Speaking in Tongues: The Promise of Black-Dalit Women’s Dialogue
By Shilpa Menon
A Momentous Meeting, and a History of Being Invisible
In 2015, Asha Kowtal, Vee Kay, Manisha Mashaal, Anjum Singh – Dalit women activists who were part of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, or AIDMAM) – met with Black feminist activists in San Francisco. It was a meeting of two movements that had gained international visibility over social media: #DalitWomenFight and #SayHerName. The former was a collective formed to rejuvenate a global Dalit movement through the political activism of Dalit women. The latter was formed to better research police brutality against African American women, catalysed by the police murder of Sandra Bland in Texas. The collective was led by Kimberle Crenshaw, a leading specialist in law and a Black feminist activist who coined the term ‘intersectionality’.
Indeed, it is intersectionality that can best articulate what is shared by Dalit and Black women: their resistance is shaped by experiences of being multiply oppressed on the basis of gender, class and caste or race. They cannot afford to rest on single-issue causes. As Black and Dalit people, they face racism and casteism. As women, they are alienated by patriarchal attitudes within Dalit and Black movements along with the violence they face as marginalized women in white/savarna male-dominated contexts. The combined effects of race/caste and gender often place them among the poorest in their countries, and they are most affected by inequality and the exploitation of the poor by corporates and crony governments.
Who are the Dalits, and why is the term ‘Dalit’ preferred over ‘untouchables’? Much like ‘Black’, a derogatory term re-appropriated by African Americans to signify a unified and defiant identity, ‘Dalit,’ meaning ‘broken’ in the Indian language Marathi, came to be taken up as an autonym under which various caste groups across South Asia could mobilize against the practice of untouchability. Untouchability is technically a product of the ‘varna’ code of social organisation, where caste groups are organized in terms of labour. Those castes that are so abjected as to not even find a place in the varna system became the ‘untouchables’ – those who could not be touched, often even seen, by their caste superiors. ‘Savarna’ (meaning ‘those with varna’) is the term used for those caste groups that are considered part of the varna system.
The meeting in 2015 is part of a long history of Dalit movements consistently drawing from the vocabulary and political formations of Black identity movements in the US. Jyotirao Phule, one of the earliest leaders of a unified movement against untouchability, consistently drew upon US slavery and emancipation to make a case for the abolishment of caste. His intellectual and political successor, B.R. Ambedkar, was deeply influenced by Black thinkers during his time as a student in the US in the 1930s. In 1946, at the eve of India’s independence, he wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois: “There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables and the position of the Negroes of America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.” In 1972, a group of Dalit writer-activists formed the Dalit Panthers, its Manifesto document echoing the Ten-Point Program of the Black Panther Party, to which it owed its name and its militant political model against America’s imperialism as a global capitalist power.
These ties have been driven by strong parallels in the experiences of Dalit and Black people. Even today, they continue to face similar challenges in addressing how neoliberalism in their respective milieus plays insidious roles in perpetuating their oppression, even decades after the legal victories of the civil rights movement in the US and the drafting of independent India’s constitution, which prohibited untouchability, set up affirmative action and guarantees of human rights. They continue to be subjugated on account of their caste or race within seemingly ‘race/caste-neutral’ systems of merit, employment and governance. These parallels become especially salient given the emergence of conservative political leadership in both the US and India in the past few years, and the consequent explicit mainstreaming of white/savarna supremacy.
Why, then, was it decades before such a politically visible encounter between Black and Dalit women could be staged? While Dalit women’s writings have always drawn from Black feminist ideas, why does Dalit-Black women’s solidarity, their speaking and writing on equal grounds as political allies, enter so late into the narrative of Dalit-Black solidarity and transnational women’s movements in general? And most importantly, what promises for a new paradigm of politics emerge when Dalit and Black women speak and think together?
India’s presence in the global stage continues to be defined by its colonial and postcolonial experience. Intellectuals and commentators both in India and abroad have tended to study the experience of coloniality and postcoloniality as the story of clashes and collusions between British colonizers and a South Asian elite, their upper-caste status considered incidental to their upper-class status. Issues of caste, therefore, were effectively denied their place in these narratives. In the US, India was represented by the non-violent politics of Mahatma Gandhi, particularly owing to his affinity with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. B. R. Ambedkar, a Dalit leader of the nationalist movement and the main force behind India’s Constitution, whose writings continue to drive the Dalit movement today, failed to gain the attention that Gandhi and Nehru had as savarna, upper-class leaders of the Indian nationalist movement. When the Dalit Panthers was formed in Maharashtra in 1972, their voices were not adequately heard in a world stage where the problem of race was considered equivalent to the problem of colonialism, rather than the problem of caste (Immerwahr 2007). The world preferred the more assimilationist, often paternalistic, politics of Gandhi rather than the radical, anti-Hinduism stance of B.R. Ambedkar and the militant stance of the Dalit Panthers. Moreover, the government of independent India continued to suppress the discussion of caste on international fora like the United Nations, deeming it an internal issue, and any attempt to bring it up as airing dirty laundry in public.
In such a scenario, Dalit women’s movements, much like those of Black women, suffered multiply: not only was caste understood as internal to the nation, but issues of gender and patriarchy within Dalit communities was considered internal to those movements, and irrelevant to Dalit mobilisation. When the widespread sexual exploitation of Dalit women by upper-caste men was taken up as a cause within these movements, it effectively reduced Dalit women to passive bodies whose dishonor had to be avenged by their men. They were also alienated by the Indian feminist movement, which was dominated by savarna women and their paternalistic attitudes towards women they considered ‘backward’ and mistreated by criminalized Dalit men.
These broader histories, these geopolitical encounters (or lack thereof) between race, caste and gender permeate my everyday life as a recent immigrant to the US, and as a part of US academia. My name is perhaps recognisable by those in the US as ‘South Asian’. It marks me as a woman of colour like my skin, making me a valuable body for mobilisations based on racial difference. But the crossover from India to the US also erases much. In the Hispanic neighborhood where I live, I am often recognized not as the gentrifier that I am, but as a Hispana. My second name, ‘Menon’, is not just South Asian; it is immediately identifiable in India as ‘savarna,’ being the name of a dominant sub-caste, for long a part of the feudal elite in the southern state of Kerala.
Often, I am generously invited into spaces where African/African American, Latinx/Latinx American and Arab/Arab American women draw strength from their shared experiences of dispossession and abjection within a white supremacist culture, and the complexities of facing patriarchies both within their communities and as racialized women in white-dominated culture. As a means of creating transnational feminist solidarity, they sometimes look to me for similar experiences as a woman whose immigrant brownness marks her in multiple ways in the US. At other times, we are all clubbed in the same category by institutions and academic disciplines that frame all that is not white Euroamericanness through categories like ‘The Global South’ and ‘The Third World’.
When South Asia and South Asian diasporas are represented within such categories by savarna women like me whose caste privilege has granted them the mobility to migrate to the US, transnational feminisms fail to address the issue of caste as intricately tied to the concerns of social justice at a global level. In South Asia, strictly maintained caste hierarchies continue to enable the flow of global capital; economic liberalisation and the promises of development have relied on the continued exploitation of Dalits as cheap labour and as dispensable lives. Narratives of ‘Third Worldness’, or even class, cannot adequately address these dynamics, and how the logics and histories of caste and race have intertwined to enable capitalist exploitation at a global level. If Black women and men are targeted by a neoliberal surveillance state in the US, this state and the global corporate order it relies on are sustained by the labour of Dalit women and men, among marginalized populations all over the world. Narratives of India’s poverty are used by so-called First World states to facilitate indirect capitalist control through ideas of ‘free trade’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’, but the role of caste in shaping poverty and inequality are rarely discussed.
Consider the latest instance of caste failing to be translated as a liberal progressive issue on the global stage, instead being marked as a matter of colonialism: in late 2018, Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, a white person who identifies as a man, was photographed alongside women journalists and activists in India, holding a placard saying ‘smash Brahmanical patriarchy.’ It was immediately termed as ‘hate speech’ against an Indian community by a white man, eliciting an apology and a retraction from Twitter. What if Dorsey had been a Black woman and a feminist, unburdened by colonial guilt, aware of the ways in which marginalized women’s voices are silenced or articulated as a symptom of ‘backwardness’? Would she have bought into the ‘hate speech’ accusation and apologized without second thought? Would she have been unable (or unwilling) to tell the difference between colonialist hate speech and a criticism of upper-caste domination? Would she not realize that even as she was apologizing for ‘hate speech’, she was disowning the issues of Dalit women?
At its heart, this essay seeks a politics that does not erase caste even as it visibilizes race; a politics that can hold in productive tension the different forms of inequalities that any transnational movement must address. And it finds answers in decades’ worth of writings and political acts by Black and Dalit women, always speaking to one another even when they were invisible to the world. And to consider how political movements can be forged in such shifting contexts within a transnational arena, I draw upon Black feminist theories and writings, which have, for long, produced concepts and political models to concomitantly address the oppression of peoples in different, often divergent, contexts. Black women, as educators, thinkers, activists, commentators, political figures and fugitive militants have trenchantly observed the tendency for political movements to become so self-absorbed with ideals of selfhood that they begin to exclude the very people who must be at the centre, splintering along the lines of ethnocentric or masculinist chauvinism. They have advocated the difficult and unpopular project of centreing difference even in the pursuit of a common agenda, of an unselfish politics even when there is so much to lose; because there is so much to lose.
For example, Angela Davis, who was part of the Black Panther Party’s feminist vanguard, in a 1995 interview with Asian American theorist Lisa Lowe, proposes that the radical Black feminist politics of the Black Power era must find its successors in transnational movements against global capitalism that include marginalized, working-class women from all over the world, particularly the Global South. Anti-racist feminist politics must also be anti-capitalist politics, according to her, because racism is the product of a global colonial system that produced various forms of oppression and continues to exist today in the form of neoliberal capitalism. She warns against a ‘census-category model’ of women of colour feminism, where each ethnic group has parochially defined agendas, and calls for “basing the identity on politics rather than the politics on identity.” Black women, like Dalit women, have long seen the folly of movements that define their goals based on self-serving interests. Their voices were submerged for decades by such movements, be they feminist, nationalist, anti-caste, anti-race or anti-capitalist.
What’s a Savarna Woman Got to Do with It? Speaking in Tongues, and Listening
This essay might well be titled, ‘Why I Should Not Write this Essay, and Why I Do’. My speaking about Dalit and Black women’s politics as a savarna South Asian woman is not a matter of ‘privilege guilt’ or ‘inclusion’, but an inherent part of what it means to identify oneself politically as a woman of colour. This stance is famously summed up by Jacqui Alexander in her 2005 book, Pedagogies of Crossing:
We are not born women of colour. We become women of colour. In order to become women of colour, we would need to become fluent in each others’ histories, to resist and unlearn an impulse to claim first oppression, most devastating oppression, one-of-a-kind oppression, defying-comparison oppression. We would have to unlearn an impulse that allows mythologies about each other to replace knowing about one another. We would need to cultivate a way of knowing in which we direct our social, cultural, psychic, and spiritually marked attention on each other. We cannot afford to cease yearning for each others’ company. (293-94)
Therefore, my role in transnational women-of-colour politics must begin with the recognition that my identity is a product of all that keeps apart the voices of Black and Dalit women. My politics must shape itself around becoming fluent in the histories of Black and Dalit women without seeking to represent them. This is a significant challenge, because Dalit people, particularly Dalit women, have long faced the predicament of being unable to speak for themselves without being mediated by savarna gatekeepers. Dalit women’s writings continue to find their way to the global market in the form of literary anthologies commissioned by international presses, curated and translated into English by white or savarna academics and writers.
Black women and the knowledge they produce have faced the same challenges. Grace Hong, in her essay “The Future of Our Worlds”, traces how the university has turned Black feminist thought into a disembodied form of knowledge, packaged for consumption in classrooms and academic contexts to which Black women continue to have little access. This essay cannot escape that tradition, but it will certainly attempt to undo it by centreing the urgency and relevance of the transformational political models and worldviews that Dalit and Black women propose through their writing, rather than voyeuristically dwelling on their victimhood for a white American audience.
Despite five years of higher education in the humanities and social sciences in India, I first turned to writings and theorisation by Dalit women through my exposure to Black feminist theory in my classes in the US. For one, this says a lot about whose stories are told, and whose injuries are recognized, under the aegis of South Asian feminism as it is taught, and circulated in popular culture, in India. It also helps explain why Dalit women’s movements, and the activists that drive them, stay away from using the term ‘feminist’, instead preferring to use the term ‘women’s movement’ or ‘womanism’. In using the term ‘womanism’, coined by the Black writer Alice Walker, as an active critique of feminism’s elitist, upper-caste leanings, Dalit women, once again, drew from Black women’s political vocabulary.
More importantly, Black feminism’s capacity to guide me to Dalit women’s writing signifies its ethos of collectively directing our attention, as feminists, towards one another, as Alexander says. This connection, as I have learned to see it, is not a mere matter of comparison, where Black and Dalit women can be neatly compared as ‘data points’ based on assessments of their victimhood in their respective milieus – it is not based on a ‘census-category model’, to reiterate Davis’ words. Nor is it to conflate race and caste with the aim of making caste more legible to a First World milieu more accustomed to movements around race. Despite their tendency to work in similar ways, caste and race are different regimes of social hierarchy embedded in vastly different webs of meanings, practices and histories.
Rather, the juxtapostion of race and caste is a strategic act seeking to highlight common agendas for change and betterment, and the connection between Dalit and Black women is based on their capacity of ‘speaking in tongues’. This phrase, borrowed from Mae G. Henderson’s 1989 essay of the same name, indicates Black women’s capacity to use the written and spoken word to occupy shifting positions and engage in different discourses. The Black woman who speaks in tongues is not inhibited by her incapacity to be adequately represented anywhere; she uses her difference as a source of creativity. If personhood is represented by the white man, Blackness represented by Black men and womanhood represented by white women in discourse, Black women will speak to and with all of them. Black men can be patriarchal oppressors, but they are also anti-racist allies and loved ones within a beleaguered community. White women perpetrate racism in the name of feminism, but they are also sisters in resisting patriarchy. The Black feminist is not obsessed with a rigid sense of self or an identity that relies on an idea of an absolute, demonized Other, and this frees up her voice to speak about various kinds of issues.
Both in theory and practice, this results in a worldview based not on self-indulgent introspection, but on a robust, relentless and affirming engagement with the larger worlds that shape the lives of Black and Dalit women. While white and savarna feminists define their goals in increasingly narrow, status quoist terms, such as economic and workplace rights in white-collar sectors, Dalit and Black women draw their energies from solidarity with movements around labour rights, prison abolishment, reproductive rights, land rights, environmentalism – broad-based issues that often become exclusionary because of the parochialisms of their advocates.
The term ‘dalit’ itself, as Ambedkar proposed it and as the Dalit Panther manifesto outlines, is an intersectional one. It refers not only to caste groups united by their experience of untouchability, but to anyone who is oppressed “politically, economically and in the name of religion,” anywhere in the world. It encompasses lower castes and tribes, landless and poor peasants and women (none of which are mutually exclusive identities). Dalit women activists, therefore, have highlighted the term dalit bahujan or ‘Dalit majority’ to signify a larger group of people beyond caste groupings – adivasis, Muslim and Christian minorities, poor people irrespective of caste. As Davis proposes, dalit bahujan is an identity shaped by a politics of resistance, rather than a politics obsessed with defining what it means to be an ideal Dalit who can claim “first oppression, most devastating oppression, one-of-a-kind oppression, defying-comparison oppression.”
Tony Cade Bambara’s “The Seabirds are Still Alive”, published in 1977, is a story that brought home to me the power of this kind of a political imagination. I attended a class on Black feminism expecting writings about race in the US, and here was an intimate portrayal of daily life in wartime Vietnam, told not from the vantage point of an omniscient Western observer commenting on the state of Vietnam, writ large, but carefully moving through the lives of a number of people traveling in a ferry. That a Black woman-activist located in the thick of anti-Vietnam war protests in the USA could so intimately imagine and inhabit the experience of oppression in another part of the world was astonishing to me. This was a narrative of the vagaries of war in Vietnam that was distinctly different from Western narratives of Third World victimhood. Rather than stereotypes, it was informed by Bambara’s own lived experiences of resistance as a Black feminist activist and a deep historical awareness of Vietnam’s milieu. Here was a Black woman speaking in tongues, and it is voices like Bambara’s that Alexander refers to when she talks about unlearning “an impulse that allows mythologies about each other to replace knowing about one another.”
And so, inspired by these writings, I begin to think through what it means to “direct our social, cultural, psychic, and spiritually marked attention on each other.” As I begin to read up, I hear them, speaking in tongues: Savitribai Phule, Bama Faustina, Ruth Manorama, C. K. Janu, Gogu Shyamala, Kumud Pawde, and a younger generation, Asha Kowtal, Meena Kandasamy, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Jenny Rowena, Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, and Rekha Raj. I see them engaging the field of transnational intersectional activism in the US through setups like #DalitWomenFight and Equality Labs, the latter of which recently released a report, titled “Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans”. Whereas Dalit groups who mobilized around the World Conference Against Racism Durban in 2001 were disappointed at the silence on caste at the conference, Dalit women activists successfully raised the issue of caste at the 38th session of the UNCHR in 2018. Back in India, the rising power of a conservative regime is matched by the strident voices of Ambedkarite movements engaging political models that draw their intersectional politics from Kimberle Crenshaw as much as B. R. Ambedkar. Thanks to their painstaking and cumulative efforts, the term ‘Dalit’ now features more regularly in the language of transnational activism.
And so, it is with hope that I witness the conversations between Dalit and Black women. As diverse movements across the globalized world encounter one another and recognize both the value and the difficulty of an intersectional politics of solidarity, it is time to acknowledge and take seriously the intellectual and political debts that we owe to Black, Dalit and other feminisms/womanisms born of experiences of resistance to multiple oppressions. If we are looking for ways to recognize and address a range of injustices and complicities without erasing any of them within grand narratives, it is time to centre Dalit and Black women and the radical cosmopolitanism of their political agendas:
“We are all Untouchable until no one is.” – Thenmozhi Soundararajan
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” – The Combahee River Collective
While the rest of us sit at our dingy tables, endlessly debating, worrying about who should sit at them, Dalit and Black women are re-imagining the world, and there is place there for all of us.
Acknowledgement: I thank Prof. Roderick Ferguson and Prof. Ronak Kapadia for introducing me to Black feminist writings.
 I acknowledge the fact that Dalit feminist/womanist thought is reduced to a small and very partial list of names here, by no means representative of the rich archives of Dalit feminist theorization in regional languages and alternative cultural productions. This is an honest reflection of my own flawed intellectual journey, and it marks a beginning rather than a conclusion.
Alexander, M. Jacqui. Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Duke University Press, 2005.
Bambara, Toni Cade. ‘The Sea Birds are Still Alive’. The Sea Birds are Still Alive: Stories. Vintage, 1982.
‘Black Panthers: Ten Point Program’. Marxist History Archive, 2001. https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/1966/10/15.htm
Combahee River Collective. ‘A Black Feminist Statement’. na, 1977.
Davis, Angela. ‘Reflections on Race, Class and Gender in the USA’. Interview by Lisa Lowe in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Eds. Lisa Lowe ad David Lloyd. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. ‘Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition’.
Hong, Grace Kyungwon. ‘“The Future of Our Worlds” Black Feminism and the Politics of Knowledge in the University under Globalization’. Meridians 8, no. 2 (2008): 95-115.
Immerwahr, Daniel. ‘Caste or colony? Indianizing race in the United States’. Modern Intellectual History 4, no. 2 (2007): 275-301.
Paik, Shailaja. “Building Bridges: Articulating Dalit and African American Women’s Solidarity.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 42, no. 3 (2014): 74-96.
Raiot Collective. ‘Dalit Panthers Manifesto’. Raiot, 2016. https://www.raiot.in/dalit-panthers-manifesto/
Round Table India. Articles on gender. http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=120&Itemid=133
Raj, Rekha. Dalith Sthree Idapedalukal [Dalit Women’s Interventions]. Kottayam: D C Books, 2016.
Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. Dalit Nation. https://dalitnation.com/
Shilpa Menon is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research is on the emergent movements in Kerala around transgender rights. She is part of the editorial team at Ala, a Kerala studies blog (link: ala.keralascholars.org)
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