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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

I’ve never been discriminated in India or America: A Bahujan professional’s take on Seattle’s ‘Historic’ caste resolution

For many, hearing that the City of Seattle has made caste a protected category under its anti-discrimination policies probably seems like an obvious and right move.

After all, if the sort of discrimination faced by certain communities in Bharat is now occurring in the United States, it should surely be stamped out before it can spread any further. 

But as someone who grew up in a so-called “lower-caste” family in Bharat before becoming a technology professional in Silicon Valley, I can tell you that not only are the realities of people like me far more nuanced than they are made to seem but so are our perspectives on how to best address caste-based discrimination when it’s occurred.

Let me explain. 

I immigrated to the United States with the hope of building a better life for my family. My father, like his father before him, spent much of his early life as a daily wage earner doing carpentry work and other odd jobs. Barely making ends meet, he, my mother, my younger brother and sister, and I lived in Mumbai’s infamous chawls — crowded, low-quality tenements — where we rented a small, cramped room from a relative. 

Though it would be easy to assume the area was probably filled with families from castes like ours, the truth was we were surrounded by people of all linguistic, social, and occupational backgrounds, be they teachers, small business owners, or other daily wage workers. We all lived harmoniously, helping one another when needed, bemoaning the difficulties of barely making ends meet, and celebrating festivals and special occasions together. Not once did we experience any sort of ostracization based on our caste. 

Wanting to give his family a better life with better opportunities, my father eventually earned a two-year diploma in interior design and moved our family of five out of the chawls into a 400-square-foot apartment in Mumbai. We were on our way to a solid, lower middle-class life. 

Our neighbors included a priest and a Vedic astrologer. While both were members of what some would deem Bharat’s “upper” or “dominant” castes, we were all in the same socio-economic boat. We didn’t think of them as superior nor did they think of us as inferior. We too lived harmoniously, helping one another when needed, lamenting the struggles of upward mobility, and celebrating festivals and special occasions together.

Despite my father working multiple jobs tirelessly, he also found time to give back to not only our community but beyond it. He actively volunteered with a formal association that was established by members of our caste community. The association gave us a space to come together and celebrate the traditions that were unique to our community — the worship of Khodiyar Mata, for instance. 

Our legends and traditions passed down orally for generations, meant that every full moon day was to be honored as a day of rest from work to be spent in worship and gratitude to our clan goddess. On the goddess’ appearance day, we distributed books and other school supplies to children studying at a school for Harijan children (children from other marginalized communities) across the Khodyiar Mata temple or fed the priests who helped nourish and sustain our community members’ worldly and spiritual needs. The association provided assistance to anyone in need, regardless of whether they were within our caste community. 

These too are stories of inter and intra-caste community relations in Bharat.

My family and I realized early on that the only lasting solution to our economic struggles was education. While resources and access are the usual barriers to entry in most countries, I had the opportunity to be one of the millions who benefit from Bharat’s generous “reservation system” — a system where the government implements quotas in education, employment, and politics for advancement and adequate representation of certain socially and economically marginalized communities. I chose to apply independently, however, and was accepted to the school of my choice. 

An engineering school was going to be my and my family’s path to lasting prosperity.

But in my third year of engineering, my family was faced with two serious setbacks. Several of my father’s customers breached their contracts, saddling my family with debilitating debt. And as if by cruel fate, simultaneously, an aortic heart valve defect that I was born with flared up to the point of requiring immediate surgery. 

We had no choice but to borrow money to pay for my treatment, which by the way, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances of all backgrounds came forward to help with. After recovering, I finished my final year of college with the dream of becoming the first in my community to both earn a degree and come to the US, where I could earn the money needed to pay off our family’s debt.

In 2006, that dream came true.

Since moving to the U.S., not only have I been able to attain my professional aspirations, but I’ve also had the good fortune of connecting with others with whom I can practice and share my spiritual culture and traditions. 

I and many other Hindu Dalits and Bahujans (“lower caste” Bharatiya’s) are integral members of our broader subcontinental Hindu communities here in the U.S. We all work together, we socialize together, we pray together, and we volunteer together. 

I have not been treated at all differently, let alone mistreated, because of my caste, nor have other Hindus who I now have learned are Dalit and Bahujan. 

Caste had never come up. In America, it seemed irrelevant. 

That is until the State of California — from our K-12 education system to state court to my own county commission — and now the City of Seattle has made it an issue by not only singling out my entire community but seeking to memorialize false and racist stereotypes about my religion and culture through textbooks, law, and city ordinances.

The City of Seattle wants to ignore voices like mine. 

Part of the reason is that my story does not fit neatly into the stereotypes Americans at large are inundated with. That story wants to tell a story of division and widespread oppression; a story which deliberately misportrays and demonizes Hindu Dharma’s teachings and traditions and then claims that my religion is not a safe space for Dalits. 

Without a doubt, incidents of caste discrimination may occur in America, but it’s not my experience and that of those I know. Findings of the Social Realities of Indian Americans: Results from the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey, reflect my experience too — that caste discrimination is rare. It found that some 2.5% of all the respondents reported having faced caste-based discrimination (though even this statistic needs to be unpacked given some admitted flaws on how and to whom questions related to caste identity were asked). 

The authors also pointed out that many of the inflated statistics quoted by the media and even submitted as evidence to courts and state bodies of an allegedly widespread problem are not reliable. Keep in mind also that all of this is about a micro-minority — people of Bharatiya origin account for 1.5% of the American population. 

The multi-layered story of my people — one of struggle, hard work, success, and community — is being thrust into the shadow of a story that speaks only of the oppressed and oppressors. And the proposed solution to my supposed oppression ignores the fact that people like me don’t view the world in such a binary. 

We know we’re respected by our fellow Bharatiya and Hindu Americans and that we’re protected by existing non-discrimination laws. We wished Seattle policymakers would respect us and our rights too, but they didn’t.

(This article was first published on americankahani.com on Februrary 24, 2023 and has been republished with minor edits to conform to HinduPost style guide)

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