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  • Building Bridges:Articulating Dalit and African American Women’s Solidarity
  • Shailaja Paik (bio)

The new millennium began with a dialogue between caste and race among activists at the United Nations Durban Conference on Racism and Racial Discrimination, 2001. It was at this conference that the universal human rights discourse engaged with the specifics of caste stratification and discrimination in India. In the wake of this historical moment, I conceived my idea of “building bridges” to outline a comparative model that might allow us to expand the contours of feminist theory and praxis and provide a blueprint for agitations that call for structural changes. More specifically, in this article I concentrate on the specific hurdles of two marginalized groups—Dalit (Untouchable) women in India and African American women in the United States—in order to investigate questions of power, identity, and oppression among them.

Delving into personal experiences of Dalit and African American women’s day-to-day living, I construct a “margin-to-margin” framework to investigate the possibilities of solidarity between the two groups of women, given the shared history of patriarchy as well as the ways they have been silenced by women from the dominant caste/race. By a margin-to-margin framework, I mean the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate margins (for my purposes, caste and race and Dalit and African American women), in order to construct new knowledge and enable political solidarity to build conscious and sustained commitment to challenge social injustice. Moreover, I argue that centering on the particular historical experiences, specific contexts, contradictions, and connections between the marginalized “Dalit of the Dalits”—Dalit and African American women—allows for the [End Page 74] most inclusive and productive politics, developing of new feminist frameworks, and critical decoding of systemic power structures.

The timing of Dalit and African American women’s solidarity is most significant because the U.S. Congress (like its British and European counterparts) has seriously begun to recognize the issue of caste in India. Significantly, working margin to margin privileges a vantage point from which to analyze the deep and common continuities of structures of law, education, feminism, capital, and labor affecting Dalit and African American women in different contexts. An intergroup exchange and feminist engagement facilitates the envisioning of broader and joint struggles between subordinated populations across the globe. It also promotes political possibilities for women to express their alternative views of the conceptual categories as well as actual processes of caste, race, gender and sexuality, and feminism(s).

My essay makes important contributions to colonial history and feminist theory and practice. Most significantly, it highlights the politics of “location” within South Asia as a critical ground for producing new theoretical frameworks in feminism. In this essay, I use the particular dynamics of the South Asian position and, more specifically, the Dalit condition to engage with African American feminists in the United States and scrutinize history, revise certain feminist insights, and provide tools to tackle contemporary challenges of feminism. I draw upon works of Dalit and African American “womanist-humanists,” such as Baby Kamble, Shantabai Kamble, Kumud Pawde, Urmila Pawar, Shantabai Dani, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Audre Lorde, and analyze some shared historical experiences and feminist and political theories.1

Thinking “Margin to Margin”: Practicing Political Solidarity

Methodologically, I use the margin-to-margin framework for two intimately tied purposes: to open up lived experiences as epistemic spaces and to use the newly produced knowledge to practice political solidarity. I depart from earlier studies (that focused mainly on men) and privilege Dalit and African American women’s voices to rethink old and study new contexts of marginalization. I am committed to the reciprocity between scholarship and activism and hence to the dialectical relationship between the scholarly production of knowledge about Dalit and African American [End Page 75] women, political activism, and feminist practice and political questions of representation, equality, and solidarity.

Moreover, I argue that a margin-to-margin framework will invite different social actors, including scholars and activists, inside a region, nation, or even transnationally to construct shared goals and new bonds of sentiment as well as bodies of knowledge among those most exploited, excluded, or...


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pp. 74-96
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