One day after the murder of George Floyd, I attended a protest.
It was a warm day, everyone wore masks, and people were distributing water bottles. I calmly wandered onto Chicago Avenue not knowing that in a couple of hours I would witness historic grief and rage spill out onto the streets of the city I was temporarily calling home. Minneapolis, where I am doing a Ph.D. in the Ecology department at the University of Minnesota.
Brought up in the relative security of an upwardly mobile family in urban India, I had always had a healthy dose of anti-colonial consciousness, but an unhealthy lack of awareness about the caste and class divides in India. ‘Divide’, is, in fact, just a euphemism for the caste system that enables a tiny minority of people to access the country’s elite institutions as well as those in the rest of the world. Having grown up in India, I had benefited from the caste system far more than I had suffered from racism.
A few weeks after the protests began, I found myself co-authoring a letter with a group of fellow graduate students to the members of my department. This letter sparked a lot of interest and movement in other departments of the university - a small but significant portion of the larger nationwide conversations about anti-racism and decolonization.
Interacting with like-minded academics around how to decolonize academia, sharpened my own understanding of this multidimensional issue. One sentiment that was echoed throughout was that current Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts put the burden of improving academic culture on those who are already marginalized. As a result, our department, along with many others, was able to push the predominantly white members of faculty to attend diversity training. Despite my own skepticism about the effectiveness of mandated diversity training, I got to thinking about tangible ways in which I can begin to unlearn the traces of caste supremacy left in me by my upbringing.
A large part of the Asian diaspora likes to see itself as the model minority because it sets us apart from all the other Black and Brown people that find themselves on the wrong side of the system.
While I was proud to stand in solidarity with the anger of Black folks against police brutality and racist American institutions, I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t actually feel any of that anger as my own. In fact, I could find in myself and my community, traces of the same anti-Blackness that was the cause of all this grief. A large part of the Asian diaspora likes to see itself as the model minority because it sets us apart from all the other Black and Brown people that find themselves on the wrong side of the system. It is horrifying that one of the Minneapolis police officers charged for aiding and abetting second-degree murder was a Hmong American; he too had prior accusations of violence on Black residents while on duty. I decided to learn more about the roots of elitist mentality specifically among South Asians and that brought me to the one thing I had been blissfully unaware of - my own caste privilege.
Earlier this year, in July, I attended a four-week workshop called ‘Unlearning Caste Supremacy’ conducted by Equality Labs, a U.S.-based organization working towards the abolition of caste in the South Asian diaspora. Founder Thenmozhi Soundarajan was responsible for leading the workshop. As an activist advocating for her fellow Dalits, who are assigned to the lowest caste upon birth and face a lifetime of segregation in addition to the deprivation of human rights, she echoed to me the sentiment about reimagining current DEI models: they “don’t take into account communities that have internal categories.”
In the rapidly changing social and political world of India, religious and ethnic minorities are increasingly being pushed to the margins. Rife with discrimination along the lines of gender and sexuality, one of the most long-standing institutions sustaining all other forms of oppression is caste. A birth-based categorization of humans, the caste system sustains itself through strict control over people’s sexuality and freedom to form relationships with those belonging to other castes or religious groups. I grew up in this society, blissfully unaware of my own caste, in a family that put no restrictions on me. In India, this is as privileged as you can get.
As a result, not unlike some white people in America, a lot of people coming from higher castes claim to be “caste-blind”. Even in the sciences, the range of experiences of those navigating a career in STEM is a testament to how deep-rooted caste is even among those who claim to have given up the practice.
As a result, not unlike some white people in America, a lot of people coming from higher castes claim to be “caste-blind”. Even in the sciences, the range of experiences of those navigating a career in STEM is a testament to how deep-rooted caste is even among those who claim to have given up the practice. People who access education through affirmative action are constantly made to feel ashamed about it. Young scholars like Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadvi are driven to suicide by institutional discrimination. Even senior faculty members have to perform a strenuous balancing act as they fight for social justice in a system that strongly disincentivizes such actions. In contrast, dominant caste Brahmin scientists from elite institutions seem to have a misguided sense of their innate inclination to intellectual pursuits.
It is the tiny proportion of people who succeed in this system, people like me, who have, until recently, formed the largest fraction of Indians coming to the US. With us, we bring the elements of discrimination and prejudice that shaped our consciousness. As a report by Equality Labs on caste in the United States shows, the more recent immigrants from marginalized backgrounds, having jumped through the hoops of a hostile education system in India also have to face discrimination and abuse in the workplace and in higher education institutions in the U.S. Cases like the Cisco discrimination case and the BAPS human trafficking case highlight the need for a deeper look into the internal dynamics of Indian and, more broadly South Asian immigrants.
Over the last few years, a slew of demands has been raised asking for caste to be added as a protected category nationwide. Among academic institutions, the first to take this step was Brandeis University. More recently, the student body of the much larger California State University system demanded the inclusion of caste as a protected category. I had a chance to attend the public discussion held by the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission on the topic. There was vehement pushback by members of dominant caste groups. Organizations like Hindus for Human Rights have, in response, called on Hindu-Americans to take a deeper look at casteist practices, while others perceive it to be an attack on Hindu culture. Such hostile sentiment towards an anti-discrimination policy only serves to strengthen the case for it.
Some people opposing this move rightly say it would be hard to interpret and translate the nuances of caste discrimination to Americans who may be unfamiliar. But one cannot address a problem without properly naming and defining it, and workshops like the ones held by Equality Labs are a vital step in educating immigrants as well as first and second-generation South Asians.
In addition, anti-caste movements in India have been calling for additional support to people from marginalized groups seeking higher education in the global north. Various organizations have popped up seeking to increase representation and reduce discrimination in employment and education. While most of these focus on humanities and social sciences there are none that I know of doing the equivalent for STEM students from marginalized backgrounds. The closest initiative I can recall is the Mentorship for Application to Ph.D. programs (MAP), which pairs Ph.D. aspirants in India to mentors in the U.S. Programs like MAP level the playing field for those who may not have access to informal networks of friends, family, and mentors who would provide insight and advice into things like CV and statement writing, in addition to the interview process. Long-standing institutions like the Nalanda Academy are revolutionizing education. In their eight years, they have supported many students on the way to seeking higher education in India and abroad.
Despite being incredibly diverse in language, culture, and religion, the communities of South Asia have lived alongside each other for a long time. India itself has often been referred to as a continent masquerading as a country. Contrary to popular American belief, there is no such thing as an Indian accent, there are many. Considering that’s just one region, learning to say DEI in many accents is essential to make our globalized community of scientists more inclusive and to improve our science.
Contrary to popular American belief, there is no such thing as an Indian accent, there are many. Considering that’s just one region, learning to say DEI in many accents is essential to make our globalized community of scientists more inclusive and to improve our science.
As Soundarajan explained to me, “DEI isn’t just about taking a moral high ground. Non-diverse science institutions produce biased outcomes.” The history of science is rife with the pernicious influences of hate and bigotry. At the University of Minnesota, which sits on Dakota land, Black student-led movements have been calling for the renaming of buildings, community control of the university police, more scholarships and studentships for Black and Native students, and decolonization of the syllabus. Collective action has brought to the fore fine-grained stories, such as this one from one of my co-authors on the open letter, that have made non-Black students like me start to pay attention to the day-to-day racism faced by Black students.
International students like myself need to educate themselves about the racist history of the countries we’ve moved to. But equally, we must remain grounded in our own reality, from the privilege that brings us here. Situating myself in this ‘sandwich of privilege’, is the only way for me to decolonize myself not just from the influences of whiteness, but also from the pernicious influences of the caste society that shaped me.