A Journey to Unlearn Caste

By Matangi Kumar

If there’s anything that 2020 has taught us, it’s that there is a lot of work we, as the South Asian diaspora, must do when it comes to fighting oppression and bringing marginalized communities to the forefront. For a lot of us, myself included, we viewed the diaspora as “getting away” from the issues that surround south asian community like casteism, classism, and colorism, but instead we’ve brought it with us overseas, and it continues to plague our communities. 

For those of you who have never heard about caste, it is a centuries old structure of oppression that actively affects over 260 million people worldwide. Caste, similar to race, is designed as an oppressive social category but differs in its ties to purity, skin color, class and profession. The communities primarily affected by caste-oppression are Dalit and Bahujan peoples (caste-oppressed commuities) and Adivasi (Indigenous people/tribes of South Asia). Caste-oppression comes in many forms, from socioeconomic inequalities to verbal and physical abuse but this oppression can go beyond class barriers as well. Caste-oppressed people who break class barriers can still face oppression in religious and social settings. For example, arranged marriages in the South Asian community directly play a role in preserving the caste system through religious endogamy or marrying within one’s own group, and marrying outside of one’s caste can still be seen as taboo in some communities.

My whole life, I’ve told myself I was anti-castist because I was uncomfortable with caste oppression and arranged marriages, but I still considered it a “back in India” problem. I knew it was a bad thing, but I didn’t think I needed to worry about it because I thought it didn’t affect anyone here in America. But it wasn’t until a couple years ago, after hearing stories from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA) people,I learned how it circulates in our communities here. Collectively, we’ve internally kept it alive in the diaspora as well. 

 First and foremost, it is important to start learning from folks who have lived experience and can speak  about it, but I wanted to use this platform to highlight people and organizations I’ve been learning from who are doing the groundwork to help us understand the situation and how we can help. I want to emphasize, as a person not part of the Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi (DBA) community (most marginalized south asian communities), I do not have any lived experiences of caste-oppression, nor is this a new movement. So many DBA activists such as Dr. Ambedkar: founding father of the Repiblic of India and one of the leaders of the Dalit-Bahujan movement have spent countless decades dedicating their lives to fight for equality and ensuring better livelihoods. And people are still fighting the fight as Dr. Suraj Yengde (@suraj.yengde): Harvard fellow and author of Caste Matters, and Thenmozhi Soundararajan(@dalitdiva): Dalit rights activist and Executive of Equality Labs, continue to speak up about caste in South Asia. 

The disconnect that many of us feel from the atrocities of caste is a privilege of being part of the dominant caste in the diaspora. When we look at the distribution of caste in the diaspora, 90% of South Asian American are from dominant castes while only making up around 15% of the total indian population. In India, 85% of indians are from caste oppressed groups. This skewed representation is why important issues around caste rarely make their way to mainstream media, while issues such as the appropriation of the bindi and yoga are consistently discussed. While these are also important issues that need to be tackled, influencers who promote these issues, rarely ever use their platform to discuss important problems pertaining to caste, class, and anti-blackness that are rampant in the South Asian Diaspora. This type of activism has even been branded by the term “bindi-feminism” or “brown-girl feminism.” The reason that so many of us turn a blind eye and simply say caste doesn’t exist here in the diaspora is because we’ve never felt the oppression that so many South Asians living in the diaspora do. 

And while many can act like caste discrimination doesn’t exist in the diaspora this is far from the truth especially in the workforce.With a growing Indian population, it is continuing to thrive in our communities especially with recent caste discrimination cases such as Cisco vs California. For those who haven’t heard about the Cisco vs California case: California’s department of fair employment and housing recently filed a lawsuit against Cisco for caste-based discrimination and workplace harassment on the basis of caste. This case has also inspired many across the US to report their instances of caste-based discrimination, and for Equality Labs, an Ambedkarite South Asian power-building organization, to release a report of key findings of caste in the United States. This case has prompted many American Ambedkarite Organizations to fight to make caste a protected category under the US federal law to eliminate discrimination in the workplace and many universities are also trying to include caste as a protected category under campus-based discrimation policies.

With the rise of using social media for activism, it has been amazing to see a growth in the amount of south asian folks mobilizing their communities in activism spaces. But a real glass-shattering moment for me that made me introspect and reexamine my activism was after watching one of @concretecorn’s videos on tiktok: She brings to light how a lot of us view our activism as intersectional as part of the south asian community supporting the mission that BLM movement is fighting for, while still benefiting from being a part of the caste supremacy system and apartheid that the BLM movement is working to dismantle. I chose to take a step back to understand and learn about the caste-based violence that is currently going on in our communities in India and the discrimination that goes on here in the United States and have been fortunate enough to find people like @ambedkarite_activist on instagram, who has been bringing to light important issues surrounding caste and indigenous communities. While both @concretecorn (tiktok) and @ambedkarite_activist (instagram) might not be apart of the DBA community the content they’ve created really makes you look back at all your life experiences and realize how much of our lives in the diaspora have been influenced by caste.

But most importantly, just as you wouldn’t listen to white people about racism that black and indigenous people face here in the USA, we should learn about the issues I’ve mentioned here, from caste-oppressed peoples, and those with lived experiences. There are countless activists as resources that are doing amazing groundwork in dismantling the system, but issues around breaking the caste-system should not just be a burden carried on by those who are oppressed, it is a role all of us in the diaspora need to take to ensure that we aren’t tolerating and continuing this centuries-old violent and oppressive system. I encourage everyone who reads to take the journey to dismantle caste in your spaces, starting with how it has played a role in your life. The journey can make you feel uncomfortable and make you feel defensive at times, but it is our job to do the work and surround ourselves with information from people fighting the fight. I am definitely still learning, but as long as bindi-feminism issues garner more social media buzz than caste-oppression which affect millions of people in our communities, we all have a lot of work to do.

Here are JUST A FEW of some amazing resources!

Podcasts:

Caste in the USA by Firstpost

Rough Translation- How to be anti-casteist

Organizations:

equalitylabs.org

Artists:

Priyanka Paul (@artwhoring)

Siddhesh Gautam (@bakeryprasad)


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