Caste in 2nd Generation American Diaspora

Saw some very interesting conversations on caste in America in the recent Open Thread and wanted to hear more perspectives as well as sharing my own.

Growing up, I wasn’t aware of my caste nor my friends’ caste. I still am unaware of most other Indian-Americans’ castes (besides obvious ones like Sharma and a few Gujarati ones I know) and never thought too much of it. Caste just doesn’t seem to factor into 2nd Gens…except this trio of exceptions:

  1. The SJW Brahmins

  2. The Victim Card Dalits

  3. Poonjabi (NOT INDIAN!!!!) Jatts

Group 1 seems like a case of White Guilt with a few drops of saffron. Read any BuzzFeed-esque article written by this group and you could easily Find & Replace “White” with “Brahmin” (or “Hindu” if they are really deep in the hole) and “Black” with “Dalit.” Simple transpositions on an infinitely more complex topic.

Group 2 is enrolling in the grand Oppression Olympics that is underway in America. While I recognize the dire need to address the discrimination against Dalits in India, I cannot for the life of me understand how any 2nd gen would even be aware enough to discriminate against another 2nd gen based on caste. I can’t memorize that many last names and their associated caste. Maybe it happens amongst immigrants, but I can’t imagine any impact between Indian-Americans born in the US.

Equality Labs is probably the vilest and most prominent example of this new vehicle in action where they even want to make caste an official marker in the USA.

Both Group 1 and 2 label any “Hindu” practice, no matter how inconsequential or innocent (like Holi, vegetarianism, pujas, tilaks, the literal color orange, etc…), as Brahminical Patriarchy, fascism, and/or casteism. The agenda is pretty clear cut. See my “Brahminism” post. 

Group 3 is honestly a conundrum to me. I just don’t understand the “why” in this group. But the lack of understanding makes it the easiest group to lampoon. Can only listen to music where the word “Jatt” is rammed into the song at least 40x, or else it’s Hindi music. This clique proudly flaunts their caste like they’re back in India (oops, sorry I meant Punjab). They’re in an intermittent digital war with Hindu E-Trads (who are already a shitshow themselves), many times because of some unnecessary and out the way slandering of India/other Indian ethnic groups or E-Trads disgusting edgelording over 1984. There is a heavy pour of Punjabi/Jatt chauvinism (and Scythian???). In the end, it goes back to what I said at the beginning – I don’t get the “WHY” for this group.

When I initially asked my fairly religious Punjabi Sikh friends why the singers keep saying “Jutt” in all the bhangra music I listened to – they rolled their eyes, explained it’s a caste, and then called them dumbasses and we laughed off. They then told me to call anyone who engages in that behavior a “tatti di sabzi.” I think that’s a fair response for all of the above.

Save for these 3, I don’t think caste is that important to most Indian-Americans, including normal Brahmins, Dalits, Jatts (note – I am none of these so it’s just my outside perspective).

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52 thoughts on “Caste in 2nd Generation American Diaspora”

  1. We discussed this on twitter but the “caste pride” song is something that at this point probably exists for every major caste in Punjabi and Haryanvi culture. This genre is certainly dominated by Jatts, and likely was invented by them, but there is a burgeoning subculture of Brahmin, Tarkhan, Ramgarhia, Rajput, Chamar, and more singing their jatis glories.

  2. you are younger than me, but all the indian americans i know who grew up in 80s and 90s were the same. it’s just like skin color. light, medium or dark, all are brown. and most 2nd gen indian americans, at least gen-x, are only marginally religious at best (though most have strong cultural identity i think).

    the main lacunae i’d add is that ‘upper caste’ ppl are way way overrepresented. this includes that aren’t upper caste officially since they aren’t hindu, such as ismaili muslims or nasrani xtians.

    all that being said, would be curious to hear from kids growing up in cupertino and edison. might be with enuf critical mass caste becmes ‘a thing’. this is one of the issues with jatts

    1. “the main lacunae i’d add is that ‘upper caste’ ppl are way way overrepresented” — But that would be expected given their over-representation in higher education and among high performers in colleges back in the home country .

    2. Yes, that’s definitely true.

      Though from my personal experience, the more religious the 2nd gen Indian-American was, the less they emphasized caste (speaking of Hindus/Sikhs I encountered – this is also true for myself). More emphasis was laid on things like practice, ritual, and faith. Now politics is making its way into the equation too.

      However, it also seems like Brahmins (whether religious or not) as a whole are a bit more conscious but maybe that’s because of specific rituals they do at home that differentiate them from other Hindus.

      1. @The Emissary
        Curious, what was the background of the Sikhs who gave you the response “tatti di sabzi.” I happened to know quite a few religious and “pious” Sikhs who still use their biradari/”caste” surnames (not limited to Jatts). So, I was wondering if they had that contradiction.

        On a separate note, as someone who is intimately familiar with group 3, “caste” or biradari has little to no significance in the everyday lives of American or Canadian Sikhs (I assume the same for UK folks). Other than marriage or perhaps Gurdwara politics with older folks, it’s almost never brought up. The youngest gen (Gen Z) is probably not even that aware of their Punjabi identity let alone what a Jatt, Tarkhan, Khatri, etc. is.

        Now, Punjabi music is a different story. The singers are simply meeting the demand of a target audience (ie Jatt Sikhs who listen to Punjabi music) which is the largest demographic among Sikhs. It’s consumerism based. People like to hear music about “themselves.”

        What I’m essentially saying is that some diaspora Jatt Sikhs may be proud to be Jatt to some extent but it’s not like they bring this up 24/7. In that sense, they aren’t that different to diaspora Brahmins or other South Asians who engage in “tribalism” or self pride to various extents.

        1. A couple had random last names. One had a Singh last name. All had turbans/beards and regularly went to Gurudwara. But I can’t hold them having non-Singh last names against them. That’s their parents choice (and personally it’s not my business).

          They themselves were clear that they thought the Jatt4Eva types were “fudus.”

          As for Punjabi diaspora, from my experience, they seem the most ethnicity and caste conscious of all Indian groups. This is my IRL + Twitter/Social Media experience I am factoring in.

          1. Fair enough. I was just pointing out it’s a bit contradictory to use those names and be a religious/pious Sikh. Jagmeet Singh changed/stopped using his surname. There’s nothing preventing others from doing the same.

            Anyways, I agree with regard to your point on ethnicity but that may be politically/religiously (dynamic between Sikhism/Punjabiyat) motivated.

            Regarding your experiences (which aren’t surprising), some younger Jatt Sikhs near Punjabi Sikh enclaves (GTA, Vancouver, NorCal, etc.) can be very loud on social media (and even IRL at times) but this does not extrapolate to the everyday lives of most diaspora Sikhs.

    3. I grew up near Edison (about 30min away) Caste was not a thing but ethnic jokes about different states were. But most browns got along well, including Pak ans Bangla crowd with Indians.

      People made turban, idli dohsa, cheap guju ginder, dark skin, etc. BS. jokes. Caste was not a thing.

      1. I have a lot of cousins from New Jersey (closer to Philly than Edison). They are an interesting bunch to me as someone who didn’t grow up in a brown enclave and didn’t have that sense of community growing up.

        They join pan-South Asian frats* / sororities and throw tailgate parties with samosas.

        *For eg one of my cousins was a local chapter president in this frat…

        A minority of them are into religious stuff, the others not so much. Don’t think anyone cares about caste at all.

        1. Yup. I was recruited to join some of those frats. Just wasn’t my thing. But I’m friends with enough guys who were members at all of the nearby schools. It was a really collegial atmosphere. There were Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in those frats as well. No one brought up caste nonsense. Again, the most that went on were jokes all around about different major ethnic groups like caricatures of alcoholic punjabis vs. studious south indians vs. conman Gujaratis.

  3. among muslims the more religious are less racist. the least religious probably less racist. the most racist are the ones of moderate religiousness.

    However, it also seems like Brahmins (whether religious or not) as a whole are a bit more conscious but maybe that’s because of specific rituals they do at home that differentiate them from other Hindus.

    brahmins are like jews. special chosen people. seems like in general they do think they’re better, but it’s not important/kind of a joke in the usa. i have a xtian convert friend from a brahmin background, and he jokes he still thinks he’s kind of ‘better’ than non-brahmin indians.

    but, i think if you are a very religious hindu this probably is not a thing. i bet it’s salient for those whose religious attachments are lighter, and more ‘cultural’

    1. The least religious I think are less into their culture as well.

      I almost think it is the less than super religious, moderate or areligious, who also happen to be big into the non-religious aspects of their culture, who tend to be the most racist.

      So basically, an example would be a classic Pak Punjabi Sunni Muslim. The super religious tend to go for the whole global ummah concept. The moderates and areligious types are both split. Those who tend to not really be into their Punjabi culture, really don’t espouse these odd racialist views. Those who seem very into that part of their identity, a vocal minority of them or perhaps even majority, tend to hold some degree of racialist views.

  4. Ahem…..which group is Kamala in? Shouldn’t there be a fourth group that virtue-signals on caste back in India?

      1. @Saurav
        Has she ever commented about having Tamil Brahmin ancestry? Or is she even aware of the distinction between non Brahmin Tamil vs Tamil Brahmin/Iyers?

        1. The SJW brahmins whole sthick is that the SJW component overwhelms the Brahmin part. All SJW Indians like Jaypal, Sawant etc are like that. So for them being Brahmin is incidental and actually carrier rescinding. They would rather be a dalit which would give them more ‘woke’ points.

          1. The reason I made it SJW Brahmins is because of the fact that they go out of their way to highlight their caste privilege and say “as a Brahmin” feeling the right to be able to talk to the entirety of Hinduism/caste system or India in general simply because they are Brahmin. They then use that qualifier to bash the aforementioned from a “point of privilege.”

            Textbook white SJW speak tbh. Almost a parody, but they’re actually serious.

          2. No one seriously considers a “SJW Brahmin” an authority on anything Hindu in America. What makes them the authority is the “Indian” part more than the “Brahmin” part, to the wider white audience.

            Ask yourself, would Kamala or Pramila’s prominence been less had they not been Brahmins. Would they been considered less of authority on India or Hinduism had they been Patels? I dont think so. There are numerous Indians SJWs academics running around, of all castes, who are seen expert on Hinduism.

            There are advantages and disadvantages of being either in America intelligentsia. So being a SJW ‘Brahmin’ has some downsides as well.

    1. Interestingly, when Kamala was asked on 97.1 (hip hop radio in NYC) about why she brings up her Indian ancestry less often (this was during the primaries) and how because her black ancestry is Jamaican and she grew up the daughter of two white collar professionals, if she in fact can really lay claim to the most “authentic” part of the American black experience aka claim of descent from slaves and hence still facing negative externalities secondary to that descent, even outside of issues like increased low-level confrontations with police (data shows more low level confrontations between black people and police, even compared to the relative increase proportions of crimes they commit, police shooting and killing of unarmed black people is consistent with the proportion-this is contentious however).

      Her response wasn’t to talk about her Indian ancestry at all. It was along the lines of “They [critics] always try to divide us. We have to stay united.” While she acknowledges her Indian ancestry, it is definitely more politically expedient for her to play up her Black ancestry. Granted, I have read that her mother realized that Kamala would always be perceived as black first, so she raised in a manner to think of herself primarily as an African American.

  5. Is (2) even a real thing in the US? Reading about Sujatha Gidla in Huffpost isn’t reflective of much. On a social level, among the few dalit-american people I know (and I’m ethnographically curious), was a family that was active in politics in India, but was completely uninterested in US-context SJW culture. To this person’s father, I asked frankly about dalit social networks in the US, which until the early 2000s, barely existed, let alone had some articulated alignment with victimhood politics of the host country. I’ve been to Ambedkar symposiums where there was nary a dalit in attendance, apart from a keynote speaker like Ram Vilas Paswan lecturing a room of savarna/euro academics. This this doesnt really pass the smell test

    1. Yah 2 is def minuscule. Note the above 3 are the groups most likely to enforce/spread their caste consciousness to other Indian-Americans.

      2 is small but has a very outsized influence by magnitude and even raw amount. No random American caste activist group goes out of their way to pressure lawmakers to condemn CAA or oppose changes in textbooks that make Hindus look less like savages.

      Equality Labs’ co-founder is a Dalit Indian-American (@dalitdiva on Twitter) just FYI. I know some think it’s only a Bangladeshi-American.

  6. Regarding caste consciousness, are we letting Patels off the hook? They may lack intimidation value, but are absolutely jati conscious. Likewise, the Telugu-american community has a salient Reddy-Kamma divide, reflected in having two entirely different language group conventions. A lot of sectarian religious groups are in a way proxies for jati-clusters, like Arya Samaj, or Satyanarayan.

    1. Patel’s aren’t caste conscious in 2nd Gen. Many won’t be able to tell you their caste (Not all Patel’s are the same caste- there are different types of Patidars, also there are Patidars who don’t have the last name Patel). Patel’s don’t have a special ritual to distinguish themselves vs other Gujaratis.

      Idk about Telegus but I can’t imagine their caste consciousness causing a major shift in behavior like the 3 groups I mentioned.

      1. Probably depends on the Telegu or even South Indian group. A Telegu Brahmin or Kerala Syrian Christian may have that self-awareness while most others don’t.

  7. Jatts don’t have any intimidation factor in the US. They just have some outspoken individuals who love to brag about being Jatt, the critical mass of which is overrepresented online. I know a couple of these odd balls who ask every Indian they meet, if they are Jatt. In Canada, like Tamil Tiger descendants, they engage in criminality via gang violence. In the US, they don’t partake in this degree of socially degenerative practice.

    I like Sikhism emphasis on equality and self defense. It is unfortunate an ultra tribalistic group with some very racist outspoken individuals are among its current visible torchbearers. The turbaned kind think less this way. Hopefully these more religious ones can reign in the more secular ethnonationalist type.

    I like Buddhism and Jainism best tho for nontheistic and atheistic philosophy respectively, Buddhism best for its less ascetic approach. Jainism btw is mislabeled as entirely nonviolent. People like to refer to rules of priests and nuns. Reality is Jain kingdoms with armies did exist.

    Hinduism’s casteism is a big issue, but it is reforming. Regardless, credit for the core dharmic philosophy goes to Hindu upanishads.

    My girlfriend has a make cousin married to a Jatt. And they have a son. At a family party, there was some moment all the men were saying “Jattiya, Jattiya, Bruha, Bruha”

    The little boy followed along but that Dad consciously did not participate. The half Jatt little boy wondered why…

    1. warlock, I look at the jatt exceptionalism somewhere between ethnocentrism and caste consciousness, but weighted towards the former. A surplus of ethnic pride is a good way to maintain standards or motivate collective action. They are a bit over-the-top, that comes with the territory of punjabi self-promotion. Its nothing to get distracted over. The ethnocentrism and derogatory stereotypes are flying in both directions

  8. Gujaratis are among the least casteist community to one another. Gujarati Brahmins, Rajputs (solankis), Patels, and Vanias all freely interact, intermarry, and get along extremely well. Some Patels have a Patel thing to marry one another but this has a shit ton to do with preserving land in India. They don’t brag about being better to other Gujaratis and even joke how they know how rustic their Gujarati tends to be.

    Gujaratis probably have the most Republicans, even among youth. It might be like 60 40,dems-repubs, among adults.

  9. basically when India grows to be some 12 to 15 trillion dollar economy. I do hope and wish, most of this will hopefully be a shitshow unless ai destroys all jobs in labor like its doing now.

    1. It might get worse if interstate disparities worsen. Enough prejudice against UP and Biharis present, some because of their disproportionate poverty and criminality I am assuming

    1. I loved this line:

      “It’s hard to disentangle this surge of cultural chest-beating with the ascent of Hindu right, which rose to power with an eclectic ideology that pairs neoliberalism with fascist calls for a Hindu-first India.”

      All the right keywords are present.

      Checked the author’s Twitter profile. Seems to be a soyboy weeb.

      The only thing worse than a supremacist Brahmin is a self-flagellating one.

      I am starting to come around to the Ambedkarite anti-Brahmin view simply for how emasculated these people are. Can’t let them have intellectual leadership.

      1. Is there a word generator for this? I feel i could ghost write for one of these publications

        1. I gave that quote as an input to deepai’s text generation model. You can try it out for yourself.

          GPT-3 by OpenAI gives the best results from what I know but their APIs are still in beta. You can register for access if you are serious about this. I can imagine a lot of these bullshit peddlers like the author of the article you shared being out of jobs soon. Or unionising to get such services banned.

          The result from deepai is interesting to say the least. Might require a bit of editing.

          It’s hard to disentangle this surge of cultural chest-beating with the ascent of Hindu right, which rose to power with an eclectic ideology that pairs neoliberalism with fascist calls for a Hindu-first India. The movement was born after the failed Hindu coup in India.

          The first and most obvious response was, of course, an appeal to Hindu nationalism, the name of a “swastika,” but to turn a saner Hinduism into something more. The Hindutva movement was founded on a vision of Hindutva and advocated for nationalism as its complementarian dimension where “Christians” could live and watch as Muslims and non-Christians could each take part in creation according to their own masochistic and secular powers of collective self-management. The rise of Hindu nationalism in the late 1990s and early 2000s would seem like an unlikely, if ever, event at the moment. As a counterpoint to the recent history that has surrounded Hinduism, the conference at Uyshe went after a number of “anti-Hindutva agitations”: land reform, urban integration, school reforms and the rise of Buddhism as a religion that promotes self-management.

          1. “You can register for access if you are serious about this.”

            As u know i have a life, and other stuff to do…

  10. here is what i sent as an email to a friend (white) who asked:

    – 1% of indian americans are dalits. so this can’t be pervasive since there are dalits

    – well over half of indian americans arrived after 2000. it’s overwhelmingly an immigrant community, and places like silicon valley they’re very very insular compared to the ppl i grew up with in the 80s and 90s. so it is plausible that they did import caste stuff because there’s a whole subculture that exists there that didn’t exist before 2000. but, this is likely ephemeral, because caste dynamics only exist in societies where caste is important as a social welfare system, and there aren’t enough indians in the USA for that to matter

    – it is highly likely that this person is actually using caste as a good wedge/pretext for something else in trying to get $ out of the company. to make that work they need to “raise consciousness” about it and so found a good woke indian american reporter

    1. i also made a joke that new hires in SV now get a copy of manusmriti. but some ppl on twitter didn’t seem to think this was a joke. i also made a joke earlier that upper caste project managers were refusing to make eye contact with dalit engineers on zoom. and that all the cafeterias were now pure-veg in the valley.

  11. People in US are more caste focus than urban India like Mumbai. About 2nd generation depends on how your upbringing? (genetics might help)
    Most people are not aware of religion and what they practice. They have colonialism mindset on religion and vague theories.(by the way Jatts are not even Kushano/Tokho, Gujarat will take that too?)
    Your post on Brahmanism: Majority of Dravidian brahmins(?) have similar practice as Zoroastrianism (burn them easily) and other half are not IA Y chromosome (Brahmin?).
    Gauda brahmins: Horse breeders, dirt poor and poor quality language(Gandhari(old) will beat Hindi).
    Differences between the term is a group which practices fire ritual(memorizes) and others don’t(artificial claim)

  12. I’m 2nd gen from the South Bay (Area), so around Cupertino. Nobody talks about or cares about caste here. Many of us are already products of inter-caste or inter-ethnic (Indian) marriages. Our aunts/uncles, cousins, siblings, and ourselves are often married out, either to Indians/IAs of other ethnic groups/caste, or to white folks.

    1. I am interested about how your experience compares to the old Edison-Jersey City- Jackson Heights tristate

      1. No idea. Only ever met a few Indian Americans from Jersey, even after moving to Chicago. West Coasters are pretty isolated.

        I do have cousins in DC/Virginia though. Only difference I’ve seen, is that they were way more academically driven growing up. Could have used a little West Coast chill!

    2. Belgarion, by 2nd gen do you mean your parents were brought up in the US, or that they were the immigrants? I think age plays a factor here because inter-caste/ inter-region has become so common in metro/anglophone India, such that it makes a bigger difference than how deep your roots are in the US. I have cousins who are immigrants and their children, although being like myself the first gen born in the US, are still more “advanced” in many social dimensions.

      1. My parents came for grad school back in the late 80s. Both from Indian metros. I don’t know how common it was in the 80s, but half my aunts/uncles married inter-caste/inter-region (and in some cases, it was even arranged).

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