Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States. And people of Indian descent make up the largest part of America's South Asian diaspora, which includes Bangladeshi, Nepalis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans as well as people from Bhutan and the Maldives. With such a diverse community, defining what it means to be a South Asian American can be complex. This week, we dive into that complexity, exploring identity, history, political representation and a pressing issue for the South Asian diaspora: caste discrimination.
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Sayu Bhojwani [00:00:46] This is Our Body Politic I'm guest host Sayu Bhojwani, founder of Women's Democracy Lab, sitting in for Farai Chideya. Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, and Indian-Americans are the second largest Asian origin group. 4.1 million according to the Census Bureau. People of Indian descent make up the largest part of America's South Asian diaspora, which includes Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans, as well as people from Bhutan and the Maldives. With such a diverse community, what it means to be a South Asian-American is a complex question. Professor Bakirathi Mani joins us to dig into the community's history and how South Asian Americans are politically represented today. Professor Mani is co-director of Asian American Studies at Swarthmore College. She's an English professor and an expert in postcolonial studies and transnational feminist studies. Her most recent book Unseeing Empire: Photography, Representation, South Asian America earned an Honorable Mention Book Award from the Association of Asian-American Studies in 2022. Hi, Professor Mani.
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:01:58] Hi Sayu.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:02:00] Thanks for being with us. I want to start us off with something that happened 100 years ago that many of our listeners might not have heard of, but that's had a major impact on how we interpret race in the U.S.. Tell us about the case of United States versus Bhagat Singh Thind. What happened in that case and why does it matter?
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:02:21] The Case of US versus Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923 has really important historical repercussions for how we understand Asian-American cultural politics and South Asian American identity politics today. This was a case that was brought to the US Supreme Court in order to establish thin claim to become a naturalized American citizen and then had applied as an Indian immigrant to become a U.S. citizen. He obtained U.S. citizenship, but that citizenship was rescinded from him. And so the case was his attempt to reestablish his claim to U.S. citizenship. And it's a really important case in terms of how we understand the racialization of Asian-Americans in this country, but specifically the racialization of South Asian-Americans. One of the primary arguments that been put forward in this case is that he should be considered an American because of his claims to a Caucasian. This because he claimed to be part of a, quote unquote, Aryan race. And so this attempt for thind to claim citizenship via a claim to whiteness has a really important legacy for South Asian American racial politics in this country. Ultimately, Biden's claim to establish American citizenship through a claim to whiteness was denied by the US Supreme Court. But over the last several decades, a number of scholars in the field have considered what the implications of this case are for how South Asian Americans understand ourselves in proximity to whiteness, how we understand ourselves and solidarity to other communities of color.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:03:59] And why do you think South Asians are so quick to claim whiteness rather than Blackness?
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:04:05] I would say first and foremost, that, you know, the legacy of white supremacy is long and strong, right? And that for many immigrants of color to the United States, their encounter with white supremacist structures produces this very complicated, clean to want to be akin to it. But I actually think that for me, the more significant reason for claims to whiteness is how whiteness is associated with class mobility, with socioeconomic stability, with power. Right. And so when this is not just about the color of your skin, it's about the claims to power that being white in this country enables you to have for so many immigrants to this country and for South Asian Americans. I think that there is a real investment in this trope of upward socioeconomic mobility that comes with immigration and that is frequently narrated as an aspiration to quote unquote, be white. I also think that accompanying that is a long legacy of anti-Blackness in South Asian American communities that actually is not just about their experience in the United States, but actually emerges out of colourism and caste ism on the subcontinent. So there are, I think, a number of intersecting ways in which we can understand Asian-American and specifically South Asian-American claims to whiteness. One is through the legacy of white supremacy, the other is through the relationship between race and class whiteness and its relationship to upward class mobility. And then thirdly, the legacies of anti-Blackness within South Asian American. Entities that are linked to colourism and caste ism on the subcontinent and here in the United States.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:05:51] And in effect, the Bhagat Singh Thind case was about whiteness and who would be considered white and who would not be considered white. What other roadblocks have South Asians historically faced on the path to U.S. citizenship?
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:06:06] I would say that a number of my colleagues in history and political science have written about the many different kinds of immigration legislation that have effectively barred Asians from immigrating to the United States throughout the 20th century, in fact, from the 19th century through to the 20th century. We often think about the heart seller act of 1965 as being a turning point that enabled greater Asian immigration to the United States and with that greater South Asian immigration to the United States. But I think a number of folks have written about how the Heart Zeller Act was just one wave in a series of successive waves of Asian immigration to the US. Right? And so there have always been roadblocks to immigration, to Asian immigration, specifically to the United States. And there have always been Asian immigrants who have navigated their way around those legislative roadblocks.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:06:57] Let's shift to today. What does it mean to identify as South Asian in the United States, both politically and culturally?
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:07:05] I'm so compelled by this term South Asian and the larger term of South Asian-American, because I think it is a term that is unique to US cultural politics and US racial politics. So we can start with the fact that people on the subcontinent don't actually identify as South Asian. Like if you are living in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and you're say, your South Asian, that is not a term that actually holds value or meaning, but it is a deeply meaningful term for many. For a second and third generation folks of South Asian descent in the United States. Why is that? Right. And one of the things that I'm really interested in seeing and writing about and discovering is what are the ways in which coming together across this very heterogenous backgrounds of language, religion, caste, gender, class, how can being South Asian enable us to come together even momentarily as a collectivity and to be in solidarity with each other, to recognize a shared struggle with other communities of color in the United States for our rights? Right. I think that the term South Asian enables us to do that. So obviously there are many different identification categories that people embody. But I do think that the term South Asian or South Asian-American, it's an important one because it points to the political work of coming in together for struggle for rights and visibility and citizenship.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:08:37] And in that context, how do you view public figures like Nikki Haley in terms of advancing or not advancing the South Asian community at large?
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:08:47] And Nikki Haley is not alone. None of these political figures who are South Asian American and who are affiliated with the Republican Party, these are not singular figures like there have always been. I think, Asian-Americans who within public culture we sort of look at as anomalies, as if to say, wait, why are you affiliated with the other side? Like, why are you not on our progressive political side? Right. And I'm really curious about figures like Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor, and Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, because they seem to embody what to me and maybe to many others appears to be a contradiction, which is how do you understand yourself as a racialized immigrant in the United States and affiliate yourself with a political party that erodes the rights of people of color, of queer and trans people, of working class peoples across this country? How do you hold that together? Right. I am interested in how Nikki Haley, as a child of Punjabi immigrants to South Carolina, decided to shorten her name, decided to affiliate with the Republican Party and embrace her position as a woman of color with this really complicated immigration history. I don't think she's ever going to share that with us, but I do think that it has shaped her fervent desire to be the face of the Republican Party. I do think that these sorts of unknown histories of racism that she might have experienced, maybe as a young person here in the United States, how that could have impacted her claims to see herself within this political domain in this kind of right wing fashion. I do think that. First, it would be a mistake to think that everyone who identifies as South Asian is also progressive in their political orientation. And second, I think it's important for us to think about these untold stories that shape the lives of our political candidates on both sides of the spectrum.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:11:00] Well, let's turn to the other side of the spectrum. What about Kamala Harris?
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:11:05] Come to heavens. I think it's a really interesting and obviously important figure as the vice president of the United States. And she generated a lot of scrutiny and interest from South Asian American communities at large. One of the critiques that has been leveled against Kamala Harris is that she deploys her, quote unquote, Indian ness for particular reasons, to reach out to a particular vote bank or to garner the support of Asian-American communities. Again, that might be a political strategy on the part of her campaign or her current managers. But I am also really curious about the ways in which Kamala Harris is multiracial. He has been an object of so much fascination, and it's as if she can be neatly divided into two halves and represent everything to each side, right? She can be both a Black woman who is fully claimed by Black communities, and she can be a South Asian woman who is fully trained by South Asian communities. But of course, she's both. And that makes her a very complicated person. Makes her a person. Right. And I think that we need to kind of figure out why is it that we foist so much of our claims to representation on women like Kamala Harris as if she is the only way in which South Asians can be represented in US public culture? Right. But we actually represent ourselves in so many other ways.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:12:29] Professor Mani, let's go back to the Naturalization Act of 1906, which defined who could become U.S. citizens by naturalization as, quote, free white persons and aliens of African Nativity and persons of African descent. What legacy has that created today, and how does that contribute to anti-Blackness within the South Asian-American community?
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:12:53] I think the legacy that act has today is twofold. The first is that it reproduces a binary between who is a citizen and who is not, who can claim citizenship and who cannot. Right. The second and you were speaking about the legacy of anti-Blackness in relation to this, we know that legal citizenship as a category does not correspond with political citizenship or political rights. We know that even if Black people in the United States were eligible for citizenship in paper, that did not mean that they were treated as human beings then or no. Right. So I think we have to be really careful about the ways in which we understand citizenship as a kind of panacea or citizenship as a category that is about fully belonging to the country. Citizenship is a political status that does not necessarily correspond to the most fundamental of human rights, like the right to be recognized as human, like the right to dignity, like the right to work or to housing or to an education. Citizenship doesn't actually confer those things. And so when I think about the long legacy of anti-Blackness within these legislative acts that shape U.S. citizenship today, I'm also thinking about, you know, South Asian American complicity in perpetuating anti-Blackness through how we have been so fervently attached to citizenship as if this means that we belong. And that is just not true.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:14:27] As we close, let's talk about your perspective on belonging as a global citizen and a daughter of Indian immigrants to Japan who now lives and works in the U.S. From both your personal and professional experience, what does it mean to truly belong?
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:14:43] I really appreciate that question for you because it's actually kind of been my life's work to think about what does belonging mean and how does it feel to belong? I came to the United States first as a foreign student, as an international student for my undergraduate degree from Japan, coming to the US and meeting in college, other Asian Americans, and particularly South Asians, who when I asked them where they were from, they didn't say that they were Gujarati or Punjabi or Bengali or Marathi. They didn't say they were Muslim or Christian or Sikh. They said, you know, Oh, I'm from Cherry Hill or I'm from Newark, New Jersey, or I'm from the suburbs of D.C., Right. It had never occurred to me that you could establish the place that you live in as a place that you belong to. And so I think for me, the question of belonging is always a question of creating community. How do you create community with who do you align with? Who do you show up for and who shows up for you? Right. That's part of what the sensation, the feeling of belonging is. And so I have been really grateful to cultural workers who have shown me and who have created cultural works that represent all these different ways in which we can aspire to belong in the United States and simultaneously, and really importantly, how we can critique the United States even as we want to establish our belonging here, that those two things have to go hand in hand. But belonging here does not mean assimilating, and that belonging here does not mean being patriotic in the way that the US state demands of us. It means like being in a position of critique and it means like thinking about creating community as a way of generating that critique of race, of citizenship, and of belonging.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:16:34] Thank you so much, Dr. Mani.
Professor Bakirathi Mani [00:16:36] Thank you.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:16:38] That was Bakirathi Mani, professor and co-director of Asian-American Studies at Swarthmore College.
We turn next to another pressing issue for the South Asian Diaspora caste. In 2020, California sued tech company Cisco for caste discrimination. In the weeks following that, the civil rights organization Equality Labs received over 250 claims of discrimination from tech industry workers. Earlier this year, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination. Now California is on track to become the first state in the U.S. to do the same. Joining me to talk more about this is freelance journalist Sonia Paul, whose recent BBC audio documentary explores allegations of caste discrimination in Silicon Valley. Welcome, Sonia.
Sonia Paul [00:17:28] Hi, Sue. Thanks for having me.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:17:30] Over the past several years, you've covered caste discrimination and its many manifestations here in the US. Explain what it is and how it shows up in everyday life.
Sonia Paul [00:17:40] Caste as a system of social stratification based on inherited status. Your caste background is the caste background of your family. And the key thing to understand is that it's hereditary and it's hierarchical. And in South Asia, it's often associated with purity and pollution and your occupation. Right? So the quote unquote, higher you are on the caste system, the better your job. If you were designated to be on the lower rungs, you would be more of a laborer, like a manual scavenger or work with mother like these occupations that socially speaking people with determined to be unclean.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:18:20] Sonia In your recent audio documentary for BBC, you explored the hidden caste codes of Silicon Valley. Through that coverage, you spoke with caste impacted workers. Tell me about some of the people you spoke with. What were their stories?
Sonia Paul [00:18:35] So I have to say that in general, it's very difficult to get people who have experienced caste discrimination to come forward and speak openly. There is a taboo around discussing caste. But for the documentary, we profiled three different individuals, one who goes by the name Sidan, and that's a pseudonym, and he's someone that I had also profiled for a magazine story for Wired last year. And his story is basically one of how we can understand how a person navigates their caste background in a world where they feel that being open about their caste identity would be the bias or discrimination. Siddhant throughout his entire lifetime has experienced discrimination, microaggressions. But in his mind, he's always wondering was it because of caste? Was it because of something else? And so he basically adopts a kind of don't ask, don't tell policy about caste. There was another person I talked to who goes by the name of Sam Cornelius. Again, this is a pseudonym, and he's on an H-1B visa. And he detailed a story about how when he was at a dinner at his previous company, cars came up. And Sam, who identifies as a Dalit, was talking about how the system is perpetuating discrimination and it's something that still exists. And he was talking about the realities as he's faced it and that his managers who were of Indian descent, he could see how it irritated them because they perceived him talking about the caste system as reflecting poorly upon India. And after that dinner, things began to unravel. He sort of could feel shunned in this company. But what really set things off is that they send him back to India and he could only come to the conclusion that it had to do with that conversation. Right. And now he's back in the US on another H-1B visa. But his scenario is really one of how his immigration status really inhibits him from coming forward because it's due to his visa that he has a job here in the US and he never knows what may or may not risk his job. And the third person I talked to was the only person who was willing to use his real name. His name is Harsha, and I think his story is one that there is close attention to when it comes to trying to understand why some activists and legal scholars are now proposing we have casts as an explicit category under anti-discrimination laws. He was working at a company and had been hired by one manager. Then a new manager came in and one of the first questions this new manager asked was, Oh, how do you pronounce your last name? Is it Pillai or Pillay? And the thing is, is that his last name? Depending on the pronunciation and depending upon the region in India, where you understand that last name, it could either signify like a dominant or privileged caste background or someone of adult background. And after that conversation, things go as normal in the company. Every so often they have these performance evaluations. And Harsha had previously had top evaluations, and now all of the sudden with this new manager who had asked about his last name, he had very poor appraisals and he was just like, Wait, what is going on? And so he brought it up to the h.r. Department in this company that he you know, i think i'm the victim of caste discrimination. They advise him to go to the legal department at the company. And so the legal department began an investigation and base under existing protections like national origin. They would say, yes, caste discrimination should be classified under our protections. But after the investigation, they concluded that caste discrimination didn't occur. And as he told me, he's like, I've experienced this kind of discrimination my entire life. I know what happened, but I'm pretty sure it's because of the loopholes in the legal definition of cars and how H.R. knows how to look for caste, what the burden of proof ought to be that they weren't able to see what I see.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:23:10] Well, and what about the global reaction to the documentary once it did come out?
Sonia Paul [00:23:15] You know, I've been covering caste for several years, and so I'm also now trying to work on stories beyond the tech industry outside the Indian diaspora, because there's a tendency to conflate India in class and Catholics throughout South Asia and globally. But I think it's also at this particular moment. Where we are seeing the movement to add caste as a protected characteristic and anti-discrimination laws. And people are wondering about that, like, why is this happening? Then I think what is happening is that because there's so much vocal support and opposition for these protections, we kind of miss hearing the voices of the people themselves who are affected. And that's what I'm trying to focus on the most as much as I can. But of course, it's also difficult because the more vocal, the pushback, the more silent people want to be, too. They also don't want to experience the social ostracization or internalized trauma, externalized trauma that comes from talking about caste.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:24:17] India's constitution, adopted way back in 1949, explicitly banned caste discrimination. Although, as you've indicated, caste discrimination exists in other countries in South Asia as well. Why has it found such fertile ground in the US?
Sonia Paul [00:24:33] The discussion of caste and the claims of caste discrimination have come as we've also just seen increased immigration from South Asia to the United States, particularly from India to Silicon Valley. And I think that's why we ended up focusing on the tech industry. Like 75% of all H-1B visas go to people from India. With the I.T. boom in the nineties and 2000, we saw so many Indian immigrants coming to this region of the world. But also what's happened in India in particular was that you've also had affirmative action policies that have also granted people from historically oppressed caste backgrounds, seats at universities. They've been able to get ahead in the world more than they have before. And one thing that's important to ground this conversation is the majority of Indian immigrants in the United States come from historically privileged caste backgrounds. But once we're here in the United States, if caste is not a conscious thing they're thinking about or feels relevant to their lives, it's not something that people are going to be talking about, Right? So I think until now, we've had this myth of caste looseness among South Asians in the US. And what we're now seeing is people rejecting that myth. And it can be hard to coalesce caste within this broad group that's often flattened out as being a monolith. But it is important to recognize that we have these different ways of identifying ourselves. And if people are coming forward with claims, I think it's important to pay attention to that.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:26:13] Sonia, what do you say to criticism that efforts to address caste discrimination have the potential to discriminate against Hindus and Indians more broadly?
Sonia Paul [00:26:25] So I think. What we're seeing has been an ongoing resistance to talking openly about costs and to acknowledging the realities of costs as the system of social stratification. And I think the resistance has to do with shame. Honestly, like there are people who don't like this new bill in California, SB 403 they reject the caste system, but they fear that it's going to associate caste with them or their culture or religion. And if you look at the bill, the way it's written, it mentions no particular region of the world. It mentions no particular religion. It talks about caste as inherited status and their caste systems around the world, not just in South Asia. Even the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, they've come out with reports in the last several years that found that like upwards of 250 million people around the world, in Asia, in the Middle East and Africa face caste discrimination. It may not be called caste at the local ground level, but the system of exclusion is just the same. It's exclusion based on descent and occupation, on inherited status. So I actually think we're at a moment now where we have the capacity to see caste beyond South Asia, to see caste beyond Hinduism on a truly cross-cultural transnational level.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:28:02] Before we wrap up, Sonia, you're a second generation South Asian. How is this playing out, among others, second and third generation South Asian Americans? And what made you decide to focus on caste discrimination in your reporting?
Sonia Paul [00:28:15] Yeah, it's a really interesting question about how it's affecting other second generation, third generation people. I think there are still some people who don't know much about caste and so they feel hesitant to talk about it. I can say that for me, caste just is a window of exploration and understanding. I find it an interesting. Prison to navigate my own family's history, to see how that has situated me in this new landscape. And I am broadly interested, too, in how different generations mix and assimilate how their identities evolve. I think it makes sense that a lot of second generation South Asians wouldn't know much about cars. But I also think now is an opportunity to explore that part of their identities if they would like to also understand what's happening with different generations of immigrants. I think for me to explore this issue in my reporting, I just personally find it fascinating. And part of why I've continued to follow this over the years is that I don't really see anybody else covering it as much. I mean, now we see a lot of stories about cars and cars, discrimination, but like on an intellectual level. What does this mean for our anti-discrimination laws? What does this mean for the United States as a country when it comes to dealing with kinds of discrimination that it didn't previously experience before? I think the consideration of cars under the law is a really interesting one, so I'm excited to follow that.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:29:57] Thank you so much, Sonia. Thanks for being with us.
Sonia Paul [00:29:59] Yeah, thank you.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:30:01] That was freelance journalist Sonia Paul. You can find her new audio documentary, The Hidden Caste Codes of Silicon Valley on the BBC's podcast, The Documentary.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:30:28] You're listening to Our Body Politic. I'm Sayu Bhojwani founder of Women's Democracy Lab, sitting in for Farai Chideya. Each week on the show, we bring you a roundtable called Sippin’ the Political Tea or unpacking how caste discrimination shows up in the U.S. And what's being done to change it? Joining me is Thenmozhi Soundararajan founder of the Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs, and author of the new book The Trauma of Cast: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing and Abolition. Thenmozhi, it's great to have you on.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan Oh, such a pleasure to be here and looking forward to getting into it.
Sayu Bhojwani Same here. Also joining us is Yashica Dutt, an antique caste advocate, journalist and author of the book Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir. Hi, Yashica. Thanks for being with us.
Yashica Dutt [00:31:17] Hi Sayu. Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:31:21] Thenmozhi, I wanted to start with you. We've seen this growing momentum around addressing caste oppression and discrimination. Can you talk about what inspired you to step into this lane of advocacy?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan [00:31:32] Absolutely. I mean, for me, it's really a life's work. I was born in California, and from the time that I was a child, I saw severe and grave discrimination across every institution of the state. I was discriminated against in K-12 education, you know, where I had parents practice the process of untouchability, where they wouldn't let me eat on their plates in their house. And I also saw discrimination in terms of my university where I was bullied and faced test professors, but also saw severe trafficking and exploitation of young caste oppressed girls by a landlord there named Lucky Ali Reddy in the city of Berkeley, who trafficked workers and these young girls to be his sex slaves. And seeing that process really just opened up my eyes that it wasn't just my family's personal experience and trauma. It was actually a structural phenomenon and that we needed to build the civil rights movement for this work. And that's why that experience and so many other stories of caste oppressed workers across the country really inspired Dalit women to found the organization Equality Lab so we could really build a civil rights movement to address these many issues. And the discrimination, which is very large in our homelands, has now been brought here by immigrants who come from caste oppressed communities. In our research, we found that one in four caste oppressed people face physical and verbal assault, one in three educational discrimination and two out of three workplace discrimination. So for us, this is an issue that is a major civil rights issue, and we need an immediate remedy, which is why we're in the middle of trying to pass this really important bill in California called SB 403 to end caste discrimination.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:33:30] Yeah, and I'm looking forward to getting into how that is going. But first, I'd like to hear from Yashica. What motivated you to take up anti caste advocacy?
Yashica Dutt [00:33:39] Yes, thank you for that question. Actually, for me, this was a really difficult journey to come to this point where I could even talk about caste. I was born in India in one of the most untouchable casts. I was born in a metal scavenging family, and it was a profession that I saw folks in my family, even my grandmothers still engage in. That's how they allowed their husbands to study and get out of the caste-based professions through affirmative action. And then they were able to get government jobs. And which is why you see this effect that now I'm here in the United States. I speak the way I do, and I'm a writer. So this is an intergenerational change that started many generations ago. But I grew up hiding my caste. This was a recourse that millions of Dalits in India are forced to take because we live and experience every day the effects of living in a cost oppressed world. This is not some distant issue for us. This is everyday life. We grew up hearing comments. We grew up with exclusion. We grew up going to schools and teachers literally saying to us that we don't deserve to be here because Dalits are lower cost. People don't deserve education. Only 3 to 4 generations ago, my family was allowed to read and write and we also grew up. And it goes without saying that there was an extreme amount of economic hardship. Dalits were not allowed to own land. They were not allowed to leave the caste-based professions. The only reason we were able to do that was through affirmative action. When I was a young girl in a small town in India, in Rajasthan, in Ajmer, my mother tried everything she could do to protect me from the world that she had lived experiencing. This was not a fairy tale. This was something that could be a matter of life and death. Dalits are still killed in India for expressing and asserting that caste identity. Now, of course, there are different levels of discrimination, but the danger is very real and present. So we were taught to hide accost, which is why my book is called Coming Out As Dalit, because the shame that comes with living with a different identity, with knowing that you will never be like them, because that's what the system, the culture around you, is telling you and how you come out of that process, that internalized caste ism. That's a whole journey that many Dalits like myself have had to go through. And once I was able to make that leap only because there was a brave student called Rohith Vemula, who was institutionally murdered for trying to do the same thing, for trying to assert his rights as a Dalit person that awakened so, so many of us in 2016. And that's when I decided to come out as Dalit. And that was my entry point in this kind of speaking out and owning my cost and owning my voice. You know, it was not a career meant in activism. It was just making sense of what life was and how to deal with your own internal shame, how to deal with your own internal sense of self-worth, which the culture around you is telling you that should not exist.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:36:48] Thank you for sharing that. Then, Maury, you already talked about some of the findings in the Equality Labs report. One in three Dalit students reporting discrimination during their education. Two out of three Dalits surveyed reported being treated unfairly at work and others describing how they live in fear of being outed or based on their caste. Can you talk about how these experiences and stories have helped to inform your work to dismantle caste oppression?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan [00:37:16] Absolutely. We actually found that in working on the suffering of our community here in North America, that caste is very practical and tactical in the way that it manifests in our institutions. Because in our work we have talked with workers in every industry. So we have talked to truck drivers. We've talked to Uber drivers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, domestic caregivers, homemakers. And what we've seen is that caste is in every American institution and caste. Oppressed people need a grave remedy to addressing these problems. And some of the things that we're talking about are very visible to people that know about civil rights and labor rights violations. What we're hearing about is desperate hiring practices, wage theft, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment and gender based violence, even demotion and termination. And across the board, when we've talked to workers across all of these different industries, what we've seen is the number one reason that caste oppressed people are not getting a remedy is because they're being told by the companies that they work for. That caste is not a protected category. And that goes against the understanding that the DOJ, the EEOC and the California Department of Civil Rights has held, where they understand caste to be currently covered under existing protected categories. But when it's not made explicit, what happens is companies kind of elect whether or not to really protect workers that are caste suppressed. And I know this very personally because this happened to me last year when I was supposed to give a talk for Dalit History Month at Google News. And there were bigots who were shocked that Google would commit to caste equity and they started to call in mass to try to get the top canceled. And some of the things that the opponents would say was that they were afraid for their lives. If I were to speak about caste equity, and certainly there can be discomfort when we're talking about issues of civil rights, but I've never met anyone who has ever died of a DUI talk. But, you know, Google News could not discern this information. And in the back and forth, it occurred because Tanuja Gupta, who was a manager at Google News, she really was shocked at this level of unconscionable squashing of the discourse of caste equity. And so she mobilized thousands of workers to demand that Google reinstate the talk and also add caste as a protected category. And I was part of a conversation with the senior VP at Google, and I said, why is Google not adding cases of protected category? You know, the California Department of Civil Rights not only says that caste is covered, but is encouraging companies that practice in the state to add caste. And I said, are you a higher authority than the California Department that is responsible for civil rights? And her response was, no, it's not that we're higher. We're just different. And we don't believe at Google that caste is covered. And this has happened with Cisco as well. So I think when you have companies as powerful as Google and Cisco telling their cast oppressed workers, that cast is not covered, there is a huge civil and labor rights problems because caste oppressed people can't bury the burden of the excluded and face severe discrimination while reforming the institutions that are allowing such civil and labor rights violations. And that's the number one reasons why Equality Labs and the California Coalition for Caste Equity has worked with Senator Aisha Williams office to introduce the bill SB 403 to end caste discrimination. Because until we clarify and make our protections for caste equity explicit, we will still see continuing and ongoing grave harm to Dalit people. And some of these stories, I'm telling you, Sayu, they are just heartbreaking. Like, I remember talking to this one Uber driver who was living in Central Valley and his you know, his neighbor found out that he was Dalit and he started cursing him out and saying, You disgusting, Blacky, how dare you come here? Back at home, you would be cleaning our toilets and working our fields. You have no right to be here. We are going to kill you. And they said this threat in front of his wife and his toddler. And. And then they would just incessantly harass him on the phone and by text. And he tried to report this crime four times to the police. But the police could not understand this as a hate crime because they didn't understand caste. And it was only in the fourth time that it was able to get a report and then use that to get a restraining order. But during that time period, you know, any amount of violence could have occurred. And these are the kinds of severe cases that we're hearing across the state, which is why we're risking violence even by coming forward to fight for this bill. But we don't have a choice. You know, we have a right, just like any other American, to pursue opportunity and to have equal opportunity and access to American institutions free from violence and discrimination. And that's why this bill is so important, because it's a landmark testament of the Dalits across the country coming out of the closet, demanding our rights and asking for our dignity.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:42:54] Yeah. Shaka, if you could talk to us about how the American shorthand or grouping of folks as simply South Asian, Indian or Brown might erase issues facing caste oppressed people?
Yashica Dutt [00:43:09] Yeah, I think that's been the shorthand that has been invented for decades now. There was a conversation within the South-Asian community, within the Indian-American community, how there was friction to be called South Asian, because we understand that people from the Indian diaspora make up a large part of the South Asian American population. So this kind of primacy of one nation state, of one kind of visibility of one, maybe religion of hypermasculine culture that has been a part of our communities, unfortunately for a long time since the big wave of 1965 immigration, the second big wave scholars have talked about how the technocrats who came to the United States, people who were in these professions that were desirable by the country, were mostly male, were mostly upper caste, were also mostly Hindu. So the tenor of the diaspora has been created in a way that it looks the same. It's really important for us to understand the pluralistic aspect of the South Asian diaspora. I talked about Indian matchmaking and how that is one of the biggest, most visible shows for the South Asian diaspora. And there is only one kind of narrative that is being pushed forward, whether it's that or never have I ever or look at any other big South Asian product, they are putting out the narrative of a certain kind of person who is very well-to-do. We talk about the model minority myth and how Indian-Americans are among the highest earning minorities in the United States. But lost are the people who don't make that kind of money loss, are the people who are undocumented. If you look at the statistics, one of the most rapidly increasing undocumented populations in the United States coming from South Asia, if you look at what's happening back home, the rising fundamentalism, the threat to Muslims, the threat to Dalits, these people are all risking their lives to get just one chance to get freedom and experience that kind of liberty that America promises. And when they come here, caste protections fail them. And what is just the singular narrative. In fact, when I came to the United States in 2014, I was faced with this narrative that South Asians only work in tech. Now we have these diverse voices in journalism. South Asian journalists have been active for decades, but thankfully that narrative is now beginning to change. But still, the highlight of the South Asian diaspora is Indian-American, is upper caste and is well-to-do, extremely rich, extremely wealthy.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:45:49] Let's scale out into the broader issue of race and oppression in the United States, which both of you have hinted at. Many Americans have trouble understanding the enduring impact of race and white supremacy on our present day lives. And caste discrimination just adds another nuance layer to that conversation. As you both have discussed. In 2020, Isabel Wilkerson drew parallels between caste discrimination and racism in the United States. In her book, Caste The Origins of Our Discontent. Thenmozhi, could you talk about your thoughts on that book, whether you agree with her? What parallels do you see between caste discrimination and racism in the United States?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan [00:46:29] Well, I think that it's really important to know that there's a long, storied history of Black and Dalit civil rights leaders being in communication with each other. They're raising their experiences of what it is to endure systems of dehumanization, whether it's white supremacy and settler colonialism in the United States or caste and communism in the South Asian context. So I see Isabel Wilkerson's book as one in a very long tradition of that, and I really appreciate the way that she tried to tie her understanding of being an oppressed person under white supremacy with caste systems across the world. But I think what's important for your audience is that South Asians are racialized when they come here. But it's a category with a lot of tensions. And that's really where the conversation of caste in the United States falls. And it means that sometimes South Asians actually don't show up in the right way for other bipoc communities. Our antidote mindset shows up as an anti-Black or anti-immigrant mindset to other communities, and it also means that there's a lot of internal healing we have to really do in order for us to be allied better with other communities. But there's this really beautiful history that Professor Kevin Brown, who is one of the only comparative legal civil rights scholars of Black and Dalit civil rights history, has written about where he talks about how the development of the category of race in the United States by Black civil rights abolitionists was indebted in part for language that came out of statutes related to caste, because at that time it was debated whether or not race could be its own protected category, and they needed language for it. You know, even calling race, racial caste and bringing in discussions of India and the Indian caste system to understand how segregation and class and caste informed the idea of race. So there is a deep tradition of us informing our paths to freedom, both legally, socially and culturally and politically. And this is this profound tradition that I think Isabel is really pointing to. And it's been a really important platform for us to to have conversations globally about test and race.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:48:49] Given these linked traditions. Yashica, how do you think we need to navigate the multiple layers of oppression that are operating within our society and ensure that we aren't perpetuating other forms of oppression as we do this work?
Yashica Dutt [00:49:03] That's a great question, and I can only speak about this from an immigrant perspective. I want to underscore how, you know, for a lot of Dalits who are in India looking at America, looking at American politics, looking at Black resistance, is hugely inspiring. While many dominant caste people might not be engaging with bell hooks, might not be engaging, but James Baldwin, just people, even in the in the most destitute poor neighborhoods, will be reading James Baldwin biographies. And that kind of connections have been historically there. You know, if you look at the Panther Party, which was hugely inspired by the Black Panther Party in the seventies, and finally, those connections have also been acknowledged. So there is a lot of rich history and tradition that exists of solidarity, of inspiration, and that comes from both sides, you know, And even at that time, the Black Panther Party had acknowledged that its Panthers to have existed and seen the parallel movement that they had created. So I think that something that we need to absolutely acknowledge, but at the same time, I think we have to avoid the pitfalls of equating race with caste, because caste has so many remarkable differences as a structure of oppression. Caste is very similar to race, but the way it manifests, the way its history has been shaped by India essentially being a developing nation that is constantly looking at the world, that is constantly looking at ways to position itself, that precludes it from directly dealing with caste. For example, the Indian government and the United Nations talked about how cost was the internal problem, and that is why we see. Only now getting the due that it deserves. For decades, scholars in the United States who are South-Asian Americans, who are Indian scholars, have denied caste, have talked about how colonialism was responsible for. Some scholars have actually gone on record to say the British created caste, while they may have exacerbated the issues. But the issues already existed, it's important for us to acknowledge that differences exist and then understand and move forward in those terms instead of overlapping one on top of the other and using language that doesn't make sense for either. Dalit. Americans who are here are very niche and specific group. But caste in itself, it goes back to the subcontinent, and we cannot leave that out of the conversation when we talk about the overlapping of race and caste.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:51:38] Thenmozhi, I know that you've been involved with the California legislation introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab. What has been the response from caste oppressed people? And can you also talk about the death threats and attacks on Senator Wahab's leadership and how important it is for allies to speak out against caste discrimination?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan [00:51:57] Well, I think what's really important for people to know is that state Senator Aisha Wahab is a freshman senator and the first Muslim senator in California history. So she is an incredible firebrand in so many different ways. And as a freshman senator, to take on a bill of this nature is historic and so courageous because few people would risk their career so early on for a community that is as depressed as we are. This bill, which is actually a thing to be celebrated and an incredible contribution to California and American civil rights history has been met with extreme political violence by its opponents who have targeted Aisha and her office with Islamophobic, racist and gendered violence, including bullying her staff using slurs when coming in to the office, intimidating them when they're coming and doing their daily functions, and also inflicting that same violence, disinformation and bigotry at civil rights leaders and organizations like myself, Equality Labs and members of the California Coalition for Cost Equity, including the very large Robert Garcia Sikh community in California. And it is terrifying. It is scary. I just was at the judiciary hearing that happened. And when we were in line, people were shoving me and someone shoved me so hard that my knee was sprained and I had to go and give testimony while struggling with that injury. But that's the face of the bigotry around this issue. And it's really shocking, I think, for people who have not engaged or understood this issue very well. But we're talking about centuries of intergenerational harm and violence and trauma. And that's a big part of what I talk about in my book, is that we need to be able to look at this pain that exists within caste oppressed communities, not just as the burden of what happens to Dalit people or people who are at the bottom. But there's actually a complicity and a shocking amount of inability to hold any sort of level of caste dressed in the bodies of caste privilege, people such that they melt down and then start to go into these really violent behaviors at the discussion of equity and the civil rights of caste oppressed people. So this is why it's so important that I stand with Dalit civil rights leaders and organizations in the state of California. Don't look away, but stand up, get involved, you know? Support State Senator Aisha Wahab and organizations like Equality Labs and the Robert Garcia community in California. Because we are taking some very hard hits to fight for our freedom. And, you know, I was just meeting with my security consultant because I've started to get death threats again. And this is not new for me as a Dalit civil rights leader. And the incident that I spoke about at Google last year, I was in a safe house for two months because people were trying to find out where my parents lived, trying to go and beat them up to try to send me a message. It's horrific because all we are doing is asking to stop discrimination for all people. And this is where I think that there's a really big element of how healing can really be a core force to addressing the polarization on this issue. Because I understand our opponents feel discomforted by the progress that this bill might reflect. But, you know, discomfort and fragility are not the same as grave discrimination. And I really want to meet our opponents who are coming to the table with bigotry and fear and tell them we're just here with. Love and with empathy, and that there is still a place for them to come to the table around reconciliation, around caste. But we cannot have a conversation about reconciliation until we solve the grave discrimination that's going on.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:56:05] Thank you for sharing that and for bringing up the issue of healing. Yashica, can you offer some thoughts on resilience and healing?
Yashica Dutt [00:56:11] My focus on healing is of the people I've grown up in a system where we've been treated callously day after day, where we've been denied, erased, we have been scolded for even talking about the experiences that we're having with caste. So for me to broaden the lens and talk about the healing of dominant caste people is a difficult proposition. That's definitely a worthy idea to undertake. But at this point, having made that journey so recently in my own life and seeing people who are making that journey every day within the Indian diaspora, within Indian folks back home, it's very hard for me to say, let's start with the healing of dominant caste people. I want to talk about the healing of Dalit people who are still dealing with the trauma of experiencing cost, of being negated. Let's talk about tech. If you're comparing tech in America and tech in India, we at least now, thanks to the Dalit engineer engineering, the Cisco case, we now have an avenue to talk about caste tech in India, which is, by the way, a massive industry and rapidly growing. One of the big road stories of India is Indian tech. There is no avenue to talk about caste. There is blatant caste discrimination. So when you're dealing with those problems on a day to day basis, how can we pull the focus away elsewhere? I think the focus needs to be on our own healing. And I do want to say that let's not sideline India. Let's not sideline South Asia and say, oh, but that happens somewhere where we don't care about nor the communities are interconnected. The Indian diaspora, if you just focus on India for a moment, is one of the most interconnected diasporas that exists globally. So you cannot separate what's happening in India versus what's happening in the States. We have business relationships between diaspora folk who set up companies in India. We have Indian companies who set up companies in the United States. So there is exchange, especially economic exchange, which is constantly happening. So to pay attention to costs in India is vital. And healing starts with Dalit folks accepting their own self-worth and stop believing in the myths that they've been sold. Even in the United States. That is, there are many folks within the diaspora, within the Dalit diaspora who have a hard time accepting or acknowledging the shame that they have been made to experience because of the costs. And I think that's where for me, the healing starts there with your own journey, whether you decide to come out has done it or not, whether you're a certain caste identity or not. And if you're able to understand that you are not the lie that you've been told your entire life, that itself is the path to healing.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:59:04] Thanks Yashica. Thanks for being with us today.
Yashica Dutt [00:59:07] Thank you so much Sayu.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:59:08] And thanks Thenmozhi, for joining us as well.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan [00:59:11] Oh, so grateful to be here. Thank you for covering this topic.
Sayu Bhojwani [00:59:15] That was Thenmozhi Soundararajan founder of the Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs, and author and journalist Yashica Dutt.
Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcast. You can also find us on Instagram and Twitter at Our Body Politic. Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. I'm today's host, Sayu Bhojwani.
Farai Chideya and Nina Spensley are executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Anoa Changa is our producer. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Monica Morales-Garcia is our fact checker.
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