Caste-oppressed students, who mostly hail from South Asian immigrant and diaspora backgrounds, say that casteism tends to manifest in US colleges and universities through slurs, microaggressions and social exclusion. But because these dynamics play out within these minority communities, most other Americans have little understanding of how they operate — leaving these students, many of whom refer to themselves as Dalits, without recourse.
“This is very important for us because we can feel safer,” said Prem Pariyar, a recent alumnus of Cal State East Bay who helped advocate for caste protections across CSU’s 23 campuses. “At least the university has a policy to recognize our pain and to recognize our issues.”
Now that Cal State has declared caste a protected status, Dalit students and employees on its campuses have an avenue for accountability, activists said. And now that the largest university system in the country’s most populous state has committed to caste protections, they hope that the movement for caste equity will continue to grow.
Caste has followed South Asians to the US
That was the experience for Pariyar, who is a Dalit Hindu and moved to the US from Nepal in 2015 in part, he said, to escape caste oppression. He said his family faced discrimination and violence from dominant caste Nepalis both because of their caste and their outspokenness on such injustices. By coming to the US, Pariyar assumed he would be leaving that all behind.
“I thought at that time that now I don’t have to experience caste discrimination because the US is different. In the US, the South Asian diaspora, including the Nepali diaspora, are educated … so they don’t believe in caste discrimination,” he said. “But I was wrong. Totally wrong.”
Caste seemed to follow Pariyar even in California. Unlike other Dalits he encountered in the US, Pariyar didn’t hide his last name, which gave away his caste identity. But he said he found that his transparency colored his interactions with caste-privileged Nepalis. He felt their tone of voice and behavior toward him change once they learned his full name. At gatherings in the homes of other community members, he said he would be given a plate of food while others were allowed to serve themselves — implying that his handling of the food might somehow pollute it.
When Pariyar enrolled in a graduate program at Cal State East Bay in 2019, he found that he couldn’t escape caste there either. While waiting at a Bay Area rapid transit station on one occasion, he encountered two Nepali students and introduced himself. Their conversation was warm, he said, until they asked for his name. When he told them, Pariyar said they looked him up and down and appeared uncomfortable. Their reaction was humiliating.
“Why? Why do they do that?” Pariyar said. “They were surprised seeing a Nepali Dalit from ‘untouchable’ community going to their university.”
Another time, Pariyar brought up his experiences with caste discrimination during a classroom discussion about the trauma of racism and sexism. Some South Asian students in the class, he said, reacted as though caste discrimination was completely foreign to them. He felt they were effectively gaslighting him. And when he tried to organize a conference on issues of caste, Pariyar said he got little support from other South Asians.
Though their goal — getting the word “caste” added to Cal State’s non-discrimination policy — was modest, they said they faced resistance along the way.
The opposition against caste protections
The opponents, who included alumni, professors and community members, argued that discussions about caste unnecessarily divided South Asians and that caste discrimination no longer existed. They claimed that caste was a construct of British colonialism, even though it had existed for millennia, and insisted that the resolution would instead provoke hate against Hindus on campus.
Krystal Raynes, a student at Cal State Bakersfield who currently serves as a CSU student trustee, wasn’t familiar with caste and caste-based discrimination before that meeting. But the language and line of reasoning she heard that day rang familiar.
“It reminded me so much of the discrimination happening against Black people in America,” she said. “Black students being gaslighted, [being told] your experience isn’t discrimination, your experience isn’t oppression.”
“It makes people feel uncomfortable,” she said. “But discomfort can be a doorway to learning more about ourselves and having greater connection with each other.”
“The CSU takes a great amount of pride in serving an incredibly diverse group of students and employing a diverse workforce,” Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesperson for the Cal State system, wrote in an email to CNN. “The inclusion of caste in the policy reflects the university’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, ensuring that all members of the CSU’s 23 campus communities feel welcome.”
Dalit alumni reflect on the past and future
For Dalit alumni who once faced caste-based microaggressions on Cal State’s campuses, the university’s move to make caste a protected category was a step in the right direction.
Neha Singh, who asked that her real name not be published to protect her caste identity, said she wished that campus leaders had an understanding of caste oppression during her time at Cal State Northridge in the late 2000s so that she would have had somewhere to turn to for guidance.
She recalls members of South Asian student groups making derogatory comments about oppressed castes in casual conversation, how one friend shunned her after learning Singh’s caste identity and how she felt afraid to speak up when witnessing caste discrimination against a fellow student by a dominant caste staff member for fear that she might out her own caste.
The change makes Singh hopeful about the environment for future Cal State Dalit students.
“The students who are coming there will be free from discrimination and fear and can openly complain about it,” she said. “They would know that someone can understand … [that] they can come and have a safe place.”
M. Bangar, who attended Cal State Sacramento and also requested to use an alias, knows that simply having caste protections won’t solve the problem of caste oppression on campus. But it could prompt others to be more considerate.
“At the end of the day, you can’t force someone to not be casteist, but you can force them to be careful about how they’re casteist or what they say,” Bangar said. “These caste protections create an opportunity for people to report the things that they face.”
The movement is only growing
Cal State’s move to make caste a protected category is the latest in a growing movement at US colleges and universities.
At Colby College, efforts are now shifting to how its policy might be put into action. Sonja Thomas, who spearheaded the effort to secure caste protections there, said she wants to get caste added to the school’s bias reporting and prevention system.
“We need to take the second step, which is then implement policies for people to recognize when it’s happening so that there’s recourse for people who might be affected by caste discrimination,” said Thomas, who is also an associate professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Colby.
Outside academia, two ongoing legal battles have brought attention to the ways casteism functions in the US.
Pariyar, who started the movement at Cal State, hopes that this is only the beginning. At the university level, he wants to see caste competency trainings so that students and leaders are equipped to recognize and respond to bias incidents. But he isn’t stopping there — he said he’s currently talking to members of the California state assembly about potentially instituting caste protections statewide.
Pariyar said he believes casteism has taken root in the US and that the issue should concern not just South Asians or those who are caste-oppressed.
“It must be the issue for everyone.”