Healing the Trauma of Caste, With Thenmozhi Soundararajan
The Swaddle’s Rohitha Naraharisetty spoke to Thenmozhi Soundararajan, an anti-caste activist who founded Equality Labs, a civil rights group based in the US. Soundararajan is the author of The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition.
RN: In the book, you speak about caste soul wounds as the prerequisite for caste abolition. What I found really interesting here was that you speak about caste soul wounds for everybody and how they may look different, depending on where you’re located socially, whether you’re oppressed or the oppressor. We see this a lot with upper caste families in their bid to uphold norms of purity — they live extremely rigid, restricted lives, especially upper caste women, through whom the purity is upheld. And that feels like it’s a self-inflicted soul wound as well.
How do we recognise this and make space for all soul wounds to be healed without losing sight of the oppressor-oppressed dynamic and the ways in which the oppressors harm the oppressed?
TS: The answer lies in understanding why was the idea of the soul wound even developed. It really lies with Indigenous and Black somatic abolitionists, who were trying to understand not only the conditions that oppressed people were coming into, but also the kinds of conditions that were coming up in the privileged. Eduardo Duran and other Indigenous therapists like Maria Braveheart, they very much understood that Indigenous people weren’t just suffering from depression, and addiction, because of conditions in their existing lifetime. There was a very, very deep pain that came from the wound in the lineage related to conquest and settler colonialism.
That’s where Eduardo Duran really came up with this idea of the soul wound. It is a wound, larger than one individual’s lifetime, rooted in structural oppression, right? Resmaa Menakem’s work was very influential for me around this, because he said the racial soul wounds, they tie the oppressed and the privileged together. And certainly, because of the way that systems of oppression perpetuate themselves, there’s an obsession about the consequences of the oppressed, because it’s easy to say, oh, Dalit lynched here, you know, Dalit person murdered here, Dalit person raped here. But we never talk about the caste of the perpetrator, we never look at “Why is there such a level of structural impunity?” And then what you realize is there’s a whole network of individuals that have to stay silent, that have to stay complicit, that have to never look at violence that their families and friends and professional networks are inflicting on the oppressed, and who do nothing.
And I think it’s that pain, that violence, that actually warps and destroys a person. Because again, it’s an unnatural state of being to “other” yourself from another; I think as a species, we learn to regulate our nervous systems together, we actually get nourishment from each other, other species on the earth, but you have to silo yourself in order to say, “I’m the person that’s the other.” Now you’ve not only separated yourself from other people, you now have to create a wall, a bolt for you to say “these are the only people in my in-group.” And the more that you do that, there’s all sorts of emotional problems that come out of that distrust, suspicion, and vicious enforcement of those rules. And suddenly the family becomes a huge pressure cooker for these norms.
I think that what I have seen is that there are no truly evil people. But all of us are wounded people. It should not be the burden of caste-depressed people to manage the wounds of the caste-privileged, because that’s what’s happening right now. Their inability to have any conversation related to caste that brings them caste stress, that lack of resilience basically means they become fragile. And all it takes is one fragile Savarna for a Dalit to be lynched.
So, their fragility is actually a form of pain. And in order to address it, they need to be de-escalated, and be in community with other Savarnas who are building resilience for caste stress, who are working to become accomplices with caste abolitionists, and to really create equity because they may lose their privilege, you know, because none of this is real; it’s all a social fiction, right? They may lose their privilege, but they will gain their humanity.
RN: You’ve written about how you don’t identify as Brown the way that South Asian diaspora communities do. When upper-caste South Asian communities project this idea of Brownness; they draw on ideas of decolonization, decrying White supremacy in Western institutions. So from your point of view, is that a way to mask the intra-colonial dynamics of caste? You’ve spoken about how decolonization is not possible without de-Brahminization. But do you also think that colonization itself as a concept needs reframing, where we recognise casteism as colonialism that dates back thousands of years, where upper-castes have colonised the psyches and the bodies and the labour of Dalit, Adivasi and Shudra communities?
TS: I think that the way many dominant caste Hindu influencers try to approach that, is that they get very insistent about defining what Brown means… Brown is basically the dominant caste Savarna Hindu tradition. So, there’s like huge creeds about who gets to wear a bindi, and, you know, how dare that person wear a sari wrong, or, you know, yada, yada, yada, and within that, I think that there’s an erasure of the diversity of the many different cultural traditions and many different caste traditions in this pursuit to be ultra nationalist in the face of white supremacy.
I think the other piece, which I’ve written about in other parts of the book, is that I really do not think that decolonization was ever meant to be a concept that had uniform implementations across the world, because there’s no uniform sense of Whiteness. And there’s also not uniform colonial powers, right? Some places you have Portuguese and other places, you have the French, in other places, you have the British, and they certainly pushed forward a model of Whiteness that was violent. But in order to decolonize, you actually have to look at all the hegemonic systems and like you said, the original practice of hegemony, that really extorted labour and the spirit and the lives of people was Brahmanism.
So, to really begin to decolonize in the South Asian context, we have to first begin with de-Brahminization, because de-Brahminization is also linked to the kinds of ideas of global Whiteness — think about the connections of the Aryans, and the construction of Aryan spirituality at the heart of certain White origin myths. So I think that we can’t act as if [White supremacy] is the core hegemonic foundation for all the other hegemonies to come.
RN: You’ve noted how in the West, Hinduism is seen as this spiritual experience where a lot of high profile White celebrities, like the Beatles, and Gloria Steinem, have engaged with Hinduism as if it’s a lifestyle practice. So it’s almost de-politicised; it’s seen and also projected by the upper caste Savarna diaspora as a very peace-loving religion — but does this do more harm?
TS: There is a long tradition of Orientalism in the West that connects to a very superficial understanding of Dharmic traditions in the subcontinent, especially through interpretation. So they have deified something that they don’t understand has clay feet, you know? Every religious tradition which is held up by men has its flaws, that’s just it.
But in reality, they have not heard from people who’ve been abused by those systems. Caste-oppressed people are fundamentally really survivors of religious abuse, for multiple traditions. We see caste-oppressed people in Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu communities. It’s not even just one faith, it’s like, all faiths have replicated these hierarchies.
If everybody was in Nirvana, shouldn’t we not have so many genocides? But that history is siloed and not understood in the same continuity of this. And I think even we as South Asians don’t look at the fact that our homeland is the homeland of multiple genocides. I think we nicely have put everything into boxes and try not to process it. It’s like, oh, yeah, Khairlanji, what? Karamchedu, what? Let’s not talk about Tsundur. As soon as the violence happens, we disappear it from our mind.
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Is Therapy in India Inherently Casteist?
RN: Spirituality is also a really big theme in your book: the way you engage with Buddhism, and reclaiming spirituality that was robbed from caste oppressed communities, and Dalit communities. Why is reclaiming spirituality so important for caste abolition? Can there be some kind of a mutual solidarity between reclaiming spirituality on the one hand, and also the parallel stream of atheism and rationalist movement, as championed by Periyar, for example?
TS: I wish there was like a magic answer to all of it, but I don’t think there is like, I love Periyar. I love his writings. I love Ambedkar ‘s writings. I love Phule’s writings. So there is a part of me that learned to be a very good Rationalist through their writings. And for a very long time, I was an atheist and someone who didn’t believe in superstitious practices, but I also felt that when I lived that life, there was a part of magic and mystery that I lost in the world and I missed it, you know? And I think that I just gave myself permission to create a space that was my ethical, equitable practice of the spiritual.
And it wasn’t like, spiritual capital S, it was spiritual, lowercase. I wasn’t doing it like millions of other people. It was just my own practice of connecting to life. And the people who’ve loved me over time, you know, including my ancestors. And in that, well, it’s like animism — but do I want to put a label on it? No. Do I want to discuss it with a lot of people? No. It’s just what I do, and it’s my stuff. And I’m totally okay with it. And as a Dalit feminist, I felt like it was so important to give people permission to do whatever the fuck they wanted in the spiritual realm. Because we have too many people who are dogmatic that want to tell us who we can pray to, where we can pray, to what we can pray. And even that incessant thing is part of the oppression, we’re not consenting to any of it, someone now has decided who was going to be our intermediary toward the divine; the divine is limitless, we are limitless, we can do whatever we want. So why wouldn’t you?
RN: Right. You also write about mental health a lot. What we notice today is that mental health speak is appropriated by corporations, and it just seems like it’s become a very apolitical conversation. On the other hand, we do see there being more conversations and more caste-affirmative mental health care, but it almost seems oriented only towards people who are oppressed by caste. Oppressors are not called upon to introspect their own psyches and the way that they perpetuate casteism. So is this a problem that you see? Is the burden of caste and social injustice placed on people who are oppressed by it, in the mental health discourse?
TS: I think that there’s always going to be some aspect of flattening of the conversation around mental health, when done by corporate actors. That’s because they’re thinking about liability, their job is not actually to make everybody feel better. But I do think that we’re actually in a really powerful age around the fields of mental health, where we are seeing for the first time, very deep systemic interventions by BIPOC practitioners globally, to understand how the structural impacts individual health. My book is deeply indebted to beautiful practitioners who are shedding light on how intergenerational trauma informs individual trauma, and what are the tools to heal and address intergenerational trauma and harm.
The thing is, we now need a whole new generation of conversations in the subcontinent to empower South Asian therapists, to have a language around caste. And that means informing how this impacts their patients, developing language for fragility and caste stress, and also not placing the burden on their clients to help them build caste equity competency. There should not be a single South Asian therapist that you should have to explain caste to, and all of the practices should be welcome places for all people of all castes. That means those therapists need to do work on their implicit and explicit biases. I’ve heard so many horror stories where caste oppressed people go to a dominant caste therapist, and they experience bias and bigotry, or diminishment and gaslighting of what they’re going through from a structural system. That same therapist would, I’m sure, read tonnes of literature about racism and how it impacts clients, and would have no problem, right?
So there’s a lot of work that we need to do to train the next generation of therapists, so that caste equity competency is immediately part of that toolkit, and that we have more tools, more language, more studies, more analysis that understand how caste plays a role in structural psychology, you know, mental health issues as well as individual and intrapersonal ones.
RN: Finally, you’ve also spoken about the idea of the archive. So there’s a lot of dominant caste communities that hold on to, that are aware of their histories going back generations in the same spot, and they’re proud of it. Whereas for anyone who is marginalized by caste, it’s almost an archive of dispossession, of moving from place to place from atrocity to atrocity, like you said. This was reminiscent of what Dr. Saidiya Hartman had written about the archive, where it concerns Black bodies and the violence of the archive, filled with repeated death and violence, because the archive is written by the powerful.
Do you see this changing slowly? Do you think that caste oppressed communities are slowly reclaiming control over the archive, and will future generations inherit and remember a different story of caste that centres on resilience and healing, or are we still a way away from that?
TS: I certainly think that we are in that reclamation and also that, it’s almost like we have to retrain ourselves to understand what is important for us to transmit to the next generation. We don’t want to erase it, right? We don’t want to say, “Oh, no caste, it doesn’t exist.” You know, that’s what in the diaspora a lot of people do, even if they’re caste oppressed, they don’t want to say it because they’re afraid to tell their children. And then their children are like, “What’s going on? Why is everybody so fucked up? What’s happening?” So then eventually you have to tell them anyway, right? So what’s clear: we have to talk about it, we have to share some stories. But it’s about context, and it’s also about recognising that we have a right to a history, that we are a people, we are more than our wounds. We are also our resilience, you know, and also part of what I was writing is that our text may look different.
It may not be the fancy library in an Agrahara. It might be oral history, it might be, you know, buried things that were shattered and preserved, but when you look at that artefact, it tells the story of your lineage. It might be the very dirt that your family is from, that your family cultivated for years, you know? But it’s about democratising what history really looks like for people. And for us to be empowered to tell our stories, through our own words, and to be anchored in those roots as we build wings for a time when we are free of caste.
And that was a big deal of why, you know, I wanted to co-found Dalit History Month, and make it this project, because so many caste oppressed people didn’t know the basics of who their amazing caste abolitionist ancestors were. That’s why I even included that section, because that knowledge is very siloed across language and your state where you’re from. People from Kerala may know Ayyankali very well, but they might not know Ayodidas, or they might not know Ravidas, you know? That’s how it works, right, in the subcontinent, you know. So there’s a lot that can be done. And there’s a lot to kind of really think about in the next phase of our work that we do together. But I feel like I wanted to eradicate the shame of the differential of artefacts.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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