For readers who may be unfamiliar, April is celebrated as Dalit History Month, an iconic participatory radical history project inspired by Black History Month. Honoring the legacies, lives, and contributions of caste-oppressed people, this year’s theme, “Caste, Labor, and Migration,” is one that heavily resonates with diasporic Dalits, given the civil rights moment we are in.
In January 2022, both the California State University System and the California Faculty Association institutionalized caste protections, which were a historic win for caste equity. As lead organizer on this campaign, and a Social Worker in the Nepali American diaspora, I have worked to sensitize my non-South Asian and dominant-caste peers and professors on the violence of the caste system, and the intergenerational traumas that communities like mine are forced to reckon with every day.
Caste-based discrimination is a structural issue, present across South Asian communities and diasporas. It manifests in terms of attendance rates at school and university. Income barriers prevent Dalit parents from sending their children to good schools, as a result of which Dalits tend to have higher dropout rates than students from other communities.
When I finally made it to the US, I hoped to escape caste violence, but only found myself facing rampant discrimination in the diaspora.
As a restaurant worker, I remember how our Indian owner assigned a room for all the workers, and my dominant-caste co-workers refused to share the room with me due to my caste identity. Accepting this as my bad luck, I found myself homeless and sleeping in an RV van.
At another restaurant, I faced casteist slurs from my Nepali dominant-caste owner and co-workers. When I reported these experiences to the restaurant manager, he refused to help because I was not a chef. I was told to find another job.
As a graduate student in the Social Work program at CSU East Bay who began mobilizing around caste protections, I am grateful for the ways in which we have been able to build a multiracial, interfaith, and inter-caste coalition, under Dalit feminist leadership.
While most students, staff, faculty, and community members—regardless of their background—have been invested in this civil rights movement for caste equity and are taking similar steps on their campuses, we see a small group of dominant-caste Hindu Americans resisting this.
Because these can confuse Equity and Diversity professionals and other stakeholders, it is important to debunk some of these myths:
Yes, anti-discrimination laws exist within US universities and in other sectors. That being said, learning from movements to institutionalize protections for gender and sexuality, we have advocated to explicitly state caste within the policy. These are additive layers of protections to address specific needs of society and deserve to be continuously amended to support the most oppressed. Caste is not a new phenomenon, and has thousands of years of historical violence, necessitating the need for protection. Explicitly listing caste alongside gender, race, ability, and so on, is a much overdue move.
Further, simply implying that caste can be protected is not enough. Explicitly including caste in the policy mandates DEI offices to invest in caste competency workshops and training, hiring mental health professionals from caste-oppressed backgrounds (or those who are competent in addressing caste stress), collecting data points to serve caste-oppressed stakeholders, as well as supporting and encouraging Dalit scholarship.
It is important to understand that belonging to an ethnic or religious minority group does not give anyone the right to discriminate based on caste identity. That being said, caste protections are an additive layer of support that will make our communities safe and inclusive.
In the South Asian context, we know that caste-oppressed people are routinely subjected to slurs, micro and macro-aggressions, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, discrimination in workplaces based on assumptions about their merit, unfair demotions, housing and dining discrimination, segregation, and so much more. These are dehumanizing experiences and cut across religions.
Caste is a social phenomenon that exists in Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and other religious communities from the subcontinent, and there is a wealth of scholarship documenting this. Ethnicity and religion are already protected categories, and if one feels discriminated on these lines, they are more than welcome to file reports in DEI offices. But they cannot diminish these very real concerns about equity as a result of their casteist fragility.
Moreover, caste-based discrimination is not limited to South Asian communities—caste as a social system of exclusion is present in Japanese, Latin American, and African societies as well, and caste protections will serve these communities. DEI stakeholders must move beyond an India-centric lens and create spaces for these internationalist discussions on caste, to realize how unfounded the backlash to caste equity movements is.
The seemingly progressive claim of advocating for “indigenous” over Western scholarship is a dog whistle. By arguing that anti-Hindu and anti-India biases are rampant in the education system, caste bigots are hoping to silence conversations on caste. They often cite the California Textbook Case, where Dalit Americans and allies lobbied to include a curriculum on caste in school textbooks.
The aim of education is to take into consideration the needs of society and educate younger generations on traditions, customs, histories, and more. Caste is the oldest documented system of exclusion in the world, and scholars on race, like Isabel Wilkerson, have written that “caste is the bone, and race is the skin,” reminding us how important it is to discuss this history, and also calls for reparative justice.
Whitewashing Brahmanical tradition, and the centuries-long history of caste harm will do no good to society, especially newer generations, and will only further the historical trauma of caste. Omitting caste from a textbook and being silent about discrimination is not the answer. We need to create awareness and allow for discussions about conditions of violence and material inequity to create a safe space and allow for harmony amongst diverse South Asians.
Any kind of -ism should not exist in the society for peace and harmony to be upheld, including casteism, and the first step is to educate younger generations about it. This is similar to the need for making Critical Race Theory part of the curriculum in schools for children. Only in this way will we be able to achieve racial and caste equity.
Lastly, we need to dismantle this India-centric conversation around caste because caste-oppressed community members are killed, assaulted, and raped every day in India AND other South Asian countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Conflating all of South Asia with India is a colonial mindset.
Dominant caste scholars and writers usually limit caste to an Indian problem and negate the experiences of caste-oppressed communities in other countries as a result of their colonial mindset. They resisted and fought against the British, and now they are co-opting this mindset.
There is enough evidence to suggest that caste existed in South Asia before the British arrived. Dominant Hindus portrayed caste-oppressed people as “primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious” and presented themselves as enlightened because they came from the head of Brahma. Every dominant-caste member has to take responsibility for caste apartheid and be part of the movement to educate and dismantle this system.
I am so happy as a lead organizer for this movement because progressive dominant-caste members from Hindu and other religious backgrounds are supporting this cause and are initiating this conversation at their universities and workplaces. At the same time, some so-called academicians, columnists, public speakers, and activists with various awards are creating disinformation and confusing non-South Asian American stakeholders about the need for caste protections.
To end, all religions that believe in social justice and human rights, and those who believe in and advocate for compassion and love and peace in society, need to support the caste protections movement. In the name of preserving culture and tradition, no one has the right to violate anyone’s humanity and dignity and rights. Everyone is protected by the universal declaration of human rights. Whoever violates this, must face the consequences of their actions.
The 21st century is for human dignity and social justice, and this Dalit History Month, I invite you to join this movement and invest in Dalit feminist futures.