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Caste Away: Brown Becomes First Ivy League University to Add Caste to Nondiscrimination Policy

Caste Away: Brown Becomes First Ivy League University to Add Caste to Nondiscrimination Policy

  • The decision comes after students urged management to offer the caste-oppressed on campus who may be hiding their caste identity an option to report and address the harm they experience.

Brown University has added a new provision to its nondiscrimination policy that “explicitly prohibits caste oppression, to underscore protections for members of the university community and to call attention to a subtle, often misunderstood form of structural inequality,” the Ivy League institution announced earlier this month. Located in Providence, Rhode Island, it is the first Ivy League school to add caste to its campus-wide nondiscrimination policy. 

The decision comes after the university’s governing body voted this fall to adopt the change to the University’s Corporation Policy Statement on Equal Opportunity, Nondiscrimination and Affirmative Action, the university said. “As the South Asian population in the U.S. increases, caste discrimination is a growing issue on college and university campuses across the country,” according to Sylvia Carey-Butler, vice president for Institutional Equity and Diversity, who developed the policy change. Noting that “the previous policy would have protected people experiencing caste discrimination,” Carey-Butler noted the need and significance “to lift up” this policy and “explicitly express a position on caste equity,” the university said in a press release

Earlier this year, a group of students at Brown alerted Carey-Butler to a research on caste discrimination, the university said. In a statement, they noted that Brown’s “institutional support and explicit recognition of caste discrimination legitimizes caste-oppressed experiences and provides a framework for reporting incidents.” Noting that much of the South Asian population migrating to the U.S. “comes from castes considered more esteemed,” they said that “university students who are members of the castes classified as lower often report facing discrimination at educational institutions in the diaspora,” the press release said. “The new language of the university’s nondiscrimination policy offers caste-oppressed students who may be hiding their caste identity an option to report and address the harm they experience,” the students said in the statement, according to the university. 

In a statement, Equality Labs congratulated Brown for affirming its commitment to supporting caste-oppressed students, staff, and faculty. On its website, the Dalit civil rights organization has posted quotes from Brown students and staff on the development. A Class of 2024 student, Neha, identified by only her first name, who was part of the team that worked on adding the caste clause at Brown, said she’s “incredibly privileged to bear witness to the Ivy League’s first show of solidarity and support towards caste-oppressed students.” Although “this historic policy change will not eliminate caste discrimination on campus,” she called it “a crucial first step to creating a positive, rather than adversarial, environment for caste-oppressed students,.”

“University students who are members of the castes classified as lower often report facing discrimination at educational institutions in the diaspora.”

Similarly, the group has quoted Rabia (no last name provided), who spent over a year organizing and working with administrators at Brown to make caste protections a reality. Calling it “a joyous moment knowing that caste has been added to Brown’s nondiscrimination policy,” she hoped that “this brave step sets an example for other institutions of higher education across the country to join Brown in protecting its caste-oppressed community members.”

Elena Shih, Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown, applauded the university’s “tireless student activist and organizing efforts” for highlighting the absence of caste consciousness,” as quoted on the Equality labs website. She hoped that this decision “encourages other institutions of higher education to follow suit.”

Reacting to the news, Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, tweeted that “college campuses should be free of discrimination.” Referring to HAF’s lawsuit against Cal State, alleging that the policy unfairly targets Hindus and mischaracterizes their religion.

This January, California State University (CSU) became the first university system in the U.S. to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. In 2019 December, Brandeis University became one of the first higher education institutions in America to add caste to its nondiscrimination policy. “Discrimination based on caste will now be expressly prohibited at our university, just as discrimination based on race, color, ancestry, religious creed, gender identity and expression, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, age, genetic information, disability, military or veteran status, or any other category protected by law is prohibited,” read a statement from the university. Last year, Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers last year as part of its contract with the Harvard Graduate Student Union.

The genesis of the CSU’s decision began in March 2021, when a student body at California Polytechnic demanded that it and the CSU include the Indian caste system in their anti-discriminatory policy. The demand was made in a resolution adopted on March 3 by Associated Students, Inc, the student body of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

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A month later, later, Alphabet Workers Union demanded that caste be included in the company’s anti-discrimination policy and be integrated into their equity practices. The employees union of the parent company of Google and several subsidiaries put their demands forward in a statement supporting the lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Cisco for caste-based discrimination. 

In June 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a federal lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, against Cisco Systems, Inc. (Cisco) and two managers for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The lawsuit alleged that managers at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters campus, which employs a predominantly South Asian workforce, harassed, discriminated, and retaliated against an engineer because he is Dalit Indian.

In an earlier interview with American Kahani, Equality Labs’ Executive Director, Thenmozhi said that although caste does not operate here as it does in India, it still forms a part of Dalit and Bahujan lives. “Caste is so deeply alive in the diaspora and it impacts so many parts of the Indian American experience.” 

A 2017 report conducted by Soundararajan’s organization, Equality Labs, shows how caste-based prejudice doesn’t seem to evade those who have immigrated to the U.S. The report revealed that 67 percent of Dalit Americans felt they were treated unfairly at their workplaces. 

The report, ‘Caste in the United States — A Survey Of Caste Among South Asian Americans,’ showed the prevalence of caste discrimination, not just in the workplace, but on campuses as well. It revealed that one in four Dalits experienced physical assaults, two out of three workplace discrimination, and one in three, discrimination in education.

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