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Hiding in Plain Sight

We're taught invisibility is protection. But at what cost?
By Dhanya Addanki |
MARCH 31, 2020
Source: Sharada Prasad
Archival Creators Fellow Dhanya Addanki questions the politics of visibility, and the proclivity towards invisibility in the Dalit community. Her project centers the liberation of the Dalit community and the work being done by community members. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

I’ve been taught that visibility is disturbing. Visibility in general, yes, but specifically the kind of visibility that comes from having an unhidden oppressed identity. But I wonder if there is something a bit more layered happening here, specifically for Dalit people in the U.S. Would Dalit people care so deeply about visibility if for generations, centuries, family’s safety had not been dependent on being obedient, submissive, and invisible?

There are murkier things abound when we delve into trying to figure out how to talk about Dalit identity in this era specifically. It’s different from the over simplified and profoundly insincere “brown identity” or the ubiquitous presence of caste hierarchies parading around as Indian culture here in the U.S.

Identities, especially online, are caricatured, and people are expected to over-perform to fit into some large scale, palatable narrative or box. But apart from that performance, what exactly does the Dalit identity mean in the diaspora, largely protected from immediate caste violence in India, hopefully involved in activism, but still deeply isolated, with grief in our bones and generational memories seeped into our subconscious. I’m not sure if there’s a concrete answer, but Dalit oral histories give us a few insights. Looking back at these stories in these oral histories, I can see the neat threads that weave them together.

In the past few months, each oral history that I have conducted have dealt with these themes of memory, annihilation, identity, and isolation, speaking to the ways in which Dalit people have internalized the shame, humiliation, and lies that were so strategically taught to hide Dalit people away or keep Dalit people in their “place.”

“Caste is a lie,” Sundar John Boopalan, a Dalit man, theologian, and the author of Memory, Grief, and Agency: A Political Theological Account of Wrongs and Rites, said to me during our oral history interview late last year. Sitting in a too formal library chair in a too impersonal-to-be-having-this-kind-of-conversation library room that I chose, he said: “The lie is that if you protect your caste identity, things will be well for you. It’s partly true in terms of power and control but in terms of having a good life, it doesn’t work.”

When John said that caste is a lie, I heard this — people in power will do whatever it takes to keep that power. They’ll give up love for that power. They’ll give up anything for power. They’ll commit acts of violence for that power. They’ll uphold arbitrary systems for that power.

It is with this lie that folks with traditional power tell people, as John rightfully said in the interview, “they’ve made the least” that they have no worth, dignity, intelligence, or authority, reminding them every chance they get of their “place.” Their right is only to be invisible.

This is an annihilation of bodies, yes, but also histories, languages, cultures, and traditions all for the sake of power. Lies for the sake of power. And if people hear this message long enough, its internalized.

Would Dalit people care so deeply about visibility if for generations, centuries, family’s safety had not been dependent on being obedient, submissive, and invisible?

Veena Wilhelm, a Dalit woman, Christian, and mental health counselor from Andhra, now based in Seattle, reminded me in her oral history interview, of how the intersection between being Dalit and being a woman deepen this complexity of visibility and place.

With the certain kinds of forced labor that many Dalit women had to do historically, visibility is often discouraged, but under the guise of freedom. It wasn’t much different in Veena’s recounting.

“There’s this expectation that women hold up the reputation of the caste, women become responsible for proving, I think, that our caste can be just as good as another by policing ourselves,” she said. “[Historically] higher caste women were expected to police themselves heavily but women from my caste were forced to do the opposite.”

In her oral history interview, Veena told me that in her church, in her village, Dalit women attracting attention to themselves for anything other than their Christian identity was frowned upon.

“Women [were expected to be] fully covered, subtle, demure, [and] not attract attention to themselves as a woman, but more so because you are a Christian,” Veena said. “When you could be loud was when you were praying, singing.”

That was what was offered to Dalit women, a pious visibility that said any other kinds are unholy.

Invisibility was the protection.

Would Dalit people care so deeply about visibility if for generations, centuries, family’s safety had not been dependent on being obedient, submissive, and invisible?

The more Dalit histories I record, the more I realize that it doesn’t matter how far away we get away from the country, from the people, from even the knowledge of the caste identity that so many Dalit people are kept from — we always remember the violence that happened to our lineage.
Madurai-Dalit village
Snapping, forgetting these memories, and going on is nearly impossible. The oceans of our minds are layered and we are constantly swimming there, trying to find that dry land of sanity.

Carrying that pain comes natural, backs hunched from the weight, unlearning the loads little by little, before passing on to the next. That’s what oppression does. It passes down pain like last names.

Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, talks about this phenomenon as “rememory.”

“I used to think to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place--the picture of it--stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”

As long as India as we know it today still stands, these memories will exist. As long as a vicious Hindu Nationalist government stands, these memories will exist. As long as the people who came before us are buried in the land, these memories will never die. And because their DNA runs through us, we can’t forget.

Dhanya is an editor, writer, and photographer, working mainly in advocacy, human rights, and justice oriented spaces. She was born in South India and raised in South Texas.