Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Dalits Among Us

The term "Dalit" has roots in Sanskrit where the root 'dal' means "to split, crack, open." Dalit has come to mean things or persons who are cut, split, broken or torn asunder, scattered or crushed and destroyed.

The Dalits, also called the “untouchables,” “outcastes,” and most recently “slumdogs,” comprise nearly one quarter of India’s society, with population estimates of 250 million people. The term “Dalit” means “those who have been broken and ground down deliberately by those above them in the social hierarchy.” Dalits live at risk of discrimination, dehumanization, violence, and enslavement through human trafficking every day. By all global research and reports, the Dalits constitute the largest number of people categorized as victims of modern-day slavery.

While the ethnic Dalits refer to the people of India who are outside the caste system (hence the term "outcaste"), I've been thinking this is too narrow of a definition. Every society has their class of "untouchables," whether we want to admit to it or not.

As painful as it is to acknowledge, we have Dalits in America - and they are not immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. My work with hospice has brought me into contact with people I believe are the Dalits of our own society. I have visited patients who live in substandard housing infested with roaches, bedbugs and rats - not because they want to, but because they are poor. This housing (if you can call it that) exists right under the noses of those who would never be caught dead living under these conditions. These conditions and the people who live in them are invisible ... untouchable.

I have visited patients who are addicted and who come from families for whom addiction has been a way of life for many generations. These people are adults who likely began life addicted to drugs or with fetal alcohol syndrome. They didn't start life on the 50 yard line ... they started life so far back in their own end zone that they were in the parking lot of the stadium! These people are invisible ... untouchable.

I have visited patients who have mental illness. We fear "losing our minds," so we avoid them and hope that by doing so we can escape contracting a mental illness ourselves. These people are invisible ... untouchable.

I have visited patients whose families placed them in the care of facilities (assisted living or nursing homes) and do not go to visit them. Sometimes I hear the excuse that "it's too hard to visit" or "I can't stand seeing them like this" or "They don't even know I'm there." These excuses mask our own fear of growing old and our staying away allows us to indulge our own denial. These people are invisible ... untouchable.

All of my patients are dying. It's the BIG fear we all face but would rather deny. If we can move the dying away from us to a place like a hospital (where 75% of deaths occur) or a nursing home, then we can indulge ourselves with the illusion that we won't die. The dying are invisible ... untouchable.

Jesus told us that what we do "to the least of these" we do to him. We will be judged, as a society and as individuals, on how we treat the least among us - the Dalits.


Lauralew said...

Sorry I'm late to your party.

This is powerful.

As we turn into more of a "Pull yourself up by the bootstraps" nation, seems we ascribe to everyone who cannot the traits of laziness, etc. Not everyone has the same tool box. Always there will be those who simply can't do or be what Society expects. Unfortunately, some will say that those people don't deserve a thing. Who among us deserves anything?

Reverend Mom said...

You said it! I once heard someone say that if we all got what we "deserved" we'd all be in big trouble. The Gospel tells me that we will be judged by how we treat "the least of these" not how we judge them.