I’m a Dalit woman, and my mental health matters
by Christina Thomas Dhanaraj
The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.
My first visit to the psychiatrist was when I was 16. I was in school, preparing for my 12th class board exams. Unlike my peers who were all well set several months before the D-day, I wasn’t sure what happened to acetaldehyde, when oxidised, even a month before. Something told me it had to be acetic acid but I would shut that voice down arguing that I was stupid.
I would spend my nights obsessing over the inevitability of earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions. I would not read stories; descriptions meant landscapes had to be imagined but my OCD would find ways to break them.
I was convinced my loved ones were dying from terrible diseases. I prayed, heeding to the teachings of the Indian church, and begged the divine to cast the devil away. The devil refused; he sat next to me while I wrote my exams, whispering the worst into my ears.
Being perfect is the only way to be
Over the past many years, the mainstream political discourse on caste, especially when savarnas participate, has invariably veered to discussions on affirmative action. And terms such as ‘quota candidate’ (and therefore not meritorious) are commonly used against Dalit students in universities. But regardless of reservations, there exists underlying perceptions that we are slack, not-so-competent, or corrupt. These default assumptions, which permeate every space we work or move in, don’t stop with just being perceptions. There are real-life implications for us — from being criminalised to being ill-treated to being passed up for a job or promotions.
This in turn forces us to overcompensate, mandating us to be ‘high-functioning’ all the time, everywhere — at our workplaces, our movements, and our art. We are asked to pursue perfectionism as a strategy to battle stereotypes. We are told to be better and to do better, in the supposition that it is us who’s lacking, who’s not good enough.
Those of us who heed to this kind of advice, do so at the price of our emotional and mental stability. Not being able to afford making mistakes also means we have to get it right the first time. And this is an expectation we are expected to fulfil irrespective of whether systemic changes to our social locations have taken place or not. Meaning, we could have spent our lives facing every type of discrimination, be deprived of advantages our peers are typically born with, and severely lack social/monetary capital, but will still need to be twice as good in order to have the same opportunities as our savarna counterparts. We will also be compared to the savarna standard of what is considered successful, normal, and exemplary.
Despite my debilitating illness, I scored 188 on 200 in Chemistry. I went on to major in the subject, winning all the awards my department had to offer in undergrad. I received two masters degrees. I got a job in an MNC. I bought a house.
Given my social location, I’m told I’m an overachiever. But the truth is I had no other choice: I had to be all this and more to beat savarna mediocrity.
Relationships are minefields
At the heart of a good relationship (including friendships) there is understanding that those involved in sustaining that bond are of value. But how is this value determined and who in the relationship determines it?
Elsewhere, I’ve discussed at length the politics around dating as a Dalit woman, and the premise is that within the Indian context, caste continues to play an important role in determining the value of a woman in romantic partnerships. The highest of value, as defined by Hinduism, has traditionally been ascribed to the brahmin woman, followed by the kshatriya, the vaishiya and the shudra.
It is safe to assume that the modern-day ideal is also a savarna or a savarna-passing woman, that is typically light-skinned and able-bodied, belonging to a family that has monetary and social capital, and embodying the qualities of what is considered to be feminine.
The farther one is from this ideal, the more undervalued she is perceived to be. And within relationships, this perception, albeit external, translates into to an unhealthy power imbalance, leading to a potential compromising of one’s rights, desires, and authenticity.
Dalit women, who are the most socially undervalued, are therefore under constant pressure to project an acceptable version of ourselves that mimics the savarna ideal. In a romantic pursuit or a partnership, we are expected to operate along a behavioural band that is far narrower than what is required of a non-Dalit woman, lest we be stereotyped to be further exploited, abused, or rejected.
The existence of this ever-present mandate to be something one is not, so as to constantly prove one’s value, even in the most personal of spaces that are ideally supposed to feel like home, takes a huge toll on a Dalit woman’s mental health. And the price that is asked of us, in return for a semblance of normalcy, is being paid at the expense of our safety, dignity, and mental peace.
Mental health and societal accountability
A lot with respect to Dalit women’s mental health and well-being is still to be unpacked. Microaggressions are a common, everyday thing, where we get told, among many others, that we aren’t Dalit-enough, and that we need to be.
We are gaslighted, in political and personal spaces; our experiences discounted as misinterpretations or incidents that take place as a result of our behaviour. We are told that we have an ‘inferiority complex’ or worse, a ‘victim mindset’. We are told to speak up, and when we do, we are bullied, over and over again. We are discriminated against, both blatantly and subtly. We suffer abuse; we face violence.
Those of us who identify as anti-caste are incessantly asked if caste is ‘really a thing’, despite the blaring evidence that says it is. Our opinions are said to be too strong, too inflexible, and too confrontational. If and when non-Dalits join our movements, they expect us to teach them how to be better allies (albeit, nicely) while continuing to prove to them the rationale behind our stands and strategies.
They also engage in extremely problematic ally behaviours such as demanding emotional and intellectual labour, prioritising savarna fragility over our casted realities, appropriation, taking up space in the name of allyship, reducing us to subjects of academic research, playing ‘devil’s advocate’, and creating rifts in Dalit-only spaces.
Elsewhere, we deal with caste-blindness — the tendency to harp that caste does not matter, and therefore we, as Dalits, are to feel guilty for pointing out caste privilege; we are to then do the labour of explaining that being ‘caste-less’ is in itself a matter of privilege.
There is also intergenerational trauma. But very few discourses exist on how it applies to the lives of Dalit women (and men). One related study that stages Dalit narratives as trauma literature concludes that, ‘Dalit trauma is truly unique…it is trauma that is engendered by the social institution of the caste system, and was religiously sanctioned for centuries.’
This essentially means that external circumstances defined by caste atrocities, untouchability, oppression, lack of resources, and prevalence of microaggressions, over a prolonged period of time, could have resulted in intergenerational trauma for Dalit communities; which now is being further compounded by present-day caste violence and discrimination.
Dalit women’s mental health matters
Our mental health matters and what we need is an overhaul. For a start, we need frameworks that are robust enough to undo centuries of lies — that have told us we are worth nothing. We need methodologies that go beyond self-care (which continues to be misused by some upper-caste women who interpret it as self-preservation, and practice it at our expense) and focus on community care. By virtue of our lived experiences, Dalit women’s emotional and monetary resources are scarce, which makes the current trend of self-care seem luxurious. We need state and community-sponsored interventions that prevent and resist structural violence against us. We need mental health discourses on trauma, body image and disability to wear a caste lens.
We need therapists to get this; to understand that not all of it is in our heads, that our families are not always to be blamed, that our anxiety is not always savarna-like. We need affordable therapy. We need on-the-ground survivor support. We need language that doesn’t gaslight, manipulate, and belittle. We need allies that don’t engage in microaggressions. We need upper caste friends to not play oppression olympics with us, constantly telling us that they too have suffered. We need romantic partners who support our mental health journeys. We need our families and communities to heal with us, alongside.
We need to understand how caste plays ugly in almost every aspect of our lives. We need to realise that none of this would be a thing if caste didn’t exist. But it did, and it does, and so we have to get to work.
Christina Thomas Dhanaraj is a Christian Dalit woman from Chennai/Bangalore, India. She is a volunteer consultant for women and minority-led initiatives focusing on social justice, self-determination, and collaborative models of scholarship. She is currently working in Beijing, China.
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