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Whether It is From Celebrities or Cisco, Caste Stereotypes Harm Indian Americans

Whether It is From Celebrities or Cisco, Caste Stereotypes Harm Indian Americans

  • If false interpretations of Hinduism are allowed to prevail, all people of Indian origin, and especially Hindus, would be suspect in the eyes of law and would encourage widespread discrimination against Hindus of Indian origin.

Meena Harris, Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece, wants to talk about anti-blackness in Indian American communities. We want to have that conversation. 

Harris calls for that conversation by quote tweeting a racist Indian caste provocateur who sneers that Harris cannot be Hindu —  the religion she follows — because she has a black grandfather. Let’s talk about that too.

The conversation on anti-blackness in South Asian communities is hardly new. There is a reason why Hindus like Harris who worship Krishna as God — depicted as black-skinned, and whose name literally means “of an all-attractive black color” — spend close to $2 billion per year on skin bleaching “fairness” creams. Those perceptions are likely rooted in a history of colonial subjugation by fair-skinned Europeans for over 200 years and the simple uniqueness of fair skin in a brown race. 

But why did Harris platform a bigot who sarcastically dismissed her Hinduness?

Harris’s nearly 700,000 Twitter followers were treated to a screed that said caste is hereditary and, since Harris cannot be placed in a caste group, she cannot be Hindu.

As it happens, that ugly conflation of caste with Hinduism is not just something Harris shared in a tweet. That false stereotype, and much worse, is parroted in a recent lawsuit filed by a California state agency.  

So now, some background.

California is home to one of the fastest growing populations of Indian Americans in the United States. Most of this growth happened in Silicon Valley, where hundreds of thousands of engineers of Indian heritage settled seeking opportunities, a level playing field, and the chance to be judged by their talents and abilities.

But the state of California is signaling that some state agencies are not thrilled by this influx.  

Late last year, the state of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued tech giant Cisco Systems, alleging that South Asians were “significantly overrepresented” at Cisco, and that Cisco failed to adequately address a novel identity category: caste.  

In its complaint, the state perpetuates false and dangerous stereotypes that target California’s growing Indian and Hindu populations — just like the horrific tweet that Meena Harris shared.

Earlier this year, the Hindu American Foundation (disclosure: I serve as Executive Director) filed a motion to intervene in the case, arguing that California’s lawsuit violates the religious freedom and due process rights of Hindu Americans and people of Indian origin. 

First, the state wades into an area that the U.S. Constitution strictly prohibits: religious doctrine. The wisdom of this prohibition is made obvious by the fact that California gets Hinduism so wrong. 

Second, California fails to provide any definition or workable method to determine anyone’s caste, creating a legal structure that actually requires the discrimination it seeks to prevent.

The State of California argues that the caste system is “a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy,” and therefore an integral part of Hindu belief and practice. It claims Hindus are legally mandated to practice untouchability.

California alleges that Cisco Systems Inc. failed to adequately address a claim of discrimination based on an Indian origin employee’s ostensible caste. That employee said that two of his managers, also of Indian origin, discriminated against him by divulging to other employees that he had been admitted to a prestigious Indian university under India’s expansive affirmative action quotas reserved for India’s scheduled or ‘depressed’ castes.  

The State of California argues that the caste system is “a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy,” and therefore an integral part of Hindu belief and practice. It claims Hindus are legally mandated to practice untouchability. In other words, California is declaring that Hinduism is inherently discriminatory and that all Hindus of Indian descent discriminate. 

That assertion is not only factually wrong and grotesque, but also in absolute contradiction to the precepts of the religion, its most important scriptures, the words of the most prominent Hindu spiritual leaders, and the beliefs of an overwhelming number of its own adherents.  

California also predicates its case on its conception of caste and assumption that Hindus of Indian descent must identify as part of a specific caste, ascribe to a “social and religious hierarchy,” and engage in caste discrimination.

Aside from sweeping generalizations and stereotypes, the state fails in defining caste because there is no generally accepted definition of the term. 

‘Caste’ is itself a malapropism. The Portuguese word casta, meaning lineage or race, was applied by Europeans trying to make sense of Indian society. Informed by 18th- and 19th- century beliefs in their religious and racial supremacy over the dark races of India and their heathen religions, colonial British census-takers repeatedly attempted to fit their Indian subjects into a four-fold caste system, along with a fifth class labeled the ‘untouchables’ — another term coined by the British with no Indic language equivalent.

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None of this is to deny that prejudice and discrimination based on factors other than a person or community’s inherent worth existed amongst Indians prior to colonization. Or that anti-blackness, itself a holdover of subjugation by white colonizers, doesn’t still affect Indian self-perception. But the social identities which British colonial administrators believed to be real and a part of a rigid, hierarchical, and pan-Indian ‘caste system’ were not. They were diverse, fluid, complex, and highly localized — and remain as such today.

If California’s false interpretation of Hinduism were to prevail, all people of Indian origin, and especially Hindus, would be suspect in the eyes of state law. Such targeting would encourage widespread discrimination against hiring, firing, or promoting Hindus of Indian origin. 

This is not hyperbole. 

On an NPR story exploring the Cisco case, an Indian American academic suggested that tech companies provide him lists with the names of all workers of Indian origin so that he could mark them by caste, regardless of how they might identify, presumably for companies to then monitor behavior. 

Since Hindu children already report being bullied in school when caste discrimination is misportrayed in public school textbooks as intrinsic to their religion, the California case could also put them at greater risk.  

Stopping workplace harassment is crucial. Companies must create a safe and respectful working environment for all of its employees. 

But the State of California is undermining these goals. So do celebrity tweets that unintentionally platform malevolent actors that echo the same false stereotypes that California puts in the words of its lawsuit. 

When the solution to discrimination leads to more discrimination, we haven’t solved a problem; we’ve only created a new one.

(Top photo of Meena Harris by Jessica Scranton, courtesy harvard.edu)


Suhag A. Shukla is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Hindu American Foundation.

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View Comments (3)
  • The mind boggles at this circular logic. Caste is well-entrenched in Indian society and among desi migrants. Arranged marriages, priestly professions are all defined by caste. No religious leaders including HAF are working to remove this.
    HAF is essentially asking for this to be brushed under the carpet. They don’t want their discrimination to become public — because if it does, they themselves be discriminated against?
    White colonialism and racism against Indians is a problem but it has nothing to do with this case.

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