Caste has become a university diversity issue in the US

Hard to imagine that this also happens in Canada to some extent given the large number of South Asian students and grateful for information readers may have:

Many international students from disadvantaged groups hope to leave the entrenched social structures and caste discrimination behind and start afresh as they come to the United States or elsewhere. 

But to their consternation and horror, some South Asian students have found that caste discrimination is alive and well overseas, particularly where there is a large South Asia diaspora or foreign students on campus.

Mounting evidence of such discriminatory treatment and harassment led the California State University (CSU) system to add caste to its list of protected groups in January, prohibiting caste-based discrimination, harassment or retaliation. Other universities in the US are examining whether they should do the same. 

The CSU system, with some 485,000 students and about 56,000 faculty and staff, is sending a signal out to the rest of the university sector that caste discrimination exists and that affected students and staff require protection, say inclusivity activists who have campaigned for years to include caste-oppressed students and faculty. They have called the CSU decision an important civil rights win. 

“This is very important because we can now feel safer,” said Prem Pariyar, who recently graduated from CSU’s East Bay campus with a masters degree in social work. He began the campaign for caste protection at East Bay and helped extend it across CSU’s 23 campuses. 

“At least now the university has a policy to recognise our pain and to recognise our issues,” he told University World News. “In the US people are conscious about race and religion and the like but they did not know about caste discrimination.”

“Being a protected category is important as it means people like me [and] other students will feel more comfortable to go and complain. Before adding caste as a protected category, even if students reported to the administration, they would not understand what it is. It is not racial discrimination, but it is the same logic.”

Michael Uhlenkamp, senior director of public affairs in the CSU Chancellors Office, said: “While caste protections were inherently included in previous CSU non-discrimination policies, the decision to specifically name caste in the interim policy reflects the CSU’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, making certain each and every one of our 23 CSU campuses is a place of access, opportunity and equity for all.” 

“The existing processes for reporting instances of discrimination, whether based on caste or any of the categories listed in the policy, still apply,” he added. 

‘Long overdue’

“It’s long overdue. This was a campaign that we were working on for almost two and a half years,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, a US-based civil rights organisation fighting for the rights of Dalits, a low-caste group formerly known as ‘untouchables’.

Equality Labs has been advising institutions and companies in the US. It carried out the first survey of Dalit discrimination among the South Asian diaspora in the US in 2016. In a sample of 1,500 respondents, “the numbers are high – one in four experience some form of physical or verbal assaults, one in three face discrimination in terms of their education and two out of three face workplace discrimination,” Soundararajan told University World News.

The survey was instrumental in convincing the CSU system to include caste in their policy, along with students like Pariyar, himself a Dalit, who were willing to speak out. 

“The whole process of educating and transforming these institutions towards caste equity has been one of very powerful testimony, and storytelling by really courageous and bold caste-oppressed students and faculty and campus community members. 

“And doing so under very difficult environments where caste bigots were literally intimidating, harassing and doxing them,” said Soundararajan, who is also a visiting scholar at the Center for South Asia, Stanford University. 

Soundararajan points to various types of campus discrimination – including discrimination with housing, work or student groups “openly using caste slurs and other microaggressions as well as more serious cases of gender-based violence like harassment and assault”. 

Equality Labs has been advising a large number of universities and colleges in the US, including providing advice from legal scholars “who have already done some thinking about this – we’ve worked with many institutions, large and small on these issues”.

“In our countries of origin, while there are laws to protect against caste oppression, there is a great deal of impunity and a lack of political will to enforce them. In the United States, however, because of the struggles of black and indigenous and other communities of colour, civil rights laws still have teeth,” Soundararajan explained.

“Increasingly, American institutions that are concerned about their liability related to civil rights and human rights compliance are proactively adding caste and making it explicit,” she noted. “When it’s not explicit, all the things that come from [being] a protected category don’t exist within the campuses’ or institutions’ purview.”

But universities are also key to educating society in general. “In making caste a protected category, institutions of higher learning are positioned to take the critical issue of caste oppression and discrimination seriously and to render it visible,” said Angana Chatterji, cultural anthropologist and scholar at the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender.

“Such commitment is imperative to deepening the study of caste and generative of new knowledge formations attentive to its intersections with gender and race. And to developing support systems, curricula and interventions to dismantle caste oppression and caste privilege within the university,” she added.

Often invisible

Caste harassment can often be invisible to those outside the South Asian community, but that does not mean it does not exist outside Asia. 

“I have been experiencing caste discrimination from my childhood, but I did not imagine that caste discrimination exists in the US, but then I experienced it myself. I was discriminated against within campus and outside campus,” said Pariyar, who is from Nepal. His caste are often not allowed to sit at the same table as higher castes or share food. 

Pariyar, who arrived in the US in 2015, said other South Asians “will ask your name, what does your father do. Their intention is to know my caste identity. In the beginning the conversation is respectful, but after knowing my caste identity that respect is gone,” he said.

“This is happening in California and not just in California but elsewhere in the US,” he added, saying he was left embarrassed, humiliated and depressed by these experiences and preferred not to go to get-togethers, house parties or other parties where there were other South Asian students present. 

Others who face caste discrimination are often reluctant to speak out because, in effect, it means revealing their caste origins. Some of them drop their surname or adopt a caste-neutral surname.  

“Many people do not feel comfortable talking about this type of discrimination and they want to hide their identity because they want to be protected; they don’t want harassment from dominant-caste people,” noted Pariyar, who says he is talking to other campuses about similar protections, including the University of California system – separate from the California State University system – starting with UC Berkeley. 

“We have to take it step by step,” said Pariyar, noting the victories in the CSU system and elsewhere along the way. 

The wording varies in different institutions. Brandeis University added this category in December 2019 that says caste is a recognised and protected characteristic in the school’s anti-discrimination policy. In September 2021, UC Davis added ‘caste or perceived caste’ as a category to its anti-discrimination policy. 

Colby College of Maine revised its non-discrimination policy to add caste to its list of ‘protections for the campus community’. In December 2021 Harvard, the first Ivy League university to do so, “added protections for caste-oppressed students” to its graduate student union contract.

Before CSU included it more broadly, some student and faculty organisations passed resolutions last year calling on the university to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. These include the California Faculty Association, a CSU labour union, as part of their collective bargaining agreement, and Cal State Student Association, a non-profit representing students across the university, in April 2021.

“The student resolutions really matter because when the voice of the students from all 22 campuses say ‘we need this’, it’s huge. So that began the engagement with the [CSU] Chancellor’s office, and they have their own legal team. So they’re confident about the choices,” said Soundararajan. “But we also connected them with top legal scholars on caste in the United States.”

Periyar says it was an uphill battle. When the CSU-wide resolution came up, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a Hindu lobby group, vehemently opposed it. Its website includes a comment by Sunil Kumar, professor of engineering at San Diego State University. 

Rather than redressing discrimination, “it will actually cause discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent as members of a suspect class because of deeply entrenched, false stereotypes about Indians, Hindus and caste,” he said. 

HAF had been virtually silent until then, perhaps not understanding the significance of student and faculty resolutions. But Pariyar counters: “This policy is not dividing. It is a policy of inclusion. There are marginalised students and they need to be included.”

Berkeley’s Chatterji said: “Hindu nationalist organisations in the diaspora have repeatedly attempted to silence conversations around caste oppression, gender and Islamophobia. If systems of higher education in California determine to make caste a protected category, it will have an impact not just on California, but nationally.”

A ‘caste curriculum’

Becoming more inclusive is also important in the context of broadening diversity of incoming international students. 

“It is already a topic of conversation on campuses on how to diversity the pool of international students, [to know] what are the systemic forms of discrimination that exist over time and how can US institutions make sure they are reaching a broader diversity of South Asian students,” said international education consultant Rajika Bhandari. 

“On-the-ground understanding is definitely required, because if policies are not shaped by individuals who deeply understand the context, it can fall into a kind of neocolonialist framework or a very Americanised view of another countries’ social issues,” she said. 

Social stratification by caste, prevalent in India for centuries, has variations by region and community, even within India and its neighbouring countries, as well as further afield in South Africa, East Africa and Southeast Asia – particularly in Singapore and Malaysia, the Caribbean and elsewhere with communities from South Asia, often since British colonial times. Its complexity is difficult to explain to others. 

Pariyar agrees universities will need to understand caste better in order to be truly inclusive. 

“Adding caste is not enough, application is very important,” he said. “We need a caste equity action plan”. 

“We need training and a curriculum. We need to train all the diversity and inclusion committee members, all the faculty within the CSU system about the gravity of caste discrimination, what it is and how it exists. There is visible discrimination and invisible discrimination and they need to understand that,” Pariyar said, adding that the university system needs to hire experts to train staff and faculty.  

Some of this expertise is provided by Equality Labs which says it helps institutions develop better tools and know the process of how to identify discriminatory behaviour on the basis of caste.

“Institutions need to create real metrics – enrolment metrics, application metrics – to get a sense of what the baseline of crimes or incidents are, then to be able to bring it down. Data is the key – if we don’t begin with a set of really strong KPIs [key performance indicators], we can’t measure progress,” said Soundararajan.

Source: Caste has become a university diversity issue in the US

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to Caste has become a university diversity issue in the US

  1. Robert Addington says:

    There are limits to multiculturalism. This is one of them. Casteism should have no place in Canada.

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