It’s Time for Funders to Debrahminize Philanthropy

Prachi Patankar

12 May 2021

মানবকল্যাণমূলক দাতাদের অনুদানপ্রথাকে ব্রাহ্মণ্যবাদমুক্ত করার এখনই সময়

दाताहरूले सहयोग (दान) लाई ब्राह्मणवादबाट मुक्त गर्ने समय आएको छ

Over the last decade, philanthropic institutions have been forced to shift in important ways towards achieving racial and economic justice. Credit goes to movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, led by youth, Black, Queer, and working-class people raising critical questions about racial capitalism and exploitative wealth accumulation.  Some foundations are beginning to contextualize their work through white supremacy, slavery, and settler-colonialism. As movement organizers join foundations, they are rightfully calling to decolonize philanthropy.

A call to decolonize philanthropic practices is particularly relevant to the role of Global North-based foundations resourcing Global South communities, whose grantmaking often perpetuates a colonial approach. Even progressive funders carry these biases and end up prioritizing NGOs run by white people or Brahmin (the most dominant caste in South Asia) or dominant ethnicities. While shifts to decolonize are welcome and needed, the power analysis remains US-centric. As global grantmakers, we need to base our power analysis on the understanding of the geographically and culturally specific power structures built on the local religious, caste, or ethno-supremacist ideologies. I feel this acutely as an anti-caste, anti-racist, and a Bahujan (a collective term referring to all non-dominant-caste communities) Program Officer who grew up in rural India, leading grantmaking in Asia. So, while joining the call to decolonize, I also challenge philanthropy to debrahminize!

What do I mean by debrahminize!?  Brahmanism, a spiritual philosophy and ideology which was formed in South Asia thousands of years ago, has become the dominant religious ideology of what we know as Hinduism. Brahmanism created the caste system to categorize human beings into occupation-based caste groups, predetermined by birth. Brahmans occupy the topmost level in this caste hierarchy. Dalits being the “lowest” caste are the most historically oppressed groups and are relegated to the most menial caste-based occupations. Brahmanism usurped other cultures into its fold by often violently reworking and appropriating richly-diverse indigenous spiritual practices, beliefs, and traditions of Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi (indigenous) people, creating today’s brahmanical form of Hinduism. The caste system of graded division of laborers has now been cemented through endogamy. Brahmanism has maintained the suppression of the oppressed castes by controlling and limiting their access to positions of power, knowledge, livelihoods, love and marriage, land, and public resources.

While joining the call to decolonize, I also challenge philanthropy to debrahminize!

Growing up in rural India among rural feminist and peasant movements led by caste-oppressed people, I have been acutely aware of the inherent power dynamics. Mainstream NGOs led by dominant caste people can have a protectionist view of Dalit, queer, and women’s liberation rather than a collective power-building lens. Western funders center urban NGOs led by dominant castes with proximity to power and access to resources. These groups continue to be well-resourced rather than small Dalit Bahujan-led and Adivasi (indigenous) groups leading movements against casteism and caste-based violence and exploitation and resisting the socio-economic policies that harm land and livelihoods.

The majority of South Asians in the US have come from Brahmin or dominant caste communities. They can trace back their immigration history to the mid-1960s, when dominant caste-educated professionals came to the US from newly independent South Asian countries, immigrating to a post-Civil Rights era America where they were able to enjoy the racial justice gains hard-fought by the Black freedom movement. Today, South Asian Americans are well represented in the philanthropic field, and many are from dominant caste backgrounds. South Asian program officers who may not have reflected on their caste privilege, do not often understand the nuances of how caste supremacy culture plays out in human rights or development spaces in South Asia. For oppressed caste communities in NGO spaces and those who are leading grassroots resistance movements, challenges stemming from Brahmanism and caste supremacy are an everyday reality.

Work with your grantee partners to ensure that they are debrahminizing their practices, bringing anti-caste analysis in their work, and investing in the growth and leadership of their Dalit-Bahujan staff.

It is incumbent on all of us to embrace anti-caste politics and stand with Dalit-Bahujan communities. Brahmanism is used to control oppressed caste groups’ access to positions of power, resources, knowledge, and language. It is used to co-opt, appropriate, and erase the cultures and practices of Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi communities. Debrahminization, then, is a practice to support Dalit-Bahujan leadership and the unapologetically anti-caste movements, groups, and formations that are fighting for dignity, livelihoods, and freedom.

There are some clear ways that we can start the process of debrahminizing philanthropy:

  1. Learn about the history of caste oppression and anti-caste movements in South Asia and in the United States. The caste system was created by Brahmanism. It is not a ‘Dalit problem’.  Learn about the incredible history of anti-caste resistance led by Dalit-Bahujan people. Thenmozhi Sounderajan of Equality Labs recently voiced that as a Dalit woman she has to “simultaneously educate philanthropy about the conditions that our people are in, while also doing historical lessons about caste.” Engage in political education about how your funding can contribute to the annihilation of caste and dismantling the exploitative structural conditions perpetuated by the caste system.

  2. Move money to resource anti-caste and Dalit-Bahujan led movements in the subcontinent that are working towards anti-caste futures while fighting for access to land, disrupting caste and gender-based violence, and labour rights. Prioritise support for Dalit-led, anti-caste, and multi-caste movements that have historically led movements for justice and accountability. These groups are often small, not registered as NGOs, based in rural communities, and lack the access that comes with caste privilege to raise funding or represent their voices globally. Funders can support small initiatives by moving resources through mutual fund efforts like the Caste Equity Fund and intermediaries that have genuine partnerships with Dalit-Bahujan movements.

  3. Support initiatives of Dalit-Bahujan communities to reclaim their own cultural forms and practices. Rather than assuming South Asian culture is homogeneous or viewing the region purely through the lens of colonial rulers vs. former subjects, debrahminizing means supporting initiatives of caste-oppressed communities fighting to shift the dominant Brahmanic narratives and reclaim their own narratives. Those supporting work in South Asia must also challenge the Brahmanic co-optation, control, and power-hoarding that can show up in NGO and philanthropic sectors.

  4. Create multilingual spaces of engagement for your grantee partners so you do not privilege English-speaking dominant caste staff and organizations. Oppressed caste groups tend to get sidelined, as opposed to dominant caste English-speaking staff that are ‘easily accessible’ for western funders. To maintain power and control, Brahmanization restricted access to the written word from the oppressed castes and kept them away from the sites of knowledge production. Funders must practice language justice, be intentional, and provide interpretation in relevant languages so all members of your grantee partners feel valued, represented, and equally heard.

  5. Challenge and invest in your current grantee partners to prioritise the leadership development of Dalit-Bahujan staff. There are South Asian groups leading important human rights work that may not have Dalit-Bahujans represented in their leadership. Debrahmanizing philanthropy is not a call to oust the Brahmin-identified staff and nor is it a call for token representation of Dalit-Bahujan staff in philanthropy and NGO sector. Work with your grantee partners to ensure that they are debrahminizing their practices, bringing anti-caste analysis in their work, and investing in the growth and leadership of their Dalit-Bahujan staff.

Brahmanism and the caste system exist globally wherever South Asian communities reside. Therefore the task of debrahminization and dismantling caste supremacy must be taken up globally by all those stepping up to decolonize and become more racially just. South Asian foundation staff and other non-South Asian funders that support South Asian communities and are committed to decolonization, must also embrace debrahminization. We must insist that an anti-caste analysis and lens be brought into the work of all social justice practitioners, foundations, movements, and narratives whether fighting for economic, gender, racial, or environmental justice. No decolonization, without debrahminization!

Prachi Patankar is the South and Southeast Asia Program Officer at Foundation for a Just Society, as well as an activist engaged in social movements which link the local and the global, police brutality and war, migration and militarisation, race and caste, women of color feminism, and global gender justice.

This article was first published by Alliance on December 5, 2021.