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California is considering a bill to make caste a protected category

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Seattle, as we have reported, is the first American city to protect people against discrimination based on caste. California could become the first state. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: When Rita Meher immigrated to America over two decades ago, she kept her caste a secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RITA MEHER: This is very personal for me.

DIRKS: That's Meher speaking in February at a Seattle City Council meeting about finally coming out of the caste closet just a month before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEHER: I publicly came out as an Adivasi. Adivasis are Indigenous tribal communities who face untouchability, along with Dalits.

DIRKS: Caste is a hierarchical system of power found in South Asian cultures and religions. And it's complicated. Adivasis like Meher are so far at the bottom as to kind of be outside the caste system, while Dalits are the lowest caste, the ones that used to be called untouchables. Meher says the reason she got so emotional at that council meeting...

MEHER: It just hit me, the years of oppression and racism or discrimination I had faced. It just got released. I felt free.

DIRKS: Schools like Brandeis, UC Davis and the whole California State University system have added caste as a protected category in recent years. Now State Senator Aisha Wahab wants to add California to that list. She says as we become more diverse, we have to understand discrimination exists in other cultures, too.

AISHA WAHAB: A lot of back home politics are getting in the way of the full potential of an individual.

DIRKS: Wahab's district is right in Silicon Valley. South Asians make up a growing number of tech workers. And tech has become a major center for these conversations about caste and casteism.

THENMOZHI SOUNDARARAJAN: Caste is complex as a sociohistorical phenomenon.

DIRKS: That's Thenmozhi Soundararajan. She's a Dalit activist and the founder of Equality Labs, which is front and center in the fight for caste equity.

SOUNDARARAJAN: But the things that caste-oppressed people are complaining about are very obviously civil rights and labor violations, open usage of slurs, bullying in the workplace, sexual harassment.

DIRKS: Soundararajan says you don't need to fully understand caste to understand it's a system of oppression. But not everyone agrees with that. Pushpita Prasad is with the Coalition of Hindus of North America - or CoHNA. She says there are bad apples, and individual people might discriminate.

PUSHPITA PRASAD: All of us talked about personal stories of discrimination and struggle. But is it systemic?

DIRKS: Prasad says no. She says adding caste as a protected category singles out the religion most associated, Hinduism.

PRASAD: When you start to say that one set of people behave differently from all other sets of people, that's the definition of racism.

DIRKS: Her fellow CoHNA member, Sudha Jagannathan, is Bahujan - from a lower caste. She says caste isn't the issue that proponents of the bill claim it to be, not in America and not back in India.

SUDHA JAGANNATHAN: My own experience, never faced caste. My family was too poor to practice caste or be oppressed by somebody else.

DIRKS: She says these anti-discrimination laws are Hinduphobic.

JAGANNATHAN: It's picking on us with things that do not apply to us in our American life, forcing us to acknowledge that we are casteist. Who are they?

DIRKS: But Thenmozhi Soundararajan says it's not Hinduphobic to talk about the realities of caste.

SOUNDARARAJAN: It only impacts people that discriminate. If you're not a bigot, it doesn't bother you.

DIRKS: As California takes up this legislation to ban caste discrimination, the battle over who gets to define caste in the United States and whether it's systemic will continue.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER, PRASANNA AND NITIN MITTA'S "FALSEHOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.