The Caste Contagion: Who are These Indians Opposed to Seattle Legislation to Ban Caste-based Discrimination?
- These are the same folks who have benefited from affirmative action in the U.S. but want to pull the ladder behind them when it comes to our communities of color and Dalit people.
This Tuesday, February 21, 2023, the Seattle City Council will vote on Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s historic, first of its kind, legislation, to ban caste-based discrimination. This is historic because this is the first time, any legislative body in the United States has taken a step towards outlawing the caste-based discrimination prevalent in its community.
As a member of the Punjabi Ravidassia Ambedkarite community, who has faced extensive caste-based discrimination in the U.S., I look towards the Seattle City Council with the hope that it will do the right thing and pass this legislation. I applaud the Coalition of Seattle Indians, Equality Labs, Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkar Association of North America, Ambedkar King Study Circle, and the North American network of all Shri Guru Ravidass Centers that include Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha New York, Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha, Fresno, DFW Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha, Mesquite, Texas, and many Ravidassis in Seattle, Vancouver and across the Pacific Northwest.
In total, these Ravidiassia communities make up thousands of members across the U.S. We also have so many inter-faith and multiracial organizations across Seattle and the nation that have joined this coalition and who have provided the crucial support that this legislation needs. We have come together to let the City of Seattle know that it must pass this legislation urgently.
Growing up in Punjab, India, I experienced firsthand, how caste dominates every aspect of the Indian social fabric. It was everywhere. I saw how oppressed caste people, including my own community, faced discrimination, abuse, violence and denial of their human rights at every step of their life. From schools, playgrounds, places of worship, and community gatherings, there was no place to escape it.
I am haunted by what it was like to see the extensive segregation my fellow Dalits faced, and even when we did move out to dominant caste neighborhoods the whisper campaigns that followed would make sure few would interact with us, if at all. We learned to ignore it despite how painful it was for this unrelenting discrimination.
If it was not for the words of Dr. Ambedkar and Sri Guru Ravidass we would not have endured. Their words gave us strength and we understood caste bigotry as mental sickness and that we would hold ourselves with dignity as both these leaders advised. If there was any fear of violence we knew how to escape if need be.
When I moved to the United States for pursuing higher education, I thought I would escape that monstrosity and live the “American Dream,” free of the fear of being stifled and oppressed due to my caste identity.
Little did I know that caste will follow me inside the U.S. borders as well. I saw how my fellow international students from India at my university in the U.S. would openly parade their caste identity and boast about being “born into a higher caste.” They would even brag about their ”superior bloodline” compared to other human beings.
I was shocked, albeit not surprised, when these oppressor caste Indian students, mostly pursuing Master’s and doctoral degrees would openly ask other Indian students about their caste, before deciding whether they will live with them as roommates or include them on group projects for their coursework. This is not about personal choices, it’s about what happens when a minority community like Dalits are systematically facing exclusion from student resources, networks and housing on the basis of their caste identity.
These oppressor caste students, who had lived a life of certain privilege in India before moving to the U.S. were not used to performing day-to-day chores, like cooking and cleaning their own house. When they had to clean their own toilets, they would often complain and say to each other, “Why don’t we call some Mexicans – they are the Chamars of USA, to clean our toilets?” For the uninitiated, Chamar is a Dalit caste in Punjab that is used by dominant castes as a casteist slur used against y oppressed castes in India. In this context, it is like using the N-word and it is racist towards Mexicans and casteist towards Dalits.
For non–South Asians this casual racism and casteism may seem shocking but the painful truth is that anti-Dalit mindsets always translate into racist mindsets. Many dominant castes have years of training of looking down upon not just the oppressed caste South Asians, but also Americans who, in their mind perform “unclean, dirty” tasks like cleaning, washing, serving food and more.
As someone who belongs to the Chamar caste which has historically been forced by oppressor castes to perform manual scavenging and clean dead cattle off the streets, for a few millennia in South Asia I can tell you that this kind of dehumanizing speech is part of what creates the context for violence and it must end.
In addition, in 2022, the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity and Equality Labs 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.
Further, 3 in 4 caste-oppressed stakeholders did not report caste-based discrimination in their universities or colleges because caste was not added as a protected category, or their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion departments lacked caste competency due to a lack of provisions and training. This is serious given that in 2022, over 125,000 students from India alone were issued student visas by the U.S. Department of State. Imagine the type of violence that exists for all South Asian American students.
I have also seen the same casteist and bigoted mindsets also operating in the tech workforce and working with other South Asians. I remember being in work cafeteria and hearing Brahmin colleagues bragging about how superior they were at math and other tech tasks over other castes and how they were the only folks with merit. They were not discreet. They were loud and many non-South Asians were disturbed by this weird caste chauvinism.
I wish I had reported it at the time but I did not want to risk my job as I was a contractor and these were employees that could have made me lose my job and other future contracts. My experience is not alone as there have been numerous reports of casteism in tech companies more than 250 Dalits from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, and dozens of others in Silicon Valley have come forward to report discrimination, bullying, ostracizing, and even sexual harassment by colleagues who are higher-caste Indians.
The path forward is clear. Caste exists in the United States and it must be addressed through explicit changes to the policy that help build deterrence and competency related to caste-oppressed communities. While America has benefitted immensely from the South Asian immigrants, it is also time for us to reckon with caste and stop its poison from spreading.
As I watch closely the developments around this proposed legislation, I am troubled but not surprised looking at the privileged oppressor castes who oppose this bill. They have every interest in maintaining their caste hegemony and this façade of a model minority that works hard, “plays by the rules” and believes in equality gets shattered once the ugly reality of caste comes out in the American mainstream. These are the folks who have benefited from affirmative action in the U.S. but want to pull the ladder behind them when it comes to our communities of color and Dalit people.
They would rather litigate bigotry than honestly face the violence of caste and commit to ending discrimination for all. This reflects the sad state of their fragility. However, their fragility and threats of litigation and violence should not stop the flow of progress.
Many of the testimonies that the City of Seattle has received have come from caste-oppressed South Asians who have faced discrimination in employment, and housing, and received lower wages due to their caste identity. It has taken immense courage for these caste-oppressed individuals to come forward, at great personal and professional risk and share their experiences. According to Equality Labs Caste in the United States Survey, 1 in 4 oppressed caste people experience physical and verbal assault and 2 in 3 face discrimination at their workplace.
Now is the time to start placing legal safeguards to prevent this abuse of human rights from further occurring in the U.S. A massive democratic coalition of worker, human rights, racial and feminist advocates think so, too, and they have written thousands of emails and calls urging the Seattle City Council to vote yes.
The amazing thing is that we are changing the South Asian community. And we hope all will join us. I know it can be scary. But I want to point you to my spiritual anchor in this work, Shri Guru Ravidass, a spiritual and social revolutionary, who lived in India in the 14th century. In his time he also challenged caste discrimination and he asked the oppressor castes back then, “What do they know of another person’s suffering if you have no empathy within”?
Today, I pose all the readers here the same question. To truly build an equitable society, we must start by acknowledging our problems. We need empathetic witnesses and we need to remedy the harm. Only then can we begin to heal from caste.
Sanjeev Kumar is an Ambedkarite and Ravidassia activist. He is a member of the Ambedkar Association of North America and Shri Guru Ravidassia working for caste-oppressed people across the US. He is also a techie and is committed to building caste equity in any way he can.