A scandal recently broke in American academic circles. An American scholar of European heritage and Jewish background, Jessica Krug, had claimed “first North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness” throughout her life. Only recently did she choose to volunteer information about her lies. Her coming out in a Medium post all of a sudden came as a shock to some, while some were already bracing themselves for some acknowledgment of this appropriation.
Krug admittedly built her career on these misnomers, constantly falling back on her “Black Caribbean identity”. Victimhood in the space of optics politics grants sympathy and acceptance to those who do not feel they belong. Many well-meaning people prefer to prioritise their victim background to silence detractors. A well-known white scholar has displayed the image of his non-white siblings on his official website to demonstrate his cosmopolitan multiracial upbringing. In another incident, a white friend’s grandfather, who was a career diplomat, had adopted two children from South East Asia. This gave his kids, and their kids, a multicoloured family. The white friend who grew up amidst this diversity wouldn’t believe it if someone pointed out her sometimes culturally insensitive cues. It took some time for her to understand her positionality. However, her Southeast Asian siblings did not see her actions as being racist.
Appropriation politics in the era of black suppression and the black fight to reclaim their personhood is seen by many as the epitome of white fragility, though some see it as a forgivable act for which Krug has apologised and which has not done harm to black scholarship. Krug claims mental health trauma as a reason for her act, while also being unwilling to forego the guilt of her “violence”.
The point of order is related to two highly flammable words of our time: appropriation and misrepresentation. This trick of entering sacred, highly secretive, guarded spaces of vulnerable people who are fighting their death imposed by society is not new.
In a hyper-race-obsessed society, there are apparent problems with colour-based, biological identifiers. The colour-based distinction is a well taught, thought out process by the educational and societal norms. In one of his best sociological works, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), W.E.B. Du Bois refuted the biologism of racial politics. He identified colour, class and state non-intervention in the black population as reasons for growing anti-black violence and stereotypes. The oft-repeated criminality of the black population of Philadelphia was not rooted in the inherent characteristics of the ‘Negro’; however, it was the change of environment and unfamiliarity that produced lack of harmony in society. By reasserting the dignity of black personhood devoid of colour-based social Darwinism, Du Bois succeeded in presenting humanity over concocted theories of Black Americans.
In another unrelated but similar incident, a neuroscientist of European descent, BethAnn McLaughlin, fabricated multiple identities to gain attention. She framed herself as an indigenous person, COVID-19 patient and victim of sexual harassment to gain sympathy. She pushed back on efforts to prove the Native American (Hopi) ancestry of the fake persona she had created – her alter ego @sciencing_bi. McLaughlin also sidelined other people of marginalised backgrounds and bullied the actual victims of sexual harassment in her high-breed claim of victimhood.
Similarly, we have so many troublemakers in the Dalit movement who have made their way into the private spheres of Dalit circles. This brings us back home with a few plausibilities:
1. What does it mean for a non-Dalit to masquerade the violent, horrific life of a Dalit?
2. What about those Dalits who earlier shied away from their Dalitness and suddenly want to own their Dalit identity?
3. What about half-Dalits and their representation?
To masquerade as a Dalit, to seek to exercise command over Dalit voices, is a soft-tone appropriation of Dalit politics. Many well-meaning Brahmin and other dominant castes (ODCs) have taken upon themselves to fight Brahminism. Their hearts seem to be in the right place. However, their actions are not. More often than not, these individuals clamp down upon Dalit voices for being too political or being too emotional. Many Dalits are not given the right to grieve and express their anger.
Many ODCs claim Dalit affinity while at the same time toying in the dominant caste circles without fear and remorse. A female scholar shared her entire genealogy to prove that her caste in her state is not SC, but is in another state. While this anthropological mischief might be correct in her terms, she didn’t have the burden of carrying a bag full of caste certificates, running from post to pillar to fill scholarship forms, or desperately wait in line for early-morning rituals in overcrowded SC hostels and live a markedly humiliating life.
A journalist who silently claims his Dalit identity doesn’t actually have proof of his caste. It is all done in good faith. If showing one’s caste certificate became a requirement, then half of all activists in the Dalit movement would be disqualified. But the journalist never had to bear the burden of untouchability. He did not even face the trauma of being a ‘quota candidate’.
In these situations, one has to ask what is at stake for the non-Dalit claiming the Dalit identity. It is the success of the poor, working class, humiliated Dalits who retained their Dalit being by risking their lives. One cannot just walk into a room and flaunt one’s caste identity without being fully accountable to the Dalit pasts and committing to the Dalit future.
Central to all of the casteness and Dalit paradigm is the experience of untouchabilities. The one born with the blood flowing under their skin of former ‘untouchables’ have carried the cruelty of untouchable traumas in their DNA. One cannot just assume Dalitness while not grasping the fundamental ethic of an ‘untouchable’ life.
Dalit in a non-Dalit life
I have lately noticed fights over misappropriation politics. In some Dalit circles, there have been heated conversations over some Dalit Christians and NRIs who have not lived the Dalit life and are all of a sudden claiming the ‘Dalit’ tag to enter the NGO-ised space. There are allegations that many such individuals, advantaged with a Christian education and international exposure, have lived a life that does not represent the cause of the marginalised. And they are faced with questions like: “Would these groups who have a Dalit background but have shed that for self-improvement by converting to other religions or by changing names qualify to take over the poor and working-class Dalit spaces?”
Many Ambedkarites have taken objection to such singular leadership handed down from social media ceremonies. However, I think one needs to base the argument from the perspective of liberation as opposed to leadership. More often, the person claiming the Dalit cause with standard English-language vocabularies and western references gets an upper hand as opposed to the non-English, Dalit-name-carrying individuals who also incidentally occupy the same space. It becomes a competition over authenticity. The one who has come from the roughness of Dalithoods is asked to speak as opposed to the ones who have deviated from this.
We have far too many cases of Dalit misrepresentation and control by non-Dalits. I recently noticed that on my social media troll list many anonymous accounts that claimed Dalit identities were actually not Dalits. Their ignorance of Dalit vocabularies immediately exposed their non-Dalitness.
At a Dalit-run media outlet, there were a few Brahmin women who were anti-caste. They wanted to ‘help’ and the editor needed their assistance as much as he could. In this situation, it was a quid pro quo. However, what was unsettling was the hierarchical relationship of a society that does not sleep horizontally but reeks of vertical divides. The Brahmin women easily got ahead in a space created and catered to by Dalits. This is not to say that non-Dalits cannot participate in the anti-caste movement. But there are spaces and ways in which one can act and participate. One has to be sensitive and cordial while at the same time recognising that they have to create more spaces and opportunities for Dalits – many times by creating and then stepping aside.
There is a difference between speaking for and speaking with (and speaking against). The positionality and location of the speaker with the subject makes one in charge of deciphering the contexts of issues at hand. Objectivity as a peripatetic condition that has no firm axis evolves in the discourses of anti-caste optics. Dominant castes caring for Dalits and wanting to participate in the anti-caste movement need to learn to be humble servants of the cause. Their appropriation of Dalit stories, life and experiences is an epochal violence.
These dialogues are opening up new doors, and for the better, so that hereon the oppressors claiming victimhood by robbing genuine, everyday brutality of oppressed people will be checked and held accountable by the community.
Note: This article was edited at 8:03 am on September 12, 2020, to clarify that the questions being asked of Christian Dalits are not the author’s own (in the paragraph beginning “I have lately noticed…”).
Suraj Yengde is the author of the bestseller Caste Matters and is a fellow at the Initiative for Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability at Harvard Kennedy School, Massachusetts.