When learning about untouchability from those subject to it, I wondered how anyone knew what caste you were. Everyone looked kind of broke – tattered clothing and skinny (inversion into the body, kate moss on crack, heroin and diet pills skinny). The poor represented every hue you could possibly imagine: from Wesley Snipes to Yellowman and some even beyond that. Only the tribals stood out because of the type of fabrics that they wore and tattoos that adorned their bodies. Otherwise, though, everyone looked a like.
Now, initially, I thought that maybe it was an acquired taste. Put black folk from around the US in the same room and many would just conclude: they all black folk. For someone who was aware and familiar, however, they would be able to tell urban from rural, north from south from west from Midwest. The differences are subtle but you could get some of them. I was told that this was not the case in India and I did not see it.
In answer to my question about how someone knew what caste you were from, I was told that people told you. It was part of the introduction: my name is x from the bla bla bla in z.
Now, I immediately though that was crazy. I mentioned that this was different from the states. I was under the impression that if a black person during the early 1900s (the best comparison to the situation of the rural Dalit) could have gotten away with it, they would frequently try to "pass" – pretend to be someone that was not likely to get their ass kicked. Why would you opt into oppression, I wondered.
The answer I received was simple: it would not occur to someone to say that they are something other than what they are. This was because: 1) identities were much more strongly fixed in Indian culture – you are born and die into castes, 2) they acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with who we are but it is the system of oppression and repression that is in need of change. Now, I readily admit that this might just be a function of who I was interacting with. The commonality of the opinion was significant though.
While respecting the nobility of the latter position and difficulty of the first, I was still not able to get my head around this. My own family (on my mother's side), was still divided on the color line – the lighter part of the klan (who had interestingly all achieved higher levels of education and income – as cops, exporters and teachers) were quite distinct from the darker skin part of the klan (who were laborers, domestics and prisoners). I even noticed that the more education I got, the more invitations I started receiving from the lighter side. This was until the great “Why do Niggers bite the hand the feeds them incident” set against Whitney Houston singing to the troops after the Gulf conflict – another story for another time.
The paradox was not lost on me. One individual at DSK had come from another part of India. In his home state he was an untouchable. In that space/place he was subject to a wide variety of discriminatory activities as were his friends, family and neighbors. In Gujarat though, his caste was not considered untouchable. Here, he was above the fray, receiving a small degree of respect and access. This was astounding to me thinking that in one locale one would be a nigger and in another they would be a regular civilian. "Why would one ever go back home," I thought. "Do you want to stay? What are you going to do?" I hit him with a barrage of questions, thinking about what my relatives would have done had they had the choice.
To all of my inquiries he said: “on this point, I am very much perplexed.” Every now and then he would elaborate. “I wish to help change my situation at home,” he would sometimes say. “I do like not feeling like I do not exist,” he would add another. Always though, he would come back to “on this point, I am very much perplexed.”
After about three weeks of hearing this, he asked me: “what do you think I should do?” The question struck me. I could either advance a revolution or stick him back in chains. I should not interfere, I thought, like the prime directive used by those in Star Trek regarding the non-interference with diverse civilizations. But he asked me. I would be remiss if I did not tell him what I thought. I asked for some time to think about it and after about two weeks I had something for him.
After some thought, I came to think of his question to me as something less of a question than a test. I remembered where I was and who came to DSK. The next time I saw him, I said that "it was not perplexing. Of course, he had to return. That said, he should come back to DSK when he could to remember what he was doing this for." Upon hearing this, he smiled at me and said that he knew I would come to understand. He then flipped the script on me and asked, "why African Americans did try to pass" - historically (we talked about more modern forms of passing as well but that is also for another time). Why would they seemingly accept the legitimacy of the system and get by as an individual leaving the collective. Immediately defensive, I started to respond. How dare he diss the brothers and sisters that did the best they could. I caught myself though and reflected. The only thing that came to mind was one phrase and I gave it to him with a bit of a grin: “on this point, I am very much perplexed.” He smiled. As was frequently the case, we had some tea and then we left each other – off to our respective parts of the planet to comprehend, to reflect and of course to struggle.
He never left me though. The idea of passing has come back to me repeatedly. What does it mean to be African American? What would passing look like? What would not passing look like? Who gets to validate blackness? Is the time of passing over or has it just reached a new phase? Hmmmmmmmmmm