When the results of a survey on caste in the United States came out—first of its kind, published by Equality Labs—the results weren’t surprising in the least bit. Here is an infographic:
Indian-Americans, popularly referred to as a model immigrant population, brought along with them many ideas about caste and purity. They pride themselves on their superior intellect, secure in the belief that the best of the best made it to the United States, this last bastion of true merit. Even as reservations in India produced graduates of dubious quality, here in the United States, hope remained alive, in social cliques that avoided onion and garlic and animal protein, teaching their children the same prejudices. They conflate caste with culture, eroding the thin line that possibly separated the two, protecting discriminatory practices under the umbrella of Tradition.
I watched the mostly-charming movie Meet The Patels, a real-life romantic comedy about Ravi Patel, the thirty year old son of Gujarati parents who are on Mission Impossible 7: Get Ravi Married. Ravi has just broken up with his white girlfriend, because of some complex feelings about his double life, and the need to keep his relationship a secret from strict parents (who are typically Indian in the way they support gendered lives until you are of marriageable age). Ravi meets numerous Indian-American girls, all Patels, all presented to him through a flourishing network of Aunties and Uncles, certified matchmakers, dating websites, matrimonial alliance websites, once even at a Patel marriage convention. It is all mild and mostly harmless fun, with the witty Geeta (Ravi’s sister) behind the camera, teasing her brother and sneaking up on people to capture their real emotions.
Throughout the movie, the word caste is used twice, both times in a very casual manner, and you might even forget that it is the foundation on which this whole enterprise has been mounted. It does not make any of the Indian-American characters uncomfortable, that their family expects them to marry someone who shares their last name, and what this actually means. Gujarati, Hindu, vegetarian—Ravi ticks off the qualities a potential candidate must possess. These are treated as residues of a traditional upbringing, as wanting to be with someone from a similar Background (interchangeable with Culture), and not seen as the rigid caste boundaries they in fact are. These first generation Americans are comfortable calling out their parents’ racism, colourism, Islamophobia. But they seem to accept caste as a way of life, undeserving of discussion.
Often, when I meet Indian-Americans, I observe that their definition of India or Culture is restricted to what their family exposes them to. It is limited in its scope, it seems to exist in a vacuum, where Bollywood songs breathe and die. In this vacuum, prejudices grow and take strange shapes. Like the Tamil boy from California who asked another Tamil boy from Chennai if he has a thread across his torso—simply because they were both Tamil.