Cal State Added Caste To Its Anti-Discrimination Policy. Will Others Follow?
The California State University system added caste as a protected category to its anti-discrimination policy this week, making it the largest university system in the country to do so.
Rooted in Hindu scripture, the caste system assigns social status at birth and excludes Dalits (once known as "untouchables"), limiting everything from where they can live to what schools they can attend. India outlawed discrimination based on caste in 1950, but the system continues to affect people of South Asian descent, including United States diasporas from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a longtime Dalit rights activist. She is also the executive director of Equality Labs, which found that one in three Dalit students has faced discrimination in the U.S. The organization has also documented reports of caste-based verbal and physical assaults.
“The way that it operates here is that once people find your caste background, they will intimidate you and often use open slurs,” she said. “They'll also underestimate you [because] there are all these stereotypes about our ability to operate at the same intellectual level as others.”
More Schools To Follow
Soundararajan, who earned a bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley and a master’s at USC, said she’s happy more students will have protections she didn’t have.
“No one should have to hide their identity to feel safe and be their whole selves in an institution, especially when you're in college, because that's the time when you're discovering yourself,” she added.
Since the policy change at CSU was announced on Tuesday, she’s received calls from colleges throughout the country who are looking to implement their own.
To date, a handful of private and public institutions have issued caste-based protections. Some are campus wide, such as at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and UC Davis. Harvard University’s graduate student union has also made caste a protected category, and UC San Diego’s ethnic studies department likewise denounced discrimination based on caste. In December, the department said it would work with Dalit faculty members and allies across the campus to have caste included in the university's anti-discrimination policy.
Caste In America
At CSU, efforts kicked off at the East Bay campus after Prem Pariyar, a Nepali Dalit student, shared his experiences, compelling the social work department to recognize caste as the protected category.
Pariyar, the first in his family to graduate from high school and go on to college, moved to the U.S. in his early 30s. In conversations with his classmates, he was surprised to learn that many of his peers had never heard of caste, something that so deeply shaped his life.
But when he introduced himself to peers of South Asian descent, their attitudes toward him changed when they learned his last name, which identifies his caste. When he gave a presentation about his experiences, a non-Dalit Indian professor described caste as a solely “Indian problem.”
“I thought I had left caste discrimination behind in Nepal. But I was wrong,” Pariyar said.
He hopes the policy change at the CSU system will “help caste-oppressed students, faculty, and staff members at CSU campuses feel more safe.” He also hopes this will encourage them to report incidents of harassment or discrimination by the dominant caste students and co-workers.
“This recognition is huge but not enough,” Pariyar added, calling on the CSU system to effectively implement the protections by creating trainings and curriculum to spread awareness about caste among South Asians and non-South Asians.
He also called for scholarships and other resources “to advance the educational careers of caste-oppressed students.”
The change at the CSU was also bolstered by a series of resolutions issued by students at Cal Poly Pomona, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal State East Bay, along with the Cal State Student Association, which represents the system’s 487,000 students.
Isaac Alferos, a finance and business administration student at Cal State Fullerton, serves as the association’s president. He celebrated the change but, like Pariyar, underscored that the success of its implementation remains to be seen.
“Rest assured,” said Alferos, “we will remain vigilant.”
The change at the CSU, added manmit singh, a graduate student at San Francisco State who was part of activism efforts when they were an undergrad at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, is the work of an “inter-caste and interfaith coalition of students, led by Dalit feminists.”
They recalled all the petitions and organizing that led to the policy change, along with a two-hour open forum, in which “people who were not even affiliated with the CSU joined the call, using violent and discriminatory tactics to shut down caste protections efforts.”
“All of the leaders that came forward faced a great deal of harassment and bullying,” echoed Soundararajan. “So it's a validation to see how much pain was turned into power.”