Insults, Isolation, Broken Friendships: Dalit Students Open Up on Caste Discrimination in US
The inclusion of caste in its anti-discrimination policy by the California State Universities is as a major triumph for activists.
“Saale cha*** tumhari kismat bahut tez hai, tum America pahunch gaye. Translated, this means, ‘you cha*** – a slur used by ‘upper’ caste members – you’re in luck to have made it to America.’
The casual, casteist insult was one of many Neha Singh grew accustomed to on campus, as a student at California State University a decade ago, where she pursued Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
At the time, she had no idea whom to complain to, as she wasn’t sure the American university system would understand the Indian caste system. So she held her tongue, avoided revealing she was Dalit, and dropped out of South Asian dance groups on campus after repeatedly being asked what her last name was.
The many instances of casteism she recalls on campus include an Indian student talking of how Christianity was not an Indian religion, so all Indian Christians were low-caste converts. “This shocked me,” she says.
She is delighted that California State University (CSU) added caste to its anti-discrimination policy earlier this month. CSU is America’s largest four-year public university, spanning 23 campuses with over 480,000 students. CSU joins a growing number of American institutions that have recognised caste discrimination, including Harvard University and California’s Democratic Party.
The move was a culmination of a university-wide campaign calling on CSU’S board of trustees to recognise caste oppression. A number of student and faculty organisations passed resolutions last year calling on the university to add caste to in its anti-discrimination policy. These include California Faculty Association, a CSU labour union, and Cal State Student Association (CSSA), a non-profit representing students across the university.
The policy announcement is a matter of satisfaction for Singh and other campaigners. “I am so proud of my university. I am very excited and happy for all new students here. If caste had been a protected category when I was a student, I would definitely have taken it up with my professors. But at the time, I thought nobody would understand me,” said Singh, who uses her pet name as an alias for this piece.
Not all are pleased though.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has vehemently opposed the inclusion of caste as a discriminatory category at CSU. The organisation believes this would unfairly target faculty of Indian and South Asian descent. HAF’s website shares a comment by Sunil Kumar, professor of Engineering at San Diego State University, who says, “As a faculty member of Indian origin, I am well aware that discrimination is a daily reality for many students of varied backgrounds, and there is a robust mechanism of addressing all such complaints under existing laws and CSU policy. But this policy change has been made in the absence of any scientifically reliable evidence or data. Rather than redressing discrimination, it will actually cause discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent as members of a suspect class because of deeply entrenched, false stereotypes about Indians, Hindus, and caste.”
In a letter to the CSU board of trustees opposing the move, HAF says it is working with concerned faculty to file Freedom of Information and State Public Records Act requests to investigate the decision-making process for the addition of caste as a protected category.
For Singh, the loss of friendships was amongst the most painful aspects of casteism she experienced. “During my master’s, I had a best friend of Indian origin, born and brought up in America. I thought kids who grew up here were more democratic. This girl’s parents were Brahmins but she didn’t seem to know anything about caste…We were really close for over a year. In our final semester, on one of many visits to her home, her parents asked me which caste I belonged to, as they were looking for a match for a boy in their family. I didn’t answer the question. My hands started shaking. I was so scared that I would lose her friendship.”
Immediately after, the girl stopped talking to her. It took her a long time to get over the loss of a friend. She was reminded of a similar incident when she was an undergraduate. At the time, she was a green-card holder. She made friends with a fellow Punjabi, a girl from India who was on a student visa.
“My parents helped her in so many ways, and even paid some of her tuition fee when she was hard up. When she had problems with roommates, she stayed at our home. She often spoke of how she was a Jat (a high caste in Punjab). She asked which caste I belonged to, but I managed to avoid answering the question. One day, my parents told her we were from a lower caste. The moment she found out, she avoided me.”
Singh was really mad at her friend, and furious that the caste system had pursued her all the way to America. Caste was, after all, the reason her family left India.
The sudden loss of warmth and the falling away of friends is something Prem Pariyar from Nepal has also had to grapple with. Pariyar, who completed his master’s degree in social work from Cal State East Bay a few months ago, is no stranger to caste oppression. He and his family were tortured in Kathmandu in an act of violence targeting Dalits, prompting him to seek amnesty in the US.
It came as no surprise when upper-caste South Asian students who were once friendly with Pariyar began treating him coldly when they found out he was a Dalit. And yet, it triggered him deeply, leaving him humiliated and powerless. He calls it intergenerational trauma. It depressed him to know that he could not escape caste, even in America.
Pariyar has widely been credited with mobilizing students across the CSU network, seeking the inclusion of caste as a protected category. He first began speaking up about caste while listening to stories of race, gender and sexuality. In the classroom, he began sharing his own experiences of caste violence and was greatly supported by his professors. His department even included caste as a protected category. This prompted him to reach out to other departments on his campus, and other campuses that were part of CSU.
When he first spoke of caste in class, he recalls another Nepali student from a privileged caste saying she had never encountered the caste system and hence she did not believe casteism existed.
When Pariyar met other Dalit students in the US who had faced casteism in Nepal, he asked them why they hid their last names and feared revealing their caste, particularly since the university was so supportive. They told Pariyar they weren’t as courageous as he was, and didn’t want to lose friends. Some said they were sharing apartments with other South Asians and were afraid they would be forced to leave if their caste was revealed. “We can’t expose ourselves. We don’t want to be isolated” was a common refrain.
The interpersonal is institutional, says Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist and executive director of Equality Labs, an Ambedkarite South Asian organisation. “University networks become alumni networks. They are not just friends. South Asians need to rely on other South Asians in their cohort for connections to get jobs or visas. Why would they come all the way to study abroad and destroy their professional networks?” she asks.
Even when one’s caste is not revealed, she talks of “caste stress” that Dalit students must navigate, as they hide their caste identity and never let slip where their families are from. Growing up in America, she recalls the time a savarna student spotted her eating meat, like most Dalits do, and accused her of being ‘white-washed’ and not standing up to American culture. The student simply assumed all Indians were traditionally vegetarian. “The assumption was that South Asia’s dominant caste paradigm was the only one,” she says.
Bangar, a biology graduate from Cal State Sacramento, is well aware of the stress involved in hiding caste on campus. She grew up being told to lie about her caste to avoid discrimination. “Deep down, it hurt. It made me feel gross. I would wonder what was wrong with my caste,” she said. Her father had been bullied on account of his low caste as a student in Chandigarh. He did not want his daughter to experience the same.
Bangar, whose family moved from Punjab to the US when she was in elementary school, finds the manifestation of caste in America insidious, hidden and coded. Like the times she is asked her last name. As with many Punjabi women, her last name is Kaur. To which she is often asked what her “real” last name is. Or which city or village her family come from.
While she chose not to reveal her caste in college, she has now begun speaking up about it on social media platforms, and has rallied support for the inclusion of caste as a protected category at CSU. “I talk about caste all the time on social media. I am trying to reclaim it instead of hiding it. I feel like I’m fighting for my ancestors,” she says.
At a three-hour public hearing conducted by the Cal State Student Association last year, before passing its resolution calling on the university to include caste as a protected category, a number of Dalit students gave personal testimonies of having faced caste-based discrimination. They were supported by students from privileged castes as well as non-South Asians. Black students said they understood what Dalits were going through.
The meeting included opponents of the resolution who said the inclusion of caste as a protected category unfairly targeted Hindus and would cause the bullying of Hindus on campus. According to students who attended the meeting, opponents of the move said caste was a colonial construct foisted on India by the British, and called the inclusion of caste in CSU’s anti-discrimination policy an act of white supremacy. A history professor on the call refuted these claims, adding that her research showed her that caste predated colonisation.
“I was shocked to see the way Dalit students were gaslighted at the public hearing last year, and their experiences of discrimination repeatedly denied by those opposing the resolution. This reminded me of the gaslighting of the Black community in America during the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd,” says Krystal Raynes, a computer science undergrad at CSU Bakersfield who is a student representative for the board of trustees at CSU. Caste was a new concept for her, one that she first encountered at the hearings last year. After listening to Dalit students talk of caste oppression, she fully supported them and helped facilitate the resolution. “I was shocked that there were people against forwarding civil rights in America,” she says. “So many people who wanted to block the resolution would rename themselves on Zoom and come on the call multiple times to make the same point. We were able to pick up on their rhetoric pretty quickly,” she says.
Manmit Singh, a San Francisco State University student belonging to an ‘upper’ caste, felt the hearings in April showed the need for caste to be added as a category for discrimination. “While many caste-oppressed students came forward to speak, their lived experiences were publicly invalidated by those who opposed the resolution. This gaslighting deters caste-oppressed people from speaking of what they face,” says Singh, a student of ethnic studies.
As an undergraduate at California Polytechnic, Singh was disillusioned with efforts at organising South Asians in struggles for equality and found the community complicit in anti-blackness and transphobia. Though not from an oppressed caste, the Dalit feminist movement in America gave Singh the language with which to understand this.
Student activists championing caste equality on campus credit California government’s civil rights lawsuit against Cisco over caste-based discrimination, for launching the conversation on caste in America. The lawsuit highlighted the need for a framework to help US organisations understand caste.
“While Equality Labs has so many anecdotal testimonies from caste-oppressed people suffering abuse, harassment and micro-aggression, many American institutions don’t have the competency to deal with caste. Currently, caste discrimination and abuse are covered under other protected categories like origin and ancestry. However, similar to the trans community, we need to make caste discrimination an explicit category in order to better remedy it. At present very few institutions collect data on caste. Now they will require cultural competency on caste in order to better support students facing discrimination,” says Soundararajan.
In the early struggles for caste equity in America, she says caste was often brushed aside as an internal matter that should not be spoken of as it made South Asians look bad. “However, systems of exclusion can only get better when exposed to sunlight,” says Soundararajan, who believes South Asians need to stop behaving like ostriches when it comes to denying caste.
Meanwhile, the debate continues. HAF’s executive director Suhag Shukla in an email to The Wire, said, “No one should be discriminated against on any basis, including caste, and American laws and existing policies already prohibit this. Discrimination on the basis of national origin and ancestry already extend to characteristics associated with “caste” like birthplace, ancestry, cultural background, or linguistic characteristics.
“But ‘caste’ as a specific protected category targets our community because it is exclusively associated with Indians and South Asians. It’s not facially neutral in the way that every other protected class is and in the way the US Constitution guarantees of equal protection. What that means is that out of the 29,000 faculty at CSU, only the 600 or so faculty of Indian and South Asian origin are implicated by a special policy that unfairly singles them out on the basis of their national origin or ancestry. Rather than redressing discrimination, this policy discriminates by institutionalising false and negative stereotypes about Indians and South Asians,” says Shukla.
However, a letter from Ruvani Fonseka, assistant professor, San Jose State University School of Social Work and a former lecturer at CSU East Bay, said, “As a caste-privileged Sri Lankan-American woman of Sinhala-Buddhist descent and a CFA member, I support the addition of caste to the anti-discrimination statement… In the past academic year, I had the opportunity to learn from a student in the Social Work department at CSU East Bay who bravely disclosed their experiences of caste-based discrimination in California. Throughout that year, the department, the East Bay academic senate, and the Cal State Student Association all voted to define caste as a protected category against discrimination.”
The California Trade Justice Coalition and the Asian Pacific American Labour Alliance have written letters in support of CSU’s inclusion of caste as a protected category. The South Asia Scholar Activist Collective in North America has also put out a statement supporting the move.
In an emphatic letter to CSU trustees shared on Twitter, Gaurav Sabnis, associate professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey, wrote, “I wear several hats as I write this email. An academic, an Indian, an American, but I primarily want to write this as someone born in a Brahmin family, the so-called ‘upper castes.’ Many from my community are running a campaign against this move, some of them sounding distinctly like Strom Thurmond when he filibustered the Civil Rights Act. They will try to cloak themselves in victimhood and be shrill while doing it. I have seen such perspectives around me often. People who think that because they themselves haven’t, ever, explicitly discriminated against someone, nor has anyone they know, therefore caste is irrelevant and we are in fact seeing “reverse casteism.”….Please pay them no heed. Casteism is very real as daily newspapers from India will attest. It doesn’t stop being real because people move to a different hemisphere…To the opponents of this move, I ask, what is it exactly that you fear? If there really is no casteism among Indians in the U.S., then adding caste to the categories will have no impact. It will just be one more entry in the policy. Only those who fear accountability for casteism would find anything objectionable about the decision.”