Caste is an integral part of Hindu society and practices. But does your caste identity have a bearing on your experience or how you are perceived by others even outside India?
According to a recent survey, caste discrimination is prevalent in the United States of America among the South Asian immigrant community - across people from various countries and those who practice different religions.
A survey conducted by Equality Labs titled ‘Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans’ showed that of the 1,500 respondents, 52% of Dalits and 25% of Shudras were worried about their caste being ‘outed’, as they could end up facing rejection from public and religious spaces, bullying and more. In contrast, only 1% of Brahmins were worried about their caste being ‘outed’.
TR, a parent who responded to the survey, said that her child was secluded from other children when the mother of another child discovered that they were Dalit. “Word that my family was Dalit spread like wildfire, my child became secluded from other Caste Hindu children. It angered me and it broke my heart that my child had to face the feeling of being an outcaste in the 21st century in the United States!”
Many such parents have reported that their children have been treated differently in schools and feel alienated.
In what ways does caste discrimination manifest?
As per the study, caste discrimination exists throughout a person’s education - from K-12 to higher education. 40% of Dalit diaspora reported that they faced discrimination in schools.
This situation only escalates when one moves towards higher education, as more people move to the US to pursue their degrees. Dalit students are discriminated against by fellow students when it comes to housing, networking circles and even food preferences. The situation worsens for diaspora at the workplace, where a whopping 67% of Dalits and 12% of Shudras reported that they faced discrimination.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are no mechanisms to address and fix the same at workplaces in the US. It is important to note that caste discrimination is prevalent not only among Indians, but people from countries like Sri Lanka, Fiji, Maldives, Kenya, Tanzania and more.
It also takes into account not only casteism practiced in Hinduism, but also in other religions which have imbibed caste.
It’s no surprise that casteism is practiced in places of worship. 40% of Dalits, 14% Shudras and 7% of Vaishyas were made to feel unwelcome at their places of worship, which include temples, gurudwaras, churches and mosques.
They have also actively been denied positions of leadership in places of worship.
“The Punjabi community doesn’t include lower Caste Chamars (Dalits) in any of their social activities. Also when a lady from a lower Caste ran for public office, people actively discouraged other voters from voting for her because she was Chamar…” said KN, one of the respondents.
“Everything is savarna (“upper” Caste) - dominant. Everything everyone knows about South Asian culture is savarna. So being from a Muslim Adivasi background, the erasure of my experience is something I am very used to. Erasure is just something I deal with,” said SS.
With reference to education, the survey found that more Dalits had completed graduate school but still had the lowest household incomes, where 32% of Dalits actually earn less than $24,999 per year. It is also important to note that Dalits are the highest number of first-generation immigrants at 17%, as compared to 5% of Brahmins.
Vegetarianism is intrinsically linked to caste, as opposed to a personal preference in a lot of cases. Vegetarianism is associated with 'purity' and non-vegetarianism with 'pollution', and even untouchability. This often stems from traditionally assigned work roles, where Dalits and Shudras have been relegated to jobs where they had to handle animal carcasses and animal-based products.
The study found that both caste and religion were major factors in the number of vegetarians there were. DS, one of the respondents, said that this is reinforced during potlucks and festivals, where she feels nervous about what she cooks.
“The “upper” Caste folks may ostracize me for bringing non-vegetarian dishes on their “auspicious” day. One time, I cooked a chicken curry and they set my dish aside, all the way on the other side of the table, in a corner and labeled it “NONVEGETARIAN” in large letters. No one ate my curry and avoided me the whole night. I go to the parties for my kids so they won’t be isolated from their friends but I’d really rather not go altogether and I am considering that option more and more.”
When it came to verbal abuse and being subject to casteist slurs, 59% of Dalits and 30% of Shudras who were respondents to the survey said that they were subjected to such insults, as compared to 5% and 9% of Vaishyas and Brahmins.
Furthermore, only the Dalits said that they had been subjected to physical abuse as well in the US - 26% of Dalits said that they faced physical assault in the country on the basis of caste.
“In graduate school, an “upper” Caste man, on finding out that I was one of the “lower” Castes, tried to tell me that I was probably a “slut” because of that and tried to sexually misbehave with me,” one of the respondents said.