In May, Haati Chai, a jewelry company based in Los Angeles, did what many American brands have done over the last few months: use social media to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that has sparked protests against racism and police brutality across the United States.
Haati Chai’s attempt to join the chorus didn’t go so well.
Even as it posted about the movement, social media influencers in the US and India dug out a $2000 product from the brand, founded by Bangladeshi-American designer Stella Simona, called a “Dalit ring”.
According to the product description, the ring “has raw unfinished stones, which many don’t find beautiful because they want ‘perfectly’ finished diamonds. Just like the Dalit caste, the Dalit ring is very unique and extremely beautiful.”
Though it had been available since 2017, it wasn’t until the additional scrutiny brought on by the company’s attempt to show solidarity with the anti-racism movement that the founders decided they ought to change its name and remove the offensive description.
The controversy neatly illustrated the complex conversations that have overtaken the Indian and South Asian diaspora in the United States, as they grapple with a country-wide anti-racism movement coupled with unsettling questions about prejudice within their own communities.
Much of this is playing out on Instagram, the Facebook-owned social network that has become a vital tool for activists to broadcast information and opinions. Haati Chai, too, saw the controversy erupt on the platform.
“[They] reduced centuries of systemic oppression, inter-generational trauma, discrimination… into a piece of ‘beautiful’ looking jewellery,” wrote Kamna Singh, one among several Dalit voices to be blocked by the company on social media after asking questions about the ring.
Neha Mehra, an Indian from New Delhi who recently moved to Chicago, and was also blocked by Haati Chai on Instagram, said that the product demonstrated “how misguided some diaspora kids’ search for identity can be”.
Said Mehra: “The brand has no connection to Dalit communities, no Dalit person in their employ... It remains a show of wokeness to an American audience. And let’s not even begin to talk about its orientalist brand name.”
“Tokenism is nothing but trash,” wrote @southasiannation, an Instagram account with over 15,000 followers, regarding the Haati Chai controversy. Pages such as South Asian Nation, The Indian Feminist, The Woke Desi, and South Asians for Black Lives are popular and outspoken on issues such as colorism, xenophobia, and politics within South Asian communities.
South Asian Nation works towards the “decolonisation of colonised practices in caste and colour”, according to Divya Soneji, one of the four founders of the community.
The South Asian Nation regularly posts about issues such as the hypocrisy of Bollywood celebrities standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, racism among South Asian American parents, female oppression in South Asian families, and taboos around sexual identity in the ‘desi’ community.
The group was created in January 2019 because, according to Soneji, they noticed that the diaspora is more comfortable talking about domestic issues and not marginalised issues in their home country.
“We struggled to see South Asian representation apart from fashion and lifestyle in the diaspora, so it was natural for us to start talking about our community in a way that supports the marginalised within it,” Soneji said.
Caste in the diaspora
Thenmozhi Soundararajan runs Equality Labs, a popular Ambedkarite South Asian organisation in the United States, that hopes to drive some of these conversations. In 2016, Equality Labs carried out a survey of 1,500 people in the US, resulting in a report titled “Caste in the United States” which revealed that Dalits face discrimination, jokes, and even physical violence at multiple levels in the country.
“If you look at the majority of South Asian professors, directors of nonprofit organisations, or executive directors in general – they are mostly Brahmin,” Soundararajan said. “It has to do with the lack of structural access that caste-oppressed voices have around the world.”
Soundararajan’s first organising experience was when she was 20 years old studying at University of California, Berkeley and witnessed the case of Lakireddy Bali Reddy, an Indian-American landlord who had allegedly been trafficking Dalits to work as indentured servants in his restaurants and properties.
“The discussion of caste and its existence in the diaspora is not debatable at this point. It took a caste-oppressed researcher in a community-based research institution to lift up this voice, because upper-caste scholars did not see it as a priority,” she said.
Equality Labs’ research led to the first ever Congressional briefing on caste in the United States last year, and its workshops on unlearning caste supremacy have thousands of takers.
‘This is the moment’
The events of the last decade have also meant that South Asian Americans have grown up with a connection or at least knowledge of anti-racism movements.
“The college students I’ve been teaching... have grown up immersed in this discussion around anti-blackness,” said Sunaina Maira, author of Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City who is a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California-Davis. “But there’s not necessarily an awareness of issues in their own community such as caste, because those are not part of the dominant American discourse.”
There is anxiety and hesitation to get involved in coalitions with other American causes, researchers say, because young Indian-Americans are worried about speaking on behalf of communities, and issues of appropriation.
“Indians are struggling to find an entry-point into the conversation, especially right now, based on their experiences growing up in the US and the privilege they bring with their families,” said Lakshmi Sridaran, the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together. “[But] this is the moment for us to pull our resources together and engage in these conversations with young people.”
For those who are participating in the current movement, though, it has brought with it a chance to talk about and engage with a whole range of issues. “There’s anti-blackness, Islamophobia, xenophobia, classism, sexism, homophobia, and it overlaps with racism from multiple other communities, including anti-Asian racism during Covid-19,” said Maira.
Equality Labs’ Soundararajan echoed this view.
“People need to take a structural lens, and this is the moment for it. When you understand the contexts, you understand why your auntie thinks interracial marriage is bad, why they’re asking, ‘do they come from a good family?’. Caste issues become racial issues become other issues, and it’s important to understand that a caste mindset leads to an anti-black mindset.”