I remember speaking to a very frustrated friend earlier this year about a conversation she had with her South Asian immigrant parents. “They just don’t believe in the prevalence of racism against Black people in the United States,” she said.
I thought about her frustration the other day during a discussion I had with a family member about the recent alleged rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.
“Caste has nothing to do with it,” he said, as reports of the four men accused of the attack, who were of the dominant Thakur caste in the region, blared on the television.
The earliest mentions of caste are found in Hindu texts from 1500 B.C. At the time, society was divided into four castes, with the Brahmins at the top and the Shudras at the bottom. Each group was associated with certain traits, the most demeaning — impurity, contempt — being assigned to the Shudras, who were primarily laborers. Over time, some groups were placed even below Shudras. They did not belong to any caste. They were made sweepers, gutter cleaners and scavengers and their jobs were not respected. This group soon came to be known as the Dalits, the “oppressed.”
India’s intergenerational caste system highlights the extreme aversion of the Hindu system to the theory of equality and its perpetuation of social hierarchies, primarily by the upper-caste Brahmins.
In India, casteism is all around me. It is the signs outside of some of the elevators in my apartment building that read, “RESIDENTS ONLY. SERVANTS NOT ALLOWED.” It is the steel cup that Maya didi (sister in Hindi), who worked in our house for 12 years of my childhood and was like a big sister to me, drank from while the rest of us drank from glass cups. It is the conversation a family friend once had with my mother, who works in the social sector, in which he stated, “So many low-income households have access to running water now. They’re not really poor anymore.”
About 165 million people in India face violence on the basis of their caste. Ten Dalit women are raped every day, and many have suffered caste-based sexual violence.
Dr. Suraj Yengde, a scholar of caste, draws parallels between discrimination in India and the United States. Similar to anti-Black racism here, casteism, colorism and religious hatred in India are Brahminical instruments used by the dominant castes to oppress Dalits. Being upper-caste in India is similar to being white in the United States: Upper-caste Indians benefit from casteism just as white people benefit from systemic racism.
Growing up, I was never encouraged to talk or even think about caste. I didn’t know what castes my parents were from, we were never taught about caste in school and I followed Hindu traditions without understanding their origins or meaning.
Now, however, I find myself repulsed by the lack of conversation about caste around me, by the religion my family so closely observes and by issues I was so oblivious to for so long. If I were to draw another parallel to racism in the United States, it would be this: Just as recognizing racial privilege is an important first step to dismantling racial prejudice, recognizing caste prejudice is urgent and necessary in order to dismantle the caste system.
The reason I write this here is because of the deep presence caste has in the United States, too. With religious Hindu communities comes caste discrimination. A 2018 survey showed that 67% of Dalits in the United States faced caste discrimination at the workplace and 40% of Dalits faced discrimination in schools and temples.
I’ve witnessed forms of casteism among my Indian American friends at UC Berkeley, too, especially when it comes to conversations about relationships and marriage outside of their caste communities. I’ve noticed how starved the Indian classical dance community is of conversations about caste, despite the casteist origins of some of their forms, including Bharatanatyam, the form I practice.
With the devastating losses of Black lives this year and the force of the Black Lives Matter movement seemingly stronger than it has ever been in the United States, Indians around the world on my social media reshared content in solidarity with the movement, whether they went to school in the United States or not. While I was very happy to see this powerful, urgent movement receive so much encouragement from South Asians, I noticed that most hadn’t used Instagram as a platform to talk about Indian issues — caste issues — at all. They also did not acknowledge the bleak reality that Black people are oppressed in India, too.
This year has proven to be the year of social media activism. I occasionally learn about national and international movements on my Instagram before I read the news, which makes it all the more necessary for users of social media to protest and educate themselves and their followers about Dalit issues and caste atrocities across and beyond India.
Now, I’m trying to make myself a better ally by introducing uncomfortable conversations about prejudice into my everyday contexts and working to unlearn the prejudices I’ve been conditioned to ignore.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.