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Caste-ism Touches Not Just South Asian Communities but US Society, Too

A Q&A with Yashica Dutt

Author photo: Yashica Dutt. Cover design: Carol Chu

Born into a “formerly untouchable manual-scavenging family in small-town India,” Yashica Dutt was taught from a young age to not appear “Dalit looking.” Although prejudice against Dalits, who compose 25% of the population, has been illegal since 1950, caste-ism in India is alive and well. In Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir of Surviving India’s Caste System, Dutt blends her personal history with extensive research and reporting, providing an incriminating analysis of caste’s influence in India over everything from entertainment to judicial systems and how this discrimination has carried over to US institutions.

Published originally in India in 2019 to acclaim, the 2024 expanded edition includes two new chapters covering how the caste system traveled to the US, its history here, and the continuation of bias by South Asian communities in professional sectors. Beacon Press senior publicist Bev Rivero caught up with Dutt to chat about it.

Bev Rivero: When researching for this book, what was something surprising that you discovered that you would like your readers to know about? 

Yashica Dutt: The research process for the book was fairly typical. I spent a ton of time in libraries and archives, extracting material around the historical details that have gone into shaping this book. I was most surprised to learn how different those details were from the narrative of history that we have been given for decades.

For example, we know about Gandhi’s struggle across the world, but so little is known or heard about Dr B. R. Ambedkar, who effectively liberated millions of Dalits and caste-oppressed people and ensured that we got an equal seat at the table. During my research, I discovered just how hugely influential he was in shaping South Asian history and how his legacy was effectively erased because, along with being a global statesman, he was also “lower” caste. 

BR: It’s interesting that English as a marker of status comes up, such as when you’re working in a call center: “At the call center, caste found its way into pre-shift conversations. When I refused to disclose mine, saying that my parents were progressive and didn’t discuss these things at home, most of my colleagues assumed I was upper caste because of my English.” Do you think the legacy of English being widely regarded as a marker of upper caste background can change via society’s efforts?

YD: I think that myth is already beginning to shatter, bit by bit. With more online access, there is a greater proliferation of not just English but American and European culture in general, which in the pre-internet era was another marker of caste and class background.

In the decades before the internet, you could only have access to certain music, literature, cinema, and culture in general if you had the means to travel or had relatives who lived here. Most Dalit and caste-oppressed folks who have been systemically and historically disadvantaged from education and opportunities to build wealth and resources also did not have access to these markers, which were heavily gatekept. Now, with all of it available so easily online, those guardrails have come down a bit.

More people are speaking and understanding the language through YouTube videos. But caste still has a way to evolve past these markers of progress, and I’m sure that soon there’ll be newer more secretive markers that signal one’s belonging to an upper caste/upper class group (outside of the more obvious religious ones)—a caste version of stealth wealth or quiet luxury if you will. 

BR: You write, “What I knew for sure was that no one expected a Dalit to be bright. So it wasn’t enough for me to be bright, I had to be the ‘brightest’ to convince them, and essentially myself, that I was their equal.” Being a Dalit woman and the intersectionality of your own feminism in solidarity with Black women and other historically marginalized communities comes through in your writing. How do you see your work in conversation with other writers in this space? 

YD: I think, as a Dalit woman writer, my work speaks to a lot of folks with marginalized identities who are forced to be at the bottom of their social order. When I moved to the US, I heard this phrase being used a lot in Black communities, on TV shows and in music, where folks were constantly talking about the need to be excellent and better than anyone else to be even considered average. Because the inherent social expectation is that you won’t measure up. It’s not an expectation from, say white folks, who don’t have to constantly prove their worth in social and professional settings. They are expected to belong to that space, expected to be good, even if they are just mediocre. Because the social structures have been erected for them to be safe, to be taken care of, to belong, and most importantly, to succeed. I have heard Black folks talk about this pressure to always be exceptional, and it resonated with me because I felt and experienced that same expectation while growing up as Dalit in India. I think this work and the work of so many other marginalized people show us how systems of oppression work in similar ways and how there is so much to learn from our unique resistance to them. 

BR: A follow up question: Tell us more about the Dalit Panther Party and their history. What might people not know about their legacy? 

YD: It’s incredibly interesting to learn how the legacy of the Black civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party inspired marginalized people across the world to demand their rights from an unjust, oppressive system. Dalit people in India, too, have always looked at the struggle of Black folks as a source of inspiration and solidarity. There are connections between Black and Dalit history that go long back.

Dr. Ambedkar, who studied at Columbia in the 1910s, is known to have been moved by the Harlem Renaissance taking place blocks away from where he lived. There are letters of correspondence between him and W. E. B. Du Bois in which they discuss the shared connections between Black and Dalit struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously visited India in the 60s and talked about being “introduced as an untouchable”.

The Dalit Panther Party was built on this shared legacy in 1972 when a group of Dalit men in Maharashtra came together to create an anti-caste resistance group, which was deeply inspired by the principles of the Black Panther Party in the US. Their movement was rooted in resistance through literature, poetry, and media, along with direct action. In 2022, in a historic conference in Maharashtra, members of the Black Panther party and Dalit Panther Party came together to reflect on their shared histories and legacies.  

BR: The connection between mental health and caste discrimination-based hardship is clearly apparent, but not widely acknowledge or discussed. Do you see this happening, particularly with efforts for a “post-caste India”? 

YD: Caste is a systemic form of discrimination that forms the bedrock of every aspect of Indian society. People who are Dalit and caste oppressed deal with the daily burden of “lowerness” that is imposed on their identities, and struggle to be treated as equal. Moreover, a millennia-old history of this system has ensured that this discrimination runs through generations, creating intergenerational trauma and mental health struggles that have become embedded in our DNAs.

The conversation around mental health in India is stigmatized overall, but lately, things have begun to change with more people recognizing its impact, which has led to a small but significant change in attitudes towards it. With the death of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in 2016, and the countless suicides by Dalit students in prestigious Indian medical and engineering colleges, the connection between caste and mental health has come sharply into focus. Yet outside of calamitous life-ending consequences, the impact of caste on mental health is also just as easily dismissed.

Also, let’s be real: India has never been post-caste. Despite well-meaning efforts by Dr Ambedkar and Dalit folks, the systemic inequities remain engraved in our social structures. So to assume that caste doesn’t exist in Indian or South Asian societies is willful ignorance. 


About Yashica Dutt 

Yashica Dutt is a journalist, an activist, an award-winning writer, and a leading feminist voice on caste. Born “in a formerly untouchable ‘lower’ caste family,” she passed as dominant caste to survive discrimination. Dutt moved to New Delhi at 17 and became one of the most widely-read culture journalists at a leading English language paper. Eventually coming out as Dalit, she introduced this expression which powerfully resonated in India. Her site, Documents of Dalit Discrimination, was among the first highly visible media spaces for caste oppressed people. Dutt’s work has been published in the New York TimesForeign Policy and the Atlantic, and she has been featured on The BBCThe Guardian, and PBS NewsHour. Dutt lives in Brooklyn, NY.