(This piece was originally published in the South Seattle Emerald and is republished with permission.)
“It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
On Jan. 24, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduced first-in-the-nation legislation for the City to ban caste-based discrimination. South Asian American groups, like AANA (Ambedkar Association of North America), AIC (Ambedkar International Center), Ambedkar King Study Circle, and Equality Labs, who represent the small, but growing, caste-oppressed community, have been working hard to build public support for the successful passing of this legislation. However, they faced a challenge when attempting to describe the problem to Americans.
The topic of caste may seem intimidating, so what I present here is a brief profile of the beneficiaries and guardians of this evil system. It is not easy to see us as separate from our casteism, because it is so deeply embedded in our culture and moral constructs. Caste supremacy is, after all, thousands of years older than white supremacy.
South Asians may all seem alike to American eyes, but we are hardly a monolith: We are divided by caste in more ways than any other people on the face of this earth. We are divided and placed in a hierarchy of caste. As someone who spent about half a century among the people at the top of this social pyramid, I can confirm widespread casteism in our community even here in the USA. After all, I have access to the collective minds of my community and experience of a casteist upbringing in India to see those invisible markers of caste that often puzzle non-South Asians. But first you should understand what I mean by caste.
To paraphrase what the foremost scholar on this topic and architect of the Indian constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar explained in his various writings, “Caste in India means artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through the custom of endogamy (forcing to marry within caste).” It is not a multicultural collection of different communities or tribes. It is a system of graded inequality. These units are explicitly placed in anti-social and hierarchical relationships with each other with an “ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt” — contempt for the working-class castes and undue reverence for the ruling-class caste (also called dominant castes or oppressor castes).
A casteist mind is opposed to equality, liberty, and fraternity. It is happy with just finding a place in the upper layers of the social pyramid. Indeed, it considers social hierarchy sacrosanct and divine. It thus resists the development of any fellow feeling towards those around or at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid.
Caste logic is about hierarchy based on labor, looking down on those doing physical labor or even those associated with them as “impures” capable of defiling the “purity” of others. A casteist mind is also trained to perceive oppressed people as our class enemy, as someone who will demand their fair share someday. When someone from a working-class caste manages to rise as a colleague in their workplace, there is a deep-seated urge among the dominant castes to think of it as unmeritocratic and undeserving. The lack of any structure in place to address caste-based harassment and discrimination further embolden these practices.
There are over 4 million South Asians in the USA, mostly concentrated in several metropolitan areas like Seattle (around 160,000). Close to 90% would, like me, belong to a dominant caste. In our homeland, we form only 10% of the population but control 70% of material resources and have disproportionately high control of social and cultural narratives. This forms our socioeconomic capital that gave us first-mover advantage in America several decades ago.
Many decades of unchallenged dominance in the South Asian diaspora allowed people from dominant castes to infuse many American institutions with casteism or normalize casteism in the minds of Americans.
Given that South Asians have a disproportionately stronger voice in the American ruling class, it will surely affect how this society functions. This unchecked spread of casteism can create more social problems in American society. We have already seen resistance to affirmative action for the Black community that uses the same “merit” trope I have seen my people use against the caste oppressed in India.
Many practices created to maintain this system are presented to American eyes as cute cultural practices like arranged marriages, vegetarianism, or threading ceremonies of boys from dominant castes. Like many white supremacist rituals, when looked at in isolation, they may appear harmless. However, they carry historical systems of caste within them.
Cultural practices also obscure the prejudices of labor and wealth that tie caste to class in complicated but important ways. Castes are enclosed classes, as Dr. Ambedkar explained, enclosed by endogamy. Thus the privilege and wealth earned by its members are closed off to others. The “family connection” nepotism network is inaccessible to those outside, and we are programmed to hold opportunities for our own kith and kin.
When someone tries to examine us on the subject of caste, it troubles us that all the convenient lies we have been collectively telling in this country for decades are now about to be exposed.
South Asians benefit from the mythical narrative that, like other working-class immigrants, we are the underdogs but managed to succeed in this “fair” society. This narrative has been readily consumed by the anti-Black establishment here and used to present us as a model minority.
The myth conveniently hides the fact that we are beneficiaries of a faraway oppressive system who emigrated to look for greener pastures in another oppressive system. It hides the fact that many South Asians who came here did so not based on their merit but on others’ exploitation and elimination from competition in our homeland. Our status as a model minority is not so “model” after all.
The other big lie is that somehow our minds got cleansed of casteism when we crossed a few oceans. Just because dominant-caste South Asians leave casteist structures and institutions behind does not mean, collectively, we do not try to recreate some of these structures in our new homelands, especially given how rewarding these structures have been in our lives.
What South Asian Americans do or say to each other in private is often different from what they acknowledge in front of others in public. For example, while caste pride is often visibly flashed within the community, “castelessness” is usually proclaimed to outsiders.
Why this dual nature? Because, for dominant castes, the caste system brings social and financial wealth within the community. But caste stands for inequality and segregation and is frowned upon if you want to pretend to be progressive outside the community and reap minority benefits. Thus the dual nature allows us to have our cake and eat it too.
Not everyone is interested in doing the dirty job of defending caste publicly. So most of us either downplay it, deny it, or just stay silent about it. The ugly work of organizing some loudmouths is outsourced to organizations that claim victimhood as a minority every time the hegemony of dominant castes is disturbed by the scrutiny of American institutions. Under the pretext of fighting for justice, they fight to protect the impunity of casteist South Asians to discriminate against people from their own ethnicity. They take advantage of the ignorance among Americans and create fluffy dilemmas that allow politicians to chicken out of taking steps to protect people from oppressed castes.
For those of us from dominant castes, coming to a new society gave us a little window into breaking free from surviving on the exploitative structure of caste. Instead, we chose to become stooges of racists to get wealthy from the racist structures of this nation. This behavior and the resulting anti-Blackness is a product of the adaptation of a casteist mindset in a racist society. What else can explain why we could not build fellow feelings for the Black community whose struggles for civil rights gave us equality in this rich society?
There are no incentives to progress as a community when it comes to unlearning caste. On the contrary, for people of dominant caste there are many incentives to preserve it.
The successful passing of an ordinance in the City of Seattle to make caste discrimination illegal will be a small but significant step to show that American society can see caste, and that it will stand for justice and equality for its victims.
Putting their careers at risk, many caste-oppressed South Asians have come out publicly to demand justice and protection for their community. From another viewpoint, they have taken bold steps to check the rise of an ideology in America that is opposed to “equality, liberty and fraternity.” They have put an immense amount of faith in the people of Seattle. This is an important historical moment for justice in America and time for residents of Seattle to voice their support by writing or calling Seattle City Council to pass the anti-caste discrimination ordinance.
Now it is your time to act!
Dedicated to Lornet Turnbull, friend, mentor, and humanist!