Caste capital and myth of merit: What stops Dalits from accessing western education

Capital manifests in its most embodied form at the stage of even wanting to desire western education. To dream of studying, to believe, is a luxury for marginalised students.
Dalit students face several hurdles when it comes to securing admission in western universities.
Dalit students face several hurdles when it comes to securing admission in western universities.

Another round of admissions to graduate programs in the United States is coming to an end. As a Dalit queer doctoral student of anthropology at an American university, I have supported aspiring students from Dalit and Adivasi communities to navigate the maze of PhD admissions in the United States. Also, as a Fulbright scholar who pursued a Master of Laws (LLM) in a US university, I have assisted students to apply for scholarships and admissions to LLM programs in the US. Like Sumit Samos, a Dalit scholar and artist who has written about his time at Oxford, I encountered the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, in an American university, a setting with a disproportionate number of Brahmin students. Through Bourdieu, I was able to articulate and lay down the forms of capital; economic (money), social (networks), and cultural (embodied: like accent, taste, and feeling confident; and symbolic: like degree certificates); required to secure admissions to US universities and the need to distribute these fairly.

Inspired by Bourdieu, on September 20, 2022, I tweeted that the oppressor caste scholars have disproportionate access when it comes to amassing forms of capital and pointed out the need to distribute that access in a just manner. The tweet was followed by comments requesting examples and elaboration on how to do distributive justice in academia. In what follows, I delineate the forms of capital that are required to apply to US universities, its unequal distribution, and the need for its just distribution.        

An applicant needs economic capital in the form of money to the tune of $1000-$2000 (approx Rs 1-2 lakh) to apply to 5-10 graduate programs in the US, which is roughly the average annual income in India estimated at Rs 1.5 lakh in 2022. The money to apply includes application fees paid to universities, fees paid for English proficiency tests like TOEFL, and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), fees to generate a report for these exams for each university, and classes and preparatory material for these exams. While there’s a move to challenge the English proficiency requirement in US universities for students from India and other places where English is a language of instruction, many students do not get a waiver and are forced to take the test and pay to have the scores sent to schools. Similarly, though the GRE is made optional in many social sciences and humanities programs, it is still considered a crucial requirement. It is not rare that students enrol for coaching for these exams even though access to preparatory material is democratised to an extent by easy online access to these materials.  Students are forced to take these exams multiple times if the score is insufficient. These standardised tests only test how good you are at these tests and your score could suffer if you are not suited to this specific mode of test-taking which does not testify to your skills for graduate education. The most crucial economic capital is of course the enormous tuition fee which is a lesser concern for PhD students with adequate funding (of which there are limited programs) but a big concern for unfunded masters programs. To pay for all this, many students from Dalit and Adivasi communities are forced to take recourse to crowd-sourcing websites to raise funds for their education. The success of such efforts is in turn dependent on the access to social networks one has.    

Social capital in the form of social networks plays a key role in getting reference letters, a key prerequisite for US admissions. All universities require 3-4 letters of recommendation from faculty members at your previous university and/or senior staff you have worked with at your previous jobs. Most Dalit and Adivasi students I have worked with struggle to find suitable references from people who know their work intimately. Many classes in Indian universities are large and students from marginalised communities seldom participate actively owing to the hostile nature of classrooms. This reality was highlighted once again in the institutional murder of Darshan Solanki at IIT Bombay. It is difficult to forge relations with teachers under these circumstances and marginalised students lose out on getting a good reference letter. Social networks also come in handy while seeking people to review your application material which includes a statement of purpose, resume, and a writing sample. From both my personal experience while applying and seeing students write to me for assistance, I have noticed that students from marginalised communities are reluctant to seek help or follow up on requests for assistance for fear of disturbing someone or taking up too much space. On the other hand, students from privileged backgrounds seek support with a sense of entitlement. I hope this sense of entitlement is enabled for marginalised students as well. I have received requests for assistance two days before the application deadline from oppressor caste students asking me to respond urgently while their counterparts from marginalised backgrounds write to me reluctantly, apologising profusely for taking my time, well in advance of the deadline.     

In the above tweet, I reflected on a moment of hostility in the educational institution I attended and I wrote the following poem to reflect on a similar hostility and the ways in which lack of embodied capital in the form of confidence occurs:

Caste is a bright pink school diary covered in plastic to keep the rain away

Caste is two letters in a brightly lit classroom as the chalk dust streams through the morning sun

s. c.

Caste is the cheeee of a classmate

Caste is knowing you are something bad without knowing what it is

Caste is the humiliation originating just below the belly button and traversing the  body

Dignity is the stutter the afterthought the second-guessing

The reluctance, second-guessing, and apologising profusely as opposed to the entitled demands from some students suggest the presence of an embodied cultural capital among students from privileged backgrounds. Embodied cultural capital is also present in age where I notice that privileged students are younger, in their 20s as opposed to students from a marginalised background often in their 30s while applying for graduate programs. The former also benefit from inter-generational access to life in western universities through stories and visits from uncles and cousins who are/were already at these universities while students from Dalit Adivasi communities, like me, are the first in their families to study abroad. Cultural capital is also necessary in the form of degrees from top universities in India. While this has been enabled to an extent by way of affirmative action in the form of reservations in India, the current attack on reservations is an attempt to undo this access. Above all,  capital manifests in its most embodied form at the stage of even wanting to desire western education. To dream of studying, to believe, is a luxury for marginalised students. For instance, many of my classmates from law school went on to pursue higher education in the west soon after graduation while I could think of it only a decade after my graduation. My most important task, in addition to democratising access to information while assisting students from a marginalised community, is to be their ardent cheerleader, making them believe that they can achieve what they set out to achieve.

Merit, of course, is the response to the claims I have made here. Despite the myth of merit being destroyed by many scholars, unequal access to western education is justified based on people’s inherent merit as opposed to those who don’t have it without paying attention to the gross inequality in the distribution of all forms of capital. Capital, in the Indian context, is always sutured with caste and hence a redistribution of capital is always a project of the annihilation of caste as well. Many worthy initiatives are trying to address this caste-capital inequality.

CEDE your capital’ is doing commendable work in enabling access to legal education. Professor Dilip Mandal, commenting on an increasing (though disproportionately low) number of Dalit and Adivasi students opting to study in the West has highlighted other such initiatives like the Nalanda Academy and Ekalavya Foundation. As students gear towards applying for universities in the next application cycle, I hope that the distribution of various forms of capital continues to become fairer and equal.

*S.C. is the abbreviation for ‘scheduled castes’, a constitutionally recognized group of marginalised castes, politically referred to as Dalits which includes formerly considered as untouchable castes.  

*Signifies a form of exclamation conveying disgust.

Gowthaman Ranganathan is a graduate student in sociocultural anthropology at Brandeis University. Views expressed are the author's own.

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