I did not think too hard about caste, growing up in the South Asian diaspora. In fact, I have only one childhood memory pertaining to it. A friend of mine, a fellow Indian American, said she was a kshatriya. I thought about the valiant warriors in my Amar Chitra Katha comic books, and felt a pang of jealousy: I was only a boring Brahmin.
For a long time, I was sheltered from what exactly caste meant. I knew mine, but didn’t talk about it or take pride in it. I knew that in India, people of different, supposedly “lower” castes faced discrimination – but I didn’t view anyone differently on the basis of caste. Wasn’t that enough? What else could I do, here in the diaspora, far away from the ugliness of casteism?
Then, in college, I took a class on South Asian history. My professor showed us a documentary on the brutal lives of “manual scavengers”: a group of Dalit people who clean out public toilets in Indian villages and cities. Manual scavengers face overwhelmingly high rates of illness and death from the incredibly unsafe (and illegal) work they are given, and are often given no choice other than to engage in this, their “caste profession”. In the rare instances when they do join other professions, many still face discrimination for their caste. The Human Rights Watch did a report on manual scavenging, saying:
…people remain unaware of their right to refuse this role, and those who do refuse may face intense social pressure, including threats of violence and expulsion from their village, often with the complicity of local government officials…
Munnidevi [a woman belonging to this group] told Human Rights Watch she stopped going to homes where she was not given any food, but says she returned to work after her employers warned that she would not be able to enter community land to collect firewood or graze her livestock. “I have to go. If I miss a single day, I am threatened,” she said.
I was horrified as I watched these stories of cruelty unfold. How casually I had ignored my own family’s caste privilege: the privilege which had let them immigrate to the US in the first place. My parents did not grow up wealthy, or close to it – yet they never had to face a tsunami of violence and hatred for their caste. From then on, I have been acutely aware of the immense privilege with which I walk through the world.
But, until last March, I was unaware that caste privilege does not fade away on American soil. Although this is far from an equal nation, I had assumed that members of the Indian diaspora would be likely to bond through the common experience of being immigrants adjusting to a new society – one in which the caste system has no place.
Then the news from Cisco broke. The caste system, as it turns out, is alive and well here in Silicon Valley’s large South Asian diaspora community. Tech workers across multiple giant companies alleged that they had faced casteism in the workplace. An article in the Washington Post, describing one Dalit engineer’s experiences, states:
“In more than 100 job interviews for contract work over the past 20 years, Kaila said he got only one job offer when another Indian interviewed him in person. When members of the interview panel have been Indian, Kaila says, he has faced personal questions that seem to be used to suss out whether he’s a member of an upper caste, like most of the Indians working in the tech industry.”
Once again, I was appalled. I too am a software developer in Silicon Valley. My time in the tech industry has been marked by positivity and learning opportunities. It is sickening to think that other people may not be given access to those opportunities on the basis of caste, and that bias may be upheld by virtue of California’s lack of anti-casteism protection. Yet that is exactly what happened.
On Thursday, 29 April, 2021, I – along with hundreds, if not thousands, of people – attended a historic event: a public forum on making caste a protected identity in Santa Clara County, hosted by the local Human Rights Commission.
Image description: the Facebook header photo associated with the forum.
I listened as a panel of experts described their experiences with caste discrimination, talking about the way H1B visa distribution is skewed toward savarna (“upper-caste”) people, and how tech workers from marginalised castes are often afraid to be open about the casteism they face due to the threat of retaliation.
And when the floor opened for public commentary, I listened to the angry voices of people who, over and over, described themselves as “proud practising Hindu Americans”. They claimed to not be casteist, even as they raged against the notion of caste being a protected identity. Their voices rising to feverish shouting, they rattled off a series of coordinated talking points:
- Nobody thinks about caste in America (not true, as the forum experts & numerous news articles testify).
- Protecting a made-up category like caste will contribute to anti-Indian racism (as if race too is not a made up category!)
- Who are these experts? Is this a conspiracy? The pronouns next to their names are suspicious (an actual statement made during the discussion).
- Their children aren’t aware of caste (never mind that this in itself is a sign of privilege, just as many white children grow up unaware of racial discrimination).
- Their children will be bullied because caste will be inextricably associated with Hindus in the United States (but what about children and adults who are already being bullied for their castes?)
Protecting caste, they asserted, is an action rooted in Hinduphobia – never mind the fact that the forum’s panel of experts included a Pakistani Dalit professor who gave a speech on her experiences facing casteism from her “upper-caste” Muslim colleagues. Caste, as the panel repeatedly stressed, is a problem throughout South Asian cultures, regardless of religion. By framing callouts of caste discrimination as “Hinduphobia”, these “proud practising Hindu Americans” were the ones who connected casteism specifically to Hinduism – not the expert panel, nor the organisation sponsoring the caste protection bill. And by excluding Dalit-Bahujan Hindus, people this bill would aim to protect, this group of “proud practising Hindu Americans” showed whom they truly view as Hindu Americans: themselves, not Dalit-Bahujan people breaking their silence on caste discrimination.
This does not have to be the way American Hinduism is shaped. Those from Hindu backgrounds (or Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Buddhist) do not need to sacrifice any beauty in our heritage in order to fight against injustice. The voices of those who opposed caste protection rose in sharp contrast to the many more people who made statements along the lines of: I come from a savarna family and I strongly support making caste a protected identity. This should not be a part of our legacy as members of the South Asian diaspora.
I was glad to hear so many privileged people defend caste protection. My first inclination, in fact, was to praise them for being brave – but in truth, the bravest people in the Zoom room that evening were the Dalit-Bahujan people who risked their jobs and safety to say: I am Dalit-Bahujan and this discrimination has happened to me. To my father. To my cousin. How can society stand by and let it happen?
And really, how can we? How can we ignore injustice because it makes one subset of Hindu Americans uncomfortable? Why should we listen to a small group of people who feel that their Hinduism is threatened by acknowledgements of casteism, and let them shape Hinduism in the United States? Why centre their voices (or, indeed, any savarna voices) instead of the voices of Dalit-Bahujan Americans who directly face caste discrimination?
If those proud practising Hindu Americans are afraid that connotations of caste will taint their faith, this is my reply: in many ways, that has already happened. This is our community’s chance to pay attention to Dalit-Bahujan people and change that.