~ By Ms. Kanmani Duraikannan, High School Student, Delaware, USA
United States Federal laws prohibit discrimination based on a person’s national origin, race, color, religion, disability, sex, and familial status. Even with these protections, many of the people who fall under these categories are frequently discriminated against. So how are people facing discrimination based on caste supposed to cope? They have no real legal protection.
As a first-generation South Indian American, I have never had to truly worry about casteism. I’ve been hyper-aware of my ethnicity and everything that made me different from my white peers. I’ve been aware of the cultural differences between North and South Indians. I’ve always known that casteism is a thing but I haven’t ever known it’s place in American culture. Others aren’t so lucky.
For our readers of other races, ethnicities, and cultures, caste is a more than 2,000 year old social hierarchy stemming from vedic religion, the precursor to hinduism. According to the organization, Ambedkar King Study Circle (AKSC), “caste is a hierarchical category based on pre-set social identities of birth and ancestry or descent. In its historical origins, caste has a close relation to occupation and exploitation.” There are 4 main categories of castes called Varnas. At the top of the hierarchy are the Brahmins who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma’s head. Then come the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third group is the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom are the Shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet and did all the menial jobs. Outside of this Hindu caste system are the achhoots – the Dalits or those who were treated as “untouchables.” I’d like to stress that none of these castes are based in reality and they were just used as a method to oppress certain people.
Life for Shudras and Dalits is unbearable and the caste system is one of the ugly parts of Hinduism. According to Ambedkar King Study Circle, “The complex of trauma, humiliation, devaluation of self-worth, and perpetuation of caste stereotypes (especially against Dalits) – has severe impacts on workplace conditions, the right to dignity and commitment to diversity as a bulwark of modern organizations.” India is pervaded by disgusting acts of caste discrimination but America is supposed to be different. People migrate here for new opportunities, fresh starts, and a chance at a new life. The sad truth is America’s situation is not so different.
California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing impleaded Cisco and two of its employees for allegedly discriminating against an Indian engineer because he was from a lower caste (specifically Dalit) than them. According to the lawsuit, the engineer was allegedly “expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where [he] held the lowest status within the team and, as a result, received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment.” When the engineer opposed the treatment, they allegedly “retaliated against him” by reducing his role on the team, isolating him from colleagues, and giving him assignments that were “impossible to complete under the circumstances.” The lawsuit also put Cisco under fire for failing to take action even after numerous investigations.
Cisco said it would “vigorously defend itself” and in a statement, it said “Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all…We have robust processes to report and investigate concerns raised by employees which were followed in this case dating back to 2016, and have determined we were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies.”
Discriminating on the basis of caste is not inclusivity and it should never be defined as such. We need laws to protect our people because equality is a human right.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has led many of us to become aware of the inhumane, unethical treatment of African Americans. Many of us have realized that we have an obligation to fight for Black people, and so we have. Let’s fight against caste discrimination. Let’s fight for our own people as well.
Organizations such as Ambedkar King Study Circle (AKSC) and Equality Labs (EQL) are working to bring awareness to the issue. AKSC website is riddled with emotional testimonies and hard facts. In one such testimony from A.G Ramya from Cupertino, CA. it states, “When I took my daughter to music class, the teacher explained that only certain sects of people have the ability to learn master music and then proceeded to inquire about our caste.”
Furthermore, We should personally work to bring attention to caste discrimination in the US ourselves, as the average American is not even aware of it. Bring it up in conversations when given the chance. Unlearn your own prejudices and educate your friends and family. in order to gain traction and incite change. Have an idea or thought? Voice it! Use your voice to help those who can’t. It can make a world of difference.