The Global Diaspora Testifies
As we conducted the survey South Asians from around the world spoke with us about their experiences with cast
Join the conversation at #CasteintheUS
As an Illankai Tamil Vellala Catholic it’s easy to mask & distance our participation in caste oppression and apartheid as we are “supposed” to not believe in caste.
Yet it revealed itself repeatedly — in the coded language of “good family”; in the narrative of of how “educated” Tamils were denied admissions into universities by the Sri Lankan state; in responding to discrimination by asserting caste superiority; in reserving a politics of self determination for ethnicity while practicing Catholic charitability for caste; in seeking to re-attain social status by associating with Whiteness, while distancing from Blackness; and typically, in discussions of marriage and children, especially as it pertained to daughters.
Yalini Dream, Ilankai Tamil, Brooklyn, NY
It is a reality that no matter after leaving everything behind in India while moving to US/UK, one thing Indians carry with them is caste. I met many Dalits, living in UK , some for almost 50 years or so, describing most of the marriages happening within their own castes. There are separate Gurudwaras and separate temples for different caste groups. n UK, “Equality Act 2010”, which prohibits discrimination based on “caste” was stopped from implementation after so called upper castes from UK protested that implementing it will bring caste to UK! In 2015 elections in UK to elect Prime Minister, Hindu groups from London distributed pamphlets among Hindu voters to support the Conservative Party because it doesn’t want to ban caste discrimination or implement provisions in Equality Act. In the UK, caste is not only alive but kicking!
Pardeep Singh, Dalit immigrant, London, United Kingdom
After many years of discussing Caste in the diaspora I have seen it all. Desi kids using their Caste names to give them street cred, parents switching plates on me once they learn I am Dalit, Dalit colleagues facing discrimination in their workplaces for having Ambedkar or other Dalit signs up, even being shamed for eating meat by other Savarna Hindus who said I was whitewashed for not being vegetarian. So much in the diaspora that gets pushed as being “our culture” is not our culture at all it is Savarna culture. The hegemony of Savarnas is perhaps one of the most important ways caste perpetuates. Talking about caste for me is about breaking that hegemony and allowing all of our cultures and experiences to come forward.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit American, New York
After casteism has left us disowned and expelled, it made us seek self-isolation and erasure to avoid everyday discriminatory practices. Community spaces were spaces that were unsafe, where constant social profiling, in other words caste profiling, happened, which rendered us hyperconscious and wary of interactions within the community. If you were found out, it would lead to discrimination, shaming and isolation. To be was to not be, to erase was a diktat that we, as many other Panchamar and lower caste refugees followed.
Sinthujan Varatharajah, Eelam Tamil Dalit, Berlin/London-based
Being Indo-Fijian, and growing up in a Hindu home, caste really didn’t mean anything to me in regards to my family or my identity. In Fiji the difference and separation was due to religion, the North vs. South Indian binary, and the different islands you were from. My own direct exposure to caste happened in the US among the South Asian community. I had a large group of Indian friends and it was through them that I learned that certain friends were treated badly in the homes of upper caste friends and that dating and marriage could only happen within the same caste. Even among folks who had grown up and lived in the US for most of their lives. It was also the parents of these friends who thought that the Fijian Indian kids were bad and they did not like their children hanging out with us or in our homes. I have always felt a sense of exclusion from South Asians because they think my South Asian-ness is either not authentic or there is something tarnished about my Indo-Fijian identity. I believe this othering has to do with the fact that the majority of indentured laborers in Fiji are descendants of lower caste and class communities which is a red flag for those who don’t know or understand our histories.
Esha Pillay, Indo-Fijian, Boston, MA
I am a casted South Asian Muslim, queer woman living in Boston, MA. I immigrated to the States 25 years ago, and spent most of my life undocumented. Though I experienced the immense injustice, danger, and instability of being undocumented in a largely Islamophobic and anti-immigrant country, I still live with privilege as a casted South Asian-American. Many of my Muslim peers argue that caste doesn’t affect us because our religion does not accept social hierarchy. However, those of us with South Asian ancestry are undoubtedly affected by caste privilege and benefit from a casted experience. I have to admit that most of my life, I was not aware of my caste privilege. In attempts to find out about my family’s caste standing and privilege, I found that there was much done to bury the truth about our privileges, as well as ignorance and a blind-eye to the ways in which we have stepped on the backs of Dalit and Adivasi people, as well as a dismissal of our own Adivasi roots.
Leila Zainab, Bangladeshi-Indian American, Boston, MA
One “upper”- caste man, on seeing me eating beef asked me if I am “a sweeper”. I just said “Yes.”.
Rama Hansraj, International Worker, Kenya
Even in “progressive” diasporic circles it is not uncommon to find almost 60–70% of the people being Brahmins and no one questioning why this is so. In the past, I was involved with a South Asian NGO in the diaspora which still organizes an annual conference where casteist practices such as having a vegetarian-only menu are unquestioningly carried out. Despite the fact there are no good caste documentation in the diaspora, I can testify that caste practices, rituals and caste-based exclusion thrives here. —
Vinay Bhat, Indian-American, CA
“My mother refused to let her son undergo a Brahmin thread ceremony — breaking with generations of caste tradition, and angering her in-laws.”
Anirvan Chatterjee, Indian-American, Berkeley, CA
I am an Indian, Hindu, non-Dalit who has finally come to understand the unique complexities of my family’s casteism as an adult child. My parents are an inter-caste love marriage, the only one of their kind in both families. My mom is high caste and my dad is lower caste. I have no idea what that makes me. Our blend of north and south Indian adds friction to how my parents view savarna folks. My dad’s family makes Brahmin jokes in safe spaces, despite arrange marrying their children into Brahmin families. All the while there are zero discussions of caste in my mom’s upper caste family. It’s like they aren’t even aware caste exists. Privilege is bliss. Regardless of these differences, each of my parents wishes for their children to marry only within their birth castes.
Sonalee Rashatwar, Indian-American, Philadelphia, PA
To share your thoughts on Caste in the Diaspora, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook at #CasteintheUS