- It is particularly alienating and hurtful when dominant-caste professors and people in positions of authority make casual casteist comments.
Over the past few years, universities and college campuses across the United States have slowly begun stepping into their responsibility towards enacting caste protections as a way to start supporting their caste-oppressed students, staff, and faculty; albeit because of Dalit feminist organizing, labor, and love. Thus, this historic moment we are in is one that compels us to reckon with the complicity of higher education institutions and examine structural inequities more deeply, in relation to caste, race, gender, indigeneity, and so on.
It is against this backdrop that I wish to come out as a caste-oppressed student to underscore the urgent need for caste protections in universities and advocate for inclusive policies and practices that foster equal access, representation, and opportunities for students from marginalized caste communities.
I unapologetically stand behind State Senator Aisha Wahab’s new bill SB-403 to end caste discrimination in California. This bill would support students like me and so many others across the state to begin to make our demands legible to ensure higher education is accessible for all marginalized Californians, including caste-oppressed folks.
Caste-based discrimination and inequity makes it extremely difficult for caste-oppressed students to navigate higher education, particularly, for those of us who are first-generation. Compared to dominant caste communities, particularly those with a lot of generational wealth, caste-oppressed students may have to work multiple jobs alongside dealing with the harm of verbal, mental, and/or physical discrimination.
Back home in India, micro and macro-aggressions around “reservations” or the affirmative action policies—which are critical in leveling the playing field by providing opportunities for these students to enter academia and ensure adequate representation—become a constant pain point for us alongside other forms of caste harm and structural inequities.
Caste bias permeates popular culture on campus, from the kind of insults peers will sling around to open distaste for what people perceive as “barbaric,” including my worship or veneration of Adivasi/tribal goddesses. It was particularly alienating and hurtful when professors and people in positions of authority made casual casteist comments.
I can clearly recall a South Asian professor responsible for DEI in their department calling a majority tribal jurisdiction in India “savage and backwards,” lab supervisors lamenting that they had been edged out of academic professions in South Asia due to “ignorant” or “stupid” people availing reservations (or affirmative action schemes designed to increase representation of oppressed caste peoples in academia and public sector work in South Asia), and absolute silence from South Asian professors both when I wanted to survey caste bias incidents on campus and when I was doxxed for moving ahead with those surveys.
Whether it is being confronted by a slur, assigned demeaning work, or hostility, the worst part of experiencing caste-based discrimination on campus is the sense of helplessness. There are no adjudication processes or bias incident reporting processes that include caste, and most admin have no training on caste, so there is nobody for me to turn to. I have to play the role of the educator and my voice is being measured against academics, supervisors, and a majoritarian culture that enjoys a lot of power and credibility on campus.
Financial barriers can further impede access to higher education for students from marginalized castes. Universities should establish robust scholarship programs and financial aid initiatives specifically targeting students from marginalized castes to address this historical oppression. By providing financial support, universities can alleviate the financial burdens that hinder educational opportunities, enabling deserving students to pursue their academic aspirations and contribute to society.
In 2022, the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity also conducted the Caste in Higher Education Conference and Survey, the preliminary analysis of which revealed that within U.S. higher education, 4 in 5 caste-oppressed students, staff, and faculty reported experiencing caste-discrimination at the hands of their dominant caste peers. 60% of them also worked at least 20-40 hours a week outside classes and 2 in 5 had to apply for an emergency loan for unexpected crises, speaking to the level of systemic material inequity that caste-oppressed folks faced. Further, 75% of them did not report caste-based discrimination in their universities or colleges because caste was not added as a protected category and/or their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion departments lacked caste competency due to a lack of provisions and training regarding the same.
Universities must cultivate an inclusive campus culture that actively addresses caste-based discrimination. It is essential to establish mechanisms for reporting and addressing instances of discrimination, as well as to provide comprehensive training to faculty and staff on caste sensitivity and cultural competence. For example, training housing and administration units, therapists, cultural centers and programming staff alongside academic advisors and educational opportunity staff around caste equity can help them serve a growing caste-oppressed diaspora.
Representation, and who gets to tell their stories, matters in higher education. Universities should strive to diversify their faculty and administrative staff to include individuals from marginalized caste communities. This representation not only provides role models for students but also brings diverse perspectives and experiences into academic discourse. Furthermore, empowering student-led organizations and initiatives that promote awareness, advocacy, and support for marginalized caste communities can strengthen the sense of community and create a more inclusive environment.
We also hope to see more career development and networking opportunities for caste-oppressed students alongside mentorship, internship opportunities, and access to professional networks. Caste equity in universities is not just a moral imperative but also an essential step towards creating a more inclusive and equitable society. Let us work together to champion caste equity in universities and create spaces where all students have an equal opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed—regardless of their caste background.
(Top illustration, courtesy, https://futuress.org/stories/on-caste/)
Vidya Udumula (she/her) is a graduate student at a public university in the South. Hailing from an intercaste family, she has both oppressor caste and tribal heritage. Vidya works primarily on issues of workers’ rights and immigration. She is a part of the ongoing campaign to add caste to the nondiscrimination policy at her university, recognizing the history of caste in the United States as tied to issues of citizenship, labor, the model minority myth, and white supremacy.