Casteism 101: The Specter of Caste in the US

By Maanasi Shyno

Art by Olivia Gresham


Acknowledgement: The following is written by a caste-privileged Indian who was raised in the United States. The intention of sharing information is to alleviate pressure on the Dalit community and caste-oppressed to address caste violence and Savarna supremacy.

“It is unimaginable. Whatever you can imagine, it is much worse.” These are the words my dad spoke when I asked him about caste for the first time, just this past January.

Prior to this, we did not talk about caste in my family apart from a passing remark about Hinduism. I figured this might be because it was less relevant for me and my sister since we lived in the US. But as I learned more about how casteism functions in the South Asian diaspora in my independent study, I knew this could not be true. I found myself looking for answers, trying to understand what kind of role Catholics like myself had historically played in caste discrimination. What I found confirmed what I had already known: if I never had to think about caste before, it wasn’t because I was Catholic or because I lived in the US. It was because I am caste privileged.

“If you keep looking into this, you’ll be ashamed to be a Malayali,” my dad said with a somber laugh before repeating a line I’d heard frequently in my life: “Indians are the most racist people.”

South Asians in America are reluctant to talk about caste for several reasons other than it being taboo, but the most problematic is privilege. Upper caste South Asians may excuse themselves from caste privilege, saying they never talked about caste in their families and so could not have benefited from this privilege. Others will dismiss caste as a problem of their motherlands or their parents’ generation. Still others claim that talking about caste is Hindu-phobic and will add to the rampant racism South Asians deal with in the US, especially post 9/11. To be clear, we must be careful not to reproduce anti-Asian racism by acknowledging caste within and beyond the South Asian diaspora. Anti-casteism does not involve making generalizations about Hindus or Hinduism. But this does not mean hiding behind the slippery slope of Hindu-phobia as a reason not to interrogate casteism.[1] Nor does it mean forgetting that ignorance about caste or relegating casteism to the past is in itself a privilege. Talking about caste is uncomfortable for the caste privileged and tends to inspire defensiveness, but is extremely necessary.


The struggle against casteism in the US is gaining traction, making Time magazine. This February, California State University joined Brandeis University, University of California, Davis, Colby College, Colorado College, and the Claremont colleges in adding caste to its non-discrimination policy. Other institutions like the California Democratic Party have also added caste as a protected category as of last August. These victories, in addition to recent calls for anti-caste critique in universities by Dalit students, are monumental. All activists and proponents of intersectional feminism, South Asian American or not, must educate themselves on casteism and help Dalit activists incorporate it into mainstream activism.[2]

I’m writing this article because, as Dalit activist and transmedia storyteller Thenmozhi Soundararajan says, casteism is not a Dalit problem — it is an upper caste problem. Regardless of how exactly I am privileged from caste, I think it is important that as an Indian I commit myself to grappling with addressing caste-based violence in my community and homeland for the rest of my life. Since I began educating myself about casteism and the violence committed by my Syrian Christian community in particular, I’ve been haunted by my lack of awareness of caste. Casteism is incredibly pervasive in South Asian culture and society to the point that so much of it is invisible; there are so many ideas and mannerisms I consider Indian that I must untangle and interrogate for casteism. And with the small amount I’ve learned already, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is only right that the violence my ancestors and I have committed haunts me. That is, after all, the true premise of karma.

By no means is this introduction to casteism meant to be a definitive guide to understanding the pervasive nature of caste oppression. However, literacy in casteism is lacking in the South Asian diaspora, and it is our responsibility to dismantle caste hierarchy and inject mainstream social justice conversations with caste consciousness.

Understanding the Caste System

To start with, the following is an explanation of caste written by Dalit civil rights organization, Equality Labs:


Caste is a structure of oppression that affects over 1 billion people across the world. It is

a system of religiously codified exclusion that was established in Hindu scripture. At

birth, every child inherits his or her ancestor’s caste, which determines social status and

assigns “spiritual purity”[...]


There are four main Caste groups. Those at the very top are Brahmins, who have

traditionally been priests, scriptural knowledge-keepers, and legislators. Below them in

status are the Kshatriyas, who were kings and warriors. They are followed by Vaishyas, or

the merchant classes. People in these three Caste groups are often referred to as the

“upper” Castes or Savarnas. Those at the bottom of the Caste hierarchy are Shudras or

traditional peasants. Many of the lowest ranking Shudras are also termed Caste-

oppressed.


Outside the 4-Caste group structure are people considered lower than the lowest of

Castes. They go by the term Dalit meaning “broken but resilient”, formerly known as

“untouchables” and the Adivasis, or the indigenous peoples of South Asia. Together

these Caste-oppressed groups continue to experience profound injustices including

socioeconomic inequalities, usurpation of their land, rights, and experience brutal

violence at the hands of the “upper” Castes.

Dalits under Caste apartheid are forced into segregated schools, villages, places of

worship, and subject to violent oppression. Often they are denied access to public

amenities including water and roads. This entire system is enforced by violence and

maintained by one of the oldest, most persistent cultures of impunity throughout South

Asia, most notably in India, where despite the contemporary illegality of the system, it

has persisted and thrived for 2,500 years.


As described above, caste is a social category that exploits and subjugates a group of people in ways that function like class and racial oppressions, though it can not be essentialized into these categories. Caste is distinct from race in its religious origins and in the interplay of purity, professions, endogamy, and colorism. Although Dalits are often subjugated to lower class positions, caste is determined by birth and can not be escaped through economic mobility. Caste oppression operates alongside racial, class, and religious discrimination and is one of the oldest systemic oppressions in the world. As early Dalit scholar, Kumud Pawde, describes, “What comes by birth, but can't be cast off by dying — that is caste.”

Caste is dominantly reinforced through religious ideologies in Hinduism but, throughout centuries, has traveled into non-Hindu contexts as well. It should be noted that British colonial administration exacerbated the divisions of caste by systematizing previously informal hierarchies. For example, education during British rule allowed for the creation of an upper caste elite that would succeed the colonizers. However, this also allowed lower caste visionaries like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar — a Dalit scholar, jurist, activist, and one of the preeminent anti-caste theorists — to gain educational resources.[3]

Although caste oppression might function differently had India never been colonized, the British did not create it. According to Dalit scholars, it is more helpful to think of caste oppression as fluid and subject to change during all periods of change in South Asia, including British colonial rule.[3] While none can deny the contributions of colonialism in building the structure for modern caste oppression, upper caste people especially must tread carefully to not excuse centuries of pre-colonial violence against the caste oppressed when attempting to trace the roots of caste oppression.

It is also important to understand that caste exists beyond India and the Indian diaspora; evidence of caste has been found in all South Asian nations. In her article “It is time to talk about caste in Pakistan,” Professor of Critical Muslim Studies at UC San Diego Shaista Abdul Aziz Patel argues that “violent paradigms are interconnected and know no borders.” Patel discusses the ways in which the Brahminical concept of purity combined with Muslim ideas of cleanliness, when upper caste Muslims claim that lower caste people from Hindu and Christian minorities eat haram food. Rather than simply being imported to other South Asian nations, caste is ingrained into and justified through existing social practices. Not only does this highlight that casteism is relevant to all South Asians, but also the ability of caste to take root in the cultures of diasporic communities — including South Asian America.

The historical origins and functionings of the caste system are extremely complex and can not be summed up or articulated perfectly in a small section of this 101 article. For more information on the origins of caste and how it operates please explore texts written by Dalits like Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste and Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, or Karukku by Bama Faustina.

Caste Oppression in the US

In July 2020, tech company Cisco Systems was sued for the the discrimination of an Indian engineer by other Indian employees. The engineer had been “outed” as Dalit, after which he was told that he had only gained college admission due to affirmative action (known as the reservation system in India). In the United States, Dalits often have to hide their caste identity or risk social exclusion or discrimination from casteist colleagues or managers.[4] Most Human Resources departments do not have strong understandings of caste or how it manifests in the US, leaving them unequipped to address complaints involving casteism. According to the lawsuit Cisco not only failed to address this engineer’s complaint, but sidelined him in violation of the Civil Rights Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.[4]

In May 2021, a suit was filed against Hindu organization Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) coercing 200 Dalits to construct a large temple in New Jersey. According to the claim, the workers traveled under R-1 visas, which are meant for those in religious occupations, and had their passports taken upon arrival to the US. The workers were told they would be arrested without passports, and were forced to work 13 hours a day for $1.20 an hour. For several years, they were heavily monitored and unable to leave the site without a BAPS supervisor. BAPS has close ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi[5] and has supported several right-wing activities, including the building of the Ram Mandir, a temple built on the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu nationalists in Ayodhya.[6] Despite these abuses, they are being called “artisan volunteers” by BAPS.

Both of these cases highlight the varying degrees to which caste oppression manifests in the US. However, caste oppression happens largely at the individual level by upper caste South Asian Americans who uncover the castes of their peers through last names, religion, or family history and then treat them accordingly. As practiced in South Asia, questions that serve as social locutors allow South Asians in the diaspora to determine the caste positionalities of our peers. The graphic included from “Caste Privilege 101: A Primer for the Privileged” shows the ways in which seemingly simple questions are designed to reveal a person’s caste.

Source [15]: Soundararajan, T., Varatharajah, S. Caste privilege 101: A Primer for the privileged, 2015.


Through these practices, caste continues to shape relationships within the South Asian diaspora and caste biases continue to oppress caste oppressed peoples. Many upper caste South Asians were able to immigrate to the US as highly skilled professionals, recruited through selective immigration laws like the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act that abolished (in name) the previous immigration quota system as racist and unwelcoming, but bolstered the supply of cheap, temporary, and skilled laborers for American employers.[7] As such, caste bias and logic were imported with South Asian immigrants, priming the US to be a land where caste continues to haunt Dalits. Many Dalits in the US hide their caste from other South Asians for fear of seclusion, being denied promotions or hiring, and other effects of stigma.[8] Those whose identities become known often become isolated from South Asian communities or choose to work in companies without South Asians.[8] Even students face discrimination from their peers — who learn casteism from their parents — and professors who lack proper sensitivity to caste.[8] According to the 2016 Equality Labs study, 41% of South Asian Americans of lower caste have experienced caste discrimination in schools and universities while 67% experienced caste discrimination in the workplace.

Source [8]: Soundararajan, T., Caste in the United States. https://www.equalitylabs.org/castesurvey/#key-findings


Despite this, caste is not a protected category in the United States. Privileged South Asians continue to claim they “do not see caste” or have abandoned their caste as Americans, without truly interrogating casteist practices in their communities. Upper caste South Asians have come up with many arguments against recognizing caste as a protected category which rely on our minority status in the US, but this status should not be weaponized to absolve privileges and uphold oppressive structures.[8]


Savarna Supremacy: The Diasporic Mainstream in America

Recently I read “Never Have I Ever and the Commodification of Identity Politics,” an article by Indian journalist Sharanya Deepak which critiques the way caste is portrayed in Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series Never Have I Ever.[9] She opens her analysis by referring to the familiar stereotype “Indians are vegetarians” as a “cute cultural quirk” that is actually a Brahmanical construct .[9] In fact, the consumption of beef, pork, fish, and other meats is an important part of not only non-Hindu diets, but that of Dalits and other castes as well.[10] Consuming beef in particular has historically been politicized in India: student group festival stalls serving meat have been rejected because they “create caste and communal tensions;” targeting of cattle traders has been legitimized by cattle trade regulations; and college students have been segregated in dining halls based on meat consumption. India utilizes secularism to impose laws made by the powerful Hindu, upper-caste majority that are not secular at all.[11] As a result, lower caste communities can be policed for their beef consumption, despite not subscribing to Hinduism or being part of a beef-consuming caste. So are all Indians vegetarian or is this simply a packaged idea of Indian-ness based in Savarna (upper caste) hegemony? When casteist narratives like “Indians are vegetarians” come to define understandings of South Asian American-ness, we allow violent hegemonic ideas to take root in the diaspora beyond South Asia. To benefit from such reductions and consequences is a privilege in and of itself.

Amidst the dozens of articles in the conversation around the portrayal of caste in Never Have I Ever, “Never Have I Ever wasn’t Hinduphobic: and that’s precisely the problem” by Medium writer Mohini S. is a clear example of Savarna fragility. In their article, they showcase tweets from Indian American author and educator Dr. Mathangi Subramanian who criticizes the show’s decision not to discuss caste while portraying a Brahmin family. Subramanian points out indicators of the lead family’s caste: the mother’s mangal sutra, the swami names, and their love of Modi — and problematizes Kaling’s decision to utilize these upper-caste symbols as signifiers of the family’s Indian-ness. She warns that the show allows Indian-ness and Hinduism to be reduced to Brahminism. Mohini asks, “Why are Brahmins being singled out? Why are Brahmins the only ones to be subjected to such comments?” and construes Subramanian’s questioning of Savarna hegemonies with “racism” towards Brahmins. Mohini picks through Subramanian’s tweets and the works of other activists like Monica Mohapatra, condemning them as misogynistic, sexist, and divisive. What struck me most about this piece was how defensive Mohini was about criticisms of Kaling’s storytelling, going as far as to attack Equality Labs for anti-semitism and cherry-picking history to showcase violence against Hindus by Muslims, as if Hindus have never enacted violence. Mohini's disgust with South Asian Americans who have brought caste into conversations about Never Have I Ever showcases a deep-rooted ignorance or disregard for casteism in South Asian America. Their rebuttals and cries of reverse-casteism are reminiscent of white fragility for a reason: their objection to discussing caste comes from their privilege and upper-caste guilt is Savarna fragility at its finest.[12]


Why am I talking about Never Have I Ever? Kaling’s show is one of very few that claims to show the struggles of a South Asian American, and its relative popularity and success demonstrates that this narrative of South Asianness is legible to American audiences. While many Indian American youth, myself included, do not feel represented by Never Have I Ever, there are also many who do and don’t feel the need to question what narratives are made invisible. When living in an environment of narrative scarcity, as defined by scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen, poor representations that uphold casteism — and our support of these representations — shape mainstream American understandings and imaginations of what it means to be South Asian American in the image of Savarna privilege.[13] Savarna hegemony renders invisible marginalized South Asian American experiences and overshadows other pressing problems, like casteism, in the diaspora. This is not to say that our community shouldn’t engage or like Kaling’s show; we are allowed to have relationships with characters like those in Never Have I Ever, as shaky or uncertain as they may be. Rather, we need to ask, why did Kaling decide to have the divorcee outcast tell Kamala to marry the Indian man her family picks for her? Why not highlight how Aneesa being Muslim makes her different from Devi? Where are the poor South Asians? The Sikhs? In an economy of narrative scarcity, we need to ask for better storytelling and give ourselves room to question the ways our stories uphold power structures. We need to address Savarna supremacy within the United States, give up Savarna privilege, and tackle Savarna fragility.

To build solidarity within the South Asian community, especially in the United States, we need to bring caste into mainstream social justice discourse through narrative representation and other avenues.

Material Ghosts of Caste Privilege

One of the most striking points made by Soundarajan in her Firstpost Podcast “Caste in the USA,” was that many South Asians in the United States stood in solidarity with Black liberation struggles and POC movements in the United States because it is much easier than confronting casteism in our own communities.[10] In the US, South Asians have historically been excluded and continue to be treated as perpetual foreigners. While we have benefited in some ways from the model minority myth, we have also suffered from it and other forms of racial discrimination. Ultimately, white people are the hegemonic race that we as people of color in the US are oppressed by.

But when it comes to being a caste privileged South Asian American, the divide between oppressed and oppressor is not so simple. Upper caste South Asian Americans, and Brahmins in particular, hold the most privilege in South Asia. Immigrating to the US and locating ourselves within a racial hierarchy where we are not nearly as privileged does not erase Savarna privilege. Nor does being born and raised in the US absolve that privilege. Because migrants bring the purity-pollution complex and other casteist mentalities into the US, upper caste immigrants will continue to uphold casteist ideas, consciously or not, and instill them into their children. In our own communities and our relationships with other brown people, caste privileged South Asian Americans continue to uphold Savarna hegemony.

Many South Asian Americans are surprised to find that what they were raised thinking were simply cultural ideas are actually based in casteist practices. For example, endogamy is something I always interpreted as South Asian without really digging into why it is so favored, even by immigrants living in the US. Once when I made a joke about one of my friends ending up with a friend from a different sect of the Syrian Christian community, my parents told me that that sect only married people within that sect. They told me that my friend would technically be excommunicated from the community, extremely high stakes for South Asian Americans who rely on their communities to survive in racist America, even though excommunication doesn't manifest so seriously nowadays. While that idea struck me as constrictive at the time, I chalked it up to a cultural tradition I didn’t understand. I only recently unpacked this practice as casteist, rooted in the goal of caste endogamy in hopes to preserve upper caste purity within that community. Second-generation Indian family friends have endlessly joked about their parents insisting they marry someone with the same last name as them — a marriage practice intended to preserve caste that I believed was just a strange tradition. Even within my own family, I have been told that marrying within “our culture” would “make things easier” because my spouse and I would share many experiences and understandings, the subtext being that marrying another Malayali would be the easiest. While having shared understandings can be very helpful, the further subtext here is that I wouldn’t share that with just any South Asian. Only recently have I begun disentangling all of these preferences from my 1.5-generation perception of Indian culture and recognizing them as rooted in Savarna hegemonies of worth and desirability. And yet, it all seems so obvious now.


This untangling is even more complex for South Asian Americans who engage with their caste in more explicit or influential ways than I have. There is a sense of connection and value ascribed to caste pride in Brahmin families in particular that is challenging to let go of in the United States where Brahmins are not at the top of the racial hierarchy.

When my dad repeated that phrase, “Indians are the most racist people,” in the context of our conversation on casteism, he was trying to convey the severe intolerance he and others have witnessed that goes beyond prejudice and violence against other ethnicities; this intolerance has other dimensions including color, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. It’s important to note that in every other case that I have heard this phrase, it has been a tongue-in-cheek way to excuse Indian prejudice as inherent and uncompromising. But Indians, and South Asians in a larger sense, have always been radical and dynamic people.[14] When it comes to addressing casteism, we should not hide behind recently invented ideas of our idleness and stagnancy as a people.

In order to truly expel these ghosts from our lives, we must first acknowledge our privileges and use them. We can not continue to hide in our ignorance or rest in our complacency. Upper caste people can not continue to see ourselves solely as marginalized peoples in the US struggle; we must afford ourselves the complexity of also being oppressors that need to address harm done in our own communities. We need to start talking about caste in the US alongside other oppressions. Because, at the end of the day, Savarna privileges manifest much like white privileges: translucent and always present.

To learn more, explore:

  • Brahmanical Patriarchy

  • Dalit Feminism

  • Women and Caste Violence

  • Caste in South Asia and its Diaspora beyond India



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[1] These arguments, in a nutshell, are that the struggle against casteism villainizes Hinduism and therefore Hindus, which will prompt racism against Hindus. (Does the argument sound familiar? Maybe because you’ve heard similar arguments about not teaching Critical Race Theory.) I’m critical about concerns of Hindu-phobia, not because the potential for that doesn’t concern me; anti-Hindu and anti-brown racism has always been a problem in the US and is especially pressing since 9/11. However, when upper caste people like Hindu American Foundation Executive Director Suhag Shuka raise these concerns, they often serve to undermine important developments and conversations in the struggle against casteism under the guise of concerns about racism. To set the record straight, caste protections are not anti-Hindu!

[2] Rohit Chopra and Ajantha Subramanian, “The Movement to Outlaw Caste Discrimination in the U.S,” Time, February 11, 2022. https://time.com/6146141/caste-discrimination-us-opposition-grows/.

[3] Ananya Chakravarti, "Caste Wasn't a British Construct — and Anyone Who Studies History Should Know That," The Wire, June 30, 2019, https://thewire.in/caste/caste-history-postcolonial-studies.

[4] Vidya Krishnan, "The Casteism I See in America," The Atlantic, November 10, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/india-america-caste/620583/.

[5] Right-wing leader of Bharatiya Janata Party who, despite promising to address casteism through economic measures, has intensified caste disparities through his neoliberal project.

[6] David Porter, “Suit: Workers Lured from India Paid $1.20 per Hour for Years,” Associated Press, May 12, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/india-business-religion-599de5789d519c822e6d4ff15ed2c642.

[7]Chopra and Subramanian, “The Movement to Outlaw Caste Discrimination in the U.S.”

[8] Produced by Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Caste in the USA, 2019-2020. Firstpost.

[9] Sharanya, “Never Have I Ever and the Commodification of Identity Politics.”

[10] Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, “Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd on Beef as a Democratic Right,” The Caravan, November 1, 2019, https://caravanmagazine.in/reportage/fight-beef-democratic-right.

[11] Shepherd, “Beef as a Democratic Right.”

[12] Mohini S., “Never Have I Ever Wasn't Hinduphoic: And That's Precisely the Problem,” Medium, June 28, 2020, https://medium.com/@mohini./never-have-i-ever-wasnt-hinduphoic-and-that-s-precisely-the-problem-5b9f9064059d#:~:text=24%20min%20read-,Never%20Have%20I%20Ever%20wasn't%20Hinduphobic%3A%20and%20that's%20precisely,girl%20in%20a%20negative%20light.

[13] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Asian-Americans Need More Movies, Even Mediocre Ones,” The New York Times, August 21, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/opinion/crazy-rich-asians-movie.html.

[14] Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

[15]Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sinthujan Varatharajah, “Caste Privilege 101: A Primer for the Privileged,” The Aerogram, February 10, 2015, https://theaerogram.com/caste-privilege-101-primer-privileged/.

Shukla, Suhag. “Whether It Is from Celebrities or Cisco, Caste Stereotypes Harm Indian Americans.” American Kahani, February 21, 2021. https://americankahani.com/perspectives/whether-it-is-from-celebrities-or-cisco-caste-stereotypes-harm-indian-americans/.

Dutt, Yashica. “The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley,” The New York Times, July 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/opinion/caste-cisco-indian-americans-discrimination.html.

“Casteism ≠ Racism: Prof Shaista Patel on the Failures of ‘Postcolonialism’” Produced by Liz Wayne and Dr. Christine "Xine" Yao, 2021. PhDivas.