My personal belief is that jati-varna was one of the major reasons that India did not Islamicize more than it did. These sub-elite solidities “absorbed” external shocks and mediated individual relationships with the world. Collective entities like this are common across the world, but the genetic distinctiveness of these groups is like nothing you see elsewhere (with the possible exception of endogamous isolation like premodern Ashkenazim). I also believe that the jati in particular predates the arrival of the Aryans 3,500 years ago. Varna-like concepts exist in other Indo-European societies, but only jati exists in India, and I believe that genetics will uncover jati-like stratification in the IVC over time. Jati may be one reason that the IVC seems archaeologically to be an “anarchistic” society in terms of governance and politics insofar as they can infer anything from material remains (there seem to be no grand public buildings as in Mesopatamia or Egypt).
But, today, in 2022, the jati-varna system is a problem for India. In particular, I think the reservation system is socially toxic and economically inefficient. Because I have libertarian conservative viewpoints, I have always opposed caste-based reservations, just as I oppose affirmative action in the USA. This has little to do with empirical or utilitarian calculus and everything to do with deontological principles. But, from a utilitarian perspective, I believe that reservations result in the misallocation of talent, as well as emigration.
How to fix this problem? The genetics indicates endogamy rates of 99% or less for possibly a thousand years or more. Today, the jati-varna endogamy rate is lower. Perhaps 95% is the high bound from the estimates I’ve seen. This means within several centuries jati-varna as we understand it will not be viable. The rate of genetic/social/cultural exchange will be too high to maintain traditional solidities. This will not mean that all castes will disappear; some will likely persist, but many societies have endogamous minorities. The way India is unique is that it is a whole civilization that is built around endogamous minorities. This does not scale as well to a modern economy and unitary society, and it is cannot persist if current social trends continue.
This problem will “naturally” take care of itself in both India and Pakistan (two countries where endogamous communities are ubiquitous), but, there are possible social and cultural movements that can accelerate or retard this process. The transformation of Hinduism into a more cohesive and confessional religion will probably be part of this. Like jati-varna, Hinduism’s strength was its fractious decentralization, as it absorbed and flexed in various directions to maintain its integrity in the face of proselytization. But in the world of 2022, the strategies of survival and persistence in the face of five hundred years of Muslim domination (in North India) are not appropriate; cultural involution and retreat simply invite defeat. The extremely diverse and almost contradictory nature of Hinduism allowed it to be a catchall system that integrated many jati groups with idiosyncratic beliefs and customs. The two reinforced each other as parallel institutions. Arguably, the weakness of jati will be the weakness of Hinduism unless the latter evolves and changes. One primary reason that non-Hindus never convert to the religion is that conversion still puts one outside of the jati-varna social networks of other Hindus while ostracizing oneself from one’s birth community.
Of course, some Hindus like the system the way it is. Some of these go by the term “trads,” but these types simply say out loud what the revealed preference shows is the majority viewpoint of most Hindus in India. What do they worry about? Higher-status groups do not want to become lower-status. Also, some high-caste Hindus believe they are more beautiful (lighter-skinned) and intelligent than lower-caste Hindus, and they do not want to dilute their human capital advantage. Objectively, it seems clear that many high-caste Hindus are indeed lighter-skinned and have facial features considered more beautiful than that of other Indian castes (I’m talking about Indian preferences on the whole). Additionally, whatever you may think about the heritability of intelligence, this is also certainly a possibility for differences between the groups.
But there doesn’t need to be such a great concern. Most societies have intelligent and beautiful subgroups, but they are not restricted to a particular social or political element. Restricting these traits to a particular social and political group causes problems, as you can see in India. The reality is there are beautiful/handsome and intelligent Dalits, so why not marry them if you are a Brahmin? These characteristics will persist, and the upside is that the social divisions between the jatis will diminish, and India can have a cultural matrix that’s more amenable to economic growth and individual liberty.
As someone with a conservative bent, there are natural hierarchies and status differences in any society. This is normal, and total leveling will never be possible, nor should we even aspire to it. Difference is worth appreciating. But the system of jati-varna in India as it is operationalized today is not conducive to human flourishing because it retards the development of broader social and cultural institutions that allow for national collective action. This is not abstract. China is a perfect example of a society with class status, but never has it had jati-like endogamy. Radically different dialect groups, like Hakka and Cantonese, freely intermarry with minimal conflict or controversy, so long as socioeconomic status is this. This is the future. You can delay it or ride the tiger.
These stories are strange and silly on some level. But they are serious on another level. Multiple young brown American men have told me that they have been asked about their caste by white colleagues, usually social justice-oriented women. More recently, I was having beers with a friend who works at Google, and he mentioned offhand “I heard caste discrimination is a big problem in American tech.” Context on him: he’s American-born, his father is from China, his mother is a white New Englander, and he’s not religious, but he’s center-right politically.
Very few people in America know anything about caste. So they rely on a small group of activists to inform them. Additionally, the American elite is very worried about structural oppression, and jati-varna certainly fits that bill. So they are attracted to regulating and eliminating it.
– Most Indian Americans don’t care about caste, and 1.5 and 2nd generation are very fuzzy on it
– Most Indian Americans who are 1.5 and 2nd generation do marry other Indian Americans, but they seem to marry outside of their caste
– Very few Indian American Hindus, about 1%, are Dalit. About 20% would be “OBC” in India, and 80% are “upper caste.” So there aren’t many “low caste” people to discriminate against
– Very few Indian Americans exist in a predominantly Indian milieu, so caste as a discriminatory framework can never operationalize
The final issue is that of course, the ancestors of Indian Americans on the whole did benefit from literal structural privilege in a broad sense, even if they came from a poor or uneducated background. Usually, on a relative scale, the people who arrived in America had resources or skills compared to the average Indian. In agreement with Greg Clark, I think this human capital persists; Indian Americans are not regressing back to a very lower socioeconomic median. Instead, they are becoming part of the American overclass.
I believe that the new salience about caste in America has less to do with caste and more to do with grappling with a dark-skinned nonwhite population that clearly has high levels of persistent and structural human capital advantage. American elites, and especially white American elites, have a very difficult time intellectually conceiving of the idea that nonwhite people can overcome discrimination and succeed because of the privilege of high endogenous human capital.
Another Browncast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
The podcast was a good experience – a free flowing discussion without much structure. Retrospectively I felt I could have intervened more on some points or countered some of the answers, but I am overall happy with the discussion.
I hope I have this opportunity again to discuss a few more things with Sai.
Two Hindu professors are suing the head of their university system to oppose the addition of caste to an anti-discrimination policy amid a broader battle over whether colleges should explicitly call out caste-based bias.
The California State University System professors argue that naming caste as a protected characteristic unfairly targets Hindus and wrongly suggests that oppression and discrimination are among Hinduism’s core tenets. Sunil Kumar and Praveen Sinha contend in the complaint, filed Monday, that Hinduism is about compassion and equanimity — principles directly opposed to a discriminatory caste system.
Here are some things I believe
– This law is impractical and wrongheaded. There are very few Dalits in the US, so there is by definition very little discrimination against Dalits (even if you grant that individual Dalits experience pervasive discrimination, which I honestly do not grant). Additionally, most Americans cannot tell different types of brown people apart, so its impact is not religious-cultural but racial.
– Hinduism has a strong connection with the caste system because Hinduism, as it exists today, developed out of the indigenous religious systems of the Indian subcontinent, and those religious systems are inextricably connected to Indian culture, which is riven with caste.
– Caste consciousness also seems pretty pervasive among many Christians and Muslims in the subcontinent.
– If you view religion as a bundle of characteristics that change over time, there’s nothing fundamental to Hinduism, or any other religion. This is my personal belief. For most of its history, Islam and slavery were closely connected because slavery is addressed in the sharia. That ended in the 20th century for historically contingent reasons. Though some level of varna awareness seems to exist in Bali and among the Chams of Vietnam, the elaborate jati system does not. Probably because here Hinduism is unmoored from its Indian matrix.
Some interesting quotes…
But Sundaram said many younger Hindus have formed alliances with other affinity groups, such as Black Lives Matter, and are more inclined to call out caste discrimination.
Young American Hindus are the least likely to care, or even know, much about caste. But they are the ones worried about it and engaging in activism. This is performative because they are progressives searching for a problem that is fading and diminishing before their eyes.
Most importantly, she said, she disagrees with the Hindu American Foundation’s argument that caste is not foundational to Hinduism.
“You absolutely can acknowledge this as part of the tradition and fight back against it, but to argue that it doesn’t exist in the tradition, it’s just false,” Sundaram said. “There’s just no way to really make that case.”
Foundational and traditional are distinct. Is the reporter engaging in manipulation, or did the activist professor consciously misunderstand?
A casual comment…most Indo-European societies seem to have originally had some sort of occupational caste system. I’m talking here of Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, warrior, priest and commoner. But only the Indian subcontinent has jati.
I was thinking about it when reflecting on work to come out soon from David Reich’s lab on ancient Pontic steppe ancestry in Bronze Age Greece. There is no stratification by class when it comes to steppe ancestry. From the talk:
In the Balkans, we reveal a patchwork of Bronze Age populations with diverse proportions of steppe ancestry in the aftermath of the ~3000 BCE Yamnaya migrations, paralleling the linguistic diversity of Paleo-Balkan speakers. We provide insights into the Mycenaean period of the Aegean by documenting variation in the proportion of steppe ancestry (including some individuals who lack it altogether), and finding no evidence for systematic differences in steppe ancestry among social strata, such as those of the elite buried at the Palace of Nestor in Pylos.
So why is India so different? One hypothesis that some make is that the Indo-Aryans were racially so different from the indigenous people. But I do not that that is the issue. Instead of bringing strict endogamy to the subcontinent, the Indo-Aryans adopted indigenous forms. There’s genetic differences indicating strong endogamy across South India among non-Brahmin groups. There is also a ‘mystery’ in terms of how the IVC was organized sociopolitically. I think I have a possibility: jati obviated the need for central political authority.
The reaction to my piece on caste by the Indian and Indian American Left has been interesting, and fraught with confusion.
First, the reaction by this Indian (now in America) Leftist is to accuse me of being an upper-caste Muslim. This is not that far from how Hindu nationalists react to me, which illustrates that certain mentalities are general, and the specific instantiations simply flavors on top of the common base. Most Indians are “identitarian” in such a deep way, whatever their ideology, that Americans would have to be impressed (if they are cultural liberals and racialists). If you scratch an Indian Leftist they aren’t that different from a Indian Hindu nationalist in their cultural presuppositions.
I am not an upper-caste Muslim in a literal sense, because a quick scan of my genome will show I’m a generic eastern Bengali, and more concretely caste is not a thing in Bangladesh anymore. I do have ancestors who are Hindu, as all people of subcontinental Muslim background do, and all I know is that most were Kayastha (on my mom’s side) and my paternal grandmother’s father was from a lineal Bengal Brahmin family (her father was very young when his father converted the family from what I recall, so he did not remember being a Hindu, though he did pass on some Hindu customs to my grandmother like the utilization of separate dishes). My paternal lineage, from where I get “Khan,” were landholders in their region of Bengal for a long time, and traditionally provided the ulema for the villages in the locality. We also funded the construction of many of the oldest extant masjids in the area.
It’s hard to deny that I have class privilege, given that my family was present in the professions or owned land for centuries. This, despite the fact that partible inheritance means that my “ancestral desh” (which I have never physically been to, I was born in Dhaka, and my mother’s ancestral village was far closer) is populated by many poor relatives who barely have any land-holdings to speak of left. People in my family who are economically advantaged all migrated to Dhaka in the 20th century. This migration was enabled by privileges accrued from the past, as we were literate, and had some assets that we could presumably turn into cash to finance a move to Dhaka. But once we got to Dhaka no one cared we were big shit in rural Comilla. Arguably, to a mild extent, we were second-class citizens, being migrants from a rural area, though this is the norm in Dhaka so I don’t think it was a big deal.
The migration to Dhaka from rural Comilla anticipates later migrations, as branches of my family on both my maternal and paternal side reside in the US, UK, Japan, Northern Europe, and the Middle East (with sojourns in Latin America; hi cousin Pablo!). The reason we were able to make these journeys was due to a combination of financial means and educational qualifications. These emerge from our class background. But once in the US, UK, let alone the Middle East, no one gave a shit that we were “Khans.” I am socioeconomically an upper-middle-class American, but that’s not because anyone gave me privileges because I was an “upper-caste Muslim.” Most of the people who were in a position to advance me happen to be white, and to them, I was just another brown person. Perhaps it was even a demerit that I was an “upper-caste Muslim,” since that just meant I was a brown person.
This truth is generalizable. 99% of Americans do not care at all if you are an Iyer or a Mehta or a Reddy. They don’t even know what that means. You are just a brown person to them. Suhag Shukla once told me that when she went to Congress in the 2000’s to lobby for Hindu American rights, hill staff asked if they were “Sunni or Shia.” This is to illustrate that Americans don’t give a shit about what your background is and barely understand it. Malcolm X’s quip about a black man with a Ph.D. isn’t totally applicable, as America isn’t that racist anymore, but it gets to the heart of the fact that in America brown is brown, caste no consideration.
Second, there is the issue that people who are brown in America often do benefit from caste privileges and hierarchy ancestrally. This is a problem and confusion, because it seems obvious, but it gets conflated with the situation in America. The American immigration system is not caste-conscious because Americans barely understand this, but 80% of Hindu Indian Americans are from the 25% of Hindu Indians who are upper-caste. I personally get annoyed with Indian Americans whose families were elite back in India who bring up their stories of discrimination and penury in the US, because their experience is distinct from the social, cultural and human capital they inherit to various degrees from their families. On some level, caste does matter who gets to America, but that is not because the US is caste-conscious, but because Indians are. The US immigration system values particular education and skills that are not equitably distributed among Indians. There are also “push” factors like reservations that mean some upper-caste professionals have far better opportunities abroad, so they leave (this is, for example, a much bigger dynamic in medicine than software engineering, from what I have heard).
Third, the trend now is to argue that Indian caste dynamics are replicating themselves in the US. I don’t think this is true, and I explained why in the UnHerd piece. The minority of Indian Americans raised in the US barely understand what caste is beyond an abstraction. One of the contributors to this weblog proudly asserts their “sudra” status half-seriously, but Indians have told me that usage of that term is somewhat taboo in the subcontinent. The difference here is context, as varna categories are mostly academic, and outside of a few communities (Jats and perhaps, some Patels) jati doesn’t really exist as lived experience. Caste isn’t really a serious matter in America, so who cares if you are a sudra? No one else really does who matters.
It might be somewhat different for the majority of Indians who migrated to the US in the last few decades, as they grew up in a country where caste does matter, and some of their attitudes do replicate. I do assume that most of these people are prejudiced against Muslims and “lower castes” to some degree like the Leftists Indian Americans say (who are usually upper-caste Hindu by background, and so are aware of what things are said “behind the veil”), but these people rarely operationalize their biases because the American racial and social context is totally different from India. When I go to buy alcohol at Indian-owned mini-marts sometimes I get mild third-degree from the owners when they see my last name on the ID, and sometimes it gets to the point I have to tell them I’m an atheist and stop bothering me (this seems a problem during Ramadan in particular, but I often don’t know when it’s Ramadan so don’t blame me). But this is only an inconvenience, and guess what, I can buy alcohol from places without overly curious Indian aunties minding the counter.
Finally, there is the issue of caste discrimination in Silicon Valley, the one place where people argue Indian cultural dynamics are replicating due to the critical mass of immigrants from the subcontinent. People bring up the Cisco case as is if it’s case-closed, but it’s a single case, and the reality is that we don’t really know everything about the dynamics of the case and there’s been no verdict. Believe it or not, not all allegations of discrimination are found to be valid.
But many non-Indians (white people) now routinely tell me there is caste-discrimination in Silicon Valley, this is just a “truth” that is “known.” I’ll be candid that I think some prejudices naturally imbibed from high school, where the caste system is widely taught as constitute to Indians, along with Leftist media narratives about Indian American caste discrimination, are coloring peoples’ perceptions. The reason I wrote the UnHerd piece is that this is becoming the standard narrative and accepted truth for third parties who don’t have any biases or priors on the issue.
For example, when people say there is pervasive discrimination against Dalits in the Valley, I have to ask, whatDalits? Dalits are 15% of Indians, but 1% of Hindu Indian Americans. It could be possible that this 1% is suffering pervasive discrimination from the non-Dalit majority, 25% of whom are Brahmin and 80% as a whole are upper-caste, but there are opportunities in the US to work for non-Indians who won’t care or know. Indian American society, when it is caste conscious, is overwhelmingly upper-caste and privileged, so they’d have to discriminate against each other!
Yes, there is a level of nepotism and clannishness among Indian Americans, but this is not unique to them. Mark Zuckerburg famously recruited from his dorm and Harvard, and if you are not part of particular elite educational or professional circles you are on the “outside” in the startup world. The same seems true of Indian American entrepreneurs, but their particular ingroup preferences are always reified as “caste.” Though I”ve heard of the “Telugu mafia,” this seems to be the exception, not the rule. And, it is not uncommon for Indian Americans to have some affinity for each other (the majority born and raised in the US still marry Indians), but often this cross-cuts region and caste, rather than reinforcing them.
Additionally, what caste consciousness there is going to be transient. If you are an Indian immigrant to the US, and you are raising children here, there is a 50% chance your grandchildren will have non-Indian ancestry. There is a far lower chance that all four of their grandparents will be from the same jati-varna, in large part because a lot of Indian immigrants themselves are couples in “mixed” marriages (I put the quotations there because in the US Census the marriage of a Tamil Brahmin and a Punjabi Khatri is endogamous).
I will end with an exhortation: the US is a country where you can be reborn anew. Do not buy into the regnant narrative and recreate yourself as a victim. Grasp the world with both hands and make of yourself what you want to be. Some Leftists are trying to replicate Indian dynamics with oppressive upper-castes and oppressed lower-castes in a racial and ethnic context where it’s irrelevant. But some upper-caste Indians are also embracing victim status, whether because they were persecuted in Tamil Nadu (Brahmins), or because they were subject to racial discrimination in the US. I know it’s easy. But I don’t believe it’s the path of honor. Sometimes you do the right thing, even if it’s the harder thing, the socially less acceptable thing. Whatever your caste, religious or regional background, you’re American now. You are now part of a different, great, national project. Make your own narrative, don’t recycle old ones or adopt new ones.
– The piece is illustrated with a photo of Aziz Ansari, an atheist from a Tamil Muslim background. This shows you that caste-in-the-West is a racial issue, and non-subcontinental people will view it as such.
– Some people of Caribbean and other Diasporic backgrounds are complaining that I ignored them. Yes, I did. This is focused on the overwhelming majority of Indian-origin people in the US, who are mostly immigrants from India.
– Some Indians are complaining I don’t talk about caste in India. Yes, I don’t talk about it except as a baseline or starting-off point because this is about Indians in America.
– Some upper-caste people are complaining that I make them seem privileged and submitting that there are poor temple priests who are Brahmin. These sorts of objections disabuse me of the notion that upper-caste people are more intelligent because this is a stupid point. Upper caste people who complain about their persecution in India and how “actually they’re underprivileged” get tiresome for a whole host of reasons, and I wish you people wouldn’t engage in the oppression Olympics, but I guess it’s just too tempting. Do some math. There are even good Indian statisticians.
– Some people are complaining that Indian Americans who are immigrants are often conscious of caste, and they care. I don’t disagree with that, though it varies (guess what, someone who is an extremely caste-conscious Hindu is probably less likely on the whole to immigrate to a whole new country where beef is the luxury meat of choice). My point is that the structural institutions and norms that allow for the salience of caste identity and privilege are just not operative in the US. To a great extent, this is true in places like Guayana too, and there the Indian-origin population is more than an order of magnitude larger than in the US. Gujarati Patels might have enough critical mass to create a marriage market that’s endogamous, but few other groups do.
– Some people are saying I’m totally denying discrimination. I’m not. I’m just pointing out that anti-Dalit discrimination is rate-limited in the US because there are hardly any Dalits here. The 1% of Indian Americans who are Dalits are more likely to interact with Indians than the average person, but there are many (most) situations where they’ll interact with non-Indians who don’t know/care.
– Finally, over time the native-born Indian population is going to get much larger. This will change the balance of cultural power within the community, and so the saliency of caste will decline even further. I know several people who are even in mixed religious (Muslim/Hindu) marriages who are raising their children “spiritual.” This sort of thing in America is much rarer in India, but “communal” identities in the US that are salient are white, black, etc., not the particular religious ones.
In April, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs — a nonprofit that advocates for Dalits, or members of the lowest-ranked caste — was scheduled to give a talk to Google News employees for Dalit History Month. But Google employees began spreading disinformation, calling her “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu” in emails to the company’s leaders, documents posted on Google’s intranet and mailing lists with thousands of employees, according to copies of the documents as well as interviews with Soundararajan and current Google employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about retaliation.
Soundararajan appealed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who comes from an upper-caste family in India, to allow her presentation to go forward. But the talk was canceled, leading some employees to conclude that Google was willfully ignoring caste bias. Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google News who invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned over the incident, according to a copy of her goodbye email posted internally Wednesday and viewed by The Washington Post.
A few points
– This is a big deal in the US right now because a few clueless progressive foundations gave money to Equality Labs. I say clueless because these foundations and granting institutions have zero ability to evaluate the plausibility of systemic caste bias in the US. They probably thought it sounded like a bad thing they should work against, so they funded Equality Labs. Once Equality Labs got its money, it was going to find systemic caste bias, because that’s its raison d’etre.
– The journalists who are reporting that “rising Hindu nationalist movement that has spread from India through the diaspora has arrived inside Google, according to employees” are clueless, and driven along by self-serving sources or their own biases. This particular reporter, Nitasha Tiku is an Ivy League-educated Indian American who has worked in online media (mostly tech journalism) for over a decade. She, like other Indian American reporters, has the right appearance and familial origins to cover a story like “caste in America’s Indian immigrant communities” in the eyes of her editors. But most of these people are not really culturally fluent enough to understand any of the subtleties or nuances of Indian caste, so they fall back on uncritically relaying their source’s talking points, or platitudes and cliches. These people are American, not Indian.
– Obviously, caste and jati are huge issues in the Indian subcontinent, and they are socially relevant institutions that have an impact on your life course. But that is not the case in the US. Indian Americans do come from caste backgrounds, though only 1% come from Dalit family backgrounds (again, it’s weird saying you are a “Dalit American” so almost no Amerians know what a Dalit is). But many Indian Americans raised in the US are very vague about their caste (with exceptions, if you are an Iyer or Mukherjee you pretty much know), and many of them grew up in predominantly non-Indian social environments. The kinship/jati networks that smooth the social functioning of Indian society doesn’t exist in the US. There are partial exceptions with Gujuratis who run family businesses, but these are a minority, and many of the children of successful Gujurati businesspeople in the US still go into professions where their world is mostly not Indian. What is really going with “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” oriented interrogation of caste in the US is that they want to transpose the black-white model of oppressed and oppressors on a different group so as to organize a “progressive stack rank” of virtue/privilege.
– Though Indian Americans of the 1.5 and 2nd generation are prominent culturally and politically, the vast majority of Indian Americans in the US are immigrants, born and raised in India. Most actually arrived after the year 2000! People like Sundar Pichai or Parag Agrawal are socioculturally quite distinct from Neera Tanden or Kal Pe. Indian American Brahmins and Bainyas who barely have any understanding what this caste identity is may be willing to take on the role of “oppressors” so as to obtain performative self-flaggelation points, but it seems that immigrants, who often struggled to gain a foothold in the American economy and society, are not as eager to engage in this behavior. Especially when they are more aware of the reality of caste and jati in the subcontinent.
– There are nepotistic networks among Indians in tech. I’ve heard multiple people (Indian immigrants) talk about the “Telugu mafia.” But these are not the same as what you would see in India as explicitly related to jati. There are networks connected to schools that everyone went to, or a unicorn that a bunch of early employees cashed out of, etc. It’s the typical thing you see in business in general, where relationships go a long way. But there’s no systemic exclusion of Dalits or lower class people because there are hardly any Dalits in the US, and Indian Amerians are strongly selected for skills, education and higher socioeconomic status in the immigration system. I dislike pointing to prejudice to explain things, but the same sort of dynamics you see in the “Paypal Mafia” when it happens with Indian immigrants seems to be depicted as caste-clannishness by outsiders.
– I am not optimistic that DEI will not include caste in its categories of oppression and marginalization. In 5 years I think it is quite likely that a young white women in HR will be evaluating the caste-jati status of brown-skinned applicants to companies to make sure that the subcontiental employee pool is “diverse.”
Another time, Pariyar brought up his experiences with caste discrimination during a classroom discussion about the trauma of racism and sexism. Some South Asian students in the class, he said, reacted as though caste discrimination was completely foreign to them. He felt they were effectively gaslighting him. And when he tried to organize a conference on issues of caste, Pariyar said he got little support from other South Asians.
The story starts out with the experiences of a Dalit from Nepal who seems to have immigrated to the US. Many of the instances of caste discrimination in the US seem to be from fellow Nepali immigrants. It is possible that immigrants from Nepal bring some caste attitudes? Obviously. But when you switch to the context of talking about caste with Indian Americans born or raised in the US, they may actually honestly not understand much what it means. The piece is flattening the experience of a recent immigrant with Indian Americans, and this flattening and conflation is what’s going to happen if caste becomes a protected class more broadly.
Later on in the piece:
The opponents, who included alumni, professors and community members, argued that discussions about caste unnecessarily divided South Asians and that caste discrimination no longer existed. They claimed that caste was a construct of British colonialism, even though it had existed for millennia, and insisted that the resolution would instead provoke hate against Hindus on campus.
Krystal Raynes, a student at Cal State Bakersfield who currently serves as a CSU student trustee, wasn’t familiar with caste and caste-based discrimination before that meeting. But the language and line of reasoning she heard that day rang familiar.
“It reminded me so much of the discrimination happening against Black people in America,” she said. “Black students being gaslighted, [being told] your experience isn’t discrimination, your experience isn’t oppression.”
There are a few issues here. Indians quite often engage in what we’ll call “denialism” about caste and how it shapes Indian society. When you go around claiming caste was a construct of British colonialism, and discrimination no longer exists, you’ll seem crazy to people. Even though the reality is that in the US making caste a protected class cause huge problems, obfuscating or whitewashing the reality of caste in India does not help your argument in America.
Second, Americans are really just reinterpreting caste in the context of black-white relationships in this country. It’s not about India, it’s about America, and some Indian Americans (the founder of Equality Labs) are engaging in “cultural arbitrage” to to provide a “product” that American administrators can “consume.”