Seattle’s city council announced a landmark decision last Tuesday, to include caste as a protected category in anti-discrimination laws. The move is historic as Seattle became the first city in American history to specifically outlaw caste-based discrimination, which mainly affects people from South Asia.
As someone born in a lower-caste Nepali family now living in the U.S., I am grateful to Seattle’s city council members for banning caste-based discrimination. I see this inclusion of caste in the anti-discriminatory law and the rise of the anti-caste movement as a sign that Americans have finally started thinking about my experience in this country; that they care about my trauma and the discrimination my ancestors and I have been forced to endure for centuries. It’s a necessary decision that recognizes the changing demographics of the U.S. And I strongly believe more U.S. jurisdictions should follow suit.
Defining caste is not an easy task because it’s complex and operates differently from society to society. But in South Asia, caste exists everywhere. Caste is present in the air we breathe; caste is present in the food we eat; caste is present in the water we drink. However, to simply understand caste, it can be defined as a hierarchical system that is practiced by social institutions, through which the division between people takes place. Unlike class, caste isn’t an achieved ranking — it’s actually an ascribed status assigned at birth that determines the social positioning of an individual throughout their lives.
Harvard scholar and writer, Suraj Yengde defines caste as a social construct which “is a deceptive substance, known for its elemental capacity to digress from its primary motive of existence that governs this oldest system of human oppression, subjugation and degradation.”
There are numerous theories and narratives explaining how the caste system originated. One of the most common narratives is that the people were divided into different caste groups based on different parts of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.
Those who came from Brahma’s head are Brahmins, the priest caste, who hold the highest position in the social hierarchy. This order is followed by Kshatriyas, the warrior caste who originated from Brahma’s hands, then Vaishyas, the business caste who originated from Brahma’s thighs and lastly Shudras, the labor caste who were derived from Brahma’s feet. Beneath these four groups, there are Dalit people who are outcasts and forced to live an undignified life. They represent the most marginalized community in South Asia as they don’t have easy access to social and economical resources.
For centuries, through religious Hindu texts like Manusmriti the caste system was legitimized and deeply practiced for “maintaining of the social order”. However during the 20th century, because of the Dalit uprising and the anti-caste movement started by Dr. B.R. Amebedkar, the voices against the unjust social stratification of caste grew stronger. Revolution began in both Nepal and India, as Dalit and lower caste people rebelled against the society and its structure that never saw them as equal. And as a result, we were guaranteed seats in the parliament for equal political participation and for our protection, both states (Nepal and India) adopted anti-discriminatory policies and criminalized caste-based discrimination.
Yet things haven’t changed for us. Still, in our societies, caste holds the same power as it did thousand years ago. Till today, the caste of the person determines how they get treated by others. People from the Brahmin caste — the upper caste — continue to exploit resources, have more privileges, get better jobs, and are treated with respect, whereas Dalit folks are discriminated against in every layer of our society. There are temples, which we are not allowed to enter. There are kitchens, where we are not offered meals. And there are families, who don’t want their children to marry us.
If any of us dare to break these social codes, there are serious consequences we have to face. One such recent example is the honor killing that happened in Nepal, which shocked the core of the Nepali society and exposed its deep resentment for Dalit people.
In 2020, Nawaraj BK and five other young men were chased and killed in Soti, Nepal by upper-caste men of the village. The reason why they were murdered was that BK, a Dalit man, dared to dream of marrying one of the daughters of the upper-caste family. And hence, the upper-caste men decided to kill him, as a way to punish him and crush his dreams.
This is how low our societies are when it comes to treating the Dalit community. In India alone, every 10 minutes, a crime is perpetrated against a Dalit person. And mind you these are only reported crimes. The unreported cases of caste-based atrocities are so greater in numbers that even the files won’t be sufficient to list it.
There’s a common misconception among people that the caste system only operates within the geographical boundaries of South Asia, where many Hindu people live. But that's not true. The caste system has traveled all over the world. It has transcended physical boundaries and has made its presence felt in social institutions of other countries.
Ambedkar once said that “if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”
South Asians are one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the U.S. and account for 5.4 million people. While India and Nepal are the biggest countries where caste-based discrimination and stratification are institutionalized, the trauma of caste has followed Dalit people who are currently living in the U.S.
A report prepared by Equality Labs, a Dalit civil organization, found out that 25% of Dalits living in America were subjected to verbal and physical violence. Dalit students in the US have been subjected to caste-based discrimination in public and private universities. Meanwhile, tech companies in the U.S. have also reported of caste biases and prejudices which clearly show that caste is not the problem of the Indian subcontinent anymore — it has become a global problem and is pervasive in nature.
Thus, it becomes imperative for the U.S. and its different social institutions to acknowledge the existence of the caste system and how it promotes disparity in the South Asian communities and the diaspora.
To ignore the discrimination and trauma of marginalized Dalit people is unfair and inhumane. Most of them leave their home countries hoping to get a dignified life, where opportunities aren't snatched away from them because of their caste. Yet if they continue facing the same discrimination, their well-being will be severely compromised. Dalits and lower caste groups will never get the space to heal from the trauma they have been enduring for years.
So for them and for the sake of providing humane and safer spaces for people, where there’s no discrimination based on caste, it’s significant for other American cities and states to follow the precedent set by Seattle. Adding caste in the anti-discriminatory laws not only helps Dalit people to get legal protection in the U.S. but it also demands accountability from those who oppress them. Including caste as a protected category isn’t just an acknowledgement of Dalit history and intergenerational trauma. It’s also an acknowledgment of the changing demographics of the U.S. – and what the country needs to do to make it safer for all citizens regardless of their origins.