This is a guest post by LATA MANI
The first thing you do is to forget that I’m black
Second, you must never forget that I’m black
Pat Parker (1978)
In these opening lines of her poem, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend, Pat Parker names a paradox at the heart of challenging socially produced difference. Parker is speaking not to diversity in nature, nor to the diversity of nature. Not to the variations of appearance – size, shade, height, foliage, texture; or mode of expression – hoot, howl, accent, gesture, cultural practices. Her lines address a uniquely human phenomenon: prejudice. They speak to the poignant difficulty of challenging a spurious and malevolent construction of racial difference in a society still in the grip of its miasma.
I have recalled Parker’s lines many times in the days of sorrow, tumult and righteous rage that have followed Rohith Vemula’s suicide. “Rohith Vemula’s suicide.” I am holding off from saying “Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide.” Or, as is now being said with good reason, “Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder.” I defer by a couple of sentences a description of him that refers to the caste into which he was born; to honour if only symbolically his anguish that the contingent facts of his birth had indelibly defined his life.