This past April, thousands across the South Asian diaspora marked Dalit history month, the birth month of the lawyer and freedom fighter Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar, who was born into the status of “untouchable” (now called Dalit) of the Indian caste system, is known for his efforts to emancipate Dalit communities across South Asia and as the father of the Indian constitution for his role as chair of the drafting committee. His unrelenting advocacy for equality, feminism, and justice makes him a household icon for millions today.
However, for many South Asians, especially in the North American diaspora, Ambedkar is seldom honored alongside the likes of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru for his pivotal role in Indian and world history. This is because, decades after caste was officially outlawed in 1950, the effects of casteism still dominate the material and cultural conditions of South Asians around the world.
In his seminal 1936 speech, “The Annihilation of Caste” — published after the liberal Hindu organizers who had initially invited him to give his speech canceled their invitation upon learning its content — Ambedkar argues that the origins of caste lie in the core scriptures of Hinduism such as the Vedas and Shastras. Ambedkar wrote that only when Hindus begin to look at the scriptures not as a religion but merely as “old and archaic” laws, they will be ready to abolish caste, “... for people know and accept that law can be changed.”
The caste system has existed in various iterations on the Indian subcontinent for over 2,000 years. Informed by religious and customary traditions, it divides people based on their family’s ancestry, assigning social status, occupations, obligations and sanctioning privileges and repression to different castes depending on their place within the social hierarchy. According to Ambedkar, the essence of the caste system is endogamy — the refusal to intermarry with other castes.
When British colonial administrators conquered India in the 18th and 19th centuries, they reinforced the caste system based on orientalist interpretations of early Sanskrit texts, further entrenching existing inequalities.
According to the Ambedkarite civil rights organization Equality Labs, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which established an immigration criteria based on skill preferences instead of race, led to a system where most of the immigrants allowed into the United States came from wealthy and college-educated backgrounds. Because caste-privileged people in South Asia had benefited from centuries of preferable treatment before, during and after colonial rule, they owned a disproportionately large share of the wealth of the country, and thus were able to more easily qualify under U.S. immigration rules.
Today in the Seattle region, a large portion of the South Asian community comes from a caste-privileged background. However, the first South Asian migrants to the Pacific Northwest were mainly caste-oppressed Sikh migrants, who were labeled as a “dusky peril” by a Bellingham paper in 1906. In September 1907, a white mob violently attacked and abducted the immigrants, forcing them to leave the country.
Despite gains made during the civil rights movement, South Asian communities, which encompass a diverse set of experiences and positionalities, still face racism in the United States. Today, many South Asians in the Seattle area immigrated here to work in the booming technology sector. A local tech worker and community organizer, who wished to remain anonymous, said casteism shows up a lot in tech worker communities, influencing who is let in or out of people’s social circles.
“You almost never see people who are from Dalit backgrounds or Bahujan backgrounds or Adivasi backgrounds make it to the U.S.,” they said. “But even if they do make it, I’ve since learned that there’s a lot of casteism in how South Asians interact with each other.”
The organizer, who comes from a caste-privileged background, said that ideas of purity and pollution which originate from caste are commonplace.
“I’ve seen a lot of my friends … be very strict about who they’re roommates with. They refuse to share a fridge with someone who eats meat, or they’ll eat meat, but not beef,” they said.
“And they are very anti-beef and won’t let it touch their utensils. Or if they’re vegetarian, they won’t let it touch their utensils. That’s a practice of untouchability. That’s where casteism shows up and who you let into your networks, who you live with, who you date, all of those things.”
Vegetarianism in South Asia is common for a variety of reasons, however caste has certainly influenced cultural attitudes, with certain foods being associated with pollution. Many Brahmins, who are put at the top of the caste hierarchy, refuse to eat beef, meat, eggs and even certain vegetables. In recent years, it has become a political flashpoint in India, as Hindus nationalists lynched Muslims and Dalits for eating beef.In their 2018 report "Caste in the United States," Equality Labs said that one in three Dalit students reported being discriminated against in the education system, while two-thirds of Dalit workers in the United States said they were treated unfairly at their workplace.
In 2020, the state of California sued the communications technology company Cisco, alleging that company allowed managers to harass a Dalit worker and then retaliate against him when he complained to HR. Since the lawsuit was filed, other workers across Silicon Valley have come out with similar complaints of caste discrimination.
As a result of growing advocacy by Dalits and their allies, more institutions have begun to include the Indian caste system in their anti-discrimination policies. In January, the California State University (CSU) system added caste to their list of protected statuses.
The Seattle-based organizer said that slowness in adopting anti-casteism provisions reveals the biases of many U.S. South Asian communities, which tend to be overrepresented by caste-privileged people.
“It’s telling that the universities and the tech companies haven’t recognized caste as a protected category in the anti-discrimination policies until recently,” they said.
Some within the South Asian community, such as the Hindu nationalist-aligned lobby group Hindu American Foundation (HAF), are opposing the new anti-caste discrimination efforts. According to Deutsche Welle, the HAF said that the recent CSU anti-discrimination measures “will cause more discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent.”
Amazon, which is headquartered in Seattle, posted a webpage detailing their “human rights principles” in 2020 which included equal protection for people based on a number of criteria including caste.
Amazon and Microsoft, a tech company based in Redmond, have not answered requests for comment.
However, despite recent progress made by Dalit organizers, casteism in Seattle remains a largely hidden and unreported issue. According to a spokesperson from Seattle Office of Civil Rights, the office, which was established in 1996 after a consolidation of different departments, has “never received a discrimination complaint specific to caste status discrimination.”
In an email, the spokesperson wrote that “Caste Status is not a recognized protected class in the City of Seattle and if our office were to receive a complaint based solely on caste discrimination, we would not be able to investigate it; however, we do encourage people to report any cases of discrimination as they may fall into other categories of protected classes.”
While caste is not explicitly listed as a protected class, complainants could be protected under other categories such as ancestry or religion. However, the community organizer said that Seattle should reconsider the absence of caste-specific protections.
“City of Seattle saying they can’t investigate cases of caste discrimination is precisely why caste must be added as a protected class,” they wrote in a text. “Adding such protections will make it safer for people facing caste discrimination to come forward.”
They added that learning from leaders such as Ambedkar has helped them reclaim their South Asian identity outside of caste. “Dalit History Month has been so transformative because it’s a way to connect with my South Asian heritage in an actually healthy way, instead of casteist practices or traditions that are harmful,” they said.
Update: This article has been updated from its original version.
Read more of the May 18-24, 2022 issue.