Posted on December 3, 2021

Harvard Adds Caste Bias Protections for Graduate Student Workers

Sakshi Venkatraman, NBC News, December 2, 2021

Harvard University is the latest U.S. school to add measures protecting caste-oppressed students following a push from graduate workers and a national organization.

Since March, South Asian graduate student organizers have tried to point out to the university’s administration what they say is a real problem on campuses across the U.S.: discrimination based on the Hindu caste system.

Those born into lower castes, known as Dalits in India’s deeply rooted hierarchies, have faced violence and oppression on the subcontinent for thousands of years. Though the system is now illegal in India, its impact is still far-reaching and can manifest themselves in a lack of social and economic mobility.

With the increase in South Asian immigration to the U.S. since the 1980s and ’90s, the hierarchies have been carried overseas.

Twenty-five percent of Dalits in the U.S. report having faced verbal or physical assault, according to research by Equality Labs, an organization dedicated to ending white supremacy and casteism. One in 3 Dalit students also reported experiencing prejudice that affected their education, the study found.

Students trying to combat this on their campuses say they run into barriers in the process, particularly a sheer lack of knowledge among administrators.

Aparna Gopalan, a South Indian doctoral student at Harvard and a member of the Graduate Student Union, has been part of negotiations since March to add more protected classes to the union’s contract. She says she found herself in board rooms filled with white administrators who had no foundational grasp of the caste system.

“They had no idea what caste was,” Gopalan said. “I don’t think they really understood. At one point, they asked, ‘Why isn’t caste just protected under nationality?’ and I was flabbergasted. We were operating on a very basic level.”


Gopalan said that after the provision was approved, Dalit students began to come forward with their own experiences of discrimination, including by South Asian supervisors and instructors who would give their work less attention than that of upper caste students. Slurs and microaggressions from other students were also common.