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What’s in a (Caste) Name? Most People Are Unaware of the Overlap of Caste With Culture and Tradition

What’s in a (Caste) Name? Most People Are Unaware of the Overlap of Caste With Culture and Tradition

  • That’s why, if California's SB 403 becomes law, it has the potential to make all Americans vulnerable to lawsuits based on conjecture.

California’s bill, SB 403, has reached the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom and he must sign or veto the bill within the next couple of weeks—by October 14th. The bill adds caste to the protected category of ancestry which already exists in current civil rights law alongside color, sexual orientation, national origin, and the like. 

The proverbial “big elephant in the room” is to come up with a comprehensive definition of caste. A person’s caste can be broadly identified by last name, vegetarian dietary preference, and skin color. However, the devil is in the details. 

Some last names, for example, “Modi,” can fall under multiple castes, including Dalits. The last name of the CEO of Equality Labs, Sounderrajan, is actually understood as belonging to a dominant caste in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, from where the name hails. The most interesting case is that of Yashica Dutt, whose family changed their last name from Nidaniya to Dutt in order to hide their Dalit caste. No one would have known Yashica’s caste (by lineage) if she had continued to present herself as non-Dalit consistent with her last name. The title of her memoir, “Coming Out as Dalit,” is a refutation of the claim that last names are straitjacket markers of a “cast in stone” lineage.

Further, many people whose names might code them as “upper” caste eat meat, including beef. By the same token, people who belong to groups that generally eat meat could have chosen vegetarian or vegan diets for health, environmental, or ethical reasons. Indeed, according to a Pew report, eight in ten Indians limit meat in their diets, and four in ten consider themselves vegetarian. Considering that Brahmins are just 4% of the Indian population and only 30% are “general category” (i.e., not lower caste), a vegetarian diet provides zero indication of a person’s caste. In short, diet is an imperfect predictor of a person’s caste.

Finally, we come to skin color. Every person of Indian origin has or knows of family members (who can be assumed to share caste) with widely differing skin tones.  The two photos below illustrate the issue very clearly.

These photos show that there is no correlation between caste and skin tone. If anything, they suggest that women are held to a more demanding standard of fair skin than men. 

Indeed, a paper published by Harvard Business School shows that there are many complicated reasons why Bollywood features actors and actresses with lighter skin. The paper also shows that caste preference is not a major factor in the selection bias.

 Americans (including Indian-Americans) are generally unaware of the nuances and overlap of caste with culture and tradition. This is at least partly because urban Indians, the pool from which most Indian immigrants hail, tend to have less affinity to tradition. This is further mitigated in the larger project of making a home and creating a life in the new country.

So, here is a summary of colorism within and beyond the caste context.

Colorism and Arranged Marriage

In her book, “Caste,” author Isabel Wilkerson, admits that she knows nothing about the Indian caste system.

I spoke none of the Indian languages, knew nothing of the jatis, and was in no position to query anyone as to the section of village from which they came or recognize early the surnames that conveyed ones place in the caste system.”

And yet, she does not hesitate to assert that preference for lighter skin is a form of caste oppression:

His older sister happened to be darker than most of his siblings, and, when she reached courting age, she was told she would have to boil milk and skim the skin from the boiled milk and spread it on her face prior to sleep every night before the young men came to interview her for marriage. “Imagine,” he said. “Week after week. Night after night. She knew she would be rejected, and she would close the door to her room and cry. I was twelve. I remember to this day. She got married, but that’s not the point. She should not have to go through all of this. The cruelty of it.”

The suffering of the narrator’s sister is heartbreaking. To be chosen by “a suitable boy,” she had to subject herself to a senseless beauty regimen. Worse, she had to endure rejection for a trait that was beyond her control and that had nothing to do with her personal qualities.

What Wilkerson omits, and people unfamiliar with Indian culture might not realize, is that the situation had very little to do with caste. The marriage was being arranged through family channels; the rejections were occurring within the caste and caste-based rejection was not a factor. 

A friend of mine, who hailed from an upper-caste family, announced that he would consider only light-skinned prospective matches. His mother managed to find just such a bride. Since this was an arranged marriage, the bride was of the same caste.

Why was my friend so keen on marrying a woman with lighter skin? It was nothing more complicated than an aesthetic preference (albeit one that had been reinforced by media images) and a desire for a shared cultural foundation. This is akin to preferences for trim and toned figures that are seen the world over. 

Colorism, Culture, and Tradition

Endogamy is defined as the custom of marrying within a particular social or cultural group by custom or law. Having been in place for generations, this practice resulted in each caste developing a distinct culture — choice of gods worshipped, cuisine and dietary practices, holidays and festivals, language, music and dance, literature, and so on. 

In the present day, people who look for partners of the same caste are prioritizing shared culture rather than endogamy rooted in exclusivity or self-segregation. The desire to please parents — who are more inclined to adhere to tradition and bow to social pressure — is also a factor. For these reasons, it would not have occurred to my friend to choose a partner—even a light-skinned one—from another caste or even from an upper caste from a different part of India. The desire for cultural similarity is much like the proclivity of Chinese-Americans to marry Chinese-Americans or Jews to marry Jews.

See Also

Sima Taparia, the matchmaker on the Netflix show, “Indian Matchmaking,” confirms this dynamic in a YouTube video (starting at the 4:40 mark). In his TEDx talk, Kishor Bharadwaj, a young Indian-American man, offers a deep dive into colorism in India through history. He shows that in Hindu mythology, which dates back thousands of years, the gods Krishna and Ram, who are known to be darks-skinned, are depicted in totally unrealistic blue tones. Both speakers confirm that colorism in India is a more complex and prevalent phenomenon than caste and, in fact, supersedes caste.

Challenging Colorism

“Fair and Lovely” was a very popular skin-lightening cream until recently. It even had a counterpart for men. The product’s commercials featured glowing brides, signaling success in finding a very desirable groom. Thanks to a backlash, Unilever, the owner of the brand, recently decided to drop “Fair” from the product’s name. They also agreed to stop using other signaling words like “lightening” and “white.” 

The largest Indian matchmaking site,, removed site features that asked users to list their skin tone and that allowed them to search for matches by skin color. 

Colorism is Global

Finally, it is worth noting the preference for lighter skin tones among American blacks (brown paper bag test). This is true in dating as well as in media. Preference for lighter skin is also found in Mexico, other Latin American countries, East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea), and several other countries. It is noteworthy that the preference in East Asia predates European colonization. Searching the term “colorism” on YouTube brings up countless videos on the topic from speakers around the world.


As we have seen, the definition of caste is amorphous and fluid. Further, there is no such thing as a DNA test to establish one’s caste. Sure, there exists a convoluted process in India for lower caste persons to obtain a caste certificate. However, a problem with these certificates is that there are many fake ones in circulation. Also, in just the same way that U.S. jurisdictions do not accept foreign driver’s licenses, there is no reason why they should be required to accept caste certificates issued by a foreign agency.  

A caste designation that is based on last name, dietary preference, skin color, or any other marker is pure conjecture and is likely to have many false positives. For these reasons, caste as a protected category has the potential to adversely affect people of all castes, including Dalits. 

  1. An Indian-American who loves steak has a tenuous connection to his caste identity. But if his name is coded as “upper” caste, he could be accused of discriminating based on caste. 
  2. A second or third-generation Indian-American who has virtually no knowledge of or insight about the caste system, even one whose first name is Mike or Sue, could be similarly vulnerable.
  3. Given the years-long legal battles that Cisco is dealing with as a result of the first lawsuit (which has been thrown out for lacking merit), it is not impossible to imagine that in the future US employers, especially ones with not-so-deep pockets, will avoid hiring candidates of Indian origin, regardless of their caste, to minimize their exposure to legal peril.
  4. Even non-Indian employees will not be immune to such charges, especially if they are part of a team that has a few people of Indian origin. 

If SB 403 becomes law, it has the potential to make all Americans vulnerable to lawsuits based on conjecture. Since developments in California often spread to the rest of the country, it is imperative that Gov. Newsom veto the bill in the interest of all Californians, and indeed all Americans. 

Nandini Patwardhan is a graduate of IIT Bombay and is a retired software engineer. A two-time winner of the San Francisco Press Club award, she is also the author of an award-winning biography of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, ”Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions.”

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