Can Syrian Christians be Black? Racialized Discrimination in Global South Asia

Sonja Thomas delves into the rarely acknowledged racial dynamics in India, and how the complex interrelationship between caste and race have impacts not just within India, but internationally.

Sonja Thomas

When I first started to research racialized discrimination in India and the caste/class privilege of the Syrian Christians, I was often told by fellow scholars that India has colour, or caste, or religion, but no race. This is despite the fact that there is rampant racialized discrimination against (Dravidian) Dalits, Northeasterners, South Indians, the Siddhi, and other groups in India. Even when South Asianists do study race, it is understood as a function of any one of the categories of caste, religion, class, or colour. In my book, I argue that we can only understand how ideas of race thrive in South Asia by studying how all of these categories intersect to produce racist stereotypes and imaginaries, even when race is not explicitly mentioned or invoked. In this article, I offer three exhibits to illustrate this point.

Book cover image: In the background, a person clad in traditional white Syrian Christian clothing, with gold rings on their ears, stands on the steps before the door of a house, a closed window to their left. In the foreground, there is the title, "Privileged Minorities," the subtitle, "Syrian Christianity, gender and minority rights in postcolonial India," and the author's name, "Sonja Thomas."

Exhibit A: Excerpt from my recently published book, Privileged Minorities:

When I began my research in Kerala, I met a Namboodiri Brahmin woman, Savatri, who became one of my most enthusiastic research participants. 

On the day we met, Savatri asked me, “Are you Namboodiri?”

“No,” I answered, “I’m a St. Thomas Christian. I’m studying the history of Christian women in Kerala.”

“Oh,” she said knowingly, “that explains it. You have such Aryan-looking features, with fair skin and a nice netti (forehead), that I was sure you were Namboodiri. But you know the St. Thomas Christians were once all Brahmins. That’s why you look like us. Do you know that history? Write that down for your gaveshanum (research). You Christians were Aryans when you converted, not Dravidian like the Pulaya (Dalit) Christians.”1

What amazes me about this exchange quoted above is how Savatri manages to articulate the relationship between Namboodiri Brahmins and Syrian Christians through an intersectional understanding of a racial designation (Aryan), perceived phenotypical differences (fair skin and shape of the forehead), a religion (Hinduism/Syrian Christianity), and a caste (Brahmin) all at once. In Privileged Minorities, I take on a feminist intersectional analysis to show how racialized discrimination functions intersectionally and is legitimized via conversion and origin stories, assumptions concerning caste-based occupations, colourism, and sexual promiscuity, and through the ways in which elite groups both imagine and police manual labouring bodies.

Exhibit B: Syrian Christian DNA project on familytreena.com

“This is an attempt to bring together the results of Syrian Christians of Kerala, India to evaluate the results and check whether oral traditions and beliefs are in line with geneological [sic] data.”

Race and racist stereotypes are often rendered “factual” by employing scientific language and this DNA project is no exception. As Kim Tallbear has found, DNA test results can vary based on the company and methods each company uses. Further, the markers used by DNA testing companies to determine “Native,” Asian,” or “African” are not always transparent. Since all humans share common ancestors, Syrian Christian markers (if they exist) may be found amongst peoples in certain geographies other than India in lower frequencies.2 So what exactly is proved in this DNA project?

Here’s where origin stories matter: the Syrian Christians believe that Saint Thomas converted Brahmins to Christianity. The Brahmins of Kerala, in turn, are believed to be “Aryan” and racially differentiated from “Dravidian” Dalit Bahujans. Syrian Christian group homogeneity is falsely assumed to be a “fact” because of the perception that brahmanical patriarchal regulations on female sexuality, and caste/religious endogamy, has kept racialized divisions intact from time immemorial. In Privileged Minorities, I examine how the lived differences between Brahmin converts and Dalit Bahujan/Muslim converts to Christianity play into the taken-for-granted assumption that all Syrian Christians will have Aryan fair skin and all Dalit Bahujan manual labourers will have Dravidian dark skin. 

Essentially, Exhibit B seeks to use “science” to explain away caste, race, and class privilege by legitimizing the origin stories of Syrian Christians over and against “others” who do not possess the same status or origin.

Exhibit C: Arundhati Roy as Black 

“I’m a black woman. Most of us are. Ninety per cent of us are. This obsession that Indians have with white skin and straight hair makes me sick. We need a new aesthetic, and I’ve seen ELLE trying to do that. It’s wonderful. I’m here to raise a toast to that.”

Arundhati Roy on Writing, Fighting and…Aerobics? July 1, 2016.

After winning the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things Arundhati Roy went on to become a celebrity activist, bringing attention to dam politics and Adivasis on Narmada, military occupation in Kashmir, and critiquing the US’s war on terror. For this work, she has faced harassment from the Hindu Right. She has also faced enormous backlash from members of the Syrian Christian community for daring to name casteism within Christianity. In Privileged Minorities, I discuss The God of Small Things, and how the romantic relationship between Amu, a Syrian Christian woman, and Velutha, a Dalit Christian labourer, actually reflects the intersections between colour (Black/brown), caste (Dalit/dominant), religion (Dalit Christian/Syrian Christian), and class (labourer/landowner). 

While her activism and nuanced exploration of social difference are commendable, there are problems with Roy’s ability to claim that she is a “Black woman.”3

In 2001, the Indian government opposed the admission of Dalit groups to the UN’s World Conference Against Racism. The reason given was that caste is not race, despite continued descent-based discrimination against “Dravidians” including and not limited to segregation, education and employment discrimination, displacement/cutting off access to resources, and violence. As we have seen, Syrian Christians in Kerala, far from being Black, enjoy the combined benefits of caste, class, and religious dominance, successfully claiming “Aryanness” through their origin stories. What, then, does it mean for an international activist like Arundhati Roy, a Syrian Christian, to be able to claim a Black identity? 

This capacity for dominant caste South Asians to claim that their experiences are similar to those of, say, Black Americans, while failing to discuss their caste privilege and the experiences of Dalits, is also reflected in US academia. It is clear that South Asian Studies is disproportionately represented by dominant caste academics. I include myself in that assessment. I am a South Asian American—a child of Syrian Christian immigrant parents of the professional class. South Asian dominant caste academics play into multiculturalism in the Western academy; a multiculturalism that sees South Asian academics as transnational “diversity hires.” The ease at which South Asian academics can claim “of colourness” and not discuss racism and casteism in their research on South Asia renders invisible racialized discrimination within South Asia just as much as it obscures anti-Blackness in South Asian diasporic communities. 

This inattention to race is why South Asians often become “safe” substitutes for Black people as diversity hires in institutions. In my field of Women’s studies, for example, Women’s Studies departments in universities often pit South Asian/transnational feminists and feminisms against Black feminists and Black feminist thought through diversity hires. Black feminists have long criticized Women’s Studies as working with a homogenous and universal category of “woman”; one that does not address the fundamental ways in which race, class and other aspects of social difference impact what it means to be a woman. This practice of substitution means that white Western feminism can appear to center women of colour/queer of colour perspectives without dealing with such critiques or giving Black feminist thought its right of place in Women’s Studies.4

In the Western academy, Dalit and Adivasi critiques of Roy (and Vandana Shiva, for that matter) often fail to even register amongst white, Black and (dominant caste) brown feminist scholars. Arundhati Roy has been critiqued especially for her lack of engagement with Dalit activism in her introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste.6 But rather than engaging with these critiques, academia rolls out the red carpet for transnational/South Asian celebrity activists. 

Case in point: Arundhati Roy is the 2019 keynote for the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) conference in San Francisco, USA. Roy will be speaking alongside a Black activist and scholar, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. This pairing tokenizes both Roy and Taylor by placing a South Asian dominant caste activist beside a Black scholar and playing out the multicultural “women of colour” farce. Such a move does three things: 

  1. it ensures that dominant caste South Asianists in the diaspora need not study racialized discrimination in South Asia, let alone discuss the race- and caste-based privileges and cultural capital gained from dominant caste networks from which they/we benefit;
  2. it gives permission to South Asian, white, and Black Western scholars to continue to not engage with Dalit scholars and activists;
  3. it exculpates white Western feminism from interrogating the racism that haunts the discipline of Women’s Studies because “women of colour” have supposedly been centred in the field.

Contrary to Arundhati Roy’s assertion that 90% of South Asian women are Black, dominant caste South Asians are not Black. This is why Arundhati Roy’s “Blackness” should be seen as exhibit C—not to negate her important work on the intersections of caste, class, colour, and Christianity or to diminish Roy’s activism in the face of right-wing attacks. But because it reveals that much more work needs to be done by Kerala scholars in our research on racialized discrimination in global South Asia.

About the Author: Sonja Thomas is an Associate Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Colby College where she teaches courses on South Asian feminisms, transnational feminisms, gender and human rights, feminist theory, and postcolonial and native feminisms. She is the author of Privileged Minorities: Syrian Christianity, Gender, and Minority Rights in Postcolonial India. She can be contacted at sonja.thomas@colby.edu.

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