Minneapolis, MN: In a historic first, the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota has added caste as a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion criteria, becoming the first public affairs school to do so in the United States.
Joining the College of Biological Sciences’ Graduate Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior; the English Department’s MFA program in creative writing; and the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, the Humphrey School is the fourth school in the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus to declare caste a Diversity Equity & Inclusion criteria. This follows the University of Minnesota’s recent campus-wide explainer on caste discrimination, which affirms that caste discrimination is not tolerated on campus. These are necessary next steps for the entire campus to move towards adding caste as a protected category.
Across the country, from Harvard and UC Davis to Colby College, Brandeis University, and many other institutions,, this urgent movement continues to expand as caste-oppressed students, faculty, and staff stand up and demand an end to rampant caste-based discrimination. These members of university communities also join feminist scholars like the National Women’s Studies Association in creating scholarly spaces to examine caste as a crucial intersectionality. With the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ change in policy, Equality Labs congratulates them on becoming the first public affairs school in the country to add caste as a protected category and the University of Minnesota becoming the first public university in the Midwest to do so.
Quotes from campus and community leaders around this critical win:
Ashadh, Caste-Oppressed Graduate Student, University of Minnesota When I came to the United States for my graduate studies on a prestigious scholarship, I thought it was a new beginning, as I would no longer face the casteist humiliation and trauma that I faced growing up as a Dalit in South Asia. However, that was short-lived, as I started facing the same questions. While some directly asked my caste, others used proxies to determine my caste location. I was asked my surname, ancestral village, which gods I worship and festivals I celebrate, my rank in entrance exams, whether I eat meat, and checking whether I wear a sacred thread! My intellectual capabilities were deemed circumspect since I had availed of reservation quota (affirmative action) for caste-oppressed students during my undergraduate studies. My peers even went so far as to quiz me on mathematical riddles to check if I “qualify” to be in the prestigious University of Minnesota. While some might label these experiences as “trivial”, constantly facing microaggressions such as those described above are traumatic for a caste-oppressed person and have an adverse impact on their psycho-social well-being.
I am thrilled that University of Minnesota has instituted protections against caste-based discrimination. A committed and empathetic collective of students, faculty, community leaders not only from South Asian diaspora but across nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, ability and caste came together to make this vision a reality. Here, I wish to acknoweldge with gratitude the support of the Caste Equity team at Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, and especially their Executive Director, Thenmozhi Soundararajan.
The new caste discrimination policy has important consequences, as itI provides an institutional mechanism for caste-oppressed students to express their grievances in instances of bias or discrimination. It would also deter caste-bigot individuals from implicitly or explicitly expressing their bias against caste-oppressed individuals and their collectives. Cumulatively, this will aid in creating a positive environment for future applicants from caste-oppressed backgrounds to apply and study at the prestigious University of Minnesota and achieve global recognition.
Professor Sonja Thomas, University of Minnesota, Alum ‘01 and Associate Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, Colby College
“It was my time at the University of Minnesota that shaped me into who I am today. My classes and activism in the Asian American community at the U propelled me to continue on for my PhD and to study gender and caste in Christian communities.
South Asian migration to the U.S. is profoundly shaped by caste. Caste power contributes to accrued generational wealth. Those with caste privilege often have the professional degrees, the connections, and the money to migrate. It is therefore not surprising that Indian Christian Church leadership, Indian Christian professional organizations, and Indian Christian social gatherings in the US are largely run by dominant caste Christians. They become the face of Indian American Christians in the U.S. And this is true for not just the Indian American Christian community, but for other diasporic South Asian communities in the U.S. as well.
In colleges and universities, caste oppressed students, faculty, and staff can and do face caste discrimination. But without a mechanism for understanding caste, where can a caste oppressed student, staff member, or faculty member report or find recourse?
This is why adding caste as a DEI criteria is so important and historic. From my time at the UMN, I know that my beloved University knows what it means to stand against oppression. Adding caste to our non-discrimination policy is more step on the many we’ve taken at the U to be on the right side of history. As a professor who studies caste in Christianity and as a lifetime alumni member of the UMN, I applaud the University of Minnesota for their leadership in working to achieve caste equity.”
Professor V.V. Ganeshananthan, Associate Professor, Department of English, MFA Program in Creative Writing, McKnight Presidential Fellow, Human Rights Faculty
“As someone who writes about Sri Lanka and its diaspora communities, as well as human and civil rights-related issues, I am excited to affirm the inclusivity of the University of Minnesota’s classrooms and our adherence to long and dearly held scholarly and community principles. I’m thrilled to see the Humphrey School of Public Affairs take the vital step of adding caste as a category protected against discrimination, and I am glad that my own program, the MFA program in creative writing, has also committed to including caste in its consideration of diversity. I am proud to work at an institution that does not tolerate discrimination on the basis of caste. These actions lay important groundwork for the future of our research, service, and teaching, and position us to continue our tradition of attracting and supporting the most exciting and innovative scholars and artists.”
Richa Nagar and Sima Shakhsari, 2021-22 Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
In 2021, the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, revised its mission statement to recognize caste as a protected category.
It states: While gender and sexuality are fundamental to our field, we recognize that our lives and identities as gendered beings are also deeply and inextricably informed by other differences (such as race, nation, caste, and disability) that intersect at the core of who we are and how we function. And so we are committed in everything we do—our research, teaching, and engagement with communities—to fostering an inclusive understanding of human experiences that explores and embraces these differences, while also struggling against the systemic inequities and oppressions in which these differences are implicated. This commitment goes hand in hand with a resolve to recruit, retain, support, and work with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff who occupy disadvantaged locations due to their race, caste, nation, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, ability, language, and/or citizenship, and due to wars; interpersonal, street and state violence; and/or displacement in a global context.
Zafar Siddiqui, Minnesota, Community Activist I applaud the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs for following the example of the California State University to add caste as a protected category against discrimination. This comes on the heels of IT companies such as Apple, IBM, and other tech giants adding the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of caste to their policies. Whether one is working in the corporate sector, in education, or in public employment, they should be free from caste discrimination which is particularly an issue affecting the people of South Asian origin – transcending communities and cultures from that region. This is a welcome development to safeguard equity in the workplace where everyone needs to be accorded equality and dignity as human beings.
Ananya Chatterjea, Professor of Dance, University of Minnesota, Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theatre, Co-founder of the Shawngrām Institute for Performance & Social Justice.
The declaration of caste as a DEI criteria is an extremely important step towards ensuring the safety and wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff who are part of our University community. Celebrated scholar and healer Resmaa Menakem reminds us that trauma becomes embedded in our nervous systems, can be very difficult to dismantle, and can often have debilitating impacts on our lives. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to overestimate the impact of caste oppression even in diasporic situations, on individuals’ mental and physical health and ability to succeed in their work. That is why, even as I congratulate my University for these steps, I hope this becomes a foundation for enshrining equity in all of our workings. As a Dance Professor at the University, I have been supported in my research which is social justice choreography. Yet recently, my new work which remembers the massacre of Dalit refugees in Morichjhapi, West Bengal in 1979, was censored from a festival in New York City. It was deemed by the Board of Directors of the presenting organization to be out of line with the joyous celebrations of the 75th year of Indian independence. Addressing caste violence often meets with similar resistance, and the oppression grows in scope, with global consequences. I am delighted to work with colleagues and students to continue to build a more equitable and safe learning environment!
Mubina Qureshi, PhD, Executive Co-Director, SEWA-AIFW (Asian Indian Family Wellness); Humphrey Policy Fellow 2022-23
Acknowledging caste as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion criteria by Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs is highly valued and appreciated. It is heartening to see that University mentioned caste and made provisions to report caste discrimination in the university campus. As a culturally and linguistically responsive direct service provider to South Asians in MN, I testify that caste and gender-based violence are highly integrated and intersectional issues in Desi communities. Hailing from a caste-oppressed background myself, I personally feel that prohibiting caste discrimination at a leading Public Policy school in Midwest will bring a wave of social change. Inclusion of FAQs on Caste discrimination by University, and including caste as a protected category by HHH is a milestone to co-dreaming of solidarity and commitment to enhance our lives.
Kimberly Horner and Noah Wexler, Ph.D. Students and Coordinators, The Graduate Student Life Committee Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs University of Minnesota. The Graduate Student Life Committee for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ PhD program co-signed the proposal to include caste as one of our school’s DEI criteria in order to uphold our values as researchers interested in social and economic justice. It is an oversight for institutes of higher education to overlook caste when defining discrimination and we are proud that the Humphrey School has recognized the importance of adding this category. Our hope is that individuals of all backgrounds feel welcome and empowered to join the community at Humphrey.
Divya Karan and Shiney Varghese,Twin Cities South Asia Solidarity Collective
Twin Cities South Asia Solidarity Collective (TCSASC) welcomes the decision by the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota to add caste as a category in its anti-discrimination diversity, equity and inclusion criteria. The Humphrey School being at the forefront of this explicit inclusion of caste is yet another example of what makes it an exceptional public policy program in the country.
We also applaud the University for its continuing efforts to make the university a safe and welcome place for all students and staff. The Office of Institutional Compliance has, via its University Policy Library, initiated the critical work of providing guidance and education to the university community on the potential of caste based discrimination within it. We are very grateful and heartened to see the message this sends about how this kind of discrimination will not be tolerated on U of M campuses.
The prevalence of the inherited system of caste is a blight across the societies of South Asian countries. It is practiced by people across regions and faiths in those countries. Since it is a cultural practice, it is not surprising that it travels with people as they migrate to other countries for work or education, and continue practicing it in interactions with others in the diaspora. In order to support and protect those who suffer as a result of caste discrimination on the campuses of our flagship university, education and such policy changes are urgent and necessary.
These steps at the U of M are highly lauded by everyone in our collective.
Tasha Sage, Caste Equity Director, Equality Labs
The courage of the University of Minnesota is being felt around the country. For this University to acknowledge the civil rights movement for caste equity and be responsive to its most vulnerable South Asian members is a powerful testament to the legacy of public universities and its future.
We have seen the harm caste causes and have struggled alongside caste-oppressed colleagues to be part of the solution. It is crucial that we recognize that caste exists across all North American campuses and that we need policy remedies to address the harms caste-oppressed students, staff and faculty face.
That is why Equality Labs join civil rights leaders and scholars from around the United States who celebrate this win and it is yet another reminder that caste equity is a student’s rights issue. Caste is a human and civil rights issue that impacts us all. We look forward to working with the University of Minnesota to implement this policy for the betterment of all of our communities. We also want to continue to urge the University of Minnesota to listen to the growing majority of students, faculty, and its own departments and colleagues and add caste as a protected category to ensure the campus is accessible to all students.”
For more information please contact Equality Labs at firstname.lastname@example.org.