This item is an audio file.

Veena Wilhelm Oral History Interview

Veena Wilhelm is a mental health therapist who works in Seattle, Washington. She is originally from Andhra Pradesh, India.

Duration: 00:46:22

Date: January 11, 2020
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Dhanya Addanki
Location: Seattle, WA

Transcriber: Claire Gordon

Veena Wilhelm: (0:00:00) My name is Veena Wilhelm, and right now I am living in Seattle. I moved to the U.S. in 2012. I come from Andhra Pradesh in India, and my family comes from a small town, small village, close to Vivek, yeah, that's a little about where I'm from, yeah.

Dhanya Rani: (0:00:34 ) Yeah, so can you tell me a little bit about the journey from India to the U.S.?

VW: (0:00:41) So, what, what brought me to the U.S. first was that I wanted to study counseling psychology. So, I came here in 2012 to do my Masters. I did my Masters here in Seattle, and I kind of stayed here for work experience. So, it's been a long time of kind of accumulating for the experience and more, more research experience and things like that in Seattle. So yeah, that was the main reason for coming here, studies is what brought me here, and it was, at first just going to be counseling psychology, but it kind of became more about counseling psychology as well as mental health in my Dalit communities, and my research was based on Dalit communities at home. So, particularly in Andhar but also covering a broader range of, of regions in South Asia and kind of looking at specifically suicides among students who are, who identify as Dalit. That's what I've been doing.

DR: (0:02:10) I'm interested to hear more about your research, but before we talk about that, can you talk a little bit about, you know, if you have a faith, or if that doesn't exist, so just a little bit more about that.

VW: (0:02:28) Yeah. So, I do identify as Dalit Christian, I, we, when we grew, growing up, it was just Christian, that was the [laughs] identity that I grew up with, it was that I was Christian and kind of, there was no differentiation from, um, Dalit Christianity, and maybe, you know like let's say U.S. Evangelical, or U.S. anything really or Episcopalian, Christian identities, uh, I just thought of myself as Christian and I think, at home, our church, we just refer to ourselves as Christian. So that was growing up. But, you know, Christianity is not one thing. So, there were several clues that our church is, was different from others. I guess, so, I think mainly the people who came were, people from the more socio-economically disadvantaged communities. You know, this is what I could figure out as a child, we weren't as a church, we weren't very rich [laughs] is what I could figure out and, and not everyone was comfortable just coming to our church, because I think in India, religion is not, not just considered a personal, you know, this is my religious or my spiritual faith, but I think there's a lot of political theology or, you know, I think we could call that I don't really know, it's a social identity, right? So, you're kind of choosing to associate yourself with the people of that community. And so, I think I could figure out that not everyone was comfortable just coming to our church just as attendees. Like, most people would come as guest speakers or things like that, you know, but they weren't comfortable coming just every day because I think they would have been associated as Dalit people if they were just from our church.

VW: (0:05:02) Yeah, it's hard to when I look back, it's always hard for me to parse out what was what, just because I think caste was never talked about. Caste was always...I think when it came up in conversations, it was almost like, caste is not something we should talk about, we are now equal in God. When it came up, it was in conflict based context. My dad was a religious leader, a Christian religious leader. And when caste came up, it would be as insults to my dad or as insults to our community. So, for example, people that I wouldn't have thought of as part of my community would be associated with ours, and I think, “Ok, I wonder why that is?” and it wasn't because of religion, but it was because of caste. So, you know, things like that, where I had to try and parse out, okay, what's bringing us together what's in the social identity? And I think that might just, what I'm coming to realize is that might be the experience with a lot of people from caste disadvantaged communities. And, you know, growing up, we don't really have too many labels for understanding our experience. And what's normal is just normal growing up. It's been a real journey, kind of looking back and thinking, “Oh, my goodness, that was because of my caste.” Um, we weren't allowed to do this because of my caste. And it wasn't because I was Christian.

VW: (0:06:39) I think I learned about my caste more when I went to college. And still there was a lot of internal labor, I think, to understand because maybe, I think it might have been the first time that I was really communicating with people from outside my caste. That was where I could also see okay, well, “she's Christian, but she's definitely not Christian like I'm Christian.”[laughs] I do remember a lot of friends who introduced me as “Oh, she's Christian.” And I was, why does she need to bring that up when she's introducing me? But it's because it says, In Andhra it says, usually that you are Dalit.

DR: (0:07:20) I'm curious about when you started putting things together, if you can give me a few examples. When you were younger, when you started realizing, “okay, these are the reasons why I'm different or I feel different,” and what that did, how did you reckon with all of these things that you were realizing?

VW: (0:07:45) I kind of grew up on a Mission Campus at home. Where we were located, would have been, and well it is considered right next to, in English, in English, I think we can call it the Dalit quarters, because every village has a small subsection that can sometimes be called something payta, there's usually the term payta, or palli added to it. And I think that, you know, from what I can figure out, that's always the Dalit living quarters because we had to live separately from the main village.

VW: (0:0:8:32) And so, [laughs] I remember growing up, we would, whenever we drove through the village, or you know we got outside it or whatever it was always like, so we got out of the mission campus, which was a bit of an isolated thing, and then we would come to what was pretty obviously the Dalit quarters. Then, as we went further up, you know, in my mind it was up, and it was...people who sometimes came to our church and were considered the big people of the village, the leaders of the village. And I have no way of figuring out actually, if there was a specific Brahmin section in our villages just because I've never been there.

VW:(0:09:31) And that's another thing—is where I could, and couldn't go. [laughs] I remember at one point, when we were quite young, me and my sister just decided, “okay, we're going to go for a walk” and we like stumbled on this, what we thought was almost like another village but it was part of our village. And I think that you know, looking we came—we walked in, we should have known that we probably shouldn't have walked in, but we did, and we were asking people, “oh hey, what village is this?” And they're like, this is the name of my village. And we were like, huh, that's so strange that we, you know, had never been here before. And people looked very uncomfortable. And so we left.

VW: (0:10:20) And I think, you know, I think that was probably a community, a Dalit community that was considered to be hierarchically lower than ours. And I think that's why people look so uncomfortable is because we were outsiders coming into their space, and no one usually does that.

VW: (0:10:45) All these small things that as a child were just confusing, just so subtle, and nothing was outwardly spoken. Everything was just kind of communicated as discomfort. You kind of try to figure it out later. [laughs]

VW:(0:11:05) Being a Dalit woman is also very different. And that one maybe is even harder to talk about just because of the connotations that being from my caste has meant in Andhar. And how Dalit women have tried to pull away from that identity.

VM: (0:11:27) So, I think Dalit women in India are...certain castes are kind of expected to do the labor of, well, of sex work, without ..without it really being seen that way. It's just like you're meant to procure women, for people of higher caste. In some regions, it's more obvious or more kind of, it's more of “okay, these are the specific labor transactions that are going to happen in this village” kind of thing.

VM: (0:12:07) It wasn't, in my village, wasn't as obvious. I definitely had protection from that because my father was a religious leader, but still...I...just kind of looking back and thinking of “okay, this is what men were seeing when I did this and this and this.” They were interpreting my actions under a very different set of rules. That's why let's say such and such person wouldn't talk to me when we were in public or like with other people and or would otherwise. Things like that, you know, that stuff is harder to talk about, obviously, just because it's so subtle and like, the smallest thing, like if someone puts, I don't know, like just the personal space kind of stuff. It's, it's so hard to decipher. Especially growing up, you know, you're just like....okay, well...I don't think I knew much about gender [laughs] relations in India growing up because I had an amount of protection.

VW: (0:13:31) So, .. when I looked back, I think, and I realized, okay, this is because I was a Dalit woman that these things happened. It's, there's not, I don't think there's very many social resources for how to deal with that. You know, looking back and knowing “Oh, my goodness, I was treated this way because of this,” and I think that’s a lot of again, a lot of work for Dalit people is to, is when you look back and you think, this is why this was and you have to kind of learn how to deal with that as an adult, and learn to recognize what's happening as an adult, to protect yourself and your family.

VM: (0:14:27) I think that's some of the work that as a mental health therapist that I could start doing, and try to build resources for myself, and I do wonder about that for others as well.

DR: (0:14:43) I don't think there's even language to, to describe, and it seems a lot like isolated incidents, right?

VM: (0:14:51) Uh huh, Yeah.

DR: (0:14:52) And most of it is just this like internal knowledge [laughs] that you know, when you're being treated differently.

VM: (0:14:59) Yeah.

DR: (0:15:00) And anybody can easily invalidate that, that hasn't had that experience or that feeling, or just that like, very deep, internal, intuition kind of knowledge. Right?

DR: (0:15:12) And I think, you know, my belief is, you know, when generationally, we have been through a lot, especially as women, and Dalit women...there's like a survival that's passed on to us.

VM: (0:15:23) Yeah.

DR: (0:15:26) And I think shows up in our intuition. And it's really hard to prove! [laughs] I think one of the questions that I have had is, what do you think, I know we touched on this a little bit, but, just the experiences walking through life in India, and then walking through life in the U.S as a Dalit woman, what are the differences between carrying and having that identity versus being a Dalit man.

DR: (0:15:59) In terms of how, you know, you're treated and it doesn't have to be theory, it can be just pulled from your personal life and things that you've noticed and things like that.

VW: (0:16:13) Yeah. So, I think one of my first wrestling...growing up, the first time I remember of then of wrestling with or recognizing what was going on without recognizing it was when my mom started talking to me about women in our church. I asked her, “oh, why don't these women wear sari blouses?” you know. They were a little older, so that was a part of the explanation. So I asked my mom, “why don't they wear blouses?” and she kind of said that's what was expected of us back in the day. And in our church, by then it wasn't, everyone was wearing a sari blouses. So it was different by then. And so it's, it was obvious when some people weren't, know, I think there was some discomfort, especially from my mom and some of the other, let's say elders of the church. And it's a conversation about I just remember snippets of a conversation about “Should we ask her to wear a blouse? Should we ask them?”

VW: (0:17:43) So now looking back, I can say it was probably because of the expectation that women from certain castes do work that is related to sex work without calling it that, you know?

VW: (0:18:11) Another, you know, kind of related to that I think there was a lot of focus on women being fully covered in our from head to toe, and being subtle, being...not demur but not attracting attention to yourself as a woman. But maybe attracting attention to the fact that you are a Christian woman. So, you know, like a lot of when, when you could be loud it was when you were praying, or some women were allowed to be on stage, or singing.

VW: (0:19:05) I think that has a lot to do with trying to pull away from this expectation that women automatically make themselves available for...sometimes Dalit men, or men of other castes, usually it's men of other castes.

VW: (0:19:31) In the academic literature this is talked about, but just experiencing it is very different is this expectation that women kind of hold up the reputation of the caste and women become kind of responsible for proving, I think, that the, our caste can be just as good as another, by...policing ourselves.

VW: (0:20:01) Just because that wasn't available back in the day, I think. But women of higher caste were expected to very strictly police themselves. And I think women from my caste would have been expected to do the opposite and forced to do the opposite. So it wasn't like they were free to go work out on fields, right? Or free to express themselves in the way they dressed. It was that they were expected to do certain things. And so like, you know, I was not realizing all of this as a kid, but I just remember my mom choosing to say something to some women. She was kind of considered an elder in the church, but I know she was very uncomfortable with it. It's a point of contention I think, because our caste is being represented by the way we dress. And so, some women might just think, “okay, it's normal that I go around like this. I don't know why it's a big deal,” [laughs] You know? While others know that this is saying something, this is revealing our identity as a caste, as a church. And so, there's that very difficult conversation. And I don't think I should have really been privy to that conversation when I was that small, but I was and now I'm realizing that that's what it was. That's why there was so much discomfort is because we want to represent ourselves as a certain way.

VW: (0:21:47) I think it's also kind of different being a Dalit woman and being from like...I speak English, for example. So that is very different from people I grew up with who may not have been from that positionality, that social location. Um, so, I do think I had a lot of protection again, being from a family who, so my dad was a faith leader, and we had um, economic privilege as well. Um, and from that all the social privileges that come with it in India, and I had the privilege of going out to study.

VW: (0:22:38) So, I'll talk about that in conveying that I did have a level of protection that other women who are Dalit would not have had. So, for example, going back to, going into the village um, my sister and I, whenever we wanted to just go outside of the uh, house, it was such, you know, it was like such a big process. [laughs] We would have to tell our parents, everyone who would need to know. And, you know, as we got older, I never felt that I could do that. Definitely not without someone else and, and I would always feel more comfortable doing it either as a part of my job, so I, it was okay that I was out driving by myself as a part of my job, but if I was just...well, it was okay for my family, I mean, it was allowed to do that, and probably not for [laughs] everyone else. But I couldn't just like, go for a walk. You know, like here I can go for a walk [laughs] if I want to, and I think it would be construed very differently if I did that back in my village.

VW: (0:24:01) And so yeah, now my sister and I just basically stay at home [laughs] we’re home because we are Dalit women and because we don't get to really be out without, without all the expectations from society being placed on us, or all our options being interpreted within that framework. With the protection of course that we come from a higher socioeconomic background, but I don't think that completely protects you from let's say, from this, what it can mean for your family because it's like you are bringing down the reputation of your family with every single action, so that's a part of it. [laughs]

DR: (0:25:03) [laughs] There's a lot of pressure coming from all, all aspects.

VW: (0:25:06) From all aspects, yeah, and it's just hard to label that, or know what those aspects are, until later, [laughs] until hindsight.

DR: (0:25:17) what are some of the things whether intentionally or unintentionally, that you learned about yourself as you were growing up? And how did that change, if it changed, once you came to the U.S. Because I don't want to paint the US as this utopian like, lovely place because it's not at all. [laughs] There's definitely more room for reflection, I think, when, when you come to U.S. because I'm trying to figure out if, you know, if you carry, once you come to the U.S. like you don't just leave caste in India.

VW: (0:25:50) Yeah, yeah.

DR: (0:25:52) Like a lot of it's perpetuated in a lot of hierarchies and things like that, but just also internally how was that perpetuated for us. You know, without going into trauma...I don't think that’s necessary.

VW: (0:26:06) So, I guess one of the things to say is I never really thought of myself as Dalit. Right? I did think of myself as Christian, like I said, I never thought of myself as Dalit. I think most of my identity growing up would have been, at that point, a faith leader’s daughter. [laughs] So I had some, in that position, I did have some relative privilege and some influence. So, I don't think I noticed that until I came here, because again, that was the norm. I would not have ever identified, growing up, and actually even now going home, I don't, I still don't talk about myself as Dalit. There's still a wall when it comes to talking about caste. That is a privilege actually, that I'm getting to do now that I'm here in the U.S. and it's just so strange.

VW: (0:27:16) My husband is from the U.S. and trying to describe things to him that have to do with caste and just noticing that I would never talk like this at home. This would just bring so much discomfort to my family, and my extended family who doesn't know me that well would probably think I have serious mental health issues just like because I'm talking about caste. And here in the U.S. like we have very open activism and everything going on around caste and in a way that is not as contentious as back home. It's still contentious here, but I think we have certain privilege as being here in the U.S. and protection that people at home don't and that's you know, that's why they choose not to talk about their caste.

VW: (0:28:25) So, that's, that is very different, that is so different, that I now choose to identify as a Dalit woman. And on Facebook, you know, I used to write about it [laughs] as I am a Dalit woman and then seeing my friends from earlier and their comments on that. Like, just because you, I never identified as that back at home, and them being very uncomfortable with this new, uh, identity, that I'm declaring is, it brings home that this is a privilege, I suppose, that I get to do this here.

VW: (0:29:09) Looking back, I remember having so many problems, actually, when I first came here, and that was in 2012. I had a lot of problems with talking in class. [laughs] And I remember thinking, “why are classes just full of the students talking? Why won't just the [laughs] professor talk and then we go home?” Education here is different in that way. In college in class, we never had debates about anything and you know, one of the things was, and here you get participation points, right? So when you talk in class, [laughs] you get points and I had such a problem with that. And's because that was devalued at home, right? That meant points off. [laughs] And that could mean danger too, like putting, drawing attention to yourself as a woman is dangerous at home.

VW: (0:30:26) And so I definitely remember that, and I remember when I first came here, and there were um, discussions around sexual assault, and to me, I just remember thinking, goodness, this is so strange, because, it's normal. [laughs] Back then I was just thinking, this is just what happens, why are we discussing this? Almost, you know, I cognitively knew that I was against it and that this was a part of why I wanted to go into the field um, of Counseling Psychology, but I just couldn't shake this deeply internalized feeling that this is normal. And that, or that being quiet and being submissive almost, is normal as a woman. I couldn't shake that feeling at first and now I think I'm growing and my ability to talk and put language to the reality that, that isn't normal, but I think people just thought I was a bit of a snob [laughs] actually, when I was first in classes and I just didn’t talk and it's just so different here, right?

VW:(0:32:16) And so there's that for sure that I've had to try and shake out of and learn, learn to have conversations, learn to have these difficult conversations, and not just kind of know, learning to have conflict in a healthy way. Because I've never had to actually deal with that. I've just had to say “yeah, okay” to whatever was asked of me at home. And so that wasn't really that much conflict [laughs] in that way, because I was just accepting. Whether in my job, or in my family.

VW: (0:33:07) So that was one thing, actually now that you bring your experience up, and I struggled with that as well, and I still do. Yeah, going out at night, I hardly think about it here, but I should because there's a lot that goes on. So it's not to say that I shouldn't but I think there's just this weird feeling of, “everything is safe,[laughs] everything is fine because it's not as bad as it is back at home.” Almost that kind of a feeling. And it's not true at all. I wouldn't recommend that women think [laughs] that it's safe in America cuz it's not, no.

VW: (0:34:00) I had to learn, I really had to relearn the same thing can look different when I first came here. So, until about age 8, I was our village...actually, I would say I was just in our mission campus because we never really got to go out of the campus much. And it was that faith based mission campus. So I think, you know, right up until that age, all my experiences were that—was Christian mission of that village. And then a part of what it meant for my father to be a faith leader was that there was a lot of attention on our family, and there were, there was some concern about our safety for me and my sister. And so my father tried really hard to just get us out. [laughs] And so we went to boarding school. Now, boarding school is in India very different to what people consider boarding school here. It's not always, you know, where rich people go. I think whenever I've brought that up here, people kind of interpret it in a different way. But boarding school is quite the norm in India. I won't say it's normal, but it's the norm.

VM: (0:35:42) So, we went to boarding school at about age eight. And so I kind of finished a lot of my formative years away from home in that way. We, of course, went back and forth for breaks and things like that. But that's, that was another part of why I didn't quite know my Dalit identity until I look back later on is because I was growing up away from home and with other people who didn't know of their Dalit identity.

VM: (0:36:16) Once I finished school and entered college, I was I did psychology in a college back in India. And that was really the first time that I started thinking about “okay, I am not just a Christian, I am a Dalit Christian,” and not just that...I am not of a high caste is what I first knew being in college. And so, I was in college for about three years in India. And then I knew that I wanted to go into Psychology. I didn't quite know what that meant. Like there's so many avenues you can go into in Psychology. So, I did child development in the UK. So I did that and then I went back home, and I worked in the same mission campus for a while. And so my work there really consisted of nearly everything, like nonprofits are just that way. I think that's common all over the world, you do a bit of everything. So, kind of looking back, I think we were doing the work of maybe social work? I guess, community based social work, or community based health work, and education back at home. That's what I did for, in total about five to six years, about five years. And it was in our village and it was mainly with...because the mission was Christian, and was primarily serving people of Dalit caste, that's kind of where I, the time that I was just really, really learning what it meant to be of my caste in a way that I couldn't quite put words to yet but I just, by then I knew that I'm not of a high caste because I had been out in the world, not just with my family who would never talk about caste.

VW: (0:39:07) So, I learned, I think, to name what was going on. I learned to name gender dynamics that were happening. I learned to name social hierarchies that I was seeing, and I learned that I am of a low caste, of an untouchable caste. And a part of my realization about gender dynamics and also just learning how to live with many different cultures in one family and one person, who's me, I wanted to kind of get deeper into Counseling Psychology. So that's what kind of, what brought me to America. I did my Counseling Psychology degree in a place that kind of allowed me to explore some of my Christian identity as well as just learning Counseling Psychology and developing my identity as a psychologist as well, a counseling psychologist.

VW: (0:40:23) So, yeah, so from 2012 to 2013 I went back to just being a student, after working in India for a while. Really, I got to really delve into theories of counseling psychology, theory of human formation. I got to kind of learn how differently different cultures look at the human, [laughs] or humans. It’s just, I knew all throughout my counseling psych degree that there was a lot missing in the way that western psychologys’ view the individual as just the individual. My, my view of the individual was so very connected to how I see communities. Politics has a huge formative influence on us, and not like politics as a dirty word but politics as everywhere, and it has a huge influence on how we, how we deal with things. I just knew that this individualistic way of looking at um, people was not going to be helpful for me if I did go back home, and that was the initial plan, was to go back home. I did meet someone and I am now married to someone who is from America and we’ve chosen to build our lives here, for now. So, I am so excited to get plugged into um, uh, communities that are talking about caste and are doing this really important work from this place of relative protection that we get in the U.S.

DR: (0:42:45) Yeah, so I’m wondering, one of the final questions, do you think that it is harmful to not talk about caste?

VW: (0:42:57) Yes.

DR: (0:42:59) Specifically for Dalit people, do you think it is harmful for us to not talk about it? Because there is a lot of thought out there that’s like, “just ignore it, pretend like it doesn’t exist, um, and you’ll be ok,” there’s like this ignoring that I think we’ve been taught, so I am just curious about your thoughts, like do you think it’s harmful, and why?

VW: (0:43:19) I do, I do think it’s harmful, not to talk about Caste, especially because that’s, that’s one of the primary ways that, even like, the Indian government as well, gets away with so much violence, and systematic violence, towards minorities of caste and of religion. So, it's really important to, and it’s amazing that you and I, Dhanya, are talking about this now, but I do think it’s also wise to be protective of who you share your identity with, and how you share it. Like, we don’t, I think it’s very different when, for example, I, like I said, I talk about being Dalit when I’m here in the U.S. I don’t necessarily talk about it back home, just because...I know it might, to put it in very, kind of, Western psych terms, it could be triggering, [laughs] right? It’s not just something we want to be blase about. It’s a lot of, I like the words you used in describing the project, there is a lot of intergenerational trauma, and when you are in that space of trauma, you want to be careful, you want to protect yourself and you want to make sure that the person your sharing it with will know how to be with you, in that.

DR: (0:45:04) And I find that it’s mainly Dalit people that don’t talk about caste at home, everybody else talks about caste. [laughs]

VM: (0:45:12) I think it’s also helpful to learn of different terms that are used for caste, like “community” like saying “our community” can mean so many different things but usually, I’ve found, that it means caste. Or “religion” usually means caste. I think maybe that’s why people think that caste doesn’t exist [laughs] it’s because there are a lot of terms and a lot of ways that it is hidden. I’m just thinking about what you said is, other castes talk about caste all the time. I don’t know that they always know that they're talking about caste, because it’s also kind of termed that this is our culture. There’s just so many ways that we’ve found to hide, that we are very much still, usually a caste based society.

DR: (0:46:18) And it transfers over to the U.S.?

VM: (0:46:20) Oh, yeah.

Collection: Dhanya Addanki Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-04-02 (created); 2020-07-28 (modified)

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