The following testimonies were received in response to Ambedkar King Study Circle’s call to record and share individuals’ experiences of casteist practices. They document the feelings of discomfort, exclusion, shock, pain, and humiliation experienced by those that are subjected to various casteist practices at school, at the workplace, in their neighborhood, at social gatherings, and in their lives as parents.
These anecdotes offer snapshots of the lives of Indian immigrants in American society, a context where the markers of caste and class might be less obvious than in India where the ways in which caste identity shapes people’s social and cultural lives are easy to spot and read. What this relative invisibility in the US context leads to, however, is what we see in these stories: the narrators are repeatedly, openly and incessantly prodded and interrogated by their Savarna co-workers, neighbors, classmates, friends, etc. about what they eat, what they cook at home, what they wear, what dialect they speak, where they come from, where they went to school, who and how they worship, and so on. These efforts stop only after the narrator’s caste identity has been established, and the stories then go on to illustrate the changes in Savarna behavior once caste identity is decoded as being so-called “lower caste”- the segregation, exclusion and discrimination that result as the so-called “upper castes” close ranks and assert their privilege.
What these stories offer to Dalit and Bahujan readers are perhaps moments of recognition, understanding, and of solidarity with others that are also subjected to casteist practices. What this set of stories offers its Savarna readers is an accidental self-portrait, a document of one’s own participation in all the ugliness of casteist discrimination and inequality. For everyone, we hope that these stories become a point of departure in practicing solidarity with those that are oppressed by caste, and a commitment to allyship in dismantling caste.
This is a first set of testimonies and more are to be published. We will publish in multiple rounds owing to resources required to edit and format the testimonies. To protect the anonymity of our respondees, we are using pseudonyms in the statements below.Misrepresentation of Indian culture as a result of Savarna dominance
I work in Information and Technology. I am the only member of Indian nationality in my team. Often, I used to have lunch with my non-Indian colleagues. Most of my non-Indian colleagues believed that most Indians are vegetarians. I was shocked by this untrue generalization and explained to them that vegetarianism is a common habit only amongst the so-called ‘upper caste’ Hindus. I also pointed out that the Indian diaspora, especially in the techonology sector, is disproportionately populated by the upper-caste Hindus. One of my non-Indian colleagues asked, “oh, does that mean upper-caste people are smarter, and that is why there are more of them here?” I had to then explain to him how the caste system oppresses the so-called ‘lower caste’ people and opens up several lucrative opportunities for the so-called ‘upper caste’ Hinuds for thousands of years. Through these exchanges, I could totally see how most of the non-Indians have a very distorted understading of actual implications of the caste system.
Swathi R, Palo Alto, CA
Varnishing syncretic art forms to co-opt them for Hindu tradition
The tradition of Kathak dance has both Hindu & Muslim cultural elements, but while I was a student at a prominent school for Kathak dance in North America, which was under the management of Savarna women, I noticed that 1. The teaching of Kathak was attached to the teaching of aspects of Vedic Brahminism such as learning to chant ‘sholkas’ or verses in Sanskrit. This practice is extraneous to Kathak but was nevertheless required of all students. The teacher (of non-Indian descent) expressed surprise that a student didn’t know shlokas, as if all Indians were Hindus, or that all Hindu parents teach their children shlokas! 2. The manner of the teaching of Hindu culture in this school whitewashes the stories to strip them of their social and political contexts. For instance, the story of Drona and Ekalavya was taught as an example of the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ and of the student’s absolute obedience to the teacher. It was however never mentioned that Drona was from the so-called ‘upper caste’ community while Ekalavya was a tribal youth, and that Drona asked Ekalavya to cut off his thumb in the place of teacher’s fees so that he wouldn’t outshine Drona’s other student, Prince Arjuna, whose bow and arrow skils were inferior to that of Ekalavya’s.
Sripriya Ramanujam, New York, NY
Segregation and Exclusion because of Caste Identity
Casteism is even more traumatic when practiced casually with no acknowledgement of its violence
My wife and I experienced this trauma on many occasions. Once, we were in a social party in Houston where we met a couple that were recent acquaintances of ours. They spoke the same Indian language and were from the same Indian state. Suddenly, the lady of the couple asked my wife ‘what is your caste’. We had to tell them. Since then they slowly withdrew from us. It is painful to face discrimination by caste.
On another occasion, we had a different kind of encounter: A mangal sutra is worn by married Hindu women in India, and after seeing ours, a lady told us that this kinda design will be put on only by lower caste women in India. This was very hurtful.
I have heard Indian folks working in the USA speak very poorly about so-called “”lower castes””. Sometimes it is very scary to express your identity during such conversations and talk against them.”
A Marimuthu, Houston, TX.
Casteist Practices in My Community
I recall a conversation with my colleague regarding casteist practices in their community. During the course of conversation, I learned that he is planning to attend a business meetup that weekend but he explained that I cannot attend it or be a part of their WhatsApp group as I am not from the same community. He further elaborated that they all worship the same God and marry within the community and ostracize anybody that defies and marries outside their community.
Madhivanan Durai, Dallas,TX
Music is for the so-called Upper Caste!
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.
A.G Ramya, Cupertino, CA.
Separation in the residential community
We, 3-4 Indian families, lived in the same condominium community. One family lives beside my house, the second family lives opposite my house and the third family lives 2 blocks away. When we initially moved here, we visited each one’s house in the first month with some sweets (as a friendly gesture in the Indian tradition), introduced ourselves, discussed their kids’ names and ours. Our kids’ names are Christian names and only later did we realize that they recognized our caste from our kids’ names. They were quite normal at that point of time, and then we also invited them to visit our home to get to know each other better.
It’s been almost 2 years since then, and no one has visited us yet, so sad. The other three families get together frequently, go out for family picnics, and even for new year parties. We were never invited and excluded somehow. We learn about their parties and status etc., only through social media.
J Alex, Chicago, IL.
Math/Science Olympiads are Not for so-called Lower Castes
When I went to Cupertino schools to inquire about Math and Science Olympiad teams, I found that most of these were dominated by brahmins. These brahmins are well-established, have close rapport with teachers and run the show disguised as volunteers. They do not allow ‘others’ i.e. non-brahmins proper access to the resources like practice kits and practice tests.
They strategically form teams where events requiring more work are assigned to non-brahmins whereas they become part of events that do not require much work. They also place their kids in teams that have previously won or scored well in competitions. Some of them also practice Hindu ritual ways of thanking the teacher after school hours ‘unofficially’ and off the record.
B Jayakumar, Cupertino, CA.
Enforcing/ Reinforcing caste through Food choices
7 Years Old Girl Made to Cry for Eating Pepperoni Pizza.
I live in a town in Massachusetts where there is a large Indian community. My daughter Pavithra is a second grader at a local school and had the following experience one day during lunch:
That day’s school lunch consisted of two kinds of pizzas, specifically cheese pizzas and pepperoni pizzas. Pavithra took a pepperoni pizza and went to her lunch table to eat with her friends, some of whom are kids from Indian families. When one or some of her friends expressed surprise to see an Indian kid eating pepperoni pizza, Pavithra told them that she loves pepperoni pizza and continued eating. Another kid then said “we Indians don’t eat cow and pig meat and we worship cows”. Pavithra was upset but did not know how to react but quietly finished her lunch (eating most of the pizza); she was however confused about whether she had done anything wrong as a kid of Indian origin.
That evening, she came home and was almost crying when she explained the lunch-time situation. It gave us an opportunity to talk to her about India, the different religious beliefs and cultural differences within India, and she eventually understood that she had not done anything wrong, but that her friends needed some learning.
We later talked with the school teacher about the issue, and she was sorry and talked to the students and took care of this.
Mistreatment due to my Food habits
I have colleagues who are vegetarians. They claim that they don’t have any issues with me having meat at the lunch table, but when I eat meat meat for luch, they show their disgust by making ‘tolerating face’ expressions.
Rajashekar G, Sunnyvale, CA
Origins of Vegetarianism and sense of Purity attached to veg diet
I saw a friend being chided by his wife for touching her plate after he had eaten meat- she was not eating meat that day for religious reasons and clearly felt that she was therefore more pure than him. I fail to understand how the freedom to practice a food choice continues to be linked to notions of purity and impurity.
Geetha Balamurugan, Santa Clara, CA.
Casteism as a Political Ideology
Hostility for holding different opinions about religion
I am part of a Whatsapp Group that is known for its anti-religious principles. One of my collegues peeped through my mobile screen. He was taken aback by my involvement with that group. After that instance, he questioned me “Do you belong to that group?” which is none of his business.
Kamalraj E, Santa Clara, CA
Why dalits cannot be priests?
When I posed this very question to an upper caste friend and argued that it is not fair to deny anybody access to temples, my friend proceeded to explain that brahmins are intelligent and clean. According to him, since Dalits are not clean and don’t take baths regularly, they are only fit to clean toilets. He also said they cannot memorize mantras or pronounce it correctly. I could clearly see a casteist mindset at play here!
Mathivanan, Dallas, TX
How Caste Shapes Political Views and Justifies Killings
My experience made me realize that no matter how educated a brahmin is, they can still be cruel to the core and stoop to any level to justify power. I had multiple discussions in 2013 about the political happenings in India with 3 of my brahmin team members during lunch, when Modi’s popularity was on the rise as a national leader. One day, while discussing the Gujarat riots and the number of people murdered, the most senior team member said those killings should be considered “political sacrifice”, without any shame or remorse whatsoever.
C Rajapandi, San Ramon,CA.
Caste is Needed, Not Social Justice?
While working for a US-based organization in Bangalore, we started discussing Indian history during team lunch. My upper-caste manager suddenly proclaimed that caste is needed and people should do jobs based on their caste. He further added that social justice and others are shit!
V Gowtham, Tracy, CA.
Open expression of hostility to Affirmative Action and/or Dalit, Bahujan Identity
Caste Pride and Tirade against Affirmative Action
Discussion took place about addressing a person either with ‘the firstname’ or ‘the lastname’.
One of my colleagues claimed that he felt ‘dignified’ to carry his last name. His last name happened to be nothing but his caste name. He reasoned that ‘how else can we carry the legacy to future generations?’ It become clear that he believes his ascriptive identity of being born in a particular caste is worthy of pride and preservation for posterity.
Another Colleague from Tamil Nadu expressed his frustrations against Periyar (EV Ramasamy, a great social revolutionary and rationalist against Caste System) and reservations for so-called ‘lower caste’ people (affirmative action for the historically oppressed sections of society). He expressed his hatred over how Periyar’s social movement led to the abolition of the practice of carrying over one’s last name as caste name in Tamil Nadu. Further, he expressed his grief over how the reservation system enabled the so-called ‘lower caste’ to get employment to the detriment of his own caste-folks.
D Senthilkumar, San Jose, CA.
Religion-based discriminatory tendencies in Brahmin Mentality
I took my cousin to one of my favorite shop to taste faloodas. My cousin was quite enthusiastic about going there. But once I told him that this company is a popular franchise in Pakistan, he was utterly against buying or eating anything from there. So, we left. Later, my cousin confided to me that he has a Pakistani Muslim co-worker whom he does not care for much, but at the same time admitting that he is good at his job. This experience made me confused and upset. I felt that my cousin developed hatred towards a shop based on a flimsy reason. Though my cousin has been in the US for a while, his Brahmin mentality is not to accept cultures and religions that are not his own.
V Sujatha, Oakland, CA.
Merit or Social Cultural Capital
My direct manager is a company Director. He is a Brahmin from Tamil Nadu and is now a US citizen. Once during our team meeting we were having a casual conversation when we started discussing education in general. One program manager in my team from another country was explaining about universities and the important role of SAT scores. My Director then mentioned that thankfully his son’s SAT score can get him selected for college in America. Then he used slur for Indian affirmative action policies and claimed that they would have destroyed any chances of education for his son back in India.
T Kathiravan, Fremont, CA.
Brahmin Angst Towards Affirmative Action
In my discussion with a Brahmin girl about BLM protests, sufferings of black people in this country, we talked about how social justice movements bring about balance in society. I shared that the Dravidian movement has made Tamil Nadu better than other states. She was upset and expressed that she is a victim of Affirmative Action as she could not get into a college of her choice despite getting the best score, whereas people with a lower score managed to get in. She angrily stated that those who are pro-reservation should go to a doctor who studied in “quota”. After some pointless discussion, we agreed to disagree and I ended the call.
G Sidharth, Santa Clara, CA.
Open expression of pride in caste identities & grievances against less-privileged caste communities
I have had to listen to my Indian co-workers and teammates freely express their criticism of India’s reservation (i.e. affirmative action) system. They have said that it is ridiculous, that it is mis-used, and blame Dr. Ambedkar (scholar and organizer who fought casteism). They want reservations to be eliminated in admissions to professional courses and to institutes of higher learning such as IIM, IIT, Medical Colleges, Civil Services, etc. as they felt it is not right to uplift someone in these areas/courses. They were somewhat willing to accept reservations when it came to reservations in Arts & Science degree colleges. They said that members of SC/ST groups are scavengers, and that they don’t want to interact or eat with them. In fact, they couldn’t digest the fact that some members of SC/ST are in high government positions and are earning high salaries. When I was listening to such conversations in the USA from educated Engineers, I felt very uncomfortable, and unlucky about being a member of an oppressed class. Nothing has changed the way literate/ Illiterate Indians treat fellow Indians from “low-caste” communities wherever they are in the world. There are people who feel very proud to be upper-caste Indians and they show that pride in many ways! My wish is that my kids who are growing up in USA shouldn’t know/ talk about caste or experience discrimination!
T Karthikeyan, Sunnyvale, CA.
Dalit / SC-ST bashing
Two instances are vivid in my memory: The first one was during an open coffee chat when a colleague of mine, while talking about a criminal family in their village, referred to them as “you know those SC people” and I saw many heads around him nodding in acknowledgment.
The second instance occurred on the day after the infamous caste-based honor killing of Sankar in Udumalpet, Tamilnadu. One of my colleagues, while acknowledging that killing is bad, supported the parent’s motivation to kill Sankar.
K Balasubramani, Mountain View, CA.
Mistreatment due to caste in Educational Institution/Workplace
In my childhood years, I came to know, through the explicit statements of a few Brahmin physicians that they have been mistreating the medical residents who belong to Scheduled Caste. In my family, caste was a non-issue. We were actively against it. But I have occasionally seen other Indians discuss caste and emphasize it to the detriment of others.
D. Revathi, Ridgewood, NJ.
Mistreatment due to Caste Arrogance
I am one of the artists in a troupe performing folk arts. Our troupe was invited to perform at a family festival. Often these ‘family festivals’ were mere euphemisims for closed-door meeting of members belonging to a particular caste. This was one of such occassion where the prospective brides and grooms meet with the hope of arranged marriage within their own caste. In this gathering of Telugu upper caste community, we were mistreated, because we do not belong to their caste. Due to this mistreatment, all of us decided not to eat in the event event though our dinner was supposed to be taken care of by the organizers.
E Amuthavalli, Seattle, WA.
Entitled and discriminatory behavior by members of so-called 'upper castes' at school/work, etc.
Brahminical domination in Berkeley Haas
I am a student at respectable Business School in California. During my class sessions, I was subjected to brahminical casteism by one of my classmates. My classmate’s last name is “Iyer”, which identifies the bearer of the name as belonging to the Brahmin caste from Tamil Nadu in India. She was assigned to our group in one of our breakout sessions as a part of our course.
During the discussions, she kept cutting me off whenever I spoke, while never interrupting other students. I felt uncomfortable and thought of her behavior as highly unprofessional. At one point in the discussion when I was speaking, she interrupted to say that she has missed the previous class that dealt with the current topic of discussion but nevertheless, went on to elaborate her opinions on the topic. Fed up with her domineering attitude, I asked her to pass the mic and give a chance for others to speak. In response, she got angry and started accusing me that I have asked her to shut up. But the fact of the matter is that she is the one who never allowed me to speak in the class by interjecting me every time I tried to share my thoughts. Later, she even complained to one of the professors that I behaved in a sexist way by asking her to stop talking. In the meeting with the professor, I point out her monopolizing attitude in class, which was negatively affecting my classroom experience.
At that time, I was not confident that I could effectively explain her brahminical mindset of looking down on non-brahmins to that professor. So, I chose not to discuss that aspect at that time. Later, I came to know from my non-brahmin classmates that she has a condescending attitude towards them too. But, the recent events have made it important for me to share my story to shed light on the undemocratic attitudes present amongst brahmins.
Chidambaram A, San Francisco, CA
IIT’s the leader of Institutionalizing Brahminism across educational institutions.
I faced issues of Inferiority complex, guilt and isolation due to unfair treatment from my collegues and professors at IIT, Madras. Coming from a rural bahujan family it took me a while to understand the casteist practices and unfair treatment in classes that involved a subjective element in the evaluation of the students. No wonder that the dropout rates for SC/ST /OBC candidates in IIT is around 50%.
At less than 3%, the representation of SC/ST/OBC in faculty is even more stark which only adds to the problem. Research suggest that this hands-off approach by IIT’s / IIM’s to correct the systemic biases robs the fruits of reservation and puts Bahujan candidates at a great disadvantage in their overall career development and placements, creating a flawed model of meritocracy.
This model of meritocracy enables the continuation of social biases into educational biases by passing off abilities inherited from a urban middle class savarna family as markers of intelligence and merit, and so confirms the claims about the natural social order of merit by birth.
Vineeth K S, Santa Monica, CA
Caste Based Favoritism
Favoritism in workplace based on Caste
I personally never faced any caste discrimination as I have made it a point not to make my caste identity public. But, in general, I have observed that others often discuss the Last names of their colleagues with an intention to decode their caste identity. These people act favorably towards their own case-fellows. I have also noticed that few of my savanna friends talk ill of the reservation system (affirmative action) in India. They think that it’s a corrupt system. I have also noticed that these people glorify traditions and attitudes that were based on the caste system.
Sleuthing about Caste Identity; Caste-Sleuthing through questions about Food habits
Urge for Caste-Identification
It was about two days after I arrived in the US for pursuing my masters. One of my Seniors asked me out of the blue whether I belonged to particular Brahmin sub-caste.
Aditi S, Fremont, CA
Obsession over caste identity
Often, knowing other’s caste becomes a critical mission for members of the so-called ‘upper caste’ groups. Towards this task, many indirect strategies are employed. For example, I was asked whether I performed Pooja (a ritualized form of prayer) for my house warming ceremony. Further, I have been interrogated about the details about priests and temples. It is commonly known that certain castes (which are considered to be ‘low’ in the caste system) do not have the custom of inviting priests for any of their family ceremonies. So, the idea behind these veiled questions is to know whether I belonged to one such caste or not. In this way, our value is determined by our caste identity.
Ranjith L, Redwood City, CA
Brahmin exclusivism in offering prayers
I was invited to a house-warming ceremony of a friend of my friend, who happened to be a Brahmin. They were performing poojas for the deities present there. When I expressed my wish to perform pooja, I was asked to remove my shirt in front of all the guests in the name of customs. Since everyone else performing pooja was shirtless, I was also forced to remove my shirt to perform pooja. I was not aware of the real reasons behind this seemingly arbitrary restriction against wearing a shirt while doing pooja. Only later, I came to know that it is one of the subtle practices of Brahminism to identity whether I was wearing a ‘janeu’ AKA the ‘sacred thread’ or not.
Sundar R, Los Altos, CA
Overt attempt to find caste
I was having a friendly conversation with one of my colleagues at work. During this chat, at one moment, he patted my shoulders. With the excuse of this patting gesture, he stealthily scratched my back with the intent to figure out whether I’m wearing a janeu (a white thread worn across the torso by Brahmin caste males). I was taken aback by my colleague’s covert attempt to identity whether I’m a Brahmin or not.
Rajeshkannah V, Pleasanton, CA
Caste at Work Everywhere
In November 1990 when I first landed in this country, we had a thanksgiving lunch party in the lab. The team had about 18 people, out of which 12 or 13 were from different countries, England, Russia, Italy, Poland, Japan, China and India. There was another Indian graduate student apart from me. Since I was the new addition, when my professor introduced me to the team, he told me that there was another vegetarian from India. I quickly corrected him saying that I was not a vegetarian. Then he apologized saying he might have mistaken Indians not eating beef as vegetarian. I told him I won’t be mistaking him because this is a myth propagated about India. I also told him that more than 30-40% (at that time) of the population ate beef as well. Even though I didn’t like the way the meat was prepared in the US, I made it a point to taste at least a small portion of every meat served. However, in Indian/Tamil get-together parties, I found this vegetarian or non-vegetarian (by birth or not!) question quite annoying and I made sure to ridicule such questions. In fact in 2003, I even wrote a poem about this in Tamil and published it in the FETNA conference souvenir.
In addition, there were always a few Indians (who were not Tamils) who used to ask a very specific question like “”Are you a Brahmin?””. Among the Tamils, Brahmins figure out from the full name if a particular person is a Brahmin. If the name does not give a clue, they use a particular Tamil Brahmin dialect and find out from the response if it is in the same dialect or not. It was hard to identify people’s caste other than that of Brahmins unless you are very close to their families. It does not mean that there was no caste identity or prejudice or even hatred in their minds based on caste.
Since there were few Indians in the workplace in those days, I never found caste playing any discriminatory role at my work places even though I did sense some language biases, especially from the Hindi-speaking folks. However, recently in the IT industry, workplaces have Indians as the majority. Since I am at a slightly senior level, I don’t get to know if there are any such issues at a lower rank. I never received any complaints in my place. Sometimes at lunch I have seen Indian colleagues eating together and majority of them sharing non-vegetarian food. I have not seen anyone bringing beef or pork. When they order pizzas for office lunch parties, the majority of them eat only veggie or chicken pizzas. I make sure to eat pepperoni or sausage pizzas like other non-Indian colleagues and Indians never say anything to me.
Sornam Sankarapandi, Ellicott City, Maryland.
Tam-Brahm Behavioral Tendencies
Many Tam-Brahms I have interacted with want to know my last name, native place, grandparents’ native place to guess my caste. If that doesn’t work, they converse in Manipravala nadai(Tamil Brahmin dialect) to see if I too respond similarly. They start judging me after knowing my caste and I experience a subtle but stern discrimination thereafter. These brahmins continue to display micro-aggressive behaviours by trying to sway the decision to go to a vegetarian restaurant, even though most restaurants have vegetarian options.
Brahmins Sleuthing to Out My Caste at Work When I was having my lunch that included dishes containing beef at my office where other colleagues were also eating lunch, a colleague that had made it known that he is a Brahmin in the past, immediately perked up and started pepering me with questions such as “do you cook beef at home?, Does your mother or wife cook beef?”, etc. I realized his intent was to identify my caste by figuring out whether I have persoanlly developed a taste for beef or my family eats beef which is typical of Dalit familes in India. I find that Indian colleagues ask the most intrusive questions on food habits, mostly aimed at identifying my caste.
At another instance, I was wearing a white inner-ware under my sweatshirt that may have looked like a thread protruding out of my sweatshirt, a colleague that have brandished in the past that he was a brahmin seemed to get very curious to find out whether I was wearing the “Sacred Thread” and unusually proceeded to slide his hand across my back. I am sure he was disappointed to learn that I was not wearing the “sacred thread.”
N Venkatesh, Irvine City , CA.
The Vegetarian vs. Non-Vegetarian food differentiation during company events is telling!
I have seen extra effort is put into making sure the vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods never mix. There are 2 queues every-time. The sad part is we Indians had accepted this norm so deeply we never question it, including me. I realized it when I moved out to a different company in California and there I saw the vegetarian and non- vegetarian foods being served together during company events. But even in the new company, during Deepavali the food served was completely Vegetarian. The Non-Vegetarian folks were not given any choice other than to accept this caste-based food culture from India.
K Balasubramani, Mountain View, CA.
Using any Situation to Know Someone’s Caste
This discussion with my manager started off quite innocently with the latter asking me why I was not interested in marriage and if he can find the right girl for me. When I told him I will think it over, the first thing he wanted to know was my caste. I replied saying “human” to get my point across.
P Rajesh, New York, NY
Even Ride Shares Cannot Escape Caste!
When I used ride share with a Telugu brahmin, he kept playing vedas in the car under the pretext of him trying to learn, but in fact forcing me to listen to them. After many conversations, he reduced the volume but continued to play them without my consent. Another ride share co-passenger assumed I was a brahmin and started rattling off x, y, z brahmin names hinting that I could get some brahmin connections.
Swathi, Milpitas, CA
Looks Matter in Caste
My music teacher pressured me to wear a “round” bindi and not a long bindi as only Pillais and Iyengars wear long bindis.
R. Deepa, Cupertino, CA.
Professional and Personal Caste Experiences
Most forms of discrimination is subtle and manifests iteself via food habits, mannerisms, region, complexion, education, etc. Professionally, whenever I tried to make my views known or had candid arguments with senior staff about discriminatory practices or social, economic and political issues both in workplace and society, I was shut down. I was viewed as “not ideal”, a troublemaker and a disturbed person within my company.
Personally, I also faced discrimination from Indians over eating beef. I was not allowed entry into a “close friend’s” house because I got meat as a takeout! I see caste discrimination from personal matters like marriage to even choosing friends based on caste!
Prasana Jaitale, Mountain House, CA
Caste and Color
I was told at work by a middle-aged Indian co-worker that I am “fair”, so I must be a brahmin. Everyone respects her immensely, but I am quite sure she was referring to my skin color and not to the characteristic trait of fairness. During my university days, some students from a dominant south Indian caste formed an exclusive “friends group”. They lived in the same student housing building, hung out together, spent time on weekends only amongst themselves. Not even the other upper castes were part of this group!
Children & Casteism
Kids Interrogating Caste!
One of the first ways of identifying the caste of a person is by their name. I belong to a linguistic minority, so I have a mixed culture name (my first name is Tamil, and my last name belongs to the Sourashtrian linguistic community). Growing up with such a name, I am quite familiar with what happens when someone tries hard to identify one’s caste. My being light-skinned also confuses them immensely. And the next question is about food habits–which is narrowing down to whether someone is a Brahmin or not. This is not a new experience for me. When I was seven years old, I moved to a Brahmin-dominated city. Before joining me in their circle to play at their home, the kids asked me whether I am an “Iyer” or “Iyengar”–these are Brahmin sub-castes. I had no idea what those meant, so I said I didn’t know. They asked if “I ate fish,” I personally disliked fish at the time, so I said no. That convinced them combined with the fact that I was light-skinned, so they said, “I would be Iyer” and allowed me to play. If this is the kind of venom we are teaching the young kids, imagine the subconscious bias that this would result in as they grow up and join multinational corporations, universities, and other areas of workplaces. No wonder caste is moving as a phenomenon beyond borders.
Kalai Ramea, Union City, CA.
Caste-based Groups in Cultural Programs
My spouse and I volunteered for a non-profit organization in the East coast when we lived there. Our responsibility was to assign the kids who had signed up for a cultural program to groups and group in-charge based on their interests. We received a call one day from a group in-charge with a request to only assign kids of a particular caste to that group as it would be easy for them to coordinate with the kids’ parents during rehearsal. We were shocked but managed to respond that we do not know the kids’ castes and will not entertain this request.
R Murali, Fremont, CA.
Claiming, Advertising, and Expressing Pride in one’s Caste Identity
No Matter, You Ask My Caste or Not, I’ll tell!
My manager was boastful about not restricting his children from eating meat anymore while emphasizing his caste purity by mentioning that their family does not have the habit of eating meat by birth. I would like to work with a non-Indian manager who does not have these casteist biases. I believe that it will ensure fairness in my career development and also contribute to my happiness.
Satya Prakash, San Jose, CA
Caste-based matrimonial discrimination in workplace email forum.
We have an email forum at work named after a regional language from India. It is a common practice for my colleagues to publish matrimonial details of their friends or relatives seeking a marital alliance. Primary discriminating criteria while seeking these matches is the caste factor. Only if a person was a divorcee or beyond the conventionally accepted norms of appropriate marriageable age, the caste norms would be slightly relaxed. I wanted to report this blatantly discriminatory behavior to HR numerous times. But I never did, fearing that would have negative consequences for me if the HR deems it as an unwarranted accusation. But, as of now, I am shocked to know that CISCO has officially defended Casteism on the basis that it is not referred to as discrimination in US laws.
Manimaran K, Sunnyvale, CA
Metaphors glorifying caste propagated publicly as a show of strength.
In a Tiecon Bay Area meet when a member in presence of about 20000 attendes including industry leaders and VC’s announced “All Tambrams in the house make some noise”. Events like these are attended and representative of everybody. A show of strength by some upper caste (Tamil Brahmins) is nauseating and offensive to any one who has a progressive consious. It shows the extent of entitlement, groupism and appropriation of these forums by the caste group which needs to called out.
Raja Antony, Milpitas, CA
Caste Pride of Brahmins in Public
Brahmins, while claiming that they are caste-blind, are the first ones to boast about their Brahmin identity with pride in public. Take, for instance, Indira Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsico- in an interview, she introduced herself as hailing from a ‘traditional orthodox Tamil Brahmin family’.
N Arulsamy, Fremont, CA
Boasting about one’s Brahmin exclusivism
One of my acquaintances is a self-identified Brahmin lady. Once, she told me that she was working part-time as a nanny, immediately after which she felt it necessary to add that she works only in other Brahmin households!
Geetha Narayan, San Mateo, CA
No Matter, You Ask My Caste or Not, I’ll tell!
This happened in an office cafeteria in Silicon Valley when 4 employees were having lunch. The conversation moved to the topic of the state of origin in India because of languages spoken in the group, but it didn’t end with folks disclosing state of origin alone. One person then declared that they were brahmins from their region. The rest of us had not mentioned anything about caste and stayed silent without reacting to them bringing up the topic of caste. Yet, this person decided to continue on that topic and spoke about an annual meeting for the brahmin families from their region. I was shocked but not surprised to hear that the Brahmin groups were gathering on the basis of their caste.
J Murugan, Pleasanton, CA
Food Products can be Caste-based Too
In Indian grocery stores, I have seen caste-based food products. Food outlets like Mylapore Express have TamBrahmcooking as their Facebook handle. Only upper caste people like to advertise their caste in this manner claiming caste superiority.
V Kalaivani, Palo Alto, CA
There have been many instances when I’ve heard people talking about their caste not directly but indirectly, referring to it as their family legacy. In many instances they discuss what their (caste) last name really means and showcase their pride.
K Balasubramani, Mountain View, CA.
During a team member’s birthday celebrations, a female brahmin team member who has resided in the US for a long time, brought plasticware for her savarna teammates while the rest of us were using silverware to eat. She announced that the silver forks and spoons may have been used to eat “non-vegetarian” food and our savarna teammates readily welcomed this suggestion. This shows how in the name of purity, they impose their regressive dogmas to make people fall in line with their belief. This is a perfect example of a systemic way of keeping casteist practices alive.
C Rajapandi, San Roman,CA
Overt Caste Practices at Work Place
When brahmins in my circle brought cake for birthday celebrations, they always brought eggless cakes, even when the person whose birthday was being celebrated was a meat eater!
R Prakash, Fremont, CA
Indirect Caste-based Comments Are Offensive Too!
Many a times, people have made comments to me, not directed at me but extremely casteist in nature and therefore, offensive. For example – wearing a velvet dress makes me feel like I belong to a street band (with a disgusted look), listening to folk songs is not classy, expressing opinion that dark complexion is not desirable while talking about a friend’s dark-complexioned child, a friend who eats pork now in the US secretly expressed that he avoided eating pork in India as it is Scheduled Caste’s food.
Swathi, Milpitas, CA
Caste in Community and Cultural Organizations.
Caste and Power Dynamics in Volunteer Organizations
I would like to share how caste permeates a 4-year old Tamil School in our community run by volunteers. The board members are brahmins and hold on to their membership, even when 2 of them do not live in our community. The teachers and volunteers are mostly non-brahmin folks, but the power and deciding authority resides with the brahmins. It is also why you see Sanskrit words and letters included in Tamil curriculum.
C Rajapandi, San Ramon, CA
The Namaskaram Episode
I live in the Bay Area. A couple of years back, I wrote to a Tamil newspaper(found in local Indian groceries stores) to publicize an upcoming talk organized on behalf of a non-profit. The first email and call with the newspaper’s publisher was brief but went OK. He asked me to send him an excerpt about the speaker which I promptly did. Things drastically changed during our second call. He picked up my call and said “Namaskaram”. I responded with my customary “vanakkam” and repeated my greetings when he did not respond the first time. His tone visibly changed after that. He sounded quite irritated, was rude and cut me off multiple times when I tried to talk. he finally told me how things will proceed with the publishing and ended the call abruptly. I could not immediately fathom what had happened but after some deliberation realized that it all started with the greeting. This publisher is a Brahmin person, evident from his name and dialect he uses. My name is quite common with people of the so-called upper caste, both my email and name do not have a last name that reveals caste (I had signed off with a letter initial, so no father’s name either) and this publisher has not met me before. So, he may have assumed that he was talking to someone of his caste. The minute I responded with a Vanakkam instead of Namaskaram (a Sanskrit loan word in Tamil used prevalently by upper caste folks) and thus gave away that I did not belong to the Brahmin caste, he probably didn’t want to deal with me anymore.
V. Gayathri, Palo Alto, CA.
Ancient Pride, Culture & Sanskrit and Casteism
Social Distancing and Caste
On the employee slack channel, a brahmin employee posted an image praising the practice of saying “namaste” as a greeting. The post compared the chance of bacterial spread occurring during different forms of greetings. It claimed that Namaste was the best way because it had zero chance of bacterial spread, while ignoring the context that this is a casteist practice rooted in untouchability.
Here is some background: //According to Kesavan Veluthat, a professor of history at Delhi University, the cultural origins of the Indian greeting are rooted in Hindu society’s deeply entrenched casteism. The Sanskrit scholar said ‘namaste’ came into existence to allow those belonging to the higher castes keep their distance from the “untouchables”. “India, particularly the Hindu society, is heavily hierarchical, with caste defining social norms,” Veluthat told PTI. It was customary for members of the same caste to exchange a ‘namaste’. But a Brahmin, for instance, would never offer a ‘namaste’ to a Dalit.// https://www.livemint.com/news/world/in-coronavirus-times-it-s-goodbye-handshake-welcome-namaste-11584110323208.html
D Loganathan, Campbell, CA
Caste-based Nepotism at the workplace
Caste-based Nepotism at my workplace
I have been witness to the recruitment of a collegue to a position that was never announced to the team, and when there was no need for that additional position. Once in, the new recruit was found to be participating in more direct discussions with the manager which slowly led to more representation for him in the team. He was offered additional roles indirectly which created more visibity for him within cross-functional teams and upper management. This and other opportunities were not offered to team members who were part of the team for a longer time and were performing better. Multiple team members noticed that this one individual was being given unjustified opportunities. It also became clear that this was a case of nepotism- the manager and the new recruit had both worked together in their previous jobs, and both belonged to the same so-called ‘upper caste’ community. The new recruit was observed to influence the manager’s decisions which has caused friction with other team members. This has directly impacted my opportunities and hence chances of growth in my team.
Ramkumar T, Milpitas, CA
Savarnas speak about Casteism
Savarnas enforce casteist norms on each other
First off, I’m still a savarna woman, so my stories should definitely take a backseat to those from Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi folks. One example of blatant casteism sticks out in my mind, even after years have passed. Indian classmates at the private university I attended consistently expressed shock and disgust over the fact that I ate meat, especially beef. One day, I got snacks with a Brahmin femme classmate of mine, who I thought I’d become friends with by that point. I ordered something containing meat, at which point she started pontificating on how she was a vegetarian. She went so far as to say “come to the right side,” clearly implying the moral “rightness” of vegetarianism and the subsequent “wrongness” of meat consumption. This played into the Brahmin ideal of ritual purity, and it came off as an attempt to make me feel impure/unclean because of what I chose to eat.
Sangeeta Sarkar, Oakland, CA
Even Savarnas are not spared and pay the price of breaking the silence about Casteism
I have never been a victim on any discrimination because I am a Savarna. But there are multiple instances of subtle casteism that I have seen. Like, Brahmins having separate utensils for their food (separate from non-vegetarians), Jains and Brahmins making a face filled with disgust when any topic that involves meat is being had, non-vegetarians in the forward caste (even Brahmins who eat Chicken) judging others for eating beef because it is ‘darambrasht’ and once have been explained the anti-biotic properties of cow urine.
Once when I was having a political conversation on a common friend’s Facebook post. A Brahmin man, who is also in USA, bragged about his ‘superior intelligence’ as a result of his Brahmin genes. It is well known that the some upper caste, especially Brahmins, consider themselves intellectually superior to everyone else due to their Aryan genes and that everyone else gets by only because of reservations (affirmative action in India).
In another instance in my university, we have an Indian Students Association WhatsApp group, where political conversations are common. As an open critique of most of the posts, I was once the confidant of a person after he had public fallout with the committee members of the group. After he was made to leave the group he called me to vent. This was during the Covid lockdown period and the conversation was initially just him bragging about his leadership qualities that he was taught during his schooling, in The Scindia School. But soon he trusted me enough to say that there was not even one Jaat person in the University. Also that everyone in that group were so ‘uncivilised’ and unintelligent because they are not Jaats. That’s not all he soon went on to tell how Muslim Jamaats were the ones who spread Covid in India. Then to confirm he asked, ‘Your not a Muslim, no?’. He asked me in Hindi, ‘Then what are you?’ For which I said Tamil Jain and then he went on about how he is essentially ‘immune’ from Covid because he lived around Chinese and that China would have already ‘immunized their people’. Casteism and racism usually come together. After that I just hastily cut the call.
The closest I have come to being discriminated (as far as I know) by fellow Upper Caste is because of my public anti-caste stance (which pales in comparison with others’ experiences. I include this, in brief, only to give the reader a full picture and not to play the victim card). I’ve been told that I have been brainwashed, that I’m an insult to my caste culture and that one day I will be killed for what I do online. I have also been left out of a lot of plans so as to not create an ‘awkward situation’ because another Brahmin or upper caste person wouldn’t be comfortable, previously with whom I had a ‘passionate’ conversation (about caste). Loss of friends and family is one of the first things one will notice after taking the anti-caste stance.
Manoj, Columbia, Maryland.
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