Why are American colleges addressing caste discrimination? An 'opportunity to educate'

Meet Prem Pariyar, 37, a Nepali immigrant and member of a growing community pushing American universities to rebuke caste discrimination.

Caste is painfully familiar to Pariyar. His family is considered Dalit, the lowest rung of the hierarchical system known as caste in which people are assigned social status based on their birth.

To encounter caste-based discrimination in America, Pariyar said, was an unwelcome shock. He had fled Nepal to avoid the prejudice and violence, but he found he, his wife and children were still ostracized in America in connection to their caste. The bias can be subtle – people backing away when they learn his last name or insisting that he use different utensils at a party – but Pariyar felt it immediately.

“I thought I had left that caste discrimination in Nepal,” Pariyar said. “I felt low. I came here to the United States and could not leave that caste identity.”

India outlawed caste discrimination more than 50 years ago, but members of the Dalit community say they still face discrimination and hostility from those who sit atop the hierarchy. They had been relegated to hard and unpleasant physical labor, such as cleaning bathrooms or disposing of dead animals. Their caste could limit where they lived or whom they married.

After the surprise wore off, Pariyar said, he felt he had to speak up. Most Americans might be unaware of caste, he said, but he thought they would understand when he explained the inequality at play.

He has been right. Pariyar has advocated for the social work department at California State University, East Bay to recognize caste as a social category that deserves special attention and protection. His efforts proved successful, and the university awarded him for drawing attention to the issue.

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Prem Pariyar, 37, is a recent graduate of California State University, East Bay's master's of social work program. He is one of a growing number of student activists pushing universities to add caste to their anti-discrimination policies.
Prem Pariyar, 37, is a recent graduate of California State University, East Bay's master's of social work program. He is one of a growing number of student activists pushing universities to add caste to their anti-discrimination policies.

He worked with the student government association representing the 23 colleges in the California State University system as they passed a resolution to ban caste discrimination. He said he was involved in efforts at the University of California, Davis to do the same.

That university was the latest and probably one of the first public institutions to adopt caste as a protected category in its anti-discrimination policy. It joins Colby College, a liberal arts institution in Maine that added caste as a protected group in October, and Brandeis University, a private university in Massachusetts that introduced its policy in 2019.

Many universities pride themselves on their commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the addition of caste would fall in line with that mission. Many colleges attract international students. India is second to China in sending the most students to America, according to a report from the Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department.

It’s not only universities grappling with caste. It’s the tech sector, too.

The state of California filed a lawsuit against the software company Cisco in connection to caste-based discrimination. A group of 30 women from Dalit backgrounds wrote a letter to The Washington Post saying they faced caste discrimination in their workplace.

The San Francisco Chronicle highlighted UC Davis' move to adopt its guidance on caste discrimination this year. The newspaper reported that students, some of them anonymous, said their classmates had sent them insulting memes or weighed caste when choosing roommates.

UC Davis caste policy was 'opportunity to educate'

Danésha Nichols, director of the Harassment and Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program at UC Davis, said students and faculty pushed for the inclusion of caste in the anti-discrimination policy. She said the move was meant to be proactive, she said.

She said the university’s previous anti-discrimination policies around “race, religion, ethnicity, ancestry and national origin” covered caste.

But without a specific reference to this in policy, we realized we were missing an opportunity to educate our community about this important matter and to make clear this type of discrimination was prohibited,” Nichols said.

Nichols said advocates connected the university with Equality Labs, a group focused on Dalit civil rights. That group praised the university’s decision as part of a “larger national movement for caste equity that aims to protect caste-oppressed students, workers, and communities across the country.”

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UC Davis may be the first public university to adopt caste in its anti-discrimination policy, but it followed in the footsteps of Brandeis University.

The private college in Massachusetts included caste in its anti-discrimination policy in 2019, saying the decision aligned with the university’s founding values. Members of the American Jewish community started the college in 1948, “when Jews and other ethnic and racial minorities, and women, faced discrimination in higher education,” according to the university.

A Brandeis administrator told Inside Higher Education, a trade publication, that no specific incident led to the adoption of the policy but that professors and students had said caste distinctions were present. A university administrator said other colleges might want to get ahead of the issue by adopting similar policies.

Margaret McFadden, provost of Colby College, said the liberal arts institution included caste as a protected category in October at the urging of its community members, particularly professor Sonja Thomas.

McFadden said people unfamiliar with the caste system were informed via workshops about its effects and potential to harm, and that made it a “very easy” decision to change the college’s policy. McFadden said the college hadn’t received reports of caste discrimination on campus, and the measure was preemptive.

"It’s a way of sending a signal to members of our community and to potential members of our community that this is a place where we welcome everyone," she said. "It may be that this is happening within a small group of our community members, but it still matters."

The changes were greeted positively at Colby and UC Davis, but the experience of speaking can be intimidating for Pariyar and other Dalit activists. Pariyar said members of his community are sometimes reluctant to speak for fear of public backlash or that they may be attacked.

It’s common for people, especially those higher up in the caste system, to deny the existence of such prejudice in America, he said. Pariyar said his employer supports him, but not all of his peers are lucky.

“We’re in modern society and we talk about racial justice and we talk about justice for all,” he said. “But why not for Dalit? Why not for caste?”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: South Asian students pushing colleges to address caste discrimination