An Indian flag was waved amongst a sea of rioters at the Capitol last week, prompting Indian twitter to go wild. Who was the flag waver, and why is India represented in this violent mob?
Within hours, it was revealed that the flag was carried by Vinson Xavier Palathingal, a Malayalee American.
On January 7th, Vinson was interviewed by the Kerala news channel Manorama, where he explained that there were many at the Capitol carrying flags of other nations. Like so many Trump supporters, Vinson made no mention of the Confederate flags or the white supremacist KEK flags, nor of “6MWE” (6 million wasn’t enough) or “camp Auschwitz” shirts that were also displayed proudly by his fellow Trump supporters. Vinson did say that the South Asian American presence at the Capitol proves that the people at the Capitol were not racist. After all, wouldn’t the mob attack him and his friends if racism was a feature of Trump supporters? He falsely and with no evidence blamed the violence on Black Lives Matter supporters and Antifa.
Vinson Xavier Palathingal is a Malayalee American emigrated from the state of Kerala, India. Running for the Fairfax County school board in Virginia, he describes himself as a Catholic. Vinson is a congregant of a Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, a dominant caste Catholic denomination in Kerala and in the United States.
Syro-Malabar Catholics (and Kanayan and Syro-Malankara Catholics) never discuss their caste status. Rather, “Catholic” operates as if it is a casteless religious marker. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Malayalees from dominant caste Christian communities may call themselves “Catholic” or “Christian,” while at the same time, they are very careful to baptize their children, attend catechism, marry, and be buried only in dominant caste Churches — never in a Latin Catholic or Dalit Bahujan Church.
Why does caste matter here? For Malayalees in Kerala and in the diaspora, casteist discrimination is tied to racialized discrimination.
As I discuss in my book, Privileged Minorities, racialized mythhistories fuel an assumption that dominant caste peoples are fair-skinned, “Aryan” raced, and differentiated from Dalit Bahujan “Dravidians.” According to the Kerala’s Hindu creation story, Parashuram throws his ax into the Arabian Sea and where it landed, the lush green space of God’s Own Country rose. Parashuram gives this land to the Arya Brahmins, and gives the Brahmins dominion over the Sudra Dravidians.
The Syrian Christians believe that St. Thomas, the Apostle of Jesus, converted Brahmins to Christianity in the year 52CE. Thus, as supposed Brahmins, their caste status is a racialized one. There is a deep seated belief in the supposed “fairness” of the community in comparison to the assumed “duskiness” of Dalit Bahujan Christians that lasts to this day. Colorism is a feature of a Syrian Christian women’s marriage prospects and a “fair skinned” bride marrying within the caste and faith is preferred. Violence against Dalit Christians by dominant caste Christians is well known and tragically illustrated in the murder of Kevin Joseph. Syro-Malabar clergy are very vocally opposed to intercaste and interfaith marriages and only just recently were up in arms about a Syro-Malabar Catholic woman marrying a Muslim man.
For centuries, Kerala society operated through slave labor. Dalit peoples were enslaved to landowning caste elites, including landowning Syrian Christians. After slavery was abolished, the sharecropping system continued the exploitation of caste labor under a landlord system. To this day, Syrian Christians remain the largest landowners in Kerala.
This history of casteism, slavery, and racialized discrimination provides a template for racism amongst dominant caste Catholics in America. The Syrian Christians are the largest group of Indian Christians in the United States. Yet when Vinson says that he is “Catholic” none of this history is mentioned. Indeed, in Malayalee American Churches, amongst community members, and within families, race and caste is rarely mentioned.
Because when you have privilege you do not need to speak about oppression. You benefit from the structure you never have to name.
Further, Malayalee Americans with caste and race privilege in India suddenly operate as racial minorities in the United States. There is an assumption that a racial minority identity makes members of the community naturally anti-racist. How can any community that suffers from racial discrimination in the US be perpetrators of discrimination themselves? And so, the community is reticent about its own race and caste privileged status.
Vinson’s claim that his and the tricolor’s presence at the Capitol proves that Trump supporters are not racist does exactly the opposite. It invisibilizes the caste and racial privileges of the Syrian Christians allowing for complicity in white supremacy through silence. Any Malayalee American claiming a racial minority status or describing themselves as “Catholic” without talking about caste and racialized discrimination works in service to the “model minority” myth.
It is well past time for Malayalee Americans with caste and race privilege to stand up to this invisibilizing of caste and race. As a child of Syro-Malabar Catholic immigrants myself, I condemn this racism and casteism, and urge people in our community to stand up for Black Lives and for Dalit Lives. Our silence is violence.