Barnard has a long-standing tradition of fostering diversity and inclusivity among students, faculty, and staff. On September 6, the College updated its Notice of Non-Discrimination to include “caste” as a protected category.

The new provision, focused on preventing bias and discrimination based on an individual’s caste background(s), creates a more equitable and diverse educational environment for all College community members — especially for those who have historical roots to regions where caste hierarchies have played a significant role in social interactions.

Anupama Rao headshot-2
Professor Anupama Rao

The policy, which will be carried out by the Office of Nondiscrimination and Title IX of CARES, was spearheaded by Barnard’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and professor of history Anupama Rao. Rao, who authored The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India, is also faculty in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia, where she leads the Ambedkar Initiative and directs the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.

“Caste affects the lives of 1.9 billion people, or one-fourth of the global population — cutting across continents, geopolitical boundaries, religions, and diasporas,” said Rao. “Communities with deep histories of organizing to annihilate caste have been at the forefront of efforts to bring caste within the ambit of anti-discrimination policy.” 

In this Break This Down interview, Rao discusses how Barnard’s new caste nondiscrimination policy supports community members to thrive academically, professionally, and personally while challenging deeply rooted prejudices.

Why is adding “caste” to Barnard’s Notice of Non-Discrimination essential for addressing and promoting social justice at the College?

Barnard has historically been at the forefront of struggles for social justice, and our students tend to be some of the most creative and innovative thinker-activists around. If the project of democratic equality is to bring historically excluded or subordinated groups to the ambit of equality, then caste — like race, gender, or sexuality — deserves to be brought within the rubric of our concerns. I believe that the caste clause encourages the College to continue to figure out how to make space for international underrepresented minorities (URM) and first-generation learners on our campus.

What are some ways the caste system continues to perpetuate social and economic disparities in contemporary settings, such as professional or higher education?

Since it is a system of social stratification tied to inherited status, caste denotes a complex form of inequality. There are many castes — thousands, really — and they are specific to different regions. In other words, there is both a vertical hierarchy of caste distinction and a horizontal diffusion of caste across various geographical zones.

There is a common misperception that caste is static, but it is not. It has changed historically across the premodern period, it has been impacted by British colonialism, and it has also become an enabling rubric for demanding democratic rights today.

Today, modern institutions of employment, education, and housing are the main sites where forms of prejudice are reproduced, often in subtle ways. Modern caste regulates access to higher education and correlates with social mobility, including who has the means to come to the United States and succeed economically and professionally here.

The pervasiveness of casteism in South Asia makes its entry into American society and the workplace not in the least bit surprising. Even if there is a general ignorance of caste in the U.S., South Asian social and professional networks guarantee that privilege and disadvantage continue to be reproduced here. The Cisco case, and the testimonies gathered by the Ambedkar King Study Circle and Equality Labs, show that the same forms of discrimination found in India — from the practice of untouchability to social exclusion and workplace discrimination — continue to thrive in the U.S. The [substantial] number of anonymous testimony attests to the fact that the stigma of caste and fear of exposure exists in the U.S.

Does a caste clause single out South Asian community members?

Barnard has a robust representation of students from across the South Asian diaspora. This diaspora is complex and encompasses histories of indenture and working-class struggle as well as elite educational achievement and economic success. Contemporary caste travels along these circuits of professional attainment with the composition of South Asians in the U.S. skewed to the predominance of privileged castes, with oppressed castes existing as a minority within a minority.

Since caste is a social category organizing virtually every South Asian religious community — Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Sikh — it also applies to the South Asian diaspora that has a worldwide presence. How casteism manifests or how latent it is in each case will vary with circumstance. But we should challenge the expectation that shared ethnic or national origin renders unlikely any discrimination [that occurs] on the basis of inherited characteristics.

Distinctions between English and Irish-origin immigrants from Great Britain, between southern and northern Italians, or between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, amounting to the potential for discrimination, are now familiar in the U.S. However, inequalities categorized in simple binaries cannot suffice to account for discrimination within every national grouping. Caste difference [exists alongside] gender, the most potent marker of distinction for South Asia-origin communities, and needs to be recognized.

How does adding a caste clause shed light on and provide visibility to formerly unreported caste-based discrimination?

Naming and redefining the terms of operation can illuminate the workings of social power. While social movement organizing and activism is key, legislation plays an important role in the public recognition of historical discrimination and social inequality. Just as legacy admissions are now seen to qualify merit-based claims, but always in terms of a legacy of privilege, we can consider caste to be a legacy of hierarchical discrimination that also qualifies merit-based claims. The hierarchy promoted by caste determines economic, social, and educational capital, and it is reproduced by implicit and explicit practices of discrimination.

Recognizing caste’s public presence on the Barnard campus would lead to difficult conversations about inherited privilege, social position, and responsibility, which would extend the reach of our already significant efforts to rethink who belongs in the classroom, how we got here, and what it takes to right historical wrongs.

What are some key initiatives and strategies that Barnard can take to effectively prevent and combat this discrimination?

The importance of caste protections has already been recognized by a number of institutions. Ours is the premier institution for South Asian studies in this country and globally. At Barnard, we have an amazing group of faculty who study the region from the perspective of anthropology, architecture, history, and religion.

However, there is a need to build up South Asia as a robust and considered field of study. I think current debates in the South Asian diaspora put pressure on how we represent the region and speak to the needs of a growing and increasingly vocal constituency.

We have the Ambedkar Initiative, which links Columbia University to the anti-caste legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, and recognizes his relevance to ongoing discussions about social justice, affirmative action, and democratic thinking in a global frame through public talks, engaged pedagogy, and public outreach. This is a vital space for developing connected and comparative perspectives on the operation of social difference and inequality in the modern world, as well as resistance to it.

I would encourage the Barnard community — especially our students — to bring to this space their distinctive forms of engagement and imagination. A critical education is a powerful tool for social justice, but an equitable classroom makes way for the experiences, voices, and viewpoints of caste-oppressed communities. I would love to see us institute a model of diversity and inclusion that extends to undertaking policies to recruit faculty members from underrepresented caste-oppressed groups.


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