Thursday, September 01, 2016

The unbearable burdens of centuries past

Schooling, where the classmates came from different religions and caste, combined with the highly critical teenagerish thinking, made me acutely aware of the ways in which the society in which I was growing up was highly segregated.

Going to my grandmothers' villages offered even more stark lessons: The streets in which they lived were only for Brahmins.  A classmate's grandfather, whom my father and great-uncle liked to visit with, lived in a different part of  the village along with people of his caste.  How terrible it all sounds even as I type those sentences!

The older I get, the more I am appalled that people lived and behaved so awfully.  Especially my people who belonged to the privileged upper caste.  A couple of years ago, when looking at the schematic layout of the village that my father had drawn, I casually asked him what he thought about such a spatial manifestation of the awful caste system.  "That is how it was in the old days" he replied and I didn't pursue the point after that.  

Deep down within me, I want the leaders of the Brahmin community to issue a formal and heartfelt apology.  In the lectures that the "learned" masters deliver, I want them to engage with their followers on the awful practices of the centuries, and lead an honest introspection.

As an outsider, I have no say anymore in those issues whenever I visit the old country.  Three decades of life in the US is not the real reason that I am an outsider, but because of how loudly and openly I have renounced the old  faith and the practices, unlike the plenty of Indian immigrants here in America who continue to practice the old ideas.

Here in America, we have a long way to go to correcting the grievous errors of the past, and one serious presidential contender is not helping in this but is making things worse.  But, as another white supremacist from the old colonizer said, we can count on Americans to do the right thing after trying everything else.

Today, more evidence that we are on the right track:
Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia today announced next steps in the university’s ongoing process to acknowledge and respond to its historical ties to the institution of slavery
Remember this post from a few months ago, in which I had referred to Georgetown and its slaveholding past?

I am impressed with how Georgetown has systematically gone about this troubling issue.
“The most appropriate ways for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time,” says DeGioia, who met over the summer with descendants in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Maringouin, Louisiana, as well as Spokane, Washington.
Yes, and this is exactly the kind of honest, factual discussions that I want to happen in the old country too.  But, I think that is way too much to ask for! :(

The fact that I am highly educated and live here in the US is not any accident.  I have benefited from the centuries--yes, centuries--through which my people were given preferential treatment at the expense of others.  As the Georgetown University professor, who chaired the working group on slavery, memory and reconciliation, puts it, "the failures need to be claimed as much as the successes."
Slavery is our history, and we are its heirs. America would not be America except for its deplorable history of slavery. There will be no “liberty and justice for all” until we understand that, not just Georgetown University and the Roman Catholic Church, but we as a nation.
We slowly progress towards a better society.  We shall overcome some day.


Mike Hoth said...

The best we can do, in my opinion, is to acknowledge the tragedies of the past without shackling ourselves to them. Slavery was an awful, awful practice, but we do a disservice to those who persevered when we look at their descendants as "children of slaves". There are no slaves in Alabama or Georgia any more, there are only people. We need to treat them as such, and try to help them overcome whatever obstacles they face today. Not pity them, not excuse poor behavior (I was once told that gang culture among African Americans was a result of slavery and therefore my fault) but make sure that all people are given a fair shot at life.

Sriram Khé said...

My post did not suggest anything about pity or making excuses or any of those sentiments that you write about.

a. The Georgetown approach is a model for honest treatment of the "personal" involvement in the awful history, and for "personal" ways to compensate for those.
b. Many of us in relatively successful stations in life have our own personal share of the awful history, about which we need to engage in honest introspection.
c. It is not an accident that the descendants of those who were awfully and systematically messed up in the past are in relatively unsuccessful stations in life--Blacks and Native Americans here, the Dalits in India, the Maori in New Zealand, the ... an endless list. Just because we have recently rewritten the laws of the land, their situation is not going to immediately transform after what transpired over generations and generations.

Ramesh said...

I understand, but do not subscribe to, the concept that any generation must apologise for the behaviour of previous generations. These symbolic apologies, in my humble view, are mere tokens and are not synonymous with real change, which is what is really important.

The caste problems in India are more complicated than what you have portrayed. Brahmins were not the only culprits. Every caste ensured that it oppressed any other caste that was below it in the hierarchy. The real tragedy is that the caste system is still ingrained in society, despite significant improvements in the last two decades.

One issue is cultural. A look at matrimonial ads is enough to see that it still holds sway.

The second is affirmative action. The caste system is actually being strengthened because of it.

I believe the way forward to reducing, and then eliminating, the issue of caste is economic development. Much of the improvement in this space over the last two decades has come by economic upliftment. As the younger generation does far better economically, it is starting to throw away the shackles of caste. If there is widespread economic growth in India, as is likely for the next 20-30 years, then the next generation will drastically reduce the concept of caste.

Economic growth is the key.

Anne in Salem said...

I agree with Ramesh. My ancestors on my father's side arrived on the Mayflower, fought in the Revolution and lived in New England before moving to the midwest. Ancestors on my mother's side arrived in the mid-nineteenth century and settled in Missouri and Illinois. Not a slave owner in the bunch. Am I to apologize for the actions of unrelated people centuries ago? Hollow apology.

We should acknowledge our past and move forward. I am no more responsible for slavery than someone my age in Oregon is a victim of slavery. We need to cast aside victimhood in favor of personal responsibility and hard work in an economic environment free of crushing regulation that creates sufficient attractive jobs so that crime and welfare dependence are less appealing. Tall order and decades in execution if not too idealistic.

Sriram Khé said...

Today's paper reports that the local university's president has decided to rename a building that is named after one with racist (KKK) history. This is not "symbolic" as Ramesh interprets such discussions and actions. Georgetown has gone a step further and is putting in place a way to atone for its slaveholding past. These are not at all "tokens". These are huge steps in real change.

By Anne's logic, I, as a naturalized citizen, am in the clear and do not have to worry a bit about the American past, right? It is not about "victimhood" but about honest engagement with the past. It is our collective responsibility even though I--as an individual--had no part in this.

The entire behavior is "cultural." It is all a part and parcel of what we refer to as culture. Economic betterment by itself is no panacea. Look at the rich countries like France and its culture seemingly at a loss to deal with the "other."

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