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Brown University becomes first Ivy League school to add official caste protections

“It’s a first step. It opens doors for dialogue that hasn’t been happening," one caste-oppressed graduate said.
The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology on the campus of Brown University in Providence, R.I.
The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology on the campus of Brown University in Providence, R.I. Lane Turner / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Brown University is the latest in a string of schools to add caste protections to their nondiscrimination policies, a measure aimed at giving Dalit students official channels to report bias. 

The private university in Providence, Rhode Island, is the first Ivy League school to mention casteism in its general policy, according to the Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs. But the push for caste-equity has been sweeping schools and institutions all over the U.S. in the last few years. 

“If you add caste to a nondiscrimination policy, now everybody that has to abide by that policy has to know what caste is,” said one caste-oppressed Brown graduate who spent over a year pushing for the change. “People are going to have to get trained about it. They have to make an announcement. It prompts people to think more and learn more.”

The former student requested to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation and doxxing that commonly happens to caste-oppressed activists.

Casteism, or discrimination based on that system of social stratification, defines many lives on the subcontinent and persists in South Asian communities as they immigrate to the West, experts say. Those born into lower castes face violence and oppression on subcontinent and often exclusion and hate in the diaspora.

“Caste follows the South Asian community wherever they go,” said Neha Narayan, a student who advocated for the policy change. “I’ve heard of multiple instances of people being asked coded questions … even on a couple of instances of students being asked, ‘Hey guys, what’s everybody’s caste?’”

Brown said Thursday in announcing the policy change that there’s a need for such protections as the South Asian American population grows. 

“The previous policy would have protected people experiencing caste discrimination,” Sylvia Carey-Butler, Brown’s vice president for Institutional Equity and Diversity, said in a statement. “But we felt it was important to lift this up and explicitly express a position on caste equity.”

The anonymous graduate says that during her time at Brown, casteism made her feel unwelcome in spheres meant for all South Asians. 

“I avoided a lot of the South Asian social spaces because of that exclusion,” she said. 

Though she isn’t a student there anymore, she hopes Brown’s formal recognition of casteism will change that reality for future students. 

“I’m so elated,” she said. “It’s a first step. It opens doors for dialogue that hasn’t been happening. It’s a concept that’s really misunderstood, and most people are ignorant to it.” 

Before the policy change, caste wasn’t something that came up much when talking about South Asian identity on campus, Narayan said. 

“It’s the most openly held secret,” she said. “Even as a caste-privileged student looking in, I can see how someone would be very alienated in that environment. In an environment where caste is never discussed, how difficult is it to speak up about caste discrimination.” 

With casteism now explicitly banned in Brown’s policy, she hopes caste-oppressed students will have more avenues to talk about their experiences and seek out safe spaces with a better understanding from leaders. 

Other schools, like the University of California—Davis, Brandeis University in Boston and the entire California State University system, have made similar moves after pressure from student activists backed by Equality Labs. 

Last year, Harvard University added caste protections for graduate student workers, but unlike Brown’s overarching measure, Harvard’s updated policy didn’t extend to the entire student body. 

“Although the road ahead towards transforming our higher education institutions to be caste equitable is still long, we are one step closer,” organizer Manmit Singh said in a statement from Equality Labs.