The fear of being "outed"

We learned that most South Asians who identify as being from the “lower” castes, especially Dalits and Shudras, keep their Caste “hidden”. They do so to protect themselves and their families from discrimination in South Asian circles and retain access to cultural and religious spaces. Over 75 percent of our survey respondents who identified as Dalit and Shudra said they worry about their Caste being “outed”.

"In the United States, when my child was in second grade, she used to have play-dates with an upper Caste Hindu kid. Once the kid’s mother had come over to our house and during the course of the conversation, came to know that we follow Buddhism, which is understood to be the religion of Dalits. This was the last time that family interacted with us. The 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 outcast in 21st century United States!"

If you aren’t South Asian, it may be difficult to understand how you can identify another’s Caste. While not always obvious, there are several identifiers. People may directly interrogate each other on what Caste the other belongs to but even when not asked or disclosed outright, you can tell a person’s Caste with a few seemingly insignificant factors.

  • Your name. Many South Asian last names are, in fact, their Caste names. This is often the strongest indicator of one’s Caste location.
  • The food you eat. Many vegetarians are “upper” Castes and Caste-oppressed people are not. Many Dalits and Adivasis, in addition to being non-vegetarian, also uniquely cook and consume beef.
  • Where you’re from. The name of their native hometown in South Asia - Because living spaces can be segregated by Caste, a particular name of a town or region can be telling of your Caste.
  • The color of your skin. Racial and ethnic mixing in South Asia has a complex history and Caste does not map directly to race. However, many Caste-oppressed peoples are perceived to be darker in skin color than “upper” Caste people from the same region.
  • Your religion. Many Muslim, Christian, Buddhists, and Sikhs are people whose communities have adopted these religious beliefs to escape Caste oppression in Hinduism. Therefore, your religion can indicate your Caste location. 
  • Your friends and family. People of all Castes can have strong and identifiable ties to their Caste community through their families and social circles.

Using these markers it’s easy to find out your Caste identity which then becomes a basis for discrimination, denial of opportunity and even verbal and physical abuse. 

Equality Labs