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Some South Asian Americans believe caste-based prejudices exist in the U.S.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

For some South Asian Americans, moving to the U.S. meant leaving behind the discriminatory caste system in their home country. But in California, accusations of caste-based prejudice at the workplace and on college campuses are growing louder. NPR's Sandhya Dirks explores how South Asian Americans are reconciling past and present.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Prem Pariyar grew up in Nepal.

PREM PARIYAR: I belong to the untouchable community.

DIRKS: Thenmozhi Soundararajan grew up in California.

THENMOZHI SOUNDARARAJAN: We were seen as untouchable because we were seen as being spiritually defiling towards God.

DIRKS: Both of them come from the lowest caste - people who used to be called untouchables.

SOUNDARARAJAN: We reject that, and we call ourselves Dalit, which means those who have been broken but are resilient.

DIRKS: Both Pariyar and Soundararajan are American Dalits. Pariyar says he left Nepal because of caste violence.

PARIYAR: My whole family was brutally attacked.

DIRKS: He says when local police did nothing, he started to speak out, which put him at even more risk. So in 2015, he came to the United States seeking asylum. Soundararajan's parents also left India, hoping to leave caste behind.

SOUNDARARAJAN: What they saw was that the more South Asians came here, especially within their immigrant networks, the more people started to rebuild caste.

DIRKS: Caste is a pervasive system of power in religions and cultures across South Asia. It's not exactly like race. It's not directly written on the skin. A last name can give it away. Sometimes it's revealed by the place your family comes from. There's all these subtle cues. So it is possible to change your name, lie about your family and pass. That's what Soundararajan's parents did.

SOUNDARARAJAN: I was actually one of the first Dalit people to be out in the country.

DIRKS: Soundararajan went on to found a Dalit civil rights organization, Equality Labs. It's at the center of this growing conversation about caste in America. When Pariyar came here, he enrolled in school at Cal State, East Bay in the Bay Area. He also didn't want to hide his identity.

PARIYAR: Changing my surname is not the solution.

DIRKS: He felt like people were constantly trying to figure out his caste status.

PARIYAR: We need to change the mindset.

DIRKS: When he did say his last name, he says he was treated differently. Fellow students' facial expressions changed, they looked him up and down - dinner parties where he was asked not to touch the food. Pariyar embarked on a mission to make caste a protected category.

PARIYAR: Same like race, same like gender, class and sexuality. It must be the protected category. That advocacy, I started, like, in every classroom.

DIRKS: It spread to his whole school and then in January, the entire Cal State University system, joining Harvard Student Union, UC Davis, Brandeis. Soundararajan and Equality Labs - they've been involved in all these fights. But some South Asian teachers oppose adding caste as a protected category.

PRAVEEN SINHA: It's discriminatory towards us and not anybody else.

DIRKS: Praveen Sinha is a professor at Cal State, Long Beach. He says adding caste puts a target on South Asians. And he says there's no evidence that caste is an issue in the states. He says he's heard Prem Pariyar's story.

SINHA: That was his perceived discrimination - that when he said his name was this, people looked him up, top to bottom. That is not a classic definition of discrimination.

DIRKS: Sinha says if there are cases of caste discrimination, they're already covered. That's also the argument of the Hindu American Foundation, known as HAF, and its CEO, Suhag Shukla.

SUHAG SHUKLA: I didn't even know the word caste until my ninth grade history teacher asked me about.

DIRKS: HAF and Shukla argue that caste is irrelevant in America. She says when South Asians migrated here, they did leave caste behind.

SHUKLA: It was not a part of my reality. It's even less so for my children.

DIRKS: This isn't the first time HAF and Shukla have pushed back concerning conversations around caste. HAF also argued caste shouldn't be connected to Hinduism in some California school textbooks, claiming that Hindu students were getting bullied as a result. Now she worries it'll be the same at the college level.

SHUKLA: I'm scared for my nieces and nephews who live in California.

DIRKS: South Asians have faced very real and harmful racism in America, says Rohit Chopra, a professor of communications at Santa Clara University. But he says the idea that they are post-caste is a myth.

ROHIT CHOPRA: We don't recognize caste. Our children don't know what their caste is. But that is a luxury that privileged castes only have.

DIRKS: It's not a luxury people who come from oppressed castes have, says Thenmozhi Soundararajan.

SOUNDARARAJAN: We are a joyful, loving, empathetic movement for caste abolition. And let's put into practice in our movement what it looks like to be a South Asian community that has reckoned with our historical harm and is moving forward to build a caste-equitable future.

DIRKS: Soundararajan says if South Asian Americans can come together to do that, then maybe they really can leave caste behind.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. 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.