor of a particular community.

So if a community gets out of line, like, for example, you know, begins to try to vote positively for their rights, or maybe they’re starting to send more people to school, or maybe they’re trying to, you know, integrate the roads or the pathway nearby their villages, the punishment will be raping the girls.

The punishment will be stripping the girls naked. The punishment will be, you know, shaving the head or sexual mutilation or worse. You know, all of these are performative crimes designed to tell people do not step out of line.  And, and I think what was really horrific, because when I, you know, worked, you know, alongside survivors in India was actually meeting with survivors and hearing how, you know, senseless and violent these crimes were.

But also, um, that it was just complete impunity when it came to trying to get some sort of justice because, you know, guess who, you know, not only is there first the crime of the actual, um, you know, sexual violence that occurred, but then you have Police that are corroborators with the dominant caste perpetrators.

You have doctors that are also, um,  you know, uh, you know, sexually molesting people who are coming for, you know, you know, helping to get aid and get evidence. And instead they’re facing further molestation. And also, you know, the doctor will corroborate the perpetrator side, not the victim side. And you even have lawyers that are part of this mess, you know, um, and judges.

So you’re facing a very uphill battle to getting justice as a survivor, because it’s the system that is there to kind of keep, uh, the perpetrators impugn because it’s part of caste apartheid. So in a lot of ways, you know, when we talk about ending gender based violence or ending rape in India, you have to  look at t ending the caste system because, you know, you don’t have, um, the enforcement of these particular punishing gender based norms, um, unless you, um, get rid of, um, this terrible system.  

Johnson: 

You know, when you were speaking, I was thinking about, you know, we say, when we think about America and we think about America, racism and white supremacy and the way in which the systems have been structured here, they’re working the way in which they were intended to work.

So as you were describing what’s happening throughout South Asia and India in particular. When we think about law enforcement, when we think about certain individuals that are supposed to aid in your, protection, they’re not doing that because, again, this is a way in which the system was intended to work.

And it seems extremely challenging, uh,  being a person who’s caste oppressed existing within that space. Almost if you have no rights.  Like your existence is not important, but it’s important to, that’s, that’s, I guess that’s some of the contradiction, it’s important to the system of caste, but when you think about the way in which the treatment of the people, they’re really not  given the level of dignity, Or their life, there’s no value of their life except for to serve the purpose of caste.

Does that make sense?  

Soundararajan:

Absolutely. And that is something I talked deeply about in the book because I didn’t want to just present the data  because people know some of these statistics, you know, and it still doesn’t move them. I wanted people to understand what does something like this do to a person’s spirit. To a person’s heart, to a person’s lineage. And how do you come up with the strength to persevere in the face of that? And that’s a lot of what I grapple with in this, in this book, because it’s, it’s both the structural understanding, but also, the internal, um, things that have to shift in order to be able to pursue your dignity.

And, and I think that’s why this book speaks to a lot of oppressed peoples because,  you know, again, in my experience, you know, I don’t know that there was a lot of Dalit people that were out when I first started. I would think that was like one, Um, of, you know, one, uh, for a very, very long time, you know, in the United States until more and more people got confidence to come out, you know, in part because of the, the movements that we’ve built for caste equity. 

But, you know, part of what gave me the courage to come out was meeting all of these different women of color leaders from many different social movements who told me their stories of resistance and somehow in being able to witness each other, That gave me the strength to come forward and, and as I came forward, I also had to reckon with what a punishing, vicious system it was and what pain it really brought on everyone that I knew.

I saw the pain in my parents who had nightmares and who were living in the closet when they came here because they were afraid to come out because they’re afraid of what could occur to them. You know, I’ve seen people who have struggled with suicide and other challenging, like, emotional journeys because of how, Dehumanized, um, they were undercast and how hard it was to really pursue their own pathway to humanity, you know, and that is not just the same for Dalit people. I think many oppressed people go through that journey. And I think the more that we speak to that, um, difficulty, the more grace we can give each other as we try to each find our healing path to reconnecting to each other and to source. (11:29)

Johnson:

There has been conversations within certain black spaces that, might imply, hey, why advocate for this? knowing that some of those same folks that might be in that lower caste system are also in the space of wanting to oppress black folks or brown folks.  

Soundararajan:

So I think that’s a great question. And, you know, there’s actually a really important historical response to that. And that’s that, just because South Asians are racialized, you know, we have not dropped our baggage that informs discriminatory mindsets related to caste.

So there are, unfortunately, a large dominant caste group of people who pursue white adjacency, and they do that by throwing other people of color in the bus. In fact, like one of the first historical cases where caste was written into the U. S. law had to do with the immigration case of, you know, this upper caste seeker, um, who was trying to get American citizenship.

And this was during the early, uh, 1900s when, you know, only white immigrants were allowed citizenship. And his challenge to that law, his name was Buggetson  Was that he was actually a brown Caucasian because he was upper caste. And in fact, he would support miscegenation laws because he would never tolerate mixing with a South Asian indigenous person and he lost his case ultimately.

But, um, but I think the thing was, is that, that led that set the pattern for certain South Asians to throw other people of color under the bus to pursue The pathway to white adjacency. And we saw that replicated again under the Trump administration, where you had upper caste Hindu groups who were advocating for expedited green cards under, um, the Trump administration, You know, because we’re the good immigrants. We pay bills. We’re not criminals. You know, all of those are racist dog whistles towards other communities. So I think that, you know, South Asians have a lot of our own work to do. And understanding that our anti Blackness and anti immigrant, other immigrants, um, you know, biases often come from anti Dalitness.

And Um, our caste biases is work that we have to do internally so that we show up better for other communities. (3:00)

Johnson:

Moving into looking at workplace discrimination or the ways in which, uh,  caste discrimination is manifested in the United States. Two recent lawsuits have exposed the pervasiveness of caste dynamics far beyond the borders of South Asia.

The first lawsuit was filed in 2020 against a software company, Cisco Systems, and the second filed in May 2021 against the Hindu Trust BAPS. It’s a nonprofit that since 2009 has had a status of 501c3  organization. The suit was brought by a group of lawyers representing a group of Dalits who claim that they were brought to the United States under the R1 visa for religious workers and forced into underpaid exploitative construction work in a Hindu temple in New Jersey.

Both lawsuits reveal practices of caste discrimination and exploitation within America’s racially layered workforce. And you talk about these incidents in the book, Thenmozhi.  What do these lawsuits represent in regards to the U. S. immigration system and existing trends? And then also, why don’t current U. S. workplace protections apply to cast or press in workplace situations? 

Soundararajan:

Thank you for this question. So, I think that for a lot of Americans and listeners who are hearing this, um, who live Anywhere in the United States. The one thing that I can share with you is that cast exists across every American industry and cast repressed workers face some of the most horrific working conditions because not only are they facing exploitation and trafficking and wage theft and sexual harassment.

It is a system of oppression that when people reported to HR. is not oftenly well understood. And as I said at the top of the show, you know, two out of three caste oppressed people say that they’ve experienced workplace discrimination, who, um, you know, who have taken the survey that we conducted. In 2016.

So I have met with hundreds of workers across many industries from like the restaurant industries to the building trades to, you know, tech and medicine and law. And it is awful, you know, and, but I think that because of the work of the caste equity movement, we also see progress in both people understanding the problem and us being able to change, um, you know, workplaces and jurisdictions to understand this issue and make sure that there are laws and policies to stop it.

So, for example, some of the cases that you mentioned,  one of the things that was really powerful in the year 2000 was that, you know, the state of California was the first state to Government outside of South Asia to basically sue a corporation for caste discrimination in their workplace. And that case is still pending. 

And, um, you know, in that, you know, there was a Dalit worker who basically said that, you know, he experienced caste discrimination in a hostile workplace from dominant caste supervisors. And in the wake of that case, you know, thousands of cast suppressed people came out in workplaces all around the country, and it launched, you know, a series of jurisdictions that wanted to add cast as a protected category.

Um, Seattle was one of the first to do so. And, then there was also the big battle we had last year where we fought to have a bill in California. With Senator Ayesha Wahab to as caste as a protected category to the state of California. And we almost won. But the thing that I think is really important is that, you know, this isn’t about hurt feelings. The battle to have safer workplaces, not only is lawfully, you know, Mandated and wired under civil and labor rights. But the kinds of transgressions we’re seeing are so terrible. So the other case that you mentioned,  the BAPS temple case in New Jersey, it’s actually very severe.

And it’s now it’s actually, you know, it’s now with the FBI, and it’s under federal investigation.  And, you know, there are five temples that are implicated all across the country. And While hundreds of workers and these people were trafficked, they were paid minimum wage, like it was like a dollar an hour and their passports were seized.

They were called things like worms while they were forced to live in inhumane conditions. And, um, and it’s, you know, a shocking case, but it’s also far too common. And the terrifying thing is, Is that there’s going to be a new BAPS temple built in Livermore here in the Bay Area. And so again, you know, we have to look at like, is there going to be trafficked labor there?

You know, are we going to allow in the state of California, you know, inhumane conditions when there’s an ongoing case, you know, of, you know, this same agency. See exploiting cast depressed workers. So this is an ongoing issue that we have to let keep our nose to the grindstone on. Because again, any workplace that creates unsafe conditions for caste depressed people, it’s not just impacting us.

It impacts all workers because you don’t want any workers to face those kinds of crimes and they are labor crimes. 

Johnson:

Right. And I also want to be really, really clear, but regarding these particular lawsuits, what does it say? regarding the U. S. immigration system and existing trends when we think about labor issues, when we think about immigration here in the United States and the exploitation of individuals?

And many times people are looking the other way and not acknowledging what’s actually happening when we think about the unfair labor practices. What is it really? Say or represent you when we think about these lawsuits actually coming into play. 

Soundararajan:

Well, I think one of the things that you know for anyone that’s responsible for cultures of belonging  It is important to know that you know, we are shaped so much in the united states by a US centric understanding of race and that doesn’t necessarily fit.

Corporations that are multinational and many of our workplaces are global, whether we think about it or not. You know, it could be a company like Google, who is California based, but has workers all around the world who all come from different. 

Um, you know, origin and experiences of discrimination that have a broader, origin story than, you know, the development of white supremacy here in the United States, but HR might be managed in the U. S. And HR professionals are not trained to think about discrimination in a global way. And so there are a lot of workers that fall through the gaps.

You also have, you know, industries like the restaurant industry or hospitality. Or uber that have a lot of recent immigrants that are coming from these like painful context where caste might operate or religious extremism might operate and they face discrimination, either from clientele or, um, from, uh, you know, exploitation from, you know, managers and.

Um, from companies that are exploiting undocumented workers or workers that are really vulnerable because they’re recently immigrated. So the the gaps that we need to build are about competency and enforcement of the law And many times like, you know, this is one of the reasons why the caste equity movement Has been adding, asking for CASTE to be added as a protected category, because we know that, you know, these protections are implicit in the law, but unless they’re made explicit, we do not have, you know, the required protection and training that’s required to make all workplaces safer for all workers. 

Johnson:

You mentioned that in California in 2023.  Senator Wahab attempted to pass SB 403, but it was vetoed by Governor Newsom in the same year, citing that caste discrimination is already prohibited under existing civil rights protections. And based on the two cases that I mentioned, would that be a correct assessment or is Newsom missing something here? 

Soundararajan: 

So I think what’s really important to know is that, you know, the battle to add cast as a protected category in California was a really beautiful movement. And, you know, Senator Aisha Wahab was very courageous to bring this forward in her freshman year. And we galvanized through the California Coalition for Cast Equity.

Hundreds of organizations across the state. And we had, you know, thousands of people give testimony, um, you know, in person over phone and numerous, numerous, numerous letters and emails and calls and that level of power building.  for this issue was historic, both in the nation, but also it was the largest kind of mobilization of its kind outside of South Asia for caste oppressed people.

And I think that what was incredible is that it was also the very first bill that caste oppressed people have worked on in the state capitol and many people who gave testimony. This is the first time they ever went to the capitol building that they ever advocated and met with their legislators. And it was so amazing.

So many different levels and it’s a pity because  We got it all the way through both houses of legislatures in the face of very deep violence and, um, bigoted, you know, discriminatory actions of opponents, you know, who attacked very severely, um, our community. In fact, when I was in, you know, giving testimony.

Opponent shoved me and tore my ACL and injured my shoulder because of how violent these folks were.  But despite that, we got it all the way through and at the very last minute, you know, Governor Newsom vetoed the bill.  And it was a heartbreaking blow. And he, you know, basically vetoed the bill because of corruption.

And we know this because the people who, you know, threatened him went public with it. And they said, if you sign this bill, you know, you will not have, you know, this community backing you when you go to your presidential seat.  And that’s not, you know, the obligation for civil rights should not be based on corruption like that. 

But, you know, though we lost that battle, ultimately we have spawned campaigns to add caste as a protected category all around the world. And we have, you know, cities like Fresno, who became the second city to add caste as a protected category, you know, launched historical campaigns that included, you know, multiple encasted communities.

So that, campaign had Oaxacan community members collaborating with Sikhs and with Aravidasya caste oppressed community members. So I think that.  The legacy of that work is really the promise of, you know, the kind of solidarities that, you know, I’m hoping that this book will open up and the caste equity movement is really actively seeding that, you know, working on caste isn’t just about helping cast suppress people.

We have a platform to build many different, you know, movement relationships that will free us all. (11:30)

NARRATIVE Anita Johnson:

That was Thenmozhi Soundararajan  (Sound-duh-raah-rajin)   the co-founder and executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization and the author of The Trauma of Caste, a Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition discussing the oppressive nature of caste on Making Contact.  If you want more information on caste or about our weekly shows visit us at radioproject.org. Also you can visit us on Twitter or Instagram and leave us a comment. We’d really like to hear from you.

I’m your host Anita Johnson. Thanks for listening to Making Contact. 

Author: Radio Project

Share This Post On