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Caste Is More Than a South Asian Problem — It Is a North American Issue

Narendra Jadhav, author of Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Escape from India’s Caste System, observes that every sixth human is an Indian and every sixth Indian is a Dalit. The simple fact that over 16% of India’s population were historically excluded by caste-based cruelty — one of the world’s oldest forms of discrimination — from holding power in society and were cruelly called and treated as “untouchables” is sufficient to value the importance of taking a Dalit perspective today.

Taking a Dalit perspective allows one to contextualize and trace caste-based dominance as something akin to the mythical nine-headed serpent, hydra — cut off one head and it grows back as two. Despite banning the practice of “untouchability” as a crime in 1950, caste-based dominance continues to rear its ugly head in India. This ranges from lynching in broad daylight, honor-killings in which the dominant caste relatives of an inter-caste couple murder their own for protecting the so-called sanctity of caste, daily humiliations of Dalit students by dominant caste teachers and administrators, and refusal of local police officers to appropriately register caste-based crimes, to a number of other overt and covert discriminatory actions.

Looking at these systemic atrocities, some might wonder how this violence might translate to North America.

Why should we even say “Dalit” in North America? This question is crucial for understanding and intervening in systems of domination and hegemony today.

Many are willing to admit that caste-based violence in South Asia is pervasive. The important truth, however, is that caste is more than a South Asian problem — it is very much a North American issue. Isabel Wilkerson (273) in her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, notes the logic of caste-based dominance: “In the unspoken rules of caste, the people in the dominant caste are expected to be first or in the superior station. Historically, their job is to correct, direct, discipline, and police the people in the lowest caste. They are to be ever vigilant to any rise or breach on the part of those beneath them.”

Such correcting, directing, disciplining, policing, and vigilance to breach of their dominance is an enduring pattern of behavior that dominant caste South Asians carry with them like a suitcase — yes, to North America as well.

All landscapes, local and foreign, have a way of reinforcing dominance by making expendable those whose lives are “less” and granting honor to those deemed “more.” Wilkerson (241) is helpful in this connection when she notes how this logic of dominance “forces everyone to tithe to whatever degree to the supremacy of the ruling caste in order to flourish.”

What does this have to do with Dalit people and caste in North America? Everything.

“Upon entry to the American caste system,” Wilkerson (241) observes rightly, “im­migrants learn to distance themselves from those in the basement, lest they land there themselves.” After all, if one takes the easy (but problematic) road, such distancing from those deemed “lower” in a particular racialized and caste-inflected landscape is part of the perceived need to “flourish.”

For those who are used to asserting their dominance, this means that they start seamlessly inserting themselves into existing class and racialized hierarchies, demeaning, intentionally and otherwise, those at the bottom.

I’ll never forget the dominant caste Indian doctor in the United States who told me in all seriousness that African Americans should stop complaining about injustice because the “voice of God” in Hollywood is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, a Black man. Or a white Canadian interlocutor told me, “You should self-identify as ‘East Indian’ so you are not mistaken for the ‘other Indians,’” referring to Indigenous people. He went on to add, with a laugh, “Unless you want free stuff.”

The demeaning impact of the words of both the Indian doctor and the white Canadian interlocutor were not lost on me. Inserting oneself into existing class and racialized hierarchies and perpetuating dominance can happen in serious ways and through so-called “jokes.”

In these ways of asserting dominance, caste-based discrimination travels across nations in sinister ways.

In 2017, dominant caste Indians in California argued to remove references to caste and caste-based violence in U.S. school textbooks. In 2020, caste-based discrimination of Dalit immigrants in Silicon Valley made news across the world. In 2020, a temple in New Jersey was found overworking and underpaying Dalit laborers who subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging human trafficking and violation of labor laws. All of this plus instances of everyday humiliations against caste-oppressed persons in the U.S. are a clear transference of power structures from South Asia to North America.

When dominance transports itself from one landscape into another, it mutates and manages to hide in plain sight. Part of the reason for why transpacific and transatlantic caste-based dominance often goes undetected and unnamed is because of the subtle ways in which rewards and punishments are meted out for subscribing to or resisting racialized and caste-based hierarchies.

“Dalit” comes from a root that means oppressed, crushed, and broken. The term “Dalit” has a political function in society — both in South Asia and elsewhere. It allows those who take the Dalit perspective to detect forms of dominance whenever and wherever they exist. Asserting one’s Dalit identity does not mean wallowing in self-pity or glorifying a negative identity. In fact, not understanding and affirming one’s Dalit identity is part of the erasure that perpetuates the persistence of dominance.

To understand our Dalit identity while we are in North America means joining hands with each other to celebrate our identities and stories, on the one hand, and, on the other, resisting being coopted into racialized imaginaries that downplay the persistence of dominance. Saying “Dalit” in North America, in the end, means constantly paying attention to those who are oppressed, crushed, and broken the most in social arrangements and consequently working towards a world in which dominance gives way to freedom, not just for some, but for all.