I was drawn to further explore caste through a conversation I had with my former thesis advisor, Professor Sonalini Sapra, a Dalit feminist teacher-scholar, in the fall of 2020. We were meeting to pick a potential topic of research for my senior thesis. In the meeting, we discussed the new Netflix docu-series, “Indian Matchmaking,” pointing out several problematic elements of casteism, colorism, and sexism in the show. She expressed that it would be interesting to do an intersectional analysis on the show, exploring caste, gender, and colorism in the South Asian Diaspora.
Since there are not many courses, nor are there many workshops on this particular subject matter, this was my opportunity to research a little more about South Asian culture and society, specifically as it relates to caste.
While this was my first time formally learning about the topic at hand, I have had some discussions with family members on the issue. In other words, I knew of caste but I never fully understood the effects or consequences of the caste system.
My first conversation on the topic of caste took place when I visited Nepal, my home country, in
the summer of 2018. In Nepali culture it is quite normal to ask someone about their caste; the question being something along the lines of “Timi kun jaat ho?” (lit. translation: “What caste are you?”). This question however was a lot more common in Nepal than I was used to. I was being asked this frequently, even by strangers that I just met. I also noticed that some inquirers would have certain reactions, ranging from fascination to indifference to discomfort, based on the answer they received. I felt uneasy with the difference in reactions.
Out of curiosity, I asked my cousin, as we were taking the taxi to visit an aunt, why people reacted in certain ways when they found out about a person’s caste background. Throughout the entire ride, she briefly explained to me the inequality that persists in Nepali society through the caste system. She mentioned that people have certain perceptions of a person based on their caste background. She told me that it is common to immediately assume someone from the lower caste to be dirty, naive, less educated, and not to be taken seriously. I was told that individuals with a higher consciousness on the implications of the caste system, however, understand upper caste individuals to be wealthy and privileged; this is due to the consolidation of wealth by the upper-castes who benefit from the oppression of the lower caste. Since then, I have never been able to unsee it. What I once believed to be a neutral question expressing an interest in a person’s background now seemed like something that could potentially be harmful to some groups of people, while it benefited others.
For many Dalits, Adivasis, or Bahujans, questions regarding caste can be traumatizing. These questions are still prevalent today, potentially leading to discrimination and violence. Oftentimes, upper-caste individuals ask people from the lower-caste for their last name, religion, hometown, and more, just to indirectly gain an insight into their caste. These forms of discrimination (outcasting and exerting dominance against Dalits) have been and continue to be present in schools, workplaces, local businesses, places of religious worship, and romantic partnerships.
Research compiled by Equality Labs, a South Asian organization dedicated to ending caste apartheid, gender-based violence, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance, shows that caste discrimination continues to exist even in the United States. Their research, also the first comprehensive survey conducted on caste discrimination in the U.S., found that one in three Dalit students reported being discriminated against during their education, two out of three Dalits reported being treated unfairly at their workplace, and one in two Dalit respondents and one in four of all Shudra respondents live in fear of their caste being “outed.”
There are currently no federal laws specifically against caste-based discrimination. The lack of explicit laws on caste was used by the human relations office at Cisco to invalidate a Dalit employee’s experience of being discriminated against solely because of his caste; in addition to getting harassed and ousted from gatherings, the employee was denied higher pay and opportunities at work. As a result, the employee filed a lawsuit against the company in the summer of 2020. This was the first lawsuit filed against an American corporation based on caste. This incident highlights the importance of acknowledging caste-based discrimination in the laws of the United States, especially since South Asians are one of the fastest-growing groups in the country, with more than 90 percent of Indian immigrants coming from the upper-caste. As long as U.S. society and the law fail to acknowledge caste supremacy as a problem, this form of discrimination will persist.
The information that I found through my research and the conversations I had on the topic both surprised and disturbed me. As someone surprised to find this information, I realized my place of privilege of not having experienced caste-discrimination first hand. I also understood that while I may not be directly affected by the caste system, I still play an important role in how I interact with this system in the South Asian diaspora.
While my experience was filled with anger at this system of oppression, I was also especially inspired by the speeches and essays of Dalit activists, especially those of B.R. Ambedkar. Based on my experience learning about work being done by activists to end caste apartheid, I highly encourage young people in the South Asian diaspora to research and learn about the Ambedkarite movement. I know that not a lot of youth from the South Asian diaspora are aware of Dr. Ambedkar. But I truly believe that learning about his work is a crucial first step towards questioning our communities and playing an active role in the collective liberation of the South Asian diaspora as a whole.
The conversation against caste is not going away unless caste oppression ends. In fact, over the years we are beginning to see more and more representation of caste in the United States, through solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, shows like “Indian Matchmaking,” the Cisco case, the survey collected by Equality Labs, Caste: The Origins of our Discontent — a book written by Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson, and more.
As young South Asians in the diaspora, I believe it is our duty to continue this conversation and learn about our own culture and society, along with its systems of oppression. When we talk about caste, we should honor and uplift the voices of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi community members. We should acknowledge the privilege that we hold. We should question ways in which we help uphold caste supremacy. As stated by James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
If you are a South Asian youth interested in engaging in a dialogue regarding caste, register for the “Unpacking Caste in the U.S.” workshop at ncaatogether.org/unpackingcaste. In the workshop, we will be having an open discussion about the effects of caste and also share strategies to end caste apartheid.
- Caste: a social, hierarchical structure existing in South Asia with each caste having its own social and cultural practices. A person’s caste (assigned at birth) affects their access to opportunities and resources. This system affects over 1 billion people around the world. See https://asiasociety.org/education/jati-caste-system-india for a visual representation of the system.
- Casteism: discrimination based on the grounds of caste.
- Dalit: considered “lowest of the low,” not included in the caste system. Formerly known as “untouchables,” now “broken but resilient.”
- Bahujan: Buddhist Pali term for “the majority”
- Adivasi: “aboriginal/indigenous” people of the Indian subcontinent
- Shudra: the lowest of the four caste in the Hindu caste system
- B.R. Ambedkar: a Dalit scholar, social reformer, politician who helped draft the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar was inspired by the Black struggle and consciousness which inspired his work on abolishing caste.
Nyima D. Lama (she/her) is a senior Bonner Scholar at Guilford College, double majoring in Political Science and International Studies with a minor in Japanese Studies. She was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, and went to school in India until she immigrated to the United States in 2011. Nyima identifies herself as a Nepali-Tibetan American; Tibetan from her father’s side and Nepali from her mother’s. She is passionate about the Tibetan struggle for freedom, immigrant and refugee issues, and international politics. She hopes to work with foreign affairs in the Asia Pacific region.
In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, making drinks, chilling at coffee shops, and stargazing.