"This is our fight for dignity": The struggle to confront caste privilege in America

Caste-based discrimination happens in the U.S. too. A new Seattle ordinance galvanizes the South Asian community

Published March 5, 2023 7:00AM (EST)

Thenmozhi Soundararajan (D Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Thenmozhi Soundararajan (D Dipasupil/Getty Images)

After Seattle officially became the first U.S. city to ban discrimination based on caste last week, the city council received praise — and also threats — from South Asians both in the United States and elsewhere.

Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who wrote the legislation and has served on the Seattle city council since 2014, worked alongside progressive groups like API Chaya, Equality Labs, Ambedkar Association of North America and several other grassroots organizations to bring about the historic win.

While many non-Hindu and non-Asian Americans have heard of the caste system, it's likely very few understand it. Caste is one of the oldest most insidious forms of social discrimination in South Asia. It dates back more than 3,000 years, and by longstanding tradition divides Hindu society into strict hierarchies from birth. While the system originated in ancient India and has roots in Hinduism, the modern form developed under Muslim and British rule and its effects can be seen in almost every South Asian country and religious community. After India gained independence in 1947, its new constitution formally banned caste discrimination, but prejudice in South Asian diaspora communities is far from gone.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit rights activist and the executive director of Equality Labs, helped create the ordinance and says that caste negatively affects more than 1.9 billion people worldwide and at least 5.7 million Americans of South Asian descent. 

Dalits — a group previously derogatorily referred to as "untouchables" or "outcasts" — have endured caste discrimination across the subcontinent for centuries. Hours before the vote, several South Asian Dalits stood in line to share their stories with council members.

"This win is very historical and personal to me," Prem Pariyar, a Nepali Dalit activist who worked with the groups involved, told Salon. "Our ancestors have been struggling. We have been suffering from caste trauma. So this is very, very personal to me. I'm very emotional."

"In Nepal, my family was brutally attacked by dominant-caste people. I have been experiencing caste discrimination since my childhood," Pariyar reflected. He came to the United States in 2015 seeking a better life, but was surprised when he saw just how ingrained casteism was in South Asian-American communities as well.

"I did not expect to be discriminated against here in the United States," he said. "But it is common, I found. It's common in the workplace, community get-togethers, house parties, festival celebrations. I was very surprised to see that, and it was very embarrassing. Even within the Nepali diaspora there are different caste-based organizations who are agitated when they have to include caste-oppressed people."

The ordinance passed by Seattle last week comes after similar bans on caste bias at various U.S. universities in recent years. 

Sawant, who identifies as a socialist, has acknowledged her own personal privilege, noting that she grew up in an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin household in India and witnessed caste discrimination first-hand.

The Seattle measure has already been opposed by some Hindu American groups, who say a ban is unnecessary as federal law already prohibits similar discrimination. In an open letter to The Seattle Times, Suhag A. Shukla, executive director and co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, said that the ordinance answered the question of caste discrimination "incorrectly."

Some Hindu groups are pushing back against the Seattle ordinance with polite letters saying it's unnecessary. But there are also the death threats and angry tweets.

"In practice, Seattle is now singling out specific communities as having such a unique form of prejudice that there should be a new protected category to police just them," Shukla wrote. "The way to address incidents of alleged caste discrimination is to use existing, facially neutral protected categories such as ancestry. Even with no agreed upon definition or single factor that is associated with it, what is caste if not a person's ancestry?" 

The Washington, D.C.-based foundation has also argued that since Indian Americans are less than 2 percent of Washington state's population, there is little evidence of any widespread discrimination based on caste.

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But the Seattle City Council is not the first group to notice the pervasive problem of casteism in America. 

Last August, Tanuja Gupta, a Google employee of 10 years, spoke out against the company in an interview with The New Yorker, saying that Google managers had mishandled matters of caste-based discrimination in the workplace.

Gupta was a senior manager at Google News who hosted Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) office hours every week, and said multiple employees came to her office to report that they had faced discrimination when trying to talk about caste in the workplace.

"The first conversations I had were with people who felt that they were being discriminated against for even raising this topic," she told the New Yorker. "I think that's a form of discrimination in and of itself — where you can talk about some matters related to DEI but not others. Then you had some other folks who faced it directly because of being caste oppressed."

Gupta added that the first step in discrimination was denial. She explained that, in itself, to claim that caste "doesn't even exist" is a form of discrimination. "If you replace the denial of caste discrimination with the denial of the Holocaust or something like that, it instantly clicks where other people start to realize, 'Oh, something's wrong if people are denying this,'" she explained.

"If you're not attuned to what the issue is, you won't even realize what's happening," she explained. "Asking things like 'What's your last name? I'm not familiar with it.' Then, when the manager hears that last name, they're, like, 'Oh, so you're from this caste — no wonder you have these leadership skills.'"

Many South Asians echoed these sentiments after the decision from Seattle was announced, arguing that the Hindu American Foundation has no reason to be upset if it is truly interested in equality. "If you are firmly against Caste discrimination, then why are you sad about the Seattle council ordinance banning caste discrimination and casteism?" one user wrote on Twitter. 

Soundararajan, has spent over 10 years working alongside racial, gender and queer justice organizations and unions on caste equity in the city. This work laid the foundation to pass the ordinance. She says that caste-based discrimination is absolutely prevalent in the United States, and that it is a worker's rights issue. 

"When the manager hears that last name, they might say, 'Oh, so you're from this caste — no wonder you have these leadership skills.'"

"The data and the personal stories that were shared by hundreds of caste oppressed workers across many different industries, from restaurant workers to people that were survivors of domestic violence, to people who were domestic workers, to tech workers, shows caste is a workers rights issue," Soundararajan said. "It's a gender justice issue, it's a racial justice issue. and All those things needed to be brought to bear."

The ordinance "is not about equity in an abstract sense," she explains. "It's about fundamental civil rights and human rights and labor rights violations occurring to caste oppressed communities, which is why you don't need to be an expert in caste to understand that there are severe liabilities going on."

"As a group that has been driving the process towards caste equity across the country, we've had close to 40 wins so far," she says. "This was our most major win. So it's like, first Seattle, now the nation."

Soundararajan says supporters of the ordinance were flooded with calls last week from people all over the country who now want to add caste as a protected category because "they're seeing how severe it is." She says people are alarmed that right-wing foreign entities like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are now attempting to weigh in on issues related to American citizens and civil rights. 

"That level of foreign interference is extremely disturbing, especially since these are the people that are responsible for pogroms and rapes and lynchings," she says. (Last fall, 11 men convicted of rape in Gujarat, India, were greeted with garlands at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad office after their release).

"It shows you how much we need these protections because our opponents are building and bringing in international violent actors to harm us," she explains. "And that's very, very scary."

Kapil Mishra, a right-wing Indian politician who instigated the New Delhi riots in 2020 (and said he would "do it again if required"), disparaged the historic win on Twitter:

"Hindu diaspora in USA is under attack," he wrote. "False narratives are being used against Hindus and Seattle is just a beginning," he wrote. "It seems attempts are being made to malign a community that is already the target of prejudice. We need to stand strong with Hindus in USA."

In her interview with The New Yorker last year, Gupta expressed that arguments like Mishra's are used to shut down any productive conversations regarding caste privilege. Many South Asian-Americans, who may also be victims of white racism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination, are reluctant to admit that they also hold privilege in certain spaces or that they may discriminate against caste-oppressed people. "It's so absurd to me," she said. "If you think about LGBTQ rights, when you have a talk about those kinds of rights, that is not saying you're inherently anti-Christian... The opposite of caste is not religion."

"You don't get to claim or hijack one form of discrimination to perpetuate another form," she added. 

Gupta said that she asked Soundararajan, the founder of April's Dalit History Month, to come talk to the news team about matters of caste and discrimination, specifically caste representation in the newsroom.

"Two days before the talk, which is part of a larger DEI programming series that I ran for the team, a number of emails got sent to my VP, to the head of HR, to our chief diversity officer, to our CEO directly, claiming that the talk was creating a hostile workplace, that people felt unsafe, that the speaker was not qualified to speak on the topic, and several other allegations," Gupta told the New Yorker. "The talk got postponed. That was the term that was used."

Gupta said she was ultimately given an "ultimatum" to leave Google following the incident, alleging that caste-oppressed people at Google were even more frightened to speak up after that.

Soundararajan says that inflammatory comments from Hindu nationalists were entirely expected after their win in Seattle. "We faced enormous amounts of disinformation against women researchers and leaders in Equality Labs. People called us terrorists, they called us fake Dalits," she said. "Over and over again in their testimonies, they said that we falsified our data and that we're not a real organization. They called us an anti-Hindu organization, even though we have staff that are Hindu and we're interfaith, inter-caste and multiracial."

"People called us terrorists, they called us fake Dalits. Over and over again in their testimonies, they said that we falsified our data and that we're not a real organization or that we're an anti-Hindu organization."

"You really see in this moment what we're up against, because the opponents were terrifying," she reflects. "We faced rape threats, death threats and disinformation. Half of the testimonies of the opposing side were trying to smear and attack the women and the leaders of Equality Labs. Yet we had 200 organizations that signed on. We had a coalition of close to 30 caste-oppressed civil rights organizations that represented hundreds and thousands of Dalits who stood for this issue."

"It's not just about the white nationalists attacking our communities, it's also about the way religious ethnic-nationalisms in our homelands are breaking us apart," she explains. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in India, many of the country's religious minorities — as well as secular progressives within the Hindu majority — have expressed concern that ethno-nationalism is on the rise, and that India's secular ethos is at stake. Modi belongs to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and was a former member of its allied paramilitary organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has previously come under fire for casteism.

Soundararajan says, however, that she feels "deep empathy" for her opponents who have not yet come to terms with their caste-based privilege. 

"For dominant caste people, their nervous systems have been trained for centuries to view, at a survival level, the threat of what happens when a Dalit person meets them at the table with equity," she explains. "But that discomfort, that fragility, has many ways it can be addressed. You can unlearn with other privileged people who are really looking with clear eyes in terms of the wounds of history." 

But that discomfort and fragility should not stop the flow of progress, Soundararajan argues. "Too often we've had to wait for freedom because of the fragility of the privileged. This is a situation where we're saying absolutely not. And there are so many more of us in the South Asian community who are united to choose freedom, to choose love and to choose healing than those that want to linger in bigotry." 

"I don't fault people for not knowing the intricacies of caste discrimination. I fault people for not wanting to learn about it," Gupta told The New Yorker last year. "Willfully not wanting to learn more about certain topics when you hear that people are being discriminated against, choosing not to do anything about it, that is a problem. ... The real harm is when people are denied a voice, when they cannot speak about their own working conditions and the harm that they have faced socioeconomically. That is real harm compared with being offended because your own power is threatened and you're feeling a little bit more fragile but you can't point to actual harm that's been done to you."

Those offended by the Seattle City Council decision have threatened to pursue litigation, Soundararajan says. "I really hope that they find better uses for their resources than litigation, because the reality is that the culture war has already been won by Dalits," she explains. "Caste is here in the United States. The data and the stories are here. We can't deny it. And South Asians themselves are more and more comfortable dealing with ways to have caste equity, acknowledgment in their workplaces and religious institutions and community organizations. So the generation that is coming up around these political struggles already understand that we can't be ourselves if we're not centering caste-oppressed people."

Soundararajan says she's hopeful for the future, because more people in the South Asian community in the U.S. are willing to reckon with historical violence. "We can make a path towards reconciliation and healing," she says. "That kind of deep, honest dialogue comes from breaking bread. People are coming out of the closet everywhere around the world. And this win is going to galvanize the caste abolition movement globally, and rightfully so."

Healing begins with banning caste, Soundararajan argues "because you have to remedy the discrimination, but then we can begin the path towards reconciliation." 

"This is the first time for many people to be in a space where so many people are openly Dalit," she said. "So many people are owning their privilege and standing and facing the violence side by side with their Dalit brothers and sisters. It's incredible — it shows you that the way to fight disinformation and bigotry is really through love. That's really from the heartbeat of the Dalit feminist intersectional vision."

*  *  *

Almost a decade after arriving in the U.S. from Nepal, Pariyar says he feels a profound sense of pride after this victory.

"In the beginning I thought I was the only one" facing discrimination, he said. "But at the Seattle City Council meeting, hundreds of people showed up. I felt empowered. We have historical trauma, we have intergenerational trauma. Now, our coming generations — this gave us hope that they will not be discriminated against based on our caste identity."

Now, he says, if he faces caste-based discrimination in the workplace, there are specific reporting procedures to follow, whereas before many employers were unaware of this specific form of discrimination. "This policy is opening eyes for everyone," he said. "This is a landmark policy. Our ancestors and coming generations will remember Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the office staff and organizers who were involved in this policy." 

"We don't want to be isolated," Pariyar concludes. "We don't want to be left out from the mainstream. We deserve our dignity — and this is our fight for dignity."

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

MORE FROM Samaa Khullar

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Caste Caste Discrimination Dalit Equality Labs Hinduism India Kshama Sawant Nepal Reporting Seattle