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Indian-Americans and Casteism

October 31, 2011

At a Democrat fund-raiser last year, Obama made the point that there was no caste system in America. Not surprisingly, he was talking to a group of wealthy (and upper-caste) Indian-Americans.

The United States has a long-lived, deeply-ingrained tradition of linking skin color to labor. But there is no caste system. American culture regularly adheres to a standard of beauty and cultural cognizance that is dominated by a hegemonic white culture. But there is no caste system. Land and property rights have always been key struggles for black Americans, native Americans and other racial minorities. But there is no caste system. Social and economic struggles dis-proportionally effect racial and ethnic minorities in the US. But no, we don’t have caste.

At some point in human history, nations and groups with bigger guns had a lot to gain from making sure that white skin was valued more than black. Caste-ism is a regimented, ritualized and brutally efficient system of racial inequality.

There are very few Dalit/lower caste Indian-Americans for obvious reasons related to class and the global movement of labor. Indian-Americans are one of the richest, most educated and privileged group of immigrants in the US. Overwhelmingly upper class and caste-privileged. Issues related to caste are comfortably far away and even quaint. The fact that Indian-Americans are a racial minority in the US and face the daily struggles of a marginalized community, make it that much easier to forget our own racial privilege.

Nowhere is the caste-ism within the Indian-American community more evident than from our shaadi.com, matrimonial ads. “Fair skin” and even more explicitly “No SC” (no scheduled castes) litter the ads and are taken as the standard, unquestioned norm. A relic of old India. In fact, “exotic India” can be a tool for abandoning challenges to our own social conditioning and biases. Caste-ism usefully narrated into a small, exotic box that Hindus in India practice, harmless but faraway and easily forgotten. Just religious rituals, not tools of systematic oppression. And in the US, Indian-Americans are ensuring that issues of caste remain in that box through a willful and deliberate distancing.

Underlying this vacuum of political awareness, is also the Indian diasporic need to believe that India is “developed” and “modernized” enough for a western hegemony. In this context, it becomes critically important to erase histories of tribal people, adivasis, dalits and other racial and cultural minorities. Consequently, the atrocities committed in Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Kashmir, and many others also get washed away. Political correctness does not replace political consciousness.

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