When I was in school, someone asked me what my caste was. I had no understanding of what caste meant. So, I went to my dad and asked him, “What is my caste?” The answer was that even he didn’t know and that one didn’t have to know about caste in this day and age.
Because the way to be progressive was to not talk about the existence of caste in our society. The way to be progressive was to be blind to one’s own caste location in society. The less you talk about it, the more it disappears – that was the idea.
But I really do not have to know about my caste because I will not be reminded of my caste on a day-to-day basis. I do not have to really study history because history has helped me. It has helped me so much that the entire society respects and privileges me over many communities from other caste backgrounds.
I have gained what is called cultural and social capital in many ways because of my caste. So why is there a necessity for me to know about my caste? Why is there a necessity for me to even speak about caste? Or to even use the word caste in the privileged spaces that I occupy? There isn’t.
I rarely see the word caste being uttered in the spaces that I occupy. But do you think caste doesn’t get spoken about at all? It does. Sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly.
A couple of months back, I was talking to an acquaintance of mine on WhatsApp. During the conversation, while talking about how the acquaintance felt and looked like on that day, I was told the following sentence: “I look like a chamar.”
I was flabbergasted upon hearing that. Like men in their locker rooms are prone to casually making sexist comments, we upper castes could use words like ‘chamar’ to talk about how bad one looked on a particular day.
This truly tells us how easy it is for those of us who belong to upper castes to casually joke about marginalised communities without having to face any repercussions, and continue feeling proud about ourselves. I was told that the word is commonly used in the region where the acquaintance lives when I raised the fact that one can be booked under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for using that word.
I am not going to treat this incident as an abnormality but as a manifestation of how blind we are to our caste locations in society and the benefits we gain from it. As a parallel, an event that comes to my mind is the recent lack of awareness shown when it came to the band named ‘Bhangijumping‘ by The Piano Man Jazz Club in Delhi. This was privilege in action and it helped perpetuate such privilege further.
Another incident that comes to mind is a writing workshop that I attended. While I tried in my own way to talk about how we need to understand what narratives we are writing and if we are ever conscious about our upper caste privileges and our hold over all the resources, I was asked if we have to do a caste accounting of the ones attending the workshop. I said yes, of course.
And why not? Why don’t we do an accounting of who our friends are? Who do we work with? What spaces do we occupy while we party, book a cab, buy groceries, travel, discuss, read, and write (see how I am using upper-caste realities)? What are the caste locations of the individuals you interact with? And how does your caste location affect your interaction? And what does this interaction result in? More oppression?
We are a product of a caste based society. Most of our parents have had same caste marriages. Most of our institutions are built, most of our laws are written keeping the upper caste person in mind. Historical oppression is documented. Most of my relatives still have same caste marriages. I can go on and on. But caste inequalities exist. We will continue to oppress backward castes like our ancestors, even in this day and age, if we do not open our eyes and minds.
This article was first published here.