Loitering With Yashica Dutt
|Sonia Paul||Oct 19, 2020|
You may remember from a previous Loitering episode and newsletter that I mentioned an interview with Yashica Dutt, activist and author of Coming Out As Dalit, was en route. Here it is, finally. It’s actually an interview we did last spring — before a US lawsuit alleging caste discrimination was filed against Cisco (and some news on that: The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is removing the lawsuit from the federal court and refiling it in a state court); before debates around caste also came up with the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking; and before Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents also released. (And also, before Yashica turned a year older!) It’s incredible how much movement caste is finding in US conversations in just over a year, but it’s still an extraordinarily nuanced issue. This interview with Yashica is one of the most insightful interviews I’ve ever done and digs deep into her personal experience, as well as extrapolates how we can better understand caste and the ways it manifests. If you’re mostly only a reader of Loitering, please also listen! The auditory experience of the interview is quite different. I experimented with scoring a little bit more as well, so let me know what you think.
You can hear and read in the interview that we’re often using “lower” and “upper” to denote caste hierarchies, but — and this is where we can thank conversations that have been happening over the past year — a better and more sensitive way to think about this is “oppressed,” or “stigmatized,” and “elite,” or “privileged” castes.
And a note, this interview is heavy and contains descriptions of suicide, so please take care of yourself. xx
Sonia Paul 00:11
So just to start out, can you please introduce yourself, your name, your age where you're from what you do.
Yashica Dutt 00:19
Hi, I'm Yashica Dutt. I am 33 years old. I am originally from New Delhi, India. But I've been living in the city since 2014. I recently wrote a book. It's called Coming Out as Dalit. It is just available in the Indian subcontinent for now. But it's a book about my journey of growing up as an untouchable person, quote, unquote, in India, but hiding the fact that I was a lower caste person, and how that got me a front-row seat to what it means to be hiding your identity in India, especially in the late 90s, in the early to late 90s, 2000s. And then till 2014, till I left. I was a journalist back home in New Delhi, I also try and unpack the issue of caste, as it means to modern-day India and how it has a social and cultural impact on the country. Also, in the book, I've tried to look at the history of the movement and how it has parallels with the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, because this is where I was living. And this is how I was being impacted. And I was thinking about the ideas of how race and cast collide. So a couple of chapters deal with that. But overall, it's the spine of a memoir, but it has nonfiction and historical backgrounds and facts. It's a wide scope book.
Sonia Paul 01:45
Yeah. I mean, I read it. It's great. Congratulations. You know, I'm glad you like, really preface what the book is about, because I'm going to ask you a lot about that. And, you know, I just want to also clarify, so when you say you live in the city, you live in New York City right now?
Yashica Dutt 02:00
I live in New York City right now.
Sonia Paul 02:02
Okay. Um, you know, you already answered my second question, which is like, briefly, what is the book about? And I think, you know, just to start off, if you could go back to the moment in your own personal history, where you realized your family's caste background. And what exactly took place to make you realize that your family was a member of the so-called untouchable class, also known as Dalit class?
Yashica Dutt 02:30
If you ask me to chart a moment in my personal history or childhood, where I realized I was born in an untouchable caste, I don't think I can come up with that, because ever since my earliest memories started forming, I remember growing up with the reality that I was from a lower caste and I had to make up for it, to fit in with the society, with the rest of the caste-based society in India. And the things that I had to do, the measures that I had to take. How I had to be careful about not talking about my caste, how I had to observe how girls in my school — I went to an all-girls school in Rajasthan, which is a state in India — how they behaved and then try and mimic those behaviors. So it was a whole process. And there is a concept of passing in African American culture that I read about. And it felt very similar to that, that you have to adopt the mannerisms and the behaviors of the other culture. And I was very young when my parents told me about how I had to hide my identity and how I had to lie about it if I wanted to not be discriminated. It was just a matter of fact reality. It wasn't something that one day I woke up, and I was being told that I from an untouchable caste. It was just an idea that existed in my reality, like any other idea, like I was five or six or that I lived in a certain place. Similarly, I was lower caste. So it's just permeated in my whole existence.
Sonia Paul 03:58
I guess I'm just to help us comprehend what it means to be lower caste. What were some of the indicators, in your experience, that were the hallmarks of that caste identity? Like, what were the experiences in your life that were telling you that you were lower caste?
Yashica Dutt 04:20
The experiences in my life were — first of all, I have to preface this by saying that these are just my experiences. There are different kinds of lower caste experiences based on the location of class, and gender, and whether they're in an urban or rural setting, those ideas and experiences change completely. So this is just me and I can just speak for myself. But, what it meant to be lower caste when I was a young person, when I was a child, was that some people in my family, not many generations ago, like maybe even my grandmother, they were, they were involved in the work of manual scavenging, which, for the listeners who don't know, it literally translates to cleaning human excrement. Sometimes bare hands, sometimes with no equipment and often scooping it up and carrying it in wooden baskets on top of your heads. So it was a shameful part of my identity. It was something that my parents told me that we had to overcome that we have to hide that because if other people find out that that's our history — which is frankly, I don't feel any shame about it anymore, because that is not the history that we chose. And there is pride in doing whatever we do and what we were forced to do on the base of our caste. So I have no shame in it anymore. But as a five-year-old, as a six-year-old, that shame was ingrained deeply. So that was the biggest marker, that first of all — you had to completely lie about who you were, you had to lead a different kind of life, when you were home, and you had to lead a different kind of life in your school or out with friends. And the other thing was that we had a different last name. So for example, my grandfather's last name was Das, D-A-S. And my dad's last name was Dutt. And my last name is Dutt. And I just didn't understand how those two are different because other families in my, my school or my neighborhood, they all shared the same last name, but we just didn't. And it didn't make sense to me. And when I would ask my parents, even as a young kid, they would say that this is just how it is, you will understand it when you grow older. So that sort of told me and the whole production of pretending that you are somebody else, right from the start, sort of told me that we were different, and not only different in a good way, but different in a way that we had to hide who we were. I didn't know what caste meant, as maybe a five, six-year-old, but I knew that it was something that was not good. And it was something that would bring me shame, that would cause people to laugh at me, that would cause people to not want to sit next to me, or not want to come to my house for birthday parties, for example. So as a young child, those experiences shaped my idea of who I was and what I had to do to make a space for myself in this world.
Sonia Paul 07:09
And so with regard to last names, can you talk a little bit about how caste is exemplified in a last name? Like, how should we understand what your grandfather's last name meant, versus your father's last name, versus your last name?
Yashica Dutt 07:29
Sure, so our family name that none of us carry anymore is Nidaniya, and that itself is an indicator that we are the Bhangi caste, b-h-a-n-g-i, the caste of manual scavengers. And like many other people in India do, we get rid of the names that are indicators of our origins and our castes. And at that time, if you live in an Indian society for long enough, you'll understand — you're made to learn what last name belongs to which caste. Even I wouldn't know the intricacies, I wouldn't be able to see a last name and say you are that caste, but I would know whether you're an upper caste or low caste person. So yeah, I think growing up you understand, like a Sharma last name, a Mishra last name, these two last names are Brahmin last names, which is the so-called uppermost castes, then an Agarwal last name is, if you have Agarwal friends, they are from the merchant class, which is also an upper caste. Which is not to say that there wasn't an ascending scale of superiority, it definitely existed. But in modern day India, upper castes, more or less fall in the same bracket. And the only distinction, so to speak, that exists socially and culturally is between untouchables and OBCs, which is the Other Backward Castes and the upper castes. So growing up, or being in an Indian society, which can exist in the US as well. You learn what name is associated with which caste. It's just culture.
Sonia Paul 08:58
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I noticed in your book, you talked about being able to talk in a sort of Indian English versus carry a regional accent, or light skin versus dark skin, or your taste in clothing and fashion. And I'm wondering if you can unpack how all these different signifiers somehow then became correlated with caste.
Yashica Dutt 09:23
Yeah, it's very interesting, because there are certain physical traits and certain characteristics that are associated with upper castes in India, which might or might not be true, because in the south, like, for example, there are lots of dark-skinned Brahmins. And so you can universally say that anyone who's light-skinned or fair, as we call it back home, is an upper-class person on anyone who's dark-skinned or dark, quote-unquote, is a lower caste person. But somehow those indicators have, you know, because there is so much going on. There's an internalized hatred for our skin color. There's internalized hatred for accent, it gets tangled with what it means to be lower caste. So the performance of being upper caste is somehow equated right now — especially for a person who's trying to transcend it — to being urban, to being English speaking, and to being light-skinned, westernized, having access to the kind of education that the other people think a lower caste person would certainly not. So when you transcend those barriers, you set yourself above all the questioning that might come as regard to what your cast is. For example, for me, I was told since I was very young, that I had to learn how to speak really good English, learn how to write really good English. I had to be extremely fashion-forward, whatever that meant in early 90s, in India. But I had to cultivate a sense of style, I had to be light-skinned, or fair. I've talked about this in the book that my mom was very insistent on me not looking tan, not looking darker, just being above the surface of all indicators of what it means to be lower caste. So she would create these homemade face packs. And I know they're very trendy right now. But in, in Indian culture, we've been using them forever. So you know, these dry or wet bags that it would turmeric or oats, or, you know, all the other trendy ingredients that you hear about.
Sonia Paul 11:28
Yeah, like a face mask.
Yashica Dutt 11:29
Yeah, face back is what I would,
Sonia Paul 11:31
Yeah, yeah. I know what like a face pack is. And I think here in the US, the closest thing they have to equate it with is a face mask, even though they're slightly different. But yeah, and so your mom would create these face packs for you, and --
Yashica Dutt 11:44
Right, when I was six, or seven. I've talked about in the book, a six or seven-year-old would not like something goey and gopy been put on their face every morning before they go to school and then have the remnants stuck on the ears, and other kids point out about something weird stuck on the ears that's dry and flaky, and then being made fun. The result was entirely different. My mom was doing it because she wanted me to be light-skinned, and my sister as well. But what was happening in my daily school life was it had a completely adverse effect. So it had this own complexity. The whole performance takes a toll on you if you're a child, and it takes a toll on you if you're a parent as well. So there were these things that I had to do. Be really good at school. Be really good at speaking English. Be really good at fashion, be very well turned out. And if I was all of those things, because not many people in India associate those markers with a lower caste or an untouchable identity, because untouchables are supposed to be universally dark, they're supposed to be dirty. That's the idea that people have — most untouchable identities, that they're supposed to be dark, they're supposed to be dirty, they're not supposed to know how to speak English, they're not even supposed to be educated. And in my parents' heads if I was able to transcend that somehow, then I could transcend caste, then I could do this performance of urban, upper-caste identity.
And they were accurate. I did that and nobody questioned my caste till I told people about it for 30 years. So in a way, I was able to transcend caste and pass very successfully as an upper-caste person. No one asked me what my caste was, I mean people did. The question was always permanent and always present. But when I told them that I was a Brahmin or an Agarwal or some other upper caste combination, they would believe me. And that was essential.
What did passing as a so-called upper caste person offer you?
A front-row seat to upper caste lives.
Sonia Paul 13:48
So what does that look like?
Yashica Dutt 13:53
That looks like my life. But if I had to unpack that, it meant that I didn't have to be discriminated. I escaped the kind of open discrimination that comes with declaring or having an obvious sort of Dalit or untouchable identity. It also meant that when people looked at me, they assumed that I was an upper-caste person. So the questions and the discrimination, like I mentioned, that would come my way. That stopped right there. It also meant that I could work as a journalist at one of the largest English language newspapers in India, and work in fashion, work in culture, without ever coming across the question of what my caste was. It meant that I could have friends where the question of caste didn't exist. There is a lot to unpack in that statement, because caste obviously exists everywhere, but in certain class structures, we like to pretend that of course, if you are here, that means you might be upper caste.
Sonia Paul 14:59
Like here in like the US, or?
Yashica Dutt 15:02
In this, if you're upper class, you're assumed to be upper caste, which is not necessarily true, because there are so many Dalit industrialists, there are so many Dalit entrepreneurs, there's so many Dalit engineers and doctors. But the idea still exists.
So coming back to the question, passing gave me a window of opportunity that wouldn't have been given to me if I was open with my Dalit identity. And I've written about this in the book as well, that I learned my lesson pretty quickly, especially at 15, when I talked about my Dalit identity to my friend and her parents. And it wasn't just me going and declaring it with a banner in my hand. They called me one day over — and they saw me with my friend, on and off, and they said, 'Why don't you come over and have tea?' And they asked me, the second question was, what's your caste? And in that moment, I had a decision to make, whether I was going to tell them the truth, or I was going to go on giving the same concoction of lies I've been saying for the past 15 years, I was 15, then. And I decided, you know what, these people are doctors. And they seem really progressive. And I'm sure they're educated, and they won't care about what my caste is. And I am their daughter's friend, and I go to school with her. I'm going to be okay.
So without raising my head — I was looking at the floor — without raising my head, I said, 'I'm from the scheduled caste.' And scheduled caste is another euphemism for untouchables or Dalits. It's list of castes, and it's a government given name. So I just said, I'm scheduled caste. And in that moment, I felt the vibe and the energy in that room change, like somebody had sucked the air out of there. And they fumbled, there was a minute of silence, and they said, 'Oh, you know, that's okay. It's fine. You know, we don't care about that. We don't care about that sort of thing. It's fine if you're a scheduled caste, we're really progressive.' And I was like, 'Oh, okay.' I knew they were saying that, but I knew they didn't mean it. So I walked out of the house thinking I had made a big mistake. And I shouldn't have said what I said, and I was right, because the next day when I saw my friend in the school bus, and I said hi to her, she turned away from me. She didn't even pretend to talk to me, she didn't even say my parents asked me not to speak to you anymore. She just turned away, like, she didn't know me. And that was the sharpest reminder of what my place was going to look like in the world, if I was going to be open with my identity, and I was like, 'Well, my mom was right. Always listen to mom.' And I stopped talking about my caste after that.
So that's what my life would have looked like. I might have had to lose some friends. I might have to worry about whether my friends, my teachers, my colleagues would accept me. By passing as an upper caste person, I didn't have to worry about all that.
Sonia Paul 18:05
I'm wondering because you mentioned in writing your book, you were borrowing a lot from the civil rights movement and thinking about parallels in the US. And I want to go into that. And just to start, why was it that you chose the word 'passing' to describe the way you latched on to a privileged caste identity?
Yashica Dutt 18:28
I read about this at grad school, I went to Columbia Journalism School, and we read about this concept of passing.
Sonia Paul 18:35
What is the concept of passing? Sorry, just for people who may not know?
Yashica Dutt 18:40
Well, I might not have the dictionary definition. But here's what I understand. It's when people — especially in terms of, if you're an African American person, and you somehow feel like you can pass off as a white person, then you do everything, you can change your racial identity in terms of dressing differently, or doing your hair up differently, or moving to a different neighborhood, having a different name, changing your speech patterns, cutting your ties with anybody who might give your identity away. And that's — from my understanding — that's the concept of passing. And when I read that, it was like a window that opened. I said, 'Wow, ha, that's something I know. That's something I've been doing for a long time.' For all my life. I didn't have to do it in New York anymore, because nobody was asking what my caste was here, so I could let my guard down. But in Delhi, in India, I had to do that performance over and over. Of course, it wasn't that extreme and wasn't even the same experience. It manifested itself in the context of caste, which looked entirely different. But the idea was that you were adopting a different identity, whether it was cultural or whether it was racial or whether it was caste identity. And a lot of it was coming out of the so-called internalized shame that you felt about who you were, and you wanted to hide that, you wanted to reject that. So for me, that's what passing looks like.
Sonia Paul 20:11
Yeah, it's interesting, I think there is a way... some people who think of any kind of aspiration, you know, whatever an aspirational class might look like to you, there's a way you might try to pass as that class without ever actually fulfilling that aspiration, if that makes sense.
Yashica Dutt 20:35
I mean, I definitely think there are different kinds of passing. But racial passing, for sure, and caste-based passing also, are rooted in shame. When you transcend class, sure, you are trying to fit in, you grew up in a certain neighborhood, and you're trying to transcend into a different lifestyle. And that happens too, and that is a certain type of passing. But this is rooted in your identity. Racial and caste identities are, in my opinion, a lot stronger than class identities, because they are these rigid systems that are created, that have been in place for the very reason that you're not supposed to break out of them. So in that sense, in my opinion, when you're passing from a race or from a caste, it looks very different. And I think it has a completely different impact.
Sonia Paul 21:33
I'm wondering, because people often talk about the relationship or parallel between caste and racism, and caste and class. But as you've mentioned, class alone is not something through which we can gauge a person's caste. So how then does drawing that parallel, either support or refute what caste ought to be? Am I making sense?
Yashica Dutt 22:05
Yeah, I understand what you're getting at. And I get that question all the time. So how does it work in the context of outside a South Asian community, because caste exists in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well. So it's not just an Indian thing. So I would say the closest parallel is race. And it's not class, because as with race, you can be an Emmy Award-winning person, and you still have difficulty finding a cab on the street. Or, you could be from whatever class and still be stopped on a traffic light, and be discriminated, and have all the horrible experiences that come with being African American in this country. As with caste, you could be a Dalit industrialist, and you could go into someone's house, and you would still not be offered water because they think you're polluted, or they think you're dirty. And that did not change. They wouldn't have offered you water, a glass of water, which carries a lot of cultural significance, especially in Indian culture. When you offer someone a glass of water, it means that you are treating your guests with respect, you're welcoming them in your home, you're honoring them. And when you refuse that honor to somebody, if they're Dalit, it doesn't matter how much money they've had, or how rich they've become, they will have to face the same kind of discrimination. Dalit industrialists have a really difficult time starting industry, starting small businesses in particular. As I've mentioned in the book, Dalit people who want to start small businesses don't get funding, they don't get the kind of network and community support they should. For example, food stall, because the idea of purity versus pollution, which is at the crux of this issue of caste lends itself most to food. My mother tried to start a small business in our hometown in Rajasthan. And everybody advised her that if you do that, they know your caste, no one's going to come and eat the food cooked by you. Because your touch in itself is polluting. Similarly, if a Dalit person starts a snack store. People aren't going to go visit it because they know it's that Dalit person's shop, and that's how that shop gets labeled as, or that's how some other industry gets labeled as. This is that so-called caste person's shop. We don't do business with them. A same person with the same kind of resources, same circumstances, who is an upper caste person would not have those limitations, would not face that discrimination in the first place. For example, Agarwal, which is a merchant cast. A network of Agarwal vendors who would be so happy to support another Agarwal who's trying to start a business, because that's what our girls do. They have businesses. It's a generalization, but more often than not in India, at least that's the case. So that's how caste manifests itself, especially in terms of class. I am in New York. And if I had to go back home, and I did visit home, I visited Delhi in February. And by then I'd come out as a Dalit person. I wrote a Facebook note in 2016. And everybody knew who I was. And I saw attitudes change. And you could call me, an upper middle-class person in India. And nobody would openly discriminate against me because I only stuck around with people — self preservation, I only stuck around people who I knew would not do that to me. But even so, I saw attitudes change. When I came to Columbia, and I came out and as Dalit, journalists who work in major newspapers in India wondered how could that person be at Columbia? And they forgot that Dr. BR Ambedkar, who is — you know, who's our version of MLK, he spent a lot of time at Columbia, and Columbia really honors his legacy in a big way. But back home, journalists are wondering how did a Dalit person, how did an untouchable person, even get to Columbia? Or when I came out, people on Twitter were telling me, you don't even look Dalit. They still tell me that online. Everybody tells me how I don't look Dalit. Or if I speak English, I might be a Christian Dalit. That's another, that's a whole other story. We don't have to get into that right now. But yeah, sure, you can transcend class, it's easier to do that. But your caste will stay with you. Unless, like me, you make a lot of effort to hide it, which itself takes its own toll.
Sonia Paul 26:24
Yeah. You know, you chose the phrasing of 'coming out' as Dalit to describe that experience. And it makes me think about how members of the LGBTQ community, the queer community, use that phrase to actually show who they really are. And I was wondering if that was something that you are also thinking about, versus It was just something that seemed like natural to you.
Yashica Dutt 26:52
It's exactly what I was thinking about before I decided to write this note. And I wanted to contextualize my experience of whether it was relying on the word passing, or whether it was using the term coming out, I wanted to rely on terms that we already knew of, in popular culture and mainstream culture, to articulate what my experience looked like. Because as far as I was concerned, there was not much literature available on what it meant like to live a life in hiding, and what it meant like, especially as a Dalit person, what it meant like to come out of that life. I didn't know anybody who had done that. And it was new for me. So I wanted to use ideas and theories and terms that were readily available. And that when I said those things, people would say, okay, that's what that means. So when I thought about coming out, it was — and of course, this is in no way to compare my experience to an LGBTQ experience, that's completely different. But in terms of ideologies, and how experiences can feel like, it really was, like coming out of the closet, it really was like hiding your identity for decades, and worrying what would happen to you, if you reveal that identity to the world, and how you take your time. And it's a whole art. It's a process of how you come to terms with who you are, and who you reject the shame that has been ingrained in you about who you are. And you allow yourself to own that, and you allow yourself to feel pride in that. So in those ways, that experience felt very similar. And like I said, I wanted people to understand because there was no language for that. And I just thought this was the best way for us to do it. As a journalist, that's what we do. You know, we explain how people can understand them best.
Sonia Paul 28:50
Right. Can you like talk more about this note that you wrote on Facebook? For people who don't know anything about it? Like, what was that note, and what was the tipping point to spur you to write it?
Yashica Dutt 29:05
So it wasn't just the note. You know, I just want to take you back a little bit what happened before the note. I came to Columbia Journalism School in 2014. And I was exposed to these wonderful, amazing ideas. I was exposed to what it means to be a part of a system that's so intrinsic, and that's so rigid, that it's really not up to you as an individual to just break out of it. And when I was exposed to these, these wonderful, life-altering, for me at least, theories, I really started thinking about what it meant to be Dalit. And even in one of the essays I wrote in my class, there was a question about what your identity is, and I thought about identity was a woman, my identity was the fact that I lived in an urban area, I lived in Delhi. But I couldn't ignore that my identity was also a caste identity.
And I'd been mulling over that question for a while, especially being a part of really good classes, we talked about what our identities meant to us and how they go a long way in shaping our idea of the world. And I also saw that there was a space in the United States, especially at that time, to talk about different kinds of identities, that there was a positive reception to that, that when you talked about your pain, your trauma, when you talked about what it means to have lived that kind of life, there were people who would listen to you and there were people who would empathize. So I felt more and more free to discuss that idea. I felt more free to discuss my life. And I obviously graduated in 2015. And I started thinking about what I wanted to do next, and how I could put into words or create something out of this question of being Dalit. And then in early 2016, I was freelancing as a journalist, I heard about this student, his name is Rohith Vemula. And he was 26 years old at the time, and he was a Dalit student leader. And he committed suicide.
Sonia Paul 31:15
Yashica Dutt 31:16
In India, in Hyderabad University. He was a student at Hyderabad University and he committed suicide or as how I would put it, he was forced to institutionally commit suicide, because he was discriminated against, for speaking out against the casteist policies of the administration, for raising his voice, for being a student leader, for standing for what he believed in. And he was also from an extremely lower class. He had to do multiple jobs to survive, his mother had to do multiple jobs for him to go to school. And they stopped his fellowship money. And when you have no money to survive, and you feel like you can't go on living a life that you believe in, but you can't do anything else either. He was forced to hang himself. But before he did that, he wrote this beautiful letter, where he talked about his hopes and dreams and how, when you're from lower caste in India, you're reduced, you're identity is reduced to just a number. And what he meant by that number was that you're just a vote, a ballot for the politicians twist and turn at their will. And he talked about how he wanted to write about science, how he wanted to talk about the stars, how he wanted to just learn and educate himself. But now he wouldn't be able to do that. And it was poignant and poetic and really moving. And it started circulating on Facebook. And I ignored it for one full day. But one day on 20th January in 2016, I was sitting at a coffee shop in Chelsea. I was like, 'Well, I have to read what this is about.' I knew it would take some time. And I would need the mental capacity to deal with it. Because I knew that this kid was Dalit. But when I read this note, it just, time stopped and everything converged to my laptop screen. And that's all that mattered for the next 40 minutes as I read that note over and over again. And it really made an effect on me not because of how beautiful the note was, which it was. But because I had never read any Dalit writing in English before. And that really shattered my own perception. Not that it didn't exist, it did. But I was so far removed from that by my own doing and also not wanting to expose myself as being Dalit, that I'd never read any Dalit person who wrote in English before this, and so beautifully. And also in his life, I saw parallels to my own, in the sense that the kind of struggles that his mother had to undergo, and how as a single mother, she raised her children. And despite everything, despite being a construction worker, which in India, it means extremely low wages, unlivable wages, and hardships, physically hard working conditions. And it's not what we think of as construction workers in the US, which is an extremely respectable union protected job. In India, it's a different reality. And his mother did all of those jobs, whatever she could to make sure her children went to school. And my mother did that too. So I realized that we weren't just separated by a hair of reality, then my life could be that, and I could be him. And that really moved me. And I realized that I'm sitting in this cafe in New York, and I just got this great education from Columbia. What am I doing with it?
I'm a journalist, I needed to do something and I needed to talk about my own experience and create a space for people like me. People like Rohith. What I didn't know at that time, that communities where people could talk about caste, and people could discuss their experiences already existed. I just didn't know of them and I wanted to do something.
So I started a Tumblr. And I called it Documents of Dalit Discrimination, which was a safe space for people to talk about the caste experiences, because a lot of online discourse on caste in India can be taken over by debates on affirmative action, which can get really ugly, and casteist slurs and just open and bald discrimination. So I didn't want my Tumblr to do that. I wanted us to share our history, to share our trauma and to cultivate pride in who we are, and to honor Rohith's memory. So I created this Tumblr, and I wanted to tell everybody on my timeline about it, I wanted to announce it. And I wanted it to be read by more people so that they write to me and this space could become a thriving space for all of us. And I realized that I can't do that unless I talked about my own story, my own story of passing, of growing up as a Dalit person, of hiding my identity, and now being where I was. So I decided I had to come out as a Dalit person. And that's what I did in that note, and sort of went viral in India and among the Indian community in the US and abroad. And it took a life of its own, I wrote a little more, and then I ended up getting a book deal out of that.
Sonia Paul 36:23
In the submissions you got of Dalit discrimination, what parts of the world did they come from?
Yashica Dutt 36:29
They came from all parts of India, they came from Nepal, some of them came from Pakistan, I think some of them came from the US as well. But most of it was from the South Asian subcontinent. And people were talking about, yes, this is how I feel. This is how I felt all my life, I just didn't have a space to talk about it. So there were all these varied experiences coming in. And that made me — made me feel less alone. And as I continued posting them, from the messages that I was receiving, everybody said that it made them feel less alone as well.
Sonia Paul 37:09
Your book is largely about the experience of caste in India. What's been your experience of caste in the United States?
Yashica Dutt 37:20
It's complex, and slightly nuanced, because United States is the place where I learned how to put my guard down. New York was a city that taught me how to truly be myself, without having to worry about facing caste at the next corner. Because I was not just surrounded by Indians, I was surrounded by other people from other parts of the world. Also, it was in New York and New York specifically, where, when I first time talked about my caste in my classroom, people were shocked. People were angry for me. And I was so neutralized. And I had internalized that idea so deeply by that point that I just talked about it in a very casual matter of fact way. When I saw my classmates' faces and their reactions, that's when I realized that this was something I needed to be angry about as well. So in that sense, the US gave me the freedom to thrive and the empathy that I hadn't received before to talk about my caste experiences. And also, it gave me the idea that if I express myself, I would still be respected. But that was in a multicultural community. In an Indian community, which I have had very few experiences of an Indian only community. So I am not going to be able to exclusively speak about that. But I am certain that in an Indian community, the question of caste would come up, if not, with first-generation, second-generation Indian Americans, or Asian Indians, it would come up with their parents. It would come up when I went to the house. They would ask very casually, 'Beta,' which means like child, 'what's your caste? What do your parents do, which part of the country you're from? What's your caste?' And then I would have to lie again. And then if I chose to lie, then it would be, it would mean doing that whole performance, carrying it to the US. And if I didn't choose to lie, that would mean that the parents wouldn't like me, or they would not want the children to hang out with me or God forbid, if I had a romantic interest in a South Asian person. They wouldn't want that child to marry me for sure, unless they were Dalit themselves. So caste is still very much a part of the Indian community in the US. It exists, it's alive, it's present. And it's considered cultural. A very, vivid example of how caste is alive and well is that California book law case.
Sonia Paul 39:53
Yashica Dutt 39:54
Textbook, yeah. Where a community of Indian Americans in California, which you might be familiar with, talked about how they wanted the word caste to be removed from textbooks in American schools. Because they thought that this was being used to bully their children, that people were asking their children about what caste meant, and their kids would be very threatened by that. Which, from the Dalit community, they were wonderful activists and other South Asian activists as well, who opposed that. Because that is the very clear and present reality of an Indian society, you cannot hide that you can't say that my child feels bullied. So please don't talk about caste. Maybe you should tell your child and also yourself to not practice caste, or to maybe give them strategies of how to cope with that question, instead of completely erasing that. And there were these moving testimonies by children, gave these moving speeches about, you know, how India is not casteist anymore. It's a casteless society, we don't even practice it. But if you ask those parents, their parents, to marry their children to an untouchable person, I don't think they would agree to that. Very few would, because I've seen examples, even within the Indian American community where they openly talk about, 'oh, we're planning for our son or daughter to get married. And we're looking within our own caste.' So that hasn't gone away. And I think if I may add that, it's stunning how the Indian American community has managed to keep the question of caste so subdued, it's just, it blows my mind. Because it's like a secret that we don't want to share with anybody else. Because outside of the community, most Americans have no idea. And when I speak to them, and they asked me what my work is, they asked me, 'isn't that a thing of the past? Isn't that something that existed in ancient India?' And that's completely untrue. Caste is very much a reality. And also, because of how the history of Indian American migration to the United States has been, only a certain type of person with a certain location and caste and class has managed to make it. The kind of Indian American immigrant that we know, in a mainstream cultural way, is most of the times and upper castes and an upper-class person, or at least a middle-class person. It is near impossible for somebody to come legally to United States, to come as a documented immigrant, unless they have the resources and the means to do that. And how the structure works back in India, mostly people with the resources and means to do that are the upper caste people. So a swath of the population in the US of Indian Americans looks like upper caste and upper class, and they're very happy to hide this grim reality of what the society really is. They're happy to not talk about it, and they're very happy to call it 'culture.' If it's culture, then that's the culture that we should be thinking of getting rid of, because it's harming and leading to brutal discrimination, deaths, murders, and rapes of people.
Sonia Paul 43:12
Yeah, I mean, why? Why do you think it's become known as culture?
Yashica Dutt 43:20
Well, it's the same way that, that misogyny in Indian American communities is called culture, it's the same way that anything that has to do with taking away the power of women is called as culture, it's because it's convenient. It's because it's the way things are done back home. And there are beautiful, amazing things from Indian culture that we should honor and cherish and keep alive. We have great traditions, in all religions in India. But caste is not a tradition that you want to keep alive. Neither is the particular brand of South Asian misogyny that comes from back home. And somehow instead of processing and unpacking that, we just bring it here. And we just keep it, you know, under our beds, and we just allow it to grow. And we say 'Don't touch that. That's my culture.'
Sonia Paul 44:11
Do you think it's that people are hiding it or that people don't know that it is caste?
Yashica Dutt 44:21
It goes both ways, right? I mean, you have to hide something for someone to not know. If I introduced myself to somebody today. And I would say, I am from India, and I'm from an untouchable caste. Because that's my identity. It is obviously a lot more complicated than that. There are different reasons to why I would do that. But when you speak to your friends are non-Indian, non-South Asian about what India is like and what Indian culture is, if you leave out caste, then you doing your culture disservice. And honestly, it's not somebody's fault.
It's because caste is such an ingrained part of Indian society that we don't even think of it as anything out of the ordinary. You introduce yourself as a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian, but you don't talk about caste, because it's taken for granted. And if you're upper caste, it works because it doesn't affect you. If you're untouchable, or Dalit. Or if you're from another backward class, which is the lowest caste in the caste system, then it affects you, then you want to talk about it, you want to bring up the discrimination that happens with you. But if you're enjoying the benefits of a system, then it's very easy for you to be caste neutral, or say, 'Oh, we don't believe in caste anymore, because I'm benefiting from it.' It doesn't affect me at all.
Sonia Paul 45:44
Yashica Dutt 45:45
So it goes both ways.
Sonia Paul 45:47
This moment you've described of sharing your experience with your classmates at Columbia? Were there Indians or other South Asians in that group?
Yashica Dutt 45:58
Sonia Paul 45:59
How do you think the presence of other South Asians would have influenced how you negotiated that experience?
Yashica Dutt 46:08
I would have been mindful of how freely, quote-unquote, I could speak about this, or what would be the reaction to me expressing myself, or if I would get into a confrontation with my classmate. I would definitely have thought about whether I want to talk about this. Whether I want to go deep, whether I want to be so open with what I'm saying. Having a South Asian person in that group would have changed my answer to that question about what is your identity? What are your experiences with that identity? So I would have, I would have thought about it, maybe I would not have had the same reaction. Or maybe I would have censored myself, maybe I would have redacted myself a little bit.
Because even some friends that I went to school with were from the Indian community who were Indians, were extremely shocked to find out that I was a lower caste person. And of course, they were my friends. And they were on board with what I was saying, they understood it. But they said to me that 'we didn't think about caste in the same way as you think about. And if you talked about this with us, before you wrote the book, and before you wrote the note, then we would have tried to contest it in some way, we would have said, but oh, but you know, I am upper caste, but I grew up poor. So how is that any better than you?'
Sonia Paul 47:32
They said that to you? And what did you say?
Yashica Dutt 47:36
I said, 'Go read my book.' No, I had, I had a conversation with them. And I explained to them that class and caste manifests itself in very different ways. You have a whole support system of a caste that is not known to do manual scavenging, that is known to do anything else but deal with human excrement, or deal with dead animals. That's not what your caste chosen profession is. So if you want to do business, or if you want to become an academic, or if you want to start a small business, then you will have way more support, than an untouchable person trying to leave their job that is assigned to them by their caste and to come and start a small business. That would affect them that much more, and that would affect them differently. Also, there are many layers to this question about how caste plays out, versus how class plays out in India. And the kind of support structures and how difficult it is for people to transcend one or the other, and how you might be discriminated for being poor. But you don't get discriminated for being Dalit.
A poor and Dalit person gets discriminated for being poor and being Dalit.
Sonia Paul 48:49
Before he first came to the US. What was your image of the typical South Asian in this country, and did caste factor into that image at all?
Yashica Dutt 49:02
My image of a South Asian person in this country was a doctor, an engineer, somebody who worked in tech, more or less, like most people in this country. And a lot of people back home. I thought you had to have the kind of money, which is true. Not everybody has a lot of resources to be able to do that. But I didn't unpack the idea of how caste played a role because I was already performing the identity of being upper caste at that time. So I didn't think that would be an extremely different experience for me versus them. It was just a question of whether I had the resources. And the reason I didn't have the kind of resources has to do with what caste I came from in a big way.
Sonia Paul 49:50
So, I mean that and given some scholarship that's been done on immigration trends and how US immigration policy functions to prefer immigrants who are highly skilled or come from certain educational backgrounds that would benefit from caste privilege in the South Asian context -- it is safe to say that regardless if people are thinking about it or not, this idea of a professional engineer or doctor relates to coming from an ancestry that was historically privileged, meaning an upper-caste identity.
Yashica Dutt 50:35
Absolutely. I mean, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in this country. And we are known to have incomes that are way higher than the national average. Of course, that's not the case back home. But the idea of Indians in the US is rich, because of a certain reason, because of who we are accepting here, and what are the caps on income, and what allows you to get an H-1B visa, or any other kind of visa, and how, you know, that sifts through who's being allowed and who's not being allowed. But like you've correctly identified, historically, access to wealth, and access to resources has been something that only upper castes could do. Because — let's not forget Dalits, untouchables weren't even allowed in education till like, 150 years ago. I've talked about this, my great grandfather — which is not that many generations ago, if you think about it, he was alive till 1980, 1990 — he went to school, and he was not allowed to hold a pencil. Because that's not what untouchables did. Because if they held a pencil, or if they held a slate — that's how you wrote back in the early 1900s in India — if you held a slate, then the slate would get polluted. Or the rock that it came from, would get polluted, because that's how polluting, and that's how dirty that's how demeaning the touch of an untouchable person was, that even a slate would get dirty, and then it could be unfit for use. So if you wanted to be educated, you had to sit outside the classroom, and you had to learn the alphabet by scrawling a stick in the mud, because that's the only thing you were allowed to hold. So if a community is inherently denied access to education, for fundamentally for generations, how are they supposed to acquire any kind of wealth? They were starting — and this is a beautiful metaphor that's been often used for race in this country — they were starting so far behind the starting line. Whereas upper-class people were way far ahead. With their generations of education, their generations of privilege, with their generations of resources, that it's going to take us a really long time to even become equal. Which is why it directly reflects in who are the people who are coming to the US, and how the Indian American population looks like. Which is not to say that Dalits don't exist. Sujatha Gidla, who is also a Dalit person, who wrote the beautiful Ants Among Elephants, to much acclaim, is a Dalit person and lives in New York, she worked for the MTA at that point. So the US also has Dalits. I know so many amazing scientists and engineers and doctors who are Dalits. But because we are seen as a monolith, that question doesn't arise. We're just seen as blanket, affluent upper caste people, upper-caste for people who know about caste.
Sonia Paul 53:28
I mean, but who's we when you're talking about because we're seen as a monolith? Who are you talking about?
Yashica Dutt 53:33
The Asian Indian community. That's the Indian American community in the United States.
Sonia Paul 53:38
Yeah. And I mean, I think it's also hard for some people to grasp because caste really functions throughout all of South Asia. But there's a particular conversation around caste in India. And I'm wondering why you think that is?
Yashica Dutt 53:56
India is the largest country in the subcontinent. Let's start with that. A bulk of the South Asian community is made up of Indians. Also, Hinduism, which is basically the religion where caste comes from, is heavily practiced in India. It's heavily practiced in Nepal. Which is not to say Pakistan doesn't have its own version of caste, it definitely does. It's morphed, it's a nuanced idea. It's morphed into a cultural trait more than a religious trait now. But ultimately, and fundamentally, it's Hinduism, where caste comes from. And the maximum number of Hindus in the subcontinent are from India, which is why India sort of dominates — I mean, in my mind, for me, and especially being an Indian, it kind of dominates the question of caste in the United States in particular.
Sonia Paul 54:54
You mentioned Sujatha, who wrote the book Ants Among Elephants — I haven't read the book yet, but from what I understand, she also talks about her experience in India. And I'm just wondering, you know, these discussions of like, you know, it's just culture here in the US. What are some other indicators, though, of caste functioning in the US that may be those with a caste lens might realize is caste-oriented, but others might just interpret as so-called culture.
Yashica Dutt 55:27
I think marriages. In the US in particular, marriages are the biggest indicator of caste, and how that system is still continuing over generations. And Indian weddings are known to be lavish, are known to be rooted in tradition and culture, but caste is as much as part of that culture. So that's one. Secondly, I think, if you have an Indian-owned workplace, and that's — of course, I won't be able to give you any data on this, because this is something that has been told to me in confidence, but I'm aware of — not every — but one or two Indian-owned workplaces, where somebody's caste identity, or majority of Indians or somebody who runs it, the caste identity often comes up. It might not be a question of whether we want to discriminate against them or not. But definitely, the question will come up. Or, are you vegetarian or non-vegetarian? That is also a major distinction because Dalits or untouchables are inherently like — a lot of people give up eating meat for cultural and other health reasons or personal beliefs. But traditionally, the divide is, if you're non-vegetarian, you might be an untouchable person, or a lot of people hold on to their vegetarianism with not just a sense of saving the environment or being good to the animals, but a sense of superiority, a sense of purity. That is very specifically a South Asian trait, that I, my food is purer than yours, because it has not been contaminated by meat. And that often and not always, because there's so many upper caste people who consume meat. But that tends to become, in certain areas, a marker of what caste identity is. And I know it's a little complicated for somebody who's not familiar with caste or Indian culture to grasp that. But if you are Indian, you know what I'm talking about. Somebody can just say, 'Oh, you eat meat? Well, yeah. Don't sit next to me. I can't tolerate this. Or please don't cook your food in my utensils if you eat meat, because it's going to pollute the food that I cook in future.' Especially beef, which I mean, a lot of Indians are known to not eat beef, but little known fact is that Dalit community is known to consume beef, because that was the only source of protein for somebody who was poor. And especially if you were dealing with dead animals, and you had no food to eat, you didn't have time for purity and pollution debate, you just wanted to feed your family. So this blanket idea that Indians don't eat beef is not true. So I think food can be a major indicator of what someone's caste is. I think in certain academic circles, it's present where people find, especially if you're working on Dalit subjects, Dalit related issues, then that questions comes out, are you Dalit? Or are you not, especially in the US? And if the answer is yes, then it definitely — it's so subconscious. Because it's not the color of your skin. Unlike race. That bias manifests itself in very subtle but insidious ways. If that makes sense.
Sonia Paul 58:48
I want to go back to the moment where we first met, and it was at this like Ambedkar association of North America celebration. And I was wondering what your experience of Dalitness was like in that situation? And if you could talk like, what is that association?
Yashica Dutt 59:09
Sure. But Sonia, you might not recall, we didn't meet there first. We first met in New Delhi at an alumni meeting, when you came to talk about how great it was to come to Columbia.
Sonia Paul 59:22
I remember that I was wearing a white salwar kameez. And I had actually just come from — well, from Lucknow, but I was in Delhi to, yeah, be present for my tabla guruji's funeral. And I remember though, yeah, it was a community of people, of Columbia graduates. Wow. Yes.
Yashica Dutt 59:43
Yeah, I remember that. But moving forward.
Sonia Paul 59:45
Yeah. So our second time meeting was at Columbia, where we got to talk more one on one in person.
Yashica Dutt 59:53
Sonia Paul 59:53
And yeah, but what was your experience of Dalit identity in that space, and what, what was being created there?
Yashica Dutt 1:00:02
I did not know that the word Dalit could signify so much empowerment till I had met the Dalits in the US, in New York.
Before that, I was trying to convince myself, I was trying to tell myself that, no, I want to be proud of who I am. And I believed it, of course. And I'd read Dr. Ambedkar's work. And I felt galvanized, I felt charged, I felt excited, proud about who I was. But really until I met, that community of people who were just themselves, there was no shame in what your caste was. There were people from so many parts of the United States, who had come from different parts of the country. All of us spoke different languages, except English. And I went there, and I just felt, for the first time among South Asians, I felt accepted. I felt like I found the people I was looking for.
There was this unfettered pride in who you are. And you could feel it, just, the energy of that place was so charged. It was the 125th birth anniversary celebration of Dr. BR Ambedkar. And it took place in Barnard College, opposite Columbia, why I mentioned that is because it had personal significance to me, because I presented a paper, I was on a panel. I talked about atrocities on Dalits in India, especially on women. And when I stood on that podium, and it dawned on me that I was surrounded by all these beautiful Dalit people. And I had this huge portrait of Ambedkar behind me. And across the street was where, in 1917, at Columbia, he first understood and explained caste in his master's thesis. And I mean, of course, caste had been talked a lot before that, but from a Dalit, that was huge, that held huge significance. And it became a moment that I don't think I can ever forget, where I'm surrounded by all this legacy and all this history. And for the first time, I'm learning to look at it with absolute pride. And that's when I realized that there is no need for shame, and how fake and how forced and artificial, the idea of caste is. That experience really opened my eyes. Because I saw people who were smart, who were bright, who were intellectual, who had multiple degrees, who were everything, that at least the world in India, the society, the small, self-contained world in India, things of Dalits to not be, and it shattered my own expectations. And when I saw all these people filled with so much strength, and so much energy and confidence, it really blew my mind. And I realized that I'm never going to be ashamed of being Dalit ever again. This, this small community in New York exists. And there is hope that we can replicate this in India and other Indian communities across the world, including the US.
Sonia Paul 1:03:29
Something I've been observing and wondering about is that, you know, there are a lot of prominent South Asians in this country. You know, whether they're lawyers who have come to political prominence, or actors, stars, philanthropists, tech entrepreneurs.
As far as I've observed, nobody has really talked about caste. And I'm wondering if you think about that, and what would happen if they considered this issue?
Yashica Dutt 1:04:02
I think about that all the time. I look at somebody and I, and I wonder what their caste is. And more often than not, I look at the last name, and I know the answer is upper caste. And like I said, it doesn't serve any purpose for them to talk about caste at all. As far as they know, it really is a thing of the past. It really doesn't matter for them, that if certain people from a lower caste are killed in certain part of India, because it's not something that affects them directly. They see no reason to bring that issue up. It's not present or persistent, which is why we need somebody who is Dalit, and Indian American, to really bring that issue to the forefront because it is us to whom this issue is personal.
We are the ones who feel the brunt of that discrimination. It is not a priority for somebody who is upper caste to talk about this and also, I think, to give credit where it's due, I don't think they have the opportunity to talk about caste in that sense, either. I mean, for a mainstream US audience, to introduce that complicated idea is also a task. A Dalit activist, going to national prominence, and then talking about this, I definitely see that happening. But I have no hopes from an upper caste person to bring that issue up on their own.
Sonia Paul 1:05:40
Something else this kind of relates to then, it makes me wonder, what do you think is the narrative of the South Asian diaspora in the US, if it is that some issues are more urgent to some than others, and it would take a certain kind of person to bring this to the forefront? When we are perceived as a demographic, we are perceived, more or less as a homogenous group, even though there's great variation. So what then ought we to do about how we can create a narrative that encompasses all these intricacies and complexities without diluting them?
Yashica Dutt 1:06:26
Are you asking me how we can?
Sonia Paul 1:06:29
Yeah, I mean, what's the way to move forward to tell a story, that, that maybe is not like, willing to wait, for example?
Yashica Dutt 1:06:40
I think it's on us as storytellers to bring up these issues and ideas and make them mainstream and widespread in mainstream American culture. I think we need to, as storytellers, in every art form, whether we're in media, or we're in Hollywood, or on television, we need to bring about caste. And I think like, Master of None did a great job. And keeping Aziz's personal politics and his personal history aside for a moment — that if you just look at the show, I think it did a good job in, in showcasing Muslim Indian identity, and what that meant. So that was a story he could talk about because it was personal to him. And as a storyteller, he created a shift in the dynamic that, 'Oh, there are Muslim Americans. Hasan Minhaj is doing that.
So, you know, he talks about his identity. So I think, because of our space, as minority as a so-called model minority in this country, it makes sense for us to talk about our own stories. I'm not saying everyone should do that, and they shouldn't talk about other ideas, but I understand why people make that choice. So as journalists, and as filmmakers and screenwriters, when we are looking at different Indian American identities, maybe it makes sense to also discuss their caste.
Sonia Paul 1:08:24
Is there anything that we didn't touch upon that you think is important to get out that is worthwhile to ponder or debate further or should be our lasting thought or takeaway?
Yashica Dutt 1:08:42
I think you covered pretty much everything. Indian American community, my experiences back home. I think we've got it covered.
Sonia Paul 1:08:50
Thank you so much, Yashica. This has been really wonderful.
Coming Out As Dalit, by Yashica Dutt
Ants Among Elephants, by Sujatha Gidla
If you’re curious about the California textbook controversy, have a listen to this story I reported on it, which aired back in 2017.