Last week at the Kennedy Center, Vir Das, an Indian comedian spoke about the pain many of us carry with us, not knowing how to soothe. He spoke for the silence we carry as we believed their lie that we don’t have enough worthy words within us anyway. He spoke of the anger that we have buried, the fear, the shame, the guilt and the helplessness. What Vir Das did was laudable yet from his words, we learned nothing that we had not already known but from his sense of duty, we learn the extraordinary power of the word in collective healing, the urgency solidarity for transformational justice. The power of his monologue is in the conversations we have, the discomfort we face with guts because his lyrics made us feel or at least open our eyes to what we have been feeling from the start.
He inspired us with a disruption we desperately needed, but if our disruption continues to invade the lives of those we benefit from marginalization, we must control ourselves. When I first listened, I could afford not to notice that there was no mention of the marginalization of Dalit communities when the forms of oppression that impact my lived reality were all listed in the monologue. I thought I felt seen and heard, to the satisfying degree I could when a cis-het man spoke as an ally.
Being a non-Savarna who is not a Dalit but belongs to the CBO, I could afford to get used to the privilege of Savarna left unanswered and unrecognized. That’s what privilege does, it blinds us beyond our awareness.
‘What Indian are you?‘
The danger in the discourse that evolved as a result of Vir Das ‘monologue lies in the simplistic binary thinking of’which Indian are you?‘ Where ‘what indian am i?‘. This binary is one of the many belief systems we have co-opted from our colonizers. The white supremacist patriarchy has brainwashed us with this lie of binary thinking with colonial education and orientalist media. It has taught us that a person is either a saint or a sinner, it is either light or darkness, good or bad. They made it the “truth” because they wanted to assert their position at the top of the power structure in us other – not black but white, not diverse gender but binary, not fluid sexuality but heterosexual. One of the most malicious. forms in which we have internalized coloniality is to selflessly redeem ourselves for that card of easy release from prison without the discomfort of self-reflection.
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The fascism of Savarna’s feminism and white feminism
“I come from an India where we worship women during the day and violin collectively at night”, said Vir Das. Between a goddess worshiper and a rapist is an atheist “breadwinner” husband who is kind to everyone but emotionally abuses his wife in the privacy of their intimate space while recycling and donating to others. charities. Each of us lives in many contradictions, just like Vir Das.
For a Savarna to bleed from the anger of Indian nationalism and Hindustva misogyny without mentioning caste would be as Brahmanic as a white British or white American leftist preying on the evils of classism and sexism without any mention of their white privilege and neocolonialism is White Supremacist. A form of feminism that forgets to mention how disproportionately sexual violence in India targets Dalit women is as casteist as white feminism is racist. There is no truth to the claim of innocence in a ‘Hindu Savarna who is not a Hindutva supporter‘in India when the inherent privilege of a Hindu benefits from Hidutva’s violence against Muslims and Dalits.
“I come from an India where we are proud to be vegetarians, and yet we crush the farmers who grow our vegetables”. As important as it is to draw the world’s attention to the brutality of the car of a minister who led on protesting farmers, killing eight of them, Das assumes Indian vegetarianism like most Hindus in Savarna. Where does this assertion of India’s pride in vegetarianism lie outside of Brahmanic “purity”? The most important aspect of activism is the willingness to be a student, to commit to learning and unlearning because that is precisely what we are urging society to do, to move towards liberation.
What does your privilege conveniently allow you to forget?
One is either the oppressor or the oppressed – another gem of Eurocentrism and Brahmanism. We are too comfortable to believe that if I am a Savarna woman who suffers under patriarchy, even though my feminism excludes the reality of Dalit women from whom I benefit from suffering, I cannot be a casteist or if I am a Muslim cis-woman suffering under patriarchy and Islamophobia, I cannot be transphobic. Each of us can be both the oppressor and the oppressed because the enemy is not an individual, the enemy is Eurocentric Brahmanic thought. Committing to be an ally is as much bravery as it is duty, because we are known to make mistakes and the reason for hope lies in the compassion we can offer ourselves by taking responsibility for our mistakes and being a role model. willingness to learn from it. False pride has no place in the sacred space of social justice because it is death to change, growth and liberation.
As Anurag Minus Verma wrote for The imprint, by not reflecting on his caste privilege, Vir Das romanticizes the Savarna fantasy of “Gandhi’s India. India of Nehru. An India as calm as the flowing water of the Ganges near the luxury spa of Rishikesh, but not as turbulent as that which floods the country’s villages every year.
Can I applaud Vir Das while holding him responsible for being blind to his caste privilege? I’m not asking for your permission here. If your answer was no, I ask you: what bothers you about seeing beyond binary, being two things at the same time, being good and bad at the same time, both applaud and criticize? Is it your loyalty to Vir Das or don’t you believe that you couldn’t be a lovable human being who inspires a lot while subconsciously dehumanizing many others whose lived realities you can afford to forget because your privilege allows you?
It is a reminder that the nicest thing we can do for this world is to be willing to see a mistake as a necessary part of growth, an opportunity to learn because the contradiction of “two Indies‘could be in you too, as chaotic and ambiguous as they could both be in me.
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If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it just means you haven’t even started to think about your privileges. Here are some questions to spark that thinking:
- Does the monologue reproduce the Savarna hegemony of Indian narration or does Vir Das reflect on his caste privilege and extend his alliance?
- What would this monologue have been like if it was from a Dalit woman talking about India’s caste-racialized neoliberal patriarchy and how many Dalit women did you hear at the Kennedy Center?
- How is this different from the regular tale of victimization and heroism from a Savarna protagonist who has historically dominated the media and textbooks?