‘Caste Is Anti-Asian Hate’: The Activists Fighting ‘Less Visible’ Discrimination in the US
Claire Wang, The Guardian, April 17, 2023
Thenmozhi Soundararajan had one of her earliest encounters with India’s ancient caste ladder when she was 10, during a playdate at a friend’s house not long after immigrating to the US.
When Soundararajan revealed that she belongs to a caste once known as “untouchables” – also known by the Sanskrit term “Dalit” – her friend’s mother, with a disgusted look, asked her to eat communal snacks on a separate plate so she could not taint the rest of the family.
“Caste is one of the most severe versions of anti-Asian hate,” said Soundararajan, now one of the US’s pre-eminent Dalit feminists, “but it’s not as visible because it’s hate amongst us.”
Soundararajan spent the following three decades advancing the civil rights of Dalits like herself and her parents, who fall at the bottom of the caste system, which is woven into many religions across south Asia. In the diaspora, it often leads to intra-community violence that can be hard for outsiders to understand. A multimedia storyteller and musician, Soudararajan has produced a documentary, a podcast and a new book, The Trauma of Caste, on caste oppression. In 2015, she founded the Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, the largest Dalit civil rights organization in the US, which conducted the first survey on caste discrimination in the US.
California, which has one of the largest south Asian populations in the country, has become ground zero for the caste equity movement.
In 2020, state regulators sued the technology company Cisco, alleging that two high-caste Indian managers had discriminated against a Dalit engineer by subjecting him to lower pay and inferior terms of employment. Last year, California State University became the first university system to add caste as a protected category to its anti-discrimination policy. And last month, California lawmakers introduced a new bill that would make the state the first in the nation to add caste as a protected category to its anti-discrimination laws. (In February, Seattle became the first US city to enshrine caste protections into its constitution.)
For Soundararajan, the legislation felt like a watershed moment for the caste equity movement that she helped build.
“It’s a culmination of a life’s work, both living under the trauma of caste and turning that pain into power,” she said. “I wish I could tell my younger self that it’s going to be OK.”
Caste in America
The Indian caste system, which dates back three thousand years, divides Hindus by birth into four categories that determine their place in society. Brahmins, members of the highest caste, have historically served as priests and teachers. Dalits, who fall outside of the caste system, work as street sweepers and toilet cleaners.
According to the 2016 study by Equality Labs, which surveyed 1,500 south Asian Americans, two out of three Dalits in the US reported being mistreated by other south Asians at work because of their caste, one in four said they had endured verbal or physical assault, and one in three said they had experienced discrimination in school. The oppression they describe is wide-ranging, from slurs and sexual harassment to unfair hiring and termination practices. One of the most notorious cases of caste discrimination in California involves Lakireddy Bali Reddy, an upper-caste landlord who trafficked and sexually abused more than two dozen Dalit girls.
Sonja Thomas, an associate professor at Colby College in Maine who researches the intersections of caste, race and religion in postcolonial India, said that studying south Asian migration history was a helpful way to understand the caste system, which affects nearly 2 billion people worldwide and 6 million south Asian Americans.
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act brought in a wave of highly skilled professionals, such as doctors, scientists and engineers, from Asian countries. A vast majority of these highly skilled immigrants from South Asia, Thomas said, had come from educated, upper-caste families. In 1990, Congress created the H1B visa program for skilled foreign workers, creating an influx of tech workers from India who largely hail from dominant castes. (Three-quarters of H1B visas issued in 2021 went to Indian nationals, according to the state department.) A Carnegie Mellon University survey on Indian Hindus in the US found that 87% were born into a dominant caste. Only 1% identified as Dalit.
Because dominant-caste immigrants had arrived in the US first, Thomas said, they had accrued the social and political capital to define south Asian American minority culture, which meant replicating the caste structure that made Dalits second-class citizens.
“The dominant-caste profile of south Asian immigrants in the US creates an environment where violence and hostility can thrive,” Thomas said. “You can be a religious minority and still perpetuate caste discrimination.”
The fight against caste discrimination
Soundararajan describes the caste-abolition movement in the US as “interfaith and multiracial and very queer”. Equality Labs has built longstanding partnerships with groups including Black Lives Matter and a host of prominent labor unions, such as the California Faculty Association.
“We really see caste as a workers’ rights issue, a queer issue and a gender justice issue,” she said. “That intersectionality is crucial to our wins.”
Thomas said two high-profile cases in recent years had helped bring more mainstream attention in the US to the plight of Dalits. The first was the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar in India who was expelled from university housing over a caste-related dispute with a rightwing student group. The other was the Cisco lawsuit, which shed light on the subtler forms of injustice Dalit engineers endure in the tech sector in the US.
Over the past decade, Soundararajan and other Dalit rights activists have zoned in on Silicon Valley, where caste discrimination is rampant due to the abundance of south Asians immigrants at big tech forms. While advocacy from groups such as Equality Labs have pushed Facebook, Twitter and Google to add caste as a protected category of content moderation, these companies have yet to adopt caste in their human resources guidelines.
“When those protections are not clarified in a very public form like a bill or an ordinance,” Soundararajan said, “companies are choosing when to implement civil rights and labor codes that protect caste-oppressed workers.”
Growing vitriol and violence
As her influence grew, Soundararajan became, like many Dalit rights activists, a target of increasing vitriol and violence. When she “came out” as Dalit at 19, while studying at UC Berkeley, she said, all but one of her upper-caste Indian professors refused to advise her on projects. Over the years, she’s received so many death and rape threats against herself and her family that she’s had to move into a safe house for a period.
California’s anti-caste bill now faces stiff resistance from Hindu advocacy groups. Prominent groups, such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America, say legislation like SB403 unfairly targets Hindus, an ethnic minority group whose members already experience discrimination.
It’s not the first time these accusations have been made. In 2018, Soundararajan created a poster with the slogan “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” to raise awareness about the vitriol that Dalit activists were facing on Twitter. A photo of Twitter’s former CEO Jack Dorsey holding the sign created a political firestorm in India, quickly forcing the company to issue an apology. Last April, she was invited to speak about caste discrimination at Google. But the talk was canceled after a number of Google employees protested, telling HR that they feared for their lives and calling Soundararajan “Hindu-phobic” in internal message boards.
Tanuja Gupta, a former senior people manager at Google News who invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned from the company after facing repercussions for pushing back. When she challenged Google’s decision to cancel the talk, Gupta said, the company lowered her performance rating and made her ineligible for promotion.
Gupta said the employees who opposed the talk, similar to the groups protesting the anti-caste bill, were in bad faith conflating a human rights issue with one of religious freedom.
Caste equity “is not a Hindu issue”, she said. “It’s a civil rights issue where people of a certain category are denied their rights in terms of education, socioeconomic opportunity and housing, while being disproportionately subjected to violence.”
The argument for separating caste and religious freedom, Gupta said, has parallels in prominent US civil rights causes.
“When we talk about LGBTQ+ rights in this country, we don’t say that that’s anti-Christian,” she said. “When we talk about gender equity in this country, we don’t say that that’s anti-Judeo-Christian because of certain ways that women are talked about in ancient religious scripts.”
For Soundararajan, California’s anti-caste bill, along with a spate of actions on college campuses, is just the tip of the iceberg.
“We’re in a snowball moment,” she said, “and it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”