"Release me from my infernal identity; Let me fall in love with these stars"
Poet Namdeo Dhasal of the wretched caste system.
Caste is a dehumanising social system that has found life through culture, codes, and communication and now extends to the digital world. When Dalits (the most oppressed group) challenge social rules and interactions of dominant caste groups, brutal forms of violence erupt. Communication and culture have been vehicles of the caste system.
This syllabus conceptualises that caste exists as a communicative practice. Further, it evidences how caste lives through endogamous traditions, everyday rituals and cultural codes that have the power to shape people's identities and life experiences concerning violence, privilege, everyday articulation, representation and individual or groups' rights to participate in society.
On the other hand, caste can also afford privileges depending on one's caste rank. Several years ago in New York, I met with a Head of an influential Technology for Development research institute. Upon learning I was a Tamil from Chennai city, he was confident I ought to be a Tamil Brahmin and an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology because of the success of several Tamil Brahmins in the US tech industry. Today, we often hear of caste-based discrimination in the US tech industry while anthropologists and economists continue to view Brahminism as key to India's IT success. The globalisation of caste is real.
In another incident, during my doctoral research, a dominant caste brick kiln owner was furious at me because I helped an Arunthathiyar worker (an oppressed caste member) compose a mobile phone text to request a leave of absence from work. The dominant caste brick kiln owner said Arunthathiyars could not ask permission to take leave from work via mobile texts. The mobile text message disrupted the established caste norm that would have required the oppressed caste employee to use a set of caste-speech elements that had honorific verbal and facial expressions with submissive gesticulations. The brick kiln owner warned me not to disrupt local ways of working.
These two everyday micro-political relationships of caste – one in New York and the other in a small village in Tamil Nadu, India can reveal the reworking and manifestations of caste as a communicative practice. These incidences also reinforce two ideological tenets of casteism: Brahminical supremacy and graded inequality. These lived-in experiences, my doctoral research and support from Data and Society require me to thank a few people who stand behind this syllabus.
I take this opportunity to thank my doctoral supervisors, Professors Annabelle Sreberny and David Mosse. Annabelle had the patience to understand and shape my research focus and encouraged me to research caste from media and technology perspectives. David is my mentor, friend in need and counsellor during my distress. David also helped me conceptualise caste as a communicative practice.
This syllabus is an outcome of my doctoral research, and this is impossible without my friends and interlocutors in Veerammalpuram (not the real name), Tamil Nadu, India.
I also want to thank Professor Paula Chakravartty, who has placed much faith in my work and for her constant support. I also take this moment to thank Janet Haven, Jenna Burrell and Ania Calderon at Data and Society for the opportunity and their support.
I am grateful to my desh friend and web developer Mynul Islam for his tech support, who stepped in to make this web space happen at the last minute. My grateful thanks to Patrick Davison and Eryn Loeb for their editorial help.
I am thankful and my congratulations to Professor Sareeta Amrute, Dr Ranjit Singh and Rigoberto Lara Guzmán at Data and Society for acknowledging and including a part of this syllabus in their brilliant “A PRIMER ON AI IN/FROM THE MAJORITY WORLD: An empirical site and a Standpoint”.
Last but not least, I am grateful to Professor Sareeta Amrute for her unwavering support. She has been a brilliant, sensitive, empathetic line manager, friend, and confidante.
Race and Technology Fellow 2021-2022
Data and Society