Caste makes normal life ‘untouchable’

My caste identity may not matter to non-South Asians, but it means everything to my South Asian community. As someone born into the Dalit caste, wherever I go, people have labeled me an untouchable or of lower caste. It happened to me in Nepal, and even after I immigrated to the US.

When I was discriminated against, or called names and casteist slurs at my workplace or in my community, I had no recourse. In the U.S., caste is not a protected category. It forced the caste-oppressed to become to be resilient, habituated to, and endure discrimination.

I came to the U.S. as an undocumented person, fleeing caste and political persecution in Nepal. Yet, even in this country, I’m one of the countless caste-oppressed peoples who has experienced the same caste discrimination I tried to escape.

A Dalit’s place in the caste hierarchy

Caste has its roots in South Asia. It’s a system of discrimination based on work and descent, with similar hierarchical systems to those that exist in other parts of the world including Latin America, Africa, and Asia. 

South Asian casteism has been described as “a hierarchical system that involves discrimination and perpetuates oppression.” This is precisely what United States civil rights laws intend to remedy.

USCIS data shows South Asians are one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the United States. It’s important to understand that caste-oppressed, Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi communities are essentially minorities within this minority group.

Caste-based discrimination and harassment is a civil rights and social justice issue. It often occurs within the same national origin or race, in groups of South Asian descent, and caste members of the diaspora.

Caste in America

Caste travels wherever South Asians go. South Asian immigrants have been in the U.S. for almost two centuries, so caste developed as this community has grown. The dominant castes of the South Asian diaspora have created social and professional networks and institutions that exclude caste-oppressed Americans across multiple institutions. These spaces include educational institutions, places of worship, community organizations, and workplaces across the country.

As a result, in America, caste impacts diverse issues such as immigration, labor, housing, domestic violence, education, personal relationships, and national politics. American institutions that serve or contain large numbers of South Asian Americans will be institutions that are vulnerable to caste inequities. Caste-oppressed Americans have reported a wide range of discriminatory actions – from social exclusion, housing discrimination, and differential treatment in the workplace, to verbal and even physical assault.

The Seattle Ordinance

When I heard about Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s historic, first-of-its-kind legislation to ban caste-based discrimination, I reached out to Nepali Dalit families living in the city of Seattle. It was frustrating to hear about experiences that sounded similar to my own.

They reported they experienced caste discrimination multiple times at their workplaces, community settings, and religious places in Seattle. Such discrimination against Dalits happens across the country regularly, but not all cases are reported. Faced with this bigotry, they appeared optimistic about the proposed legislation to ban caste-based discrimination. 

The eminent Indian jurist, Dr. B.R Ambedkar who fought for Dalit rights once said, “So long as you do not achieve social liberty, whatever freedom is provided by the law is of no avail to you.”

The need for solutions to workplace discrimination

Caste continues to permeate the U.S. through forms of social exclusion and workplace discrimination. As advocates speak out, caste-based discrimination is slowly becoming a significant issue in this country. Several cases have received mainstream attention as advocates demonstrate the extent of the problem and the urgent need for a solution.

A man making a poster about caste discrimination (image courtesy: Prem Pariyar)
An anti-caste advocate preparing a Styop Caste Discrimination poster (image courtesy/ Prem Pariyar)

Across the country, anti-discrimination policies recognize and protect many other categories of disadvantaged minorities, except caste.

So I am grateful that Seattle City Council has taken the lead in recognizing caste as a protected category. 

This initiative is historic. It’s the first time any legislative body in the United States has taken a step towards outlawing the caste-based discrimination prevalent in the community. By passing this ordinance, the Council is affirming to us they understand how caste impacts the over 5.6 million South Asians in the United States.

Protecting caste does not negate existing protections for others

It is important to understand that the addition of caste does not impact other protected categories. Extending protections to oppressed castes does not negate existing protections based on religion, nationality, race, and ancestry. The argument put forth by opponents of the decision that existing protections suffice in addressing caste-based discrimination, is patently false.

While caste may be covered under protected categories, caste-oppressed people want that coverage to be explicit, given the scope and severity of discrimination, and to ensure that institutions invest in building caste competency.

This is not unlike other protected categories like that of sexuality and gender that were expanded to better address the needs of queer and trans people.

Adding caste as a protected category does not take away the rights of privileged caste groups any more than gender equality takes away the rights of men. If there are other protected categories that cover religion and national origin, what is the issue with explicitly listing out another category (caste) for protecting the human rights of people in the city of Seattle? 

Will you deny my existence and erase my experience?

I have witnessed arguments that adding caste to the protected category is anti-Hindu. This argument is false, and hurtful as I am a practicing Hindu from Nepal. As a Dalit Hindu, such arguments deny my existence and erase my experience.

Living in the Bay Area, I experienced caste discrimination in every sphere of my life, including as a restaurant worker, community leader, and student at the University. Whenever I tried to speak up, I faced pushback and gaslighting. These experiences are not limited to me. Every Dalit I know who tried to support the anti-caste movement has faced the consequences of speaking up. 

Caste manifests in every faith

To reduce caste only to its manifestation in the Hindu faith is not accurate. The practice of caste is present in all the religions of South Asia, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Islam. 

Many of the South Asian activists, community members, and city residents showing support to ban caste discrimination in Seattle, are caste-oppressed themselves, coming forward at great personal risk. Attempts to discredit these vulnerable stakeholders are expressions of casteism that underscore the need for institutional protections.

Constant attacks by opponents attest to the difficulties caste-oppressed stakeholders face when speaking to and documenting their experiences. Dalit civil rights leaders continue to stand up to caste violence in order to transform not just the South Asian American community, but the larger landscape of civil rights. Instead of calling their work “anti-Hindu” or discrediting the survey data, it’s time to show solidarity against hate and bigotry.

Silencing the ban is not a solution

A picture of Prem Pariyar, the Equity and Policy Committee, Chair and Human Rights Commissioner in Alameda County
Prem Pariyar, MSW
Equity and Policy Committee, Chair and Human Rights Commissioner in Alameda County (image courtesy: Prem Pariyar)

Silencing their voices is not the solution. Voting Yes to ban caste discrimination in the city of Seattle is a responsibility we all share.

I strongly urge the support of caste-oppressed community members by voting YES on the ordinance to ban caste discrimination in the city of Seattle to create safety for everyone including caste oppressed community living in Seattle, proposed by Council member Kshama Sawant. 

Prem Pariyar, MSW

Equity and Policy Committee, Chair and Human Rights Commissioner in Alameda County

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Prem Pariyar is a Nepali grassroots community organizer and an alumnus of California State University, East Bay, and one of the student leaders fighting to add caste as a protected category in the CSU...