On a crisp October evening in 2001, Meena was cutting onions and potatoes in her tiny kitchen, sweat dripping down her face as she tried not to accidentally touch the stove. Her husband was watching an old Indian soap opera in the living room, lounging on a faded pink velvet couch, tired from the day’s work at a nearby deli in their Jackson Heights neighborhood. As Meena reached up to grab a jar of spices for her curry, she heard a sharp, loud smash from the living room, followed by her husband’s indistinct cries.
She rushed out to find a large rock on the floor by their coffee table, surrounded by what seemed like a million little shards of glass. The window – gilded beautifully with floral designs – had a hole right in the middle. Her husband, now frantic, had already found a piece of cardboard from their pantry and began taping it on the glass. They had heard that immigrants were being attacked in a wave of rising xenophobia after 9/11, and assumed immediately they were a target. Instead of calling the police, they turned off all their lights and huddled into bed.
A few days later, the couple woke up to find that the right door of their car – one they had been saving up to buy for years – had been keyed with a single Hindi word: achoot. “When we saw what they had scratched, my heart twisted up,” said Meena. “I was more devastated than I would have been if it were an anti-immigrant attack.”
Achoot. Untouchable. The word etched onto Meena’s car is a derogatory slur for Dalits, who are at the very bottom of India’s caste hierarchy. Born out of ancient Hindu scripture, the centuries-old caste system determines one’s social status based on ancestral profession. Labeled “impure” by this system, discrimination against Dalits in India is legally prohibited – however, a lingering and violent stigma persists. Dalits who live in the United States are far from immune – and here it is further complicated by discrimination against people of color and immigrants more broadly. More than 330,000 South Asians live in New York City, more than half that number in Queens.
“Caste does not go away just because a community migrates elsewhere,” said Anita Kumar, an editor at Equality Labs, a New York-based Dalit community organization doing research and creating resources on caste. “The feelings of caste, the practice of caste, the very institutions of caste are brought along wherever we go. New York is one of the biggest hubs for discrimination based on caste, and it’s hidden in plain sight.”
Dalit, meaning “broken but resilient,” is a self-chosen term to replace the word “Untouchable,” which was used across South Asia – for centuries – to describe those branded “spiritually polluting.” Dalits were often relegated into slave and bonded labor, manual scavenging and other dirty work. Many still suffer a great deal of violence and discrimination even today.
“New York is one of the biggest hubs for discrimination based on caste, and it’s hidden in plain sight.”
The four main caste groups are Brahmins, at the very top, who are traditionally priests. Below them are the Kshatriyas, the kings, and warriors, followed by the Vaishyas, or merchants and traders. These three groups are generally termed “upper-caste” and enjoy social and cultural privilege. The last group are the Shudras, or peasants, who remain economically marginalized and are sometimes considered “caste-oppressed.”
Outside this 4-group structure are those considered too impure to be part of civilized society: Dalits and Adivasis, the indigenous and tribal communities of India. They have been subjected to a long and traumatic history of segregation, including being denied access to schools, places of worship, public health facilities, and even food and water.
Caste discrimination is legally outlawed in India, but Dalits are still subject to intense socioeconomic inequality and frequent violence. Dalits are killed and attacked at an alarmingly high rate in the country, including as recently as March 2, when a 16-year-old Dalit girl was killed in Uttar Pradesh, the state that Meena’s family came from.
The identifying markers of caste are unflinching. Since last names are based on ancestral professions, most South Asians can recognize a Dalit name instantly – one of the reasons why Meena and her family wished to remain anonymous. Most people can also pinpoint someone’s caste based on where they come from, who they worship, the language they speak, and sometimes even by their physical appearance.
Within the diaspora in the United States, caste identity politics are only further compounded. “In the US, there is no real understanding of caste. And that’s why a lot of Dalit folks suffer,” said Yashica Dutt, an author and anti-caste activist based in New York. “We’re immigrants, first and foremost. Our brown bodies come with so much stress and trauma of its own. On top of that, if you’re Dalit, there’s a whole lot of additional labor you have to do to explain what caste is and how it manifests in your daily lived reality, instead of seeking help for the discrimination you face.”
Incidents like the ones faced by Meena and her husband are not uncommon for Dalits living here. A Sikh Gurudwara in Woodside, Queens, for example, has been subjected to several violent clashes over the years for hanging a photo of the most influential leader of a global Dalit resistance and self-assertion movement, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar is the author of India’s Constitution that prohibited caste discrimination and an alumnus of Columbia University. Two years ago, Dalit students in a specialized high school in Manhattan reported six cases of caste-based discrimination to the school’s board.
“Caste is a heavy blanket of soot and dust that we’re just so used to that we don’t see it anymore.”
Across the United States, a report by Equality Labs found that a quarter of Dalits faced some kind of verbal or physical assault, 60% experienced caste-based derogatory comments, and one in three Dalit students faced discrimination during their education, among other findings. In June last year, a Dalit employee filed a federal caste discrimination lawsuit against his upper-caste Indian American managers, bringing the issue into the US legal framework for the first time. The case – currently in “open litigation,” was dropped by the state of California, and is expected to be re-filed in a state court.
The challenges of collecting data on Dalits within the diaspora are enormous, considering that most census and local data gathering initiatives limit race/ethnicity identification to “South Asian,” if not simply “Asian.” Because most South Asian migrants to the United States are upper caste, the general understanding of Indian American culture becomes restricted to one kind of Indian identity.
Dutt’s book, Coming Out As Dalit, particularly speaks to the tension between her identity as a Dalit immigrant and the rest of the Indian American community, in New York and beyond. She says she has actively tried to isolate herself from the Indian ethnic community here.
“Most of my friends were not Indian. I found this freedom to be myself in New York like I hadn’t before. I didn’t need to lie about my caste or hide my identity,” she said. “It’s the first time I’ve felt rid of this heavy blanket that caste is: a heavy blanket of soot and dust that we’re just so used to that we don’t see it anymore,” she said, adding that she didn’t want to jeopardize that freedom by engaging with other Indians.
“I had the privilege of extracting myself from the Indian community, which is not the case for most people in the diaspora, who for various reasons need to stick with the community. And so they end up facing the same kinds of discrimination they thought they had finally left behind.”
Meanwhile, Meena and her husband never found out who exactly was behind the vandalism on their home and car – and there were more scattered occurrences in the years that followed. Feeling unwelcome in their own community, they moved to a new home when they had a son. They gave him a different last name than their own, so he would never be identified as Dalit.
While her husband renounced Indian culture altogether – watching Jeopardy on TV now – Meena says she misses it, and so she visits the Indian temple in Jackson Heights every now and then. “I go after dark, when there aren’t a lot of people, just in case anyone notices me,” she said, her voice cracking. “If someone finds me there, the worst they will do is throw me out. Hopefully, I won’t get killed.”